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The Metaphysical Club

A Story of Ideas in America

The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000) is a fine and indispensable book about the United States, and I hope that it wins every available prize for Louis Menand, not only in recognition of his staggering achievement but also as a signal to other writers: the intellectual life of this country has regained currency. If the book has a drawback, it's only that Mr Menand's way with words is quite a bit more pleasing than that of most of the thinkers whose work he cites. Mr Menand shows how far we have come in uniting clarity and comfort. There used to be a stiffness about American writing that suggested, at various times, either an awkward distrust of drawing-room prose, a long heritage of Puritan earnestness, an inferiority complex vis--vis Europe that the Great War brought pretty much to a close, or all three at once.

By the time Americans found their own idiom, though, it might have seemed that the Civil War, the defining trauma that shaped the minds showcased in The Metaphysical Club, had been fought to no purpose. It is a bitter thing to acknowledge that the abolition of slavery appears to have deepened white contempt of blacks, rather than the reverse, and that this slippage was encouraged from the top. The Southern contingent among the Rhodes Scholars of 1907-8 protested the award of a scholarship to Alain Locke, a black Harvard graduate from Philadelphia, and the American Club at Oxford refused to invite him to its Thanksgiving Dinner. Another American, Horace Kallen, was outraged, but more by the insult to Harvard than on behalf of the slighted philosopher. "Tho' it is personally repugnant to me to eat with him," Kallen wrote to Barrett Wendell at Harvard, he planned to ask Locke to tea, because "Locke is a Harvard man and as such he has a definite claim on me."

The Metaphysical Club is not primarily about race relations, but Mr Menand has designed the arc of his book to begin and end with them. Each anecdote made me flinch, as though I had never encountered bigotry before. Pained as I was to imagine what a black reader might feel, I was deeply embarrassed for myself. Like most liberal whites, I consider myself to be free of the charge of racist behavior. But I'm not at all sure that I'm right to do so. Reading Horace Kallen's letter, or learning, at the beginning of this book that medical students at Harvard in 1850 blocked the admission of three blacks, all with sterling credentials, two of whom were committed to practice in Liberia, I can't see why any black person would be eager to befriend me.

What The Metaphysical Club is primarily about is pragmatism. This school of philosophy took shape in the minds of men whose youth was bloodied by the imperfectly resolved catastrophe of the Civil War, and blossomed around the turn of the last century. It is a peculiarly American philosophy, but certainly not the most characteristic one; that honor, I'm afraid, must at least be shared with the idealism that steered this country into the Civil War and out of the Cold one. Idealism is a philosophy of revolution, pragmatism one of reform. Pragmatism seeks to tolerate, idealism to purify. The four men at the center of Mr Menand's epic narrative - Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey - believed that the only way that America could survive and grow was on a plan of tolerant reform; all save Dewey had found the purifying fires of idealism to be merely destructive. (Indeed, the status of blacks under Jim Crow was only nominally better than it had been before the war, certainly not better enough to warrant the bloodshed.) All save Peirce were uncertain, if not agnostic, about the existence of God; all were certain that the fruits of the industrial revolution must be accepted as profitably as possible. All save Holmes were schooled in philosophy and science; all accepted Darwin.

The Metaphysical Club, which met for a few months in 1872 and was so called only by Peirce, years later, was really the only thing that the four men had in common - the only explanation I can find for Mr Menand's appropriation of its name for his book. Dewey was too young to have taken part, but he attended meetings of another Metaphysical Club that Peirce got going at Johns Hopkins University in the early '80s. It's almost impossible to believe that James or Holmes could have meant the name to be taken seriously. Holmes had no patience for metaphysics, and James inverted it, by proposing that we make things true by believing them. It is unlikely that the discussions would have been recognized as at all metaphysical by Continental philosophers, past or present. Whether idealistic or pragmatists, Americans aren't given to metaphysics, and if Jonathan Galassi and the others at FSG never once urged the author to find a more saleable title, then Louis Menand found himself a very high-minded publisher indeed. (September 2001)

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