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E Pluribus Unum?

ISSUE:  Winter 2002

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. By Louis Menand. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. $27.00.

Pragmatism was once called America’s philosophy. The pragmatic cast of mind was practical, even-tempered, experimental, effective. These qualities were ascribed to Americans generally, and the reading public that accepted the description were glad to be identified with the philosophers who, in Louis Menand’s words, “were more responsible than any other group for moving American thought into the modern world,” But the simplifications of half a century ago did not last, if only because American self-awareness took a different turn. By the end of the 20th century words like polarization or diversity had become much more common than consensus or national character. Although a pragmatist revival was well under way in the academic world, it was one school among a diverse lot and the original movement seemed remote. In the 1990’s Alan Ryan’s John Dewey and the High Tide of American Liberalism suggested by its very title that Dewey’s tide was out, and John Patrick Diggin’s The Promise of Pragmatism argued that the promise was unfulfilled because of intellectual and moral limitations that had been there from the outset. Now, after so much has changed, and taking the changes into account, Louis Menand revisits historical pragmatism in a work of fresh and powerful scholarship. Far from oversimplifying, he presents pragmatism by focusing on the four great founding figures, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey. He does justice to the connections among them. Among these he puts first their common belief that ideas are not representations of ideal entities but are best thought of as instruments for learning more about the world. He presents them with all their differences, too. He gives the book its remarkable breadth by relating their work, not to the supposed character of Americans in general, but to specific (and therefore different) contexts of popular thought and public events. The four heroes of his book, individually and in their settings, bring alive the pragmatist idea of pluralism.

The several stories, interesting in their own right, hang together in an overall plot. The argument, made explicit in the Preface, is that “the Civil War discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it. Those beliefs had not prevented the country from going to war; they had not prepared it for the astonishing violence the war unleashed; they seemed absurdly obsolete in the new, postwar world.” This grand narrative that Menand tries to keep going through the book, is a magnification of the biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., as he sees that biography. The story begins in the 1830’s, ‘40’s, and ‘50’s, the era of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the future justice. The elder Holmes, educator, poet, novelist, and man of society, had a major role in inventing “Boston,” a not altogether fictional capital of pre-Civil War American culture. He helped found the Saturday Club, famous for wit and oysters, and The Atlantic Monthly, where he appeared as “the Autocrat of the Breakfast Table,” and he served as dean of Harvard Medical School. The actual Boston with its interlocked mercantile and intellectual aristocracies was a much more coherent society than New York or points west, and that stability fulfilled the imaginative needs of prosperous and educated Americans everywhere who hankered to be part of an establishment culture. Menand shows the destabilization that took place as the slavery crisis came to a head. People who now mainly exist as names in history books come alive when George Ticknor, first professor of modern languages at Harvard, severs relations with Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast. The cause: Dana acted as lawyer for apprehended slaves and their protectors as the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 went into force. Menand shows how Cotton Whigs, Conscience Whigs, and abolitionists divided into passionately combative sects—and he notes how racism had no exact correlation with the divisions. Dr. Holmes did not jump at taking sides. Not an anti-slavery man but not a man of prejudice either, he ignored customary racism and admitted three black men to Harvard Medical School in 1850. Later, when a majority of the medical students stridently objected to going to class with blacks and some threatened to transfer, the faculty yielded to pressure and Holmes went along. For most of the 1850’s he was less moved by the slavery issue than by the idea of holding the country together. His friend Emerson, who turned from anti-slavery to abolitionist, had words of reproof for the doctor’s public declaration that abolitionism threatened a greater value, the Union. In this case, the ties of friendship were stronger than the clash of moral certitudes: the unfazed doctor gave his son a set of Emerson for his 17th birthday. Wendell Holmes, seeing in Emerson how philosophic power and moral daring could reshape a world, felt his own moral and intellectual being spring into life. For one thing, he became an active abolitionist. The forces that were cleaving society might have cleft father and son but, after the firing on Fort Sumter, the Unionist doctor turned abolitionist and the abolitionist son enlisted in the Union army.

