Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand

For many white Americans after 1865, the abolitionists were the century's villains--not only because they were thought to have been responsible for the way, but because they and their heirs were thought to have been responsible for the humiliation of the South during Reconstruction.  They had driven a wedge into white America, and they did it because they had become infatuated with an idea.  They marched the nation to the brink of self-destruction in the name of an abstraction.  The United States in the 1890s was a society fractured along many lines: the South against the North, the West against the East, labor against capital, agriculture against industry, borrowers against lenders, people who called themselves natives against new immigrants.  In a time when the chance of another civil war did not seem remote, a philosophy that warned against the idolatry of ideas was possibly the only philosophy on which a progressive politics could have been successfully mounted.

In the late 19th century, thinkers were presented with two problems.  First, the civil war was a national tragedy: thinkers needed a philosophy that both allowed for reasonable disagreement and allowed for one side to be correct.  Second, the introduction of Darwinism threatened theological foundations.

So how to reconcile the idea of Truth with the idea of disagreement?  How to reconcile Darwinism with Christianity?

Menand's The Metaphysical Club explains how thinkers starting in the 19th century sought to answer these questions, focusing on four thinkers: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey.  The book also incorporates a large cast of side-thinkers, who make appearances along the way.

Enter pragmatism: rather than an absolute truth, truth is relative.  Instead, pragmatism preaches tolerance for other views.  Philosophical Darwinism will sort out the good ideas from the bad.  Applied, this leads to interesting practical results.  Rather than a search for truth, focus shifts to process.  The idea is that, a good process will ensure a good result.  A good, robust democracy, then, leads to a good, robust society.  It also means no more civil wars.

Of course, it also means that the minority has to be ready and willing to defer to the majority.  Such deference may seem desirable today, with an overly enthusiastic Tea Party and constant calls to end Obama-care.  However, such deference is difficult to muster in situations where the majority's will subjugates the minority (e.g., Jim Crow).  And as Menand describes it, this is why pragmatism fell out of favor: as the civil rights movement unfolded, a philosophy preaching the virtue of good process felt antiquated--faith in the process did not help if the process itself was broken.

This is a good book and worth reading for anyone interested in the U.S. intellectual climate between the civil war and the first world war.  Also worth reading for anyone interested in a primer on pragmatism, or the philosophies of Holmes, James, Pierce, or Dewey.  As someone interested in Holmes, I enjoyed the portions devoted to him especially.


Brent Waggoner said...

This sounds great. Was it a pretty easy read? Not that it would have to be, but I'm way behind on my books this year...

R.M. Fiedler said...

I'd say it's in the middle between a regular novel and a work of straight philosophy. It's difficult because of the number of side-thinkers who the author addresses. For example, to explain Holmes, Menand does not only talk about Holmes: he goes into long descriptions of the thinkers before Holmes who impacted his thought and the social, historical elements that impacted them. It gets hard to keep track of all the various thinkers and their context within the whole.

With that said, for the thinker (alas, not thinkers) who I was already pretty familiar with (Holmes), the sections went smoothly and interestingly (I think because I knew where Holmes landed; it was easier to keep track of the context of the "other" thinkers). For the thinkers I was not familiar with, I sometimes lost track of who was who (as with a novel with too many characters) and their role within the broader context of the novel.

So, I would most recommend this book to someone already familiar with one or more (or all) of the main thinkers because the book provides so much background information that would otherwise go overlooked.

I would otherwise recommend this book to someone who is already interested in the time period, the thinkers, or pragmatism.

So I wouldn't call it an easy read; I wouldn't call it a difficult read either. Right in the middle. Probably a perfect book if you want philosophy, but don't want to read a magnum opus (I'm looking at you, Being and Time).

nahidworld said...
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