The Metaphysical Club A Story of Ideas in America

Louis Menand

Farrar, Straus and Giroux



Trade Paperback

568 Pages


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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
Winner of the Francis Parkman Prize
A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
A Choice Outstanding Academic Title

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., future associate justice of the United States Supreme Court; 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.

The "idea about ideas" is that ideas are not things "out there" somewhere waiting to be discovered, but are instruments people invent and use, like knives and forks and microchips, to make their way in the world. They are not produced by individuals; they are produced by groups of individuals. They do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent—like germs—on their human carriers and environment. They are provisional responses to circumstances, and their survival depends not on their immutability, but on their adaptability.

The Metaphysical Club is written in this idea's spirit. It begins with the Civil War and ends, in 1919, with Holmes's dissenting opinion in the case of U.S. v. Abrams—the basis for the modern law of free speech. The first four sections focus on Holmes, James, Peirce, and their intellectual heir, John Dewey. The last section discusses the fundamental twentieth-century ideas they are associated with: pragmatism, pluralism, and freedom of expression.


Praise for The Metaphysical Club

"Hugely ambitious, unmistakably brilliant . . . A landmark work of scholarship and a popular history of profound, sweeping change . . Of enormous worth."—Janet Maslin, The New York Times

"Dramatic and persuasive . . . [The Metaphysical Club] does something extremely difficult, which is to integrate what might otherwise be a string of disparate semibiographical essays into something very like a history of the American mind at work, and to do so without slighting either the individual thinker or the larger, national setting. And it does so with a clarity, elegance, and sympathy for people and ideas that anyone working in the same field will envy and admire in equal measure."—Alan Ryan, The New York Review of Books

"Brilliant . . . Menand brings rare common sense and graceful, witty prose to his richly nuanced reading of American intellectual history . . . It would probably horrify [Oliver Wendell] Holmes and delight William James to find themselves posthumously attending this reconvening of the Metaphysical Club, but even Holmes might enjoy seeing their ideas so carefully and imaginatively explored."—Jean Strouse, The New York Times Book Review

"The clarity and energy of his writing never fail . . . The Metaphysical Club sets a new standard for anyone who would write, or read, the human story of a progress of ideas."—Kenneth Baker, The San Francisco Chronicle

The Metaphysical Club is a remarkable feat . . . Louis Menand has restored American intellectual history to an intelligent general audience. Not since the heyday of Richard Hofstadter has a study of modern American thought achieved such widespread recognition outside the academy . . . His great insight is the recognition that biography matters, that philosophical debates do not occupy an Olympian realm above the fray of human aspirations and anxieties . . . This revitalizes our understanding of late-nineteenth-century thought.”—Jackson Lears, Rutgers University, Journal of American Historyar
"A compellingly vital account of how the cluster of idea that came to be called pragmatism was forged from the searing experiences of its progenitors' lives. Here are Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, all of them giants of American thought made colloquially accessible both as human beings and as intellects. Menand's book is an extraordinary collective biography, at once erudite and enthralling."—Daniel Kevles, Yale University

“A wonderfully told story about a terribly complex context of ideas, of politic-civic moments and social transformations, of major scientific discoveries and incandescent intellectual debates.”—Costica Bradatan, University of Durham, Metapsychology

"Unorthodox, yet amazingly readable and provocative . . . If you are thinking of reading a single volume that demonstrates how fundamentally important new ideas take root—and how every human institution and ultimately every human life is changed by them—this probably should be it. I can think of no book in recent memory that does the job as well."—Michael Pakenham, The Baltimore Sun

"Menand writes with the vividness and dash of a novelist; he has a clarity and energy of mind all his own. The result is not just first-rate intellectual history but a true adventure in ideas, and no one since Whitehead has written so splendid a story of ideas. Menand's story is how the modern American mind came into existence. It is original, utterly compelling, impossible to put down."—Robert D. Richardson, Jr., author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire

"Like Wilson's To the Finland Station in the Thirties or Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition in the Forties, [The Metaphysical Club is] an unavoidable exegesis. Any future historian who writes about nineteenth-century American culture will have to either go around Menand, or through him, but there's no ignoring him."—Roger Gathman, The Austin Chronicle

"Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club is brilliant, illuminating, necessary."—Joan Didion

"The Metaphysical Club makes a genuinely original contribution to our national self-understanding. It is as evocative, and precise, as a Luminist painting."—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

"In this brilliant foray into the sociology of knowledge, Louis Menand explores the roots and impact of pragmatism, America's chief contribution to modern philosophy . . . Menand writes with clarity and wit. He selects texts astutely, explicates them well, and provides appropriate intellectual context. His thumbnail character sketches—of Emerson, Agassiz, Eugene Debs—and descriptions of historical episodes—the battle of Ball's Bluff, the Pullman strike—sparkle, as do his summaries of the intellectual influences of Darwin on James, Chauncey Wright on Peirce, and James Marsh on Dewey."—Ronald Story, University of Massachusetts, American Historical Review

"Splendid . . . Particularly commendable is Menand’s wide-ranging analysis of the connections and differences among the variety of ‘pluralisms’—philosophical, cultural, ethnoracial, and political—that emerged in the early twentieth century. Another strong point is the sustained and perceptive attention to the racial attitudes and beliefs of his subjects and of white American society in general."—George M. Fredrickson, Stanford University, The Journal of Southern History

"The Metaphysical Club is a brilliant reanimation of American pragmatism as it evolved from the writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey as it was shaped by the traumas of the Civil War and the immense social and economic changes that followed it. Menand has written the most nuanced account I've ever read of pragmatist thinking and he demonstrates, as no one so effectively has before, how public enterprise shaped its specifically American texture and tone. This is a richly populated, intellectually thrilling book in which America is shown to be discovering its future."—Richard Poirier

"A magnificent book . . . Fascinating and instructive . . . Thought-provoking . . . A vast, sprawling account of the origins of pragmatism . . . and of the personalities, institutions, issues, and events that shaped its later course . . . The way the same characters crisscross through the narrative, encountering each other again and again in different circumstances and with different effects is one of the joys of reading the book . . . In Menand's hands, the discussion of pragmatism opens up a window on this vanished world that illuminates features of our own in often unsuspected ways . . . Menand tells us about the intellectual, political, social, cultural, and institutional antecedents of pragmatism, about the ideas, events, personalities, and forces that provided the context in which it developed. And he is wonderfully successful. His engaging, inspiring, and informative book beautifully conveys a distinctive sort of contextualizing understanding. Even philosophical specialists in pragmatism will find their horizons broadened and their understanding deepened."—Bob Brandom, University of Pittsburgh

"[An] eloquent biography of American thought . . . Engaging, wise, and touched with wit—a chance to follow an inspector around the foundations of American thought and understand this house of mirrors we've inherited."—Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor

"Menand proves himself a master intellectual biographer . . . [He] boldly inserts pragmatism into the heart of this country's national narrative and insists on its centrality to modern American history."—Casey Nelson Blake, The American Scholar

"Rolicking intellectual history . . . It's been a long time since I 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, The New York Observer

“This is history written with vim and verve . . . Menand weaves in a dazzling array of social and political history ranging from the Pullman strike . . . to Hetty Green, the miserly moneylender who became the ‘witch of Wall Street’”—Paul Jerome Croce, Professor and Chair of American Studies, Stetson University, Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences

"Menand produces a seamless narrative line that moves from the Civil War to the Supreme Court case in 1919 that became the basis for the constitutional doctrine of free speech. Along the way, the reader is introduced to myriad pertinent players and events that bring the era and the thinking vividly to life."—Leon H. Brody, U.S. Office of Personnel Management Library, Washington, D.C., Library Journal

"[I] found it to be the sort of book I had been searching for ever since the Fall of 1967 when I first taught a class in American Philosophy. Consequently, I decided to adopt it for the American Philosophy class I was scheduled to teach during the Spring of 2002 . . . The Metaphysical Club made the Spring 2002 semester far more exciting than it would have been otherwise. On the whole, it is a graceful account of the lives of [Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles S. Peirce, and the inheritor of their tradition, John Dewey] . . . Menand has addressed a long-standing need in the country's intellectual history. In recognition of
up0his contribution he earned a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize . . . It should become a cornerstone for all areas of American Studies, especially for those focused on the dynamics of history and philosophy."—Anthony Roda, State University of New York, Oneonta, Educational Change

"In a serious but accessible book, Menand, a CUNY professor and New Yorker staff writer, provides a panorama of American post-Civil War thought, encompassing the period from 1865 to 1919 and focusing on the lives and thinking of 'four giants': William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and John Dewey. Menand contends that the Civil War swept away old ideas, and, in its wake, the nation spent the next half-century putting into place a new set of principles—nurtured by the four giants—that served the nation into its new modern age. The 'club' of the title, with the four giants as its core, actually only existed for about nine months in 1872, but its members influenced the culture for decades to come—James, as the founder of modern American psychology; Peirce, as the founder of semiotics; Dewey, for bringing professionalism to the university as president of the AAUP; and Holmes, through his expansions of the concept of free speech. Menand's scope is massive, and he is clearly up to the task."—Allen Weakland, Booklist

"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 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 . . . No one has done a better job than Menand in showing the social and psychological process of thinking on the part of this . . . influential quartet of closely related intellectuals . . . The Metaphysical Club s26shows 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."—David A. Hollinger, American Scientist

Reviews from Goodreads



Read an Excerpt

The Metaphysical Club
PART ONEONEThe Politics Of Slavery1OLIVER 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
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  • Louis Menand

  • 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.
  • Louis Menand