In the first fervor of war, patriotism and principle seemed to coincide. Soon enough, in his baptism of fire, young Holmes suffered apparently mortal wounds. He survived only to be seriously wounded twice more. As his idealism burned away—in Melville’s chilling words, “What like a bullet can undeceive?”—his commitment changed from hopefulness in a human-rights cause to simple determination do his duty and last, if he could, till the slaughter came to an end. Having judged that the horror of total war outruns any moral warrant, he arrived eventually at a beyond-good-and-evil trust in the constitutional process whereby democracy sidesteps the clash of absolute principles and allows conflicts to be adjudicated rather than carried to ultimate mutual destruction. The dramatic, emotional starting-point of Holmes’s legal philosophy anticipated by some years the intellectual beginning, his taking part in philosophical discussions with a group, including William James and Charles Peirce, that centered on Chauncey Wright, the brilliant and caustic “Socrates of Cambridge.” Menand saves that for the later chapter, “The Metaphysical Club,” which gives its title to the book as a whole.

Holmes’s dramatic war story works almost too well in defining a historical turning point, for the war becomes less and less pertinent to the formative experience of the other great pragmatists. William James and Charles Peirce notably did not heed the call to arms; Dewey was five years old when Lee surrendered at Appomattox. James had two younger brothers in the Union army, one severely wounded; and yet, during the war and after, he showed little sense of the national trauma that Menand postulates. In a lifetime beset by psychological problems, he seems pretty well to have got over his brief compunctions at being exempted from the war. Decades later, when James spoke movingly at the dedication of the memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the Massachusetts Fifty-Fourth, the first black regiment in the Civil War, Menand surmises that he had in mind the brother who fought with the Fifty-Fourth and nearly died with Shaw and so many others. His overt subject, in any case, was heroism rather than the disasters of war. Just a year after the Shaw dedication, though it doesn’t fit into Menand’s narrative, the War of 1898 prompted the mature James to speak out vigorously against American imperialist ventures in the Caribbean and the Pacific. As witness against the long and bloody war to subjugate the Filipinos, he became a pacifist. When called upon to address his fellow abolitionists-of-war, he spoke, not on the brutality, but on the heroism of military exploit, for which society must find a “moral equivalent” if war were to disappear.

As Holmes’s father represents pre-war Boston, James’s father represents upstate New York—not just his native Albany, but the “Burned-Over District” to the west that was a hotbed of new sects and new beliefs. Henry James the Elder, in becoming an idiosyncratic theologian, was by no means unique. He tried out various beliefs before finally settling into his own blend of Swedenborg the mystic and Fourier the radical reformer. One effect on the son was William James’s openness to new and strange spiritual experience, which to a skeptic like Holmes looked like a soft spot for crackpots. The elder James was also a leisure-class father, inordinately dedicated to giving his sons the best possible education. Unfortunately, he kept changing his mind as to what was the best. In switching William from one side of the Atlantic to the other and abetting William’s switches from scientific school to artist’s studio and back again to science, the father gets partial responsibility for William’s lifelong problems with indecisiveness. Indecisiveness in turn is taken to be one more motive for William’s conceiving a universe that is open to chance and to choice. In the telling, the psychological influence of father on son almost crowds out the intellectual. Menand makes clear how the paternal hostility to moralism was strongly present for all his children. The obverse of this hostility was his prizing of spontaneity, a key word in his vocabulary and his sons’.

After just over a year at medical school, William James took an unexpected opportunity and joined Louis Agassiz’s natural-history expedition to the Amazon. Menand points out the paradox that, in imitating Darwin, James signed on with Darwin’s best-known American enemy. The close look at Agassiz makes clear not only the weight of accepted scientific belief that Darwin had to overcome. It also shows in detail how the political crisis permeated other sectors of intellectual life. Separate creation of every species (“special creation”), and the assumption that every so-called race was a distinct species, seemed to make racism a part of the natural order—and the divine. Although Agassiz was not pro-slavery, his biological doctrine was warmly received by proponents of slavery, and he was glad to lend his authority to their scientific discussions.(Later, when special creation lost out, popularizers of Social Darwinism had little trouble coining up with an updated version of pseudo-scientific racism. Darwin himself argued that human beings were a single species and put the new biology squarely on the side of human equality.) In Brazil, William James figured out the analytic insufficiency of Agassiz’s science—that when every puzzle can be immediately resolved by invoking special creation, the search for scientific explanation is cut off before it starts. He also learned that despite intimations in childhood that collecting specimens was fun, he was not cut out for such a career. Still, he remained a Darwinian naturalist in his thinking of the human mind as an organ of adaptation and survival—and wonderful random variation.

