In the early 1970s, Richard Rorty, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, decided that his discipline had reached a point of exhaustion. Although his anthology The Linguistic Turn (1967) was assigned in every first-year graduate seminar in the country, and his introduction had praised “linguistic philosophy” for cleansing the field of metaphysical rubbish, the activity seemed to him academic and inconsequential. At one time, philosophers had expounded wisdom and justice to a broad intellectual audience. But, by 1970, philosophers discussed counterfactual conditionals within a shrinking circle of professionals. “American philosophers’ disinterest in moral and social questions became almost total,” Rorty recalled (though he surely meant “uninterest.”) The problems were linguistic, the solutions technical, their significance doubtful.
The renovation of philosophy, he decided, lay in a dormant school of thought: pragmatism, which he dubbed “the chief glory of our country’s intellectual tradition.” In William James and John Dewey, he found an outlook that skirted epistemological puzzles and forsook universals. Their mode of argument was revisionist and liberating, for they “wrote, as Nietzsche and Heidegger did not, in a spirit of social hope.” In Rorty’s version, pragmatists didn’t refute epistemology; they ignored it. They focused on beliefs, not theory; practice, not reflection. Philosophers proposed and debated theories of truth, knowledge, and morality; pragmatists pared them down to their practical consequences. While his colleagues worried over a theory’s truth, validity, coherence, and