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The Metaphysical ClubReview - The Metaphysical Club
A Story of Ideas in America
by Louis Menand
Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2001
Review by Costica Bradatan
May 20th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 21)

The Metaphysical Club is above all the story of a historical context. A wonderfully told story about a terribly complex context of ideas, of politic-civic movements and social transformations, of major scientific discoveries and  incandescent intellectual debates. It is precisely the context in which the so called pragmatism, and some akin intellectual currents, emerged and developed in the American intellectual life, somewhere at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. That his book is about fluid social situations and sophisticated interpersonal relations, and not about refined theories, about particular ways in which ideas are born and “embodied” in various forms of public life, and not about philosophies considered in themselves, Louis Menand seeks to point out from the very beginning of his writing: “This book is an effort to […] try to see ideas as always soaked through by the personal and social situations in which we find them.” (p.xii) The “characters” of his book, promoters of some form or other of pragmatism (significantly, Menand uses the very term Pragmatisms as a chapter title), are seen not so much through the systems of thought each of them designed and developed, as through the complex dialectic that made those systems not only possible, but in a way necessary: “Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey were philosophers, and their work is part of the history of abstract thought. […] This book is not a work of philosophical argument, though; it is a work of historical interpretation. It describes a change in American life by looking at a change in its intellectual assumptions. Those assumptions changed because the country became a different place.” (p. xii)

            The book has five big sections. Each of the first four parts is dedicated to one of the four figures already mentioned: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935), legal writer, law professor, and above all US Supreme Court Justice; William James (1842-1910), psychologist and philosopher; Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), logician, mathematician and philosopher; and John Dewey (1859-1964), philosopher, educator, and reformer of education. The last section synthesizes much of what has been said in the previous four sections in an attempt to place the problems dealt with within the broader context of the American public and intellectual life as it turned to be in the first part of the twentieth century. As a matter of fact, one of the major merits of Louis Menand in this book is to realize an admirable balance between, on the one hand, taking these figures as individual cases, with their picturesque biographies and specific backgrounds, with their personal peculiarities and irreproducible Weltanschauungen (to the extent to which it would be possible to talk about four different “case studies”), and, on the other hand, putting them all together and making them form eventually one single problem, one topic: namely, the present book’s topic. And it is precisely their common concerns and problems, the interests, ideals, values, etc. they shared, that makes them so particularly interesting and appealing from a today’s point of view. For things that were considered at that time “dangerous novelties”, and these people had to fight a long battle before see them, if not widely accepted, at least publicly recognized, are simply taken for granted in our everyday life. A miracle repeating itself a number of times risks eventually not to be noticed even as a banal, most common fact.

Maybe the most important feature they shared was a certain inclination on their side towards a reconsideration of the classical, traditional assumptions with regard to the relationships between the world of the self and the world of the social facts within which that self found himself placed. And what they did about it, and how they did, made them belong to a way of thinking lying in the very heart of modernity. Let us take, for example, O. W. Holmes’s notion that certitude leads to violence (“The lesson Holmes took from the [civil] war can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence.” [p. 61]). The intellectual, philosophical, even “existential” suppositions behind a notion like this are from far in direct opposition to an entire system of values and norms, of “virtues” and “merits”, a system in each such ideas as reconciliation, toleration, negotiation, ireneism, and so forth, were metaphysically subordinated to the more cardinal ideals of truthfulness, (political, religious, etc.) certitude or (aristocratic) self-assurance. That the latter led sometimes to violence, or to violent solutions, was not considered in itself a matter of theoretical interest. According to Louis Menand, Holmes was one of the first to have realized that, in late nineteenth century - early twentieth century’s America (and not only, of course),  the general circumstances of living, the patters of rationality, socialization and interpersonal interaction, had changed dramatically, and made it impossible for people to continue seeing things like that. Hence his ardent advocacy of the notion of toleration, acceptance of the other, of the others’ opinions and worldviews. The underlying supposition behind such an advocacy was, of course, the idea that a certain degree of skepticism was absolutely necessary for one’s being able to live in a (modern) society. And this form of scepticism was not for him a matter of intellectual pursuit (in was not an epistemological skepticism at all), but a matter of social reconciliation (it was some sort of practical scepticism). He had a radical way of putting it “I don’t want to boss my neighbours and to require them to want something different from what they do - even when, as frequently, I think their wishes more or less suicidal.” (p. 62) More than that, he thought that a modern society had the means not only of making people live together in a peaceful, relatively harmonious manner, but also - which is much more important - of taking significant advantages of this fact. For a “negotiated”, legally “regulated” way of living makes people’s lives better, and gives them benefits impossible to get otherwise: “The spectacle of individuals falling victim to dominant politic and economic tendencies, when those tendencies had been instantiated in duly enacted laws, gave him [Holmes] a kind of chilly satisfaction.” (pp. 65-6)

William James held closed views. Even if there are clear individualistic accents in his thought, he, too, placed a strong emphasis on the social circumstances of living. Moreover, following some of Peirce’s insights (Menand points out very well this continuity), he made knowledge social, and truth a process taking place in the course of our dealing with the world around. And Menand quotes this unforgettable “definition” of truth as William James saw it: “Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process: the process namely of its verifying itself.” (p. 353) Truth is not “out there”, something waiting for us - truth is simply producing itself when we approach the world around, and the best thing for us to do is to recognize this fact as such, and act accordingly.