Charles Sanders Peirce, unlike Holmes or James, followed intellectually in the footsteps of his father without obviously turning in a new direction. Like his father, Peirce was anti-abolitionist and never even became anti-slavery. Son of a great mathematician, he got a regular job as a mathematician with the United States Coast Survey, a major government program in science that his father had helped bring about. His work there exempted him from military service. He depended on the Coast Survey job for years, until the amorous adventures and short temper that ended his academic career got him fired there, too. His costly defiance of convention was that of a temperamental, not an ideological, individualist. He detested individualism in all its forms, economic, social, and especially epistemo-logical. His insistence that truth is a function of collective knowledge makes him a social pragmatist, different as his politics were from Dewey’s. What he meant by collective knowledge was “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate,” that is, by the guild of scientific investigators. The technical qualifications for thus determining reality come clear only with an excursion into the history of math and statistics in the 19th century—a tour de force of Menand’s expositoiy powers.

In Menand’s account, the Peirces, both father and son, were committed to applying statistics to society as well as to science. Professor Peirce was a disciple of the French mathematician Pierre Laplace, who saw probability as a means of dealing with errors of observation and getting at the way things really are. Charles Peirce regarded probability differently. His model was James Clerk Maxwell, whose kinetic theory of gases assumed a degree of indeterminacy in the never-static molecules but showed how, as the data base expands, a more and more precise statement of their predictable behavior can be made. Menand glosses the difference later by characterizing Chauncey Wright as a Laplacean who believed that certainty was attainable in theory at least: “When he used the word “uncertainty,” he meant our uncertainty—just as when Laplace used the word “probability,” he was referring not to events themselves, but to our imperfect knowledge of them.” On the other side, he quotes Maxwell on scientific laws that assume like causes, like effects as a “metaphysical doctrine. . .not of much use in a world like this, in which the same antecedents never again concur, and nothing ever happens twice.” The new doctrine allowed intelligibility to co-exist with indeterminacy, but it required rethinking all the procedures of science. Menand sees this as Charles Peirce’s project: “What does it mean to say we “know” something in a world in which things happen higgledy-pigglety? Virtually all of Peirce’s work—an enormous body of writing on logic, semiotics, mathematics, astronomy, metrology, physics, psychology, and philosophy, large portions of it unpublished or unfinished—was devoted to this question.” “Higgledy-pigglety” was the British astronomer Herschel’s derisive characterization of Darwin’s world; young Peirce admired Darwin as the innovator who brought the statistical method to biology. Thus the lesson in statistics provides an introduction to the Metaphysical Club and the impact of Darwin on philosophical discussions in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872.

The discussions centered on Chauncey Wright. As a philosopher he drew sustenance from the conversation of his friends, and from the 1850’s to his death in 1875 he almost always had groups of fellow inquirers to keep him going. The name “Metaphysical Club” was evidently made up by Charles Peirce to denote the discussion circle of 1872 that included himself and James and Holmes. Wright was a scientific positivist who thought that everything happened within a chain of cause and effect, but he emphasized that nature as a whole was more complex than human beings could handle. The weather was his metaphor for the known world in which phenomena are explicable in particular but inexplicable en masse. Such a world, lacking a self-evident universal order, gave no warrant for “natural religion,” the age-old theological deduction of divine creation from universal order. He held to a negative credo, “Where we cannot be certain we must affirm nothing.” This ruling out of human will, which William James thought of as nihilism, struck Holmes as a bracing intellectual austerity. James shared the view of his tough-minded friends that the world we experience is like so much weather, “doing and undoing”; he too thought that Darwin had given a death-blow to teleology and final causes; he agreed that ideas were finders not summaries of truths. But where Wright and Holmes saw scientific or legal judgment as coolly making a bet on a reasoned prediction, James saw a need to believe in the act of finding, an opening for human will to be added to the equation. The fine distinction between betting on a hypothesis and believing in it could widen into a chasm.

Wright seemed to have been a Darwinian before the letter. When The Origin of Species appeared, he read it intently and became an internationally important advocate. His response to a major English attack on the book drew Darwin’s highest praise for his expertise; Darwin had the article reprinted and circulated in Britain. The discussions of 1872 very likely touched upon Wright’s current work in progress, “The Evolution of Self-Consciousness,” a topic proposed to him by Darwin himself. The essay showed the human mind as evolving through natural selection without a need to invoke supernatural intervention. It thus linked mind and material causation in a way that James saw as making psychology the frontier of science and philosophy. Balancing his lifelong resistance to Wright’s nihilism was respect for his scientific intelligence.

Brilliant as he was in his handling of natural selection, Wright could not come to terms with Darwin’s related principle of random variation; a Laplacean rigor prevented his deviating from the idea of causal chains. Peirce, who lived in the higgledy-pigglety world that Maxwell described, was helped by another member of the Wright circle, Nicholas St. John Green, a lawyer whose examples from law took into account that no two cases are alike and yet that cases can be grouped. In Menand’s succinct formulation, “Things are unique before they are alike.” That is by no means to suggest that uniqueness is a primary value; it is only a matter of temporal priority. In Peirce’s thinking, things are unique until science overcomes their opaqueness and sets them in a scheme that illuminates their likeness. Ultimate value lies in the future when intractable facts will have been integrated into systematic thought. To arrive at the condition of science not only takes time, but also requires the work of many hands. Peirce defined truth as “the opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate.” In this respect, he is indeed a social pragmatist, although the community of investigators who determine truth seems curiously unrelated to the larger society in which they work. To get to issues of pragmatism and democracy, Menand moves his story beyond the young men of post-Civil War Cambridge and turns to John Dewey.

Dewey, born into the liberal Congregationalism of upcountry New England (Puritan moralism without hellfire or brimstone), missed the Emersonian revolt against moralism, but not the pallid version of “Boston” which is nowadays known as the “Genteel Tradition.” His story is singularly untraumatic. He simply shed the culture of his pious Vermont beginnings. Unlike the pragmatists who owed so much to British empiricism and to Darwin, he came to his sense of the world in flux by way of Hegel. He appreciated what Darwin did to disseminate ideas of continuing change and development, but his residual Hegelian concern with social change and historical development made him by far the most socially engaged of the major pragmatists. As with his other figures, Menand co-ordinates the stories of intellectual origins and major life-encounters. Dewey came to Chicago when the array of industrial and governmental power against the Pullman strikers dominated the public scene. The violent suppression of the strike turned him to questions of economic democracy as well as political and cultural. In Chicago, his reeducation owed much to Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House and bringer of democratic values to the lives of the immigrant poor. He came to share Addams’s conviction that the conflicts of society could and should be resolved peacefully, but Addams’s pacifism did not entirely take hold. Dewey proved to be rather like W.H. Auden’s “Unknown Citizen”: “When there was peace, he was for peace; When there was war, he went.” When Dewey supported America’s going into the First World War, his student Randolph Bourne bitterly took him to task for deserting ultimate principles. Dewey got even with Bourne by getting him kicked off the staff of the Dial, but he never did discuss the conflict between principles and ad hoc commitments that Menand saw as central to the story of Justice Holmes.

The interwoven narrative strands that cover the emergence of pragmatism give way in the last section of the book to a stylishly foreshortened discussion of careers and consequences. Many of the battles between ancients and moderns that were fought in the 19th century seem recognizable in the 21st, but history has gone forward as well as kept familiar features. Among political results that have made a lasting difference, Menand makes the case for Holmes’s contribution to the American law of free speech and Dewey’s contribution to academic freedom, a matter of institutional governance as well as free speech. Following from his constant awareness of race as a clue to where historically we have been, Menand tracks James’s pluralism as it becomes involved with democratic theory and practice. Of those who speak for different ideas of ethnic or racial distinctness and absorption, none seems as alive today as W.E.B. Du Bois, for whom James had been teacher, mentor, and friend. Du Bois’s great book The SOULS of Black Folk (1903), in describing the “double consciousness” of marginalized Black Americans, goes beyond the statistical abstractions of social science into an area where James had led the way.

In making The Metaphysical Club his title, Menand reminds us that a club is not a school, and the founding pragmatists were not a school of like-minded philosophers. The common belief that ideas are instruments for dealing with a world in flux, is what Menand sees as their modernism, their difference from Victorian, genteel, pre-Civil War conceptions of things. By setting them in their several contexts, he also shows how their differences of thought entail important differences about racism and equality, war and peace, democracy and elitism. As James might say, they stand for choices that are live, forced, and momentous. Along with telling his intricate and fascinating story and guiding us through a complicated intellectual past, Menand has made the implications of such choices wonderfully clear. No one can make them easy.


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