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The Metaphysical Club [Englisch] [Gebundene Ausgabe]

Louis Menand
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If past is prologue, then The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand may suggest an intellectual course for the United States in the 21st century. At least Menand, a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, thinks so. This enthralling study of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey shows how these four men developed a philosophy of pragmatism following the Civil War, a period Menand likens to post-cold-war times. Together, "they were more responsible than any other group for moving American thought into the modern world."

Despite this potentially forbidding theme, The Metaphysical Club is not a dry tome for academics. Instead, it is a quadruple biography, a wonderfully told story of ideas that advances by turning these thinkers into characters and bringing them to life. Menand links them through the Metaphysical Club, a conversational club formed in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872. It lasted but a few months, and references to it appear only in Peirce's writings (its real significance seems rather limited), though Holmes and James were both members. (Dewey was much younger than these three, and more an heir than a contemporary.) It is difficult to describe in a sentence or two what they accomplished, though Menand takes a stab at it: "They helped put an end to the idea that the universe is an idea, that beyond the mundane business of making our way as best we can in a world shot through with contingency, there exists some order, invisible to us, whose logic we transgress at our peril." Academic freedom and cultural pluralism are just two of their legacies, and they are linchpins of democracy in a nonideological age, says Menand.

A book like this is necessarily idiosyncratic, yet at the same time this one is sweeping. It presents an accessible survey of intellectual life from roughly the end of the Civil War to the start of the cold war. Dozens of figures receive fascinating thumbnail sketches, from Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Darwin to Jane Addams and Eugene Debs. The result is a grand portrait of an age that will appeal to anyone with even a modest interest in the history of philosophy and ideas. --John Miller


"A gifted and well-practiced writer can tell an old story and make it seem new and exciting. Louis Menand is such a writer, and his version of the story of pragmatism is the most lively and integrated yet told. Menand’s incisive and remarkably relaxed exposition of philosophical ideas and his skillfully executed biographical narratives render The Metaphysical Club an accessible and deeply engaging account of one of the most important intellectual movements in the history of the United States.

What makes Menand’s story “old” is not simply that the careers of his leading characters—John Dewey, William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and Charles Peirce—are familiar. Menand’s sense of what makes them important is more or less standard. These men differed from most American and European thinkers of their time by accepting a large measure of uncertainty in the foundations for moral and cognitive judgments, and by treating ideas not as mirrors of a stable reality but instead as flexible tools for engaging a truly contingent world. Menand’s basic explanation for the emergence of this way of thinking, moreover, tracks a number of earlier studies. That the 1870s in New England should be the time and place in which these tendencies were the most vigorously pioneered owed much to the virtually simultaneous experience of the Civil War and the Darwinian revolution in an atmosphere of capitalist expansion and of an intensely Protestant moral and metaphysical idealism.

What most makes Menand’s telling of this story “new” is his success in integrating the personal lives of Dewey, James, Holmes and Peirce, and in showing precisely the intellectual continuities that justify our remembering them as a group. The Metaphysical Club is an exercise in dialectical intellectual biography. Menand demonstrates that the thinking of each of his four central characters developed in relation to each other’s ideas and personalities throughout their lifetimes, in relation to each other’s teachers and students, and in relation to features of New England culture that all four experienced. Other books address the three philosophers but omit the jurist, Holmes, or deal with the worldly Dewey and Holmes and not with the more cloistered Peirce and James (or vice versa). Many studies take up any one or more of these four giants in relation to some larger cluster. But no one has done a better job than Menand in showing the social and psychological process of thinking on the part of this exceptionally influential quartet of closely related intellectuals.

Menand’s title refers to a small discussion group in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the early 1870s in which James, Holmes and Peirce were occasional participants, but the title threatens to obscure the breadth of Menand’s research and analysis. Menand offers cogent and persuasive accounts of how a range of other thinkers inspired or were inspired by The Four. His discussion of the cultural pluralists Horace Kallen, Alain Locke and Randolph Bourne is nuanced, and he does a good, if brief, job with Jane Addams, Arthur Bentley, W.E.B. Du Bois and Franz Boas. Surprisingly, Menand pays almost no attention to Josiah Royce, the popular Harvard philosopher deeply influenced by Peirce, and in dialogue with whom James developed many of his most important ideas, especially those defended in his great book of 1907, Pragmatism.