Then, in Charles Peirce’s theory, truth is not an individual thing at all, but it is something of a social nature, and the rules guiding its pursuit are shaped by patterns determined by the social interactions of the individuals. As he puts it, “[l]ogic is rooted in the social principle.” (p. 230) Truth can only be grasped by a “community of knowers”; as a matter of fact, Peirce’s truth is not - properly speaking - “discovered”, but arrived at through “negotiations” and repeated adjustments within a certain community of researchers: “in a universe in which events are uncertain and perception is fallible, knowing cannot be a matter of individual mind ‘mirroring’ reality. Each mind reflects differently […] and in any case reality doesn’t stand still long enough to be accurately mirrored. (p. 200) In other words, the true knowledge is beyond the reach of an isolated individual, however dedicated, ingenious or skillful s/he would possibly be; it is only through the common efforts of a multiplicity of minds that something of the nature of truth can ever be achieved. Thus, far from being inherent to the objects investigated, the truth has a social and a statistical nature; it is the statistical result of human interaction: “The opinion which is fated to be ultimately agreed to by all who investigate, is what we mean by the truth, and the object represented in this opinion is the real.” (p. 229)

Finally, Louis Menand shows how John Dewey develops, along the same lines of thought, a theory of knowledge as  praxis. We do not know a priori which way to go in order to reach something, we do not even know what are going to reach. We have simply to proceed doing things, and we will thus realize what those things are like. It is only within the process of knowing-acting that we can “know” something about the surrounding world. For, as Dewey saw it, “thinking and acting are just two names for a single process - the process of making our way as best we can in a universe shot through with contingency.” (p. 360) The very reform he proposed in education was one based primarily on this sort of view of the intricate relationship between knowledge and acting. In order to help children learn more and better about the world, the best thing we can do is to leave them realize by themselves what this world is like: and they will do it only through immersing into it, and seeing how it works “from the inside”: “Education at the Dewey School was based on the idea that knowledge is a by-product of activity: people do things in the world, and the doing results in learning something that, if deemed useful, gets carried along in the next activity.” (p. 322)

These thinkers sought therefore to propose a new way of looking at the “order of knowledge” (with all its embodiments: systems of abstract thought, academic institutions, research principles and practices, definitions and criteria of the truthfulness, etc.), actually, they proposed a thorough reformation of it, namely, on the (pragmatic) principle that knowledge is “validated” only insofar as it is closely drawn from the current social practices, is “produced” by socially endorsed procedures, seeks to satisfy real intellectual needs of a certain community of people, and takes (living in) society as its scope. In short, these people stroke a decisive blow at the classical, so movingly idealist, myth of “knowledge for its own sake”: knowledge cannot be for its own sake, they say, it must be for something. In a modernist society, knowledge will be useful or it will not be at all. As Dewey frankly put it: “Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with problems of men.” (p. 362)

I will dedicate the last part of this review to saying a few words about the impressive literary art Louis Menand displays in writing his book. Most of all, there is a sense in which this book has been constructed following some sort of musical method: it has a marked symphonic structure and seems to be “unfolding” itself according to the rules of the musical composition. Each section, each chapter has its own (clearly delimited) role to “play” within the whole. For example, every “theme” (say, a biography of a secondary character, introduction of a scientific school, etc.) is first allusively announced, just a few words scattered at an end of chapter, only for being increasingly dealt with in the next chapter, and then developed to its completion. A quite pleasing thing to notice is how the author who has “composed” this piece proves always that he has full control over what he is doing. The dialectical tension between the whole of the story, with all its outlines and ample frames, and the world of small details into which is he is so often forced to descend is wonderfully, releavingly solved, and made use of ad majorem auctoris gloriam.

To conclude, by its being so admirably well told, and so artfully unfolded, the story this book proposes becomes as it were true: its truth is continually produced as we read the book and follow its author - its truth is simply “verifying itself” in front of our eyes.

 

© 2002 Costica Bradatan

 

 

Costica Bradatan is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Durham (UK). His research interests include early modern philosophy, history of ideas, philosophy and literature, philosophy of religion. Bradatan is the author of two recent books (in Romanian): An Introduction to the History of Romanian Philosophy in the XX-th Century (Bucharest, 2000) and Isaac Bernstein’s Diary (Bucharest, 2001), as well as of numerous book chapters, scholarly papers, articles and reviews, published in both Romanian and English.


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