The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

Louis Menand

Language: English

Pages: 576

ISBN: 0374528497

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

The Metaphysical Club is the winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History.

A riveting, original book about the creation of modern American thought.

The Metaphysical Club was an informal group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872, to talk about ideas. Its members included Oliver Well 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.

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 depent -- like germs -- on their human carriers and environment. And they thought that the survival of any idea deps not on its immutability but on its adaptability.

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 Civil War and s in 1919 with Justice Holmes's dissenting opinion in the case of U.S. v. Abrams-the basis for the constitutional law of free speech. 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 twentieth-century ideas they are associated with. This is a book about a way of thinking that changed American life."

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Gases: Maxwell’s Social Physics,” Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, 12 (1981): 82-3. 33 Buckle, History of Civilization in England, 194, 1. 34 Thomas H. Huxley, “Emancipation—Black and White” (1865), Science and Education: Essays (New York: D. Appleton, 1895), 67. 35 Benjamin Peirce, Linear Associative Algebra (1870), ed. C. S. Peirce (New York: Van Nostrand, 1882), 2. 36 Laplace, Théorie analytique des probabilités, vi-vii: Nous devons donc envisager l’état présent de

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a scheme to rescue the Spaniards of Mexico from their degradation?” he asked. “Beware, therefore, of any policy which may bring our own race to their level.” It was the fear he had expressed, through his tears, to Nathaniel Shaler when the war broke out: “They will Mexicanize the country.” “They” were the abolitionists. The only way to avoid the disaster of racial intermarriage, Agassiz thought, was (given the unfeasibility of mass exportation) to deny black Americans social equality. “We

negro and Indian half-breeds we have seen, the negro type seems the first to yield, as if the more facile disposition of the negro, as compared with the enduring tenacity of the Indian, showed itself in their physical as well as their mental characteristics.35 They found hierarchy in hair. In his letters home James had complimentary things to say about Elizabeth Agassiz, though in his diary he calls her an “excellent but infatuated woman [who] will look at every thing in such an unnatural &

honored for having been a valiant soldier, James told them, but that was not what made him worthy of a memorial. For the instinct to fight is bred into us through natural selection; it hardly needs monuments or speeches to be reinforced. “[T]he survivors of one successful massacre after another are the beings from whose loins we and all our contemporary races spring,” James said; “ … pugnacity is the virtue least in need of reinforcement by reflection.” What had made Shaw admirable, James

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