Along the way, Menand provides a crisp and informative portrait of Louis Agassiz, the luminous anti-Darwinian who dominated the American scientific community during the middle decades of the 19th century. Agassiz epitomized the dogmatic certainty that the pragmatists eventually rejected. Convinced that species were fixed ideas in the mind of the Creator, and long a defender of the view that Negroes were a species distinct from, and decidedly inferior to, Caucasians, Agassiz was the darling of creationists and proslavery theorists. Hence he proved to be on the wrong side of the great scientific and moral issues of the era defined by the Civil War and the Darwinian revolution in natural history. Yet he was prominent along with the fathers of Peirce, James and Holmes in the social and intellectual elite of Boston-Cambridge, and it was natural that the young William James began his career as Agassiz’s protégé. How James became increasingly repelled by Agassiz while on an expedition to Brazil under Agassiz’s leadership is the substance of one of Menand’s most engaging chapters.

What James, Peirce, Holmes and Dewey accomplished was to gain wider acceptance for what Menand regards as a distinctly modern “idea about ideas”: that ideas themselves are socially produced devices—“like forks and knives and microchips”—for coping with experience, and thus are not primarily individually housed, internal constructions of some fixed, external reality. “The belief that ideas should never become ideologies—either justifying the status quo, or dictating some transcendent imperative for renouncing it—was the essence of what they taught,” explains Menand. Agassiz and the extreme abolitionists had exemplified this old way of thinking, as Menand shows. Agassiz’s deployment of scientific ideas to undermine the Lincoln administration’s efforts to protect liberated slaves in 1863 serves Menand as an emblem for the attitude toward ideas that “a new kind of skepticism” renounced. The new outlook taught by James, Peirce, Holmes and Dewey could help people deal with “a heterogeneous, industrialized, mass-market society . . . in which older human bonds of custom and community seemed to have been attenuated, and to have been replaced by impersonal networks of obligation and authority.” This attitude “permits the continual state of upheaval that capitalism thrives on,” and could “free thought from thralldom to official ideologies of the church, or the state or even the academy.”

This understanding of the contributions of the pragmatist intellectuals was widespread in the 1950s and 1960s, but Menand curiously argues that the Cold War put pragmatism into a remission that lasted until the end of the Cold War. It is true that the writings of the old pragmatists won renewed attention in the 1990s. But the explicitly antipragmatist argumentation Menand appears to have in mind was largely a phenomenon of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it was directed against what was seen as the excessively pragmatic attitude of go-slow-on-civil-rights politicians and those intellectuals who supported the Vietnam War. Beyond politics, moreover, W. V. O. Quine, Thomas Kuhn and a number of other American thinkers of the Cold War years worked within the pragmatist tradition. Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Menand cites as an example of an antipragmatic sensibility, smuggled vast amounts of pragmatism into his Christ-affirming political theory and was close to Dewey on many crucial issues.

Much of what scholars of the 1950s said about pragmatism itself is remarkably similar to what Menand now affirms. They said it in a series of widely disseminated books missing from Menand’s imposing bibliography. Morton White’s Social Thought in America: The Revolt Against Formalism, first published in 1949 and reissued with important new material in 1957, did more than any other book to popularize the understanding that Dewey, Holmes and many of their contemporaries developed an instrumentalist view of ideas conducive to the same anti-ideological cast of mind that Menand now appreciates. Indeed, The Metaphysical Club is a brilliant updating and critical revision of what could fairly be called a “1950s American Studies approach” to pragmatism.

Central to this approach is an emphasis on the peculiarly American context for the generation of “modern” ideas about ideas. Yet the direction of more recent scholarship has been comparative and has uncovered striking parallels in the intellectual histories of Germany, France, England and the United States. The most formidable challenge to the traditional “American exceptionalist” interpretation of the emergence of “uncertainty” is James T. Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870–1920, which argues that a host of different locales with the industrialized, post-Kantian West proved conducive to the generating of what Menand would call the “modern” way of thinking.

