America’s Homegrown Idea: Pragmatism and Its Progenitors

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America , by Louis Menand. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 546 pages, $27.

There’s a new book out about mauve, the color. Recently there was a history of the mirror. A book about longitude scaled the best-seller list last year. This is the trend: inflated trivia. The strategy behind these books–and they are legion–is to start small and let the topic grow until whatever modest item you began with (orchids, cod, paper clips) comes to seem both ubiquitous and oddly essential to Western civilization.

Louis Menand, a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, bucks the trend. He begins with vast ambitions and in the end reveals his modesty. He aims, in The Metaphysical Club , to tell the story of how America learned to cope with modern life, thanks to the homegrown philosophy of pragmatism. His topic may be grand (the first sentence sets the tone: “It is a remarkable fact about the United States that it fought a civil war without undergoing a change in its form of government”), but he never swaggers; there’s not a pompous sentence in this whole hefty tome. The story has been told before–quite capably, in Bruce Kuklick’s The Rise of American Philosophy (1977)–and anyone who took an American intellectual-history course in college will recognize most of the characters and the key concepts, yet Mr. Menand makes it seem fresh and new.

The Metaphysical Club is rollicking intellectual history. Pragmatism is merely a way of thinking about how people think (they believe in what works for them, William James argued: “The true is the name for whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief”), but it opens up all kinds of alluring vistas. There are dull and difficult stretches, of course: The author must distinguish between four similar but distinct flavors of pragmatism, and he dips (help!) into Hegel and probability theory–but there’s a compelling story holding it all together, and Mr. Menand, who has assembled a large cast of characters, has a delightful talent for thumbnail sketches. His four heroes, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey, all live and breathe. I’d heard a lot about them before; now I feel I’ve met them.

One of the central tenets of pragmatism is that ideas are social. Mr. Menand’s book seems designed to make that proposition look obvious. Holmes, James, Peirce and Dewey dodge in and out of the narrative. Their lives collide, most often in Cambridge, Mass.; they bounce off in their separate directions; their minds change–or not. Ideas are social, and they also evolve, because they are part and parcel of the changing lives of men and women doing certain things in certain places at certain times. (Pragmatism breaks down the distinction between the idea and the act; as James put it, “the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action”; or, in the always less graceful words of John Dewey, knowledge ” is an instrument or organ of successful action. ” The meaning of an idea, for a pragmatist, can’t be separated from its consequences.)

Mr. Menand begins with a bang, and buckets of blood. Oliver Wendell Holmes was wounded three times during the Civil War; he witnessed some of the fiercest fighting. The battlefield narrative is alternately thrilling and grim, and leads convincingly to philosophical concerns: “The lesson Holmes took home from the war can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence.” Of course, that sentence requires elaboration. Holmes lived for 70 years after the war; in his brilliant career as a jurist, he proved himself a subtle and rigorous thinker (he was also Olympian in his detachment, and wonderfully pleased with himself). He would not have called himself a pragmatist, but his legal reasoning chimed perfectly with pragmatism; his judicial opinions, which, as Mr. Menand shows, did a great deal to guarantee the Constitutional protection of free speech, are a splendid example of pragmatism in action.

The scene shifts; Mr. Menand invites us to meet a collection of mid-19th-century scientists, most of them teaching at Harvard College. It’s not pretty to watch as eminent professors, saddled with premodern conceptions of the universe, struggle with Darwin and the devastation of the Civil War. The racism of some of these scientists is both appalling and hilarious. That characters like Louis Agassiz, who wept at the thought of miscegenation, should seem to us backwards and benighted indicates the distance that pragmatism, with its emphasis on tolerance and its openness to pluralism, has brought us.

Charles Darwin helped jettison the fixed truths of Agassiz’s generation; out the window went the idea of a natural world shaped by intelligent design. For those who lived through the Civil War, the Darwinian emphasis on chance and change struck a chord. For those who understood that evolutionary theory, with its emphasis on relational and probabilistic thinking, marked a revolution in scientific thought, it became clear that just as creation is still in the making, so is truth; both are contingent. Pragmatism, which accepts our condition as an ongoing experiment, is beautifully suited to the business of apprehending the modern.

William James, who gave pragmatism its name, was a waffler extraordinaire (“He’s just like a blob of mercury,” said his sister Alice, “you cannot put a mental finger upon him”). James, as Mr. Menand puts it, “converted his weakness into a strength”: He invented the perfect philosophy for people who change their minds. He was temperamentally inclined to test out competing truths, to experiment with ideas and beliefs; pragmatism, as he conceived it, became a powerful enemy of entrenched ideology.

James tried to give credit for the invention of pragmatism to Charles Peirce, who in turn explained that the idea emerged from “The Metaphysical Club”– “a knot of young men in Old Cambridge.” Peirce is not as familiar as pragmatism’s other progenitors–and he’s the only one with a whiff of scandal about him (he lived in sin with his second wife, Juliette, before marrying her, and as Mr. Menand announces without further explanation, “Peirce probably abused Juliette physically”). He remains a mystery, and it’s never made as obvious as it ought to be that he was at least as brilliant as Mr. Menand’s other three heroes.

By contrast, John Dewey, mild and otherworldly (“a singularly irenic personality,” in Mr. Menand’s uncharacteristically stiff phrase), shines through with simple clarity. But Dewey is not really as interesting as the others, in part because he’s such a goody-goody. One waits impatiently for him to rub up against someone more amusing, like Oliver Wendell Holmes. Here’s Holmes’ marvelous reaction to Experience and Nature (1925): “Dewey’s book is incredibly ill-written,” he asserted, though he agreed enthusiastically with its message: “So me thought God would have spoken if He had been inarticulate but keenly desirous to tell you how it was.” It’s hard to get stirred up about Dewey and the educational reforms his ideas set in motion. Mr. Menand at one point refers to Dewey’s “manner of calmly and often rather colorlessly chewing through received ideas”–well, someone’s got to do it.

O.K.: The Metaphysical Club is not perfect. It meanders, picking up new characters and new angles along the way. I wish Mr. Menand had stepped forward and made a strong claim for the importance of the ideas he’s discussing. His take-it-or-leave-it style is appropriate to pragmatism, but it’s not always exciting or stimulating. If he judged ideas with the same confidence and verve with which he judges people, his book would shake you harder.

As it is, The Metaphysical Club lets you decide for yourself how important a story it’s telling. Well, I know what works for me: It’s been a long time since I’ve read an important book as entertaining as this one. And it’s been a long time since a book that’s this much fun to read has succeeded in teaching something serious and subtle and consequential.

Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.