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.