To be sure, Menand’s telling of the story can be made largely compatible with Kloppenberg’s. One can sharpen the various national versions of the movement to accept cognitive and moral uncertainty, emphasize the distinctness of the formulations generated by the Americans and specify the local contexts in which the varieties of uncertainty-acceptance flourished. One could then insist that Menand’s emphasis on the eagerness of Holmes the army veteran and his contemporaries to avoid the intellectual dogmatism that leads to violence simply points us to one of many local contexts in which “modernity” could emerge. But Menand does not perform this analysis. He does not even acknowledge the existence of the major book that calls into question his Americo-centric, Civil War–intensive explanation for the emergence of the modern understanding of ideas.

Yet what Menand does, he does extremely well. The Metaphysical Club shows how four exceptionally creative lives were entangled with each other and with each other’s specific reactions to abolitionism, war, capitalism, Kant, Hegel, Darwin and God. It conveys much more of the intellectual history of the United States than do the many conventional books that devote one chapter to one thinker and another chapter to the next, and so on. Menand puts it all together. If you can read only one book about pragmatism and American culture, this is the book to read."



The Metaphysical Club was an informal group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872, to talk about ideas. Its members included Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, founder of modern jurisprudence; William James, the father of modern American psychology; and Charles Sanders Peirce, logician, scientist, and the founder of semiotics. The club was probably in existence for about nine months. No records were kept. The one thing we know that came out of it was an idea - an idea about ideas. This book is the story of that idea. Holmes, James, and Peirce all believed that ideas are not things "out there" waiting to be discovered but are tools people invent - like knives and forks and microchips - to make their way in the world. They thought that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals - that ideas are social. They do not develop according to some inner logic of their own but are entirely dependent - like germs - on their human carriers and environment. "The Metaphysical Club" is written in the spirit of this idea about ideas. It is not a history of philosophy but an absorbing narrative about personalities and social history, a story about America.

It begins with the American Civil War and ends with the First World War. The first four sections of the book focus on Holmes, James, Peirce, and their intellectual heir, John Dewey. The last section discusses some of the fundamental 20th-century ideas they are associated with. This is a book about the evolution of the American mind during the crucial period that formed the world we now inhabit. -- Dieser Text bezieht sich auf eine andere Ausgabe: Unbekannter Einband .

Über den Autor und weitere Mitwirkende

Louis Menand is a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and has been a contributing editor of The New York Review of Books since 1994. He is the author of Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and His Context and the editor of The Future of Academic Freedom and Pragmatism: A Reader.

Leseprobe. Abdruck erfolgt mit freundlicher Genehmigung der Rechteinhaber. Alle Rechte vorbehalten.

The Metaphysical Club
The Politics Of Slavery
OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES, JR., was an officer in the Union Army. He stood six feet three inches tall and had a soldierly bearing. In later life, he loved to use military metaphors in his speeches and his conversation; he didn't mind being referred to good-naturedly as Captain Holmes; and he wore his enormous military mustaches until his death, in 1935, at the age of ninety-three. The war was the central experience of his life, and he kept its memory alive. Every year he drank a glass of wine in observance of the anniversary of the battle of Antietam, where he had been shot in the neck and left, briefly behind enemy lines, for dead.
But Holmes hated the war. He was twenty years old and weighed just 136 pounds at the time of his first battle, at Ball's Bluff, where he was shot through the chest. He fought bravely and he was resilient, but he was not strong in a brute sense, and as the war went on the physical ordeal was punishing. He was wounded three times in all, the third time in an engagement leading up to the battle of Chancellorsville, when he was shot in the foot. He hoped the foot wouldhave to be amputated so he could be discharged, but it was spared, and he served out his commission. Many of his friends were killed in battle, some of them in front of his eyes. Those glasses of wine were toasts to pain.
Holmes recovered from the wounds. The effects of the mental ordeal were permanent. He had gone off to fight because of his moral beliefs, which he held with singular fervor. The war did more than make him lose those beliefs. It made him lose his belief in beliefs. It impressed on his mind, in the most graphic and indelible way, a certain idea about the limits of ideas. This idea he stuck to, with a grimness and, at times, a cynicism that have occasionally repelled people who have studied his life and thought. But it is the idea that underlies many of the opinions he wrote, long after the war ended, as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court. To understand the road Holmes had to travel in order to write those opinions, we have to go back to one of the worlds the Civil War made obsolete, the world of prewar Boston.
We think of the Civil War as a war to save the union and to abolish slavery, but before the fighting began most people regarded these as incompatible ideals. Northerners who wanted to preserve the union did not wish to see slavery extended into the territories; some of them hoped it would wither away in the states where it persisted. But many Northern businessmen believed that losing the South would mean economic catastrophe, and many of their employees believed that freeing the slaves would mean lower wages. They feared secession far more than they disliked slavery, and they were unwilling to risk the former by trying to pressure the South into giving up the latter.
The abolitionists were careless of the future of the union. "If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off" was the text they preached. They despised the unionists as people who put self-interest ahead of righteousness, and they considered any measure short of abolition or partition to be a bargain with evil. They baited the unionists with charges of hypocrisy and greed; the unionists responded by accusing the abolitionists of goading the South into secession, and by trying to run them out of town and sometimes to kill them. Before there was a war against the South, there was a war within the North.
Holmes's father, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., was a unionist. The Holmeses were related to families that had prospered in New England since the time of the Puritans--the Olivers, the Wendells, the Quincys, the Bradstreets, the Cabots, the Jacksons, and the Lees--but they were not exceptionally wealthy. Dr. Holmes was a professor; his father, Abiel, had been a minister. He regarded himself as a New England Brahmin (a term he coined),1 by which he meant not merely a person of good family, but a scholar, or what we would call an intellectual. His own mind was a mixture of enlightenment and conformity: he combined largeness of intellect with narrowness of culture.
Dr. Holmes had become famous in 1830, the year after he graduated from Harvard, when he wrote a popular poem protesting the breakup of the U.S.S. Constitution, "Old Ironsides." After college he tried the law but quickly switched to medicine. He studied in Paris, and in 1843, when he was thirty-four, published a paper on the causes of puerperal (or childbed) fever that turned out to be a landmark work in the germ theory of disease. (He showed that the disease was carried from childbirth to childbirth by the attending physician; it was a controversial paper among the medical establishment.) He joined the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, where he eventually served as dean. But his celebrity came from his activities as a belletrist. He was one of the first members of the Saturday Club, a literary dining and conversation society whose participants included Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., James Russell Lowell, and Charles Eliot Norton. He was a founder of the Atlantic Monthly, whose name he invented and in whose pages he published his popular column of aperçus, "The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table" (followed by "The Professor at the Breakfast-Table" and "The Poet at the Breakfast-Table"). He wrote hundreds of verses and three novels. Many people, and not only Bostonians, believed him to be the greatest talker they had ever heard.
Yet he was unabashedly provincial. His chief ambition was to represent the Boston point of view in all things. (He also suffered from asthma, which made travel uncomfortable.) On the other hand, he regarded the Boston point of view as pretty much the only point of view worth representing. He considered Boston "the thinking centre of the continent, and therefore of the planet."2 Or as he also put it, in a phrase that became the city's nickname for itself: "Boston State-House is the hub of the solar system."3 He was an enemy of Calvinism (which had been his father's religion) and a rationalist, but his faith in good breeding was nearly atavistic, and he saw no reason to challenge the premises of a social dispensation that had, over the course of two centuries, contrived to produce a man as genial and accomplished as himself.
Dr. Holmes's views on political issues therefore tended to be reflexive: he took his cues from his own instincts and the prevailing tendencies, and where these conflicted, he went with the tendencies. In 1850, for example, while he was serving as dean of the Medical School, he was approached by a black man named Martin Delany who requested admission. Delany was an exceptional character. He had, with Frederick Douglass, helped to found the leading black newspaper in the United States, the North Star; he later wrote a novel in answer to Uncle Tom's Cabin, called Blake; Or, the Huts of America, and served as a major in the Union Army, the highest rank achieved by an African-American during the Civil War. He was already thirty-eight years old in 1850, and his credentials for admission to medical school were unimpeachable, although he had been turned down by four schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, before he tried Harvard.
As it happened, two other black candidates, Daniel Laing, Jr., and Isaac H. Snowden, both from Massachusetts, had applied for admission in the same year. Laing and Snowden were sponsored by the American Colonization Society, a group that advocated resettling African-Americans in Liberia as a solution to the problem of slavery. They promised to emigrate as soon as they received their degrees; Delany made it clear... -- Dieser Text bezieht sich auf eine andere Ausgabe: Taschenbuch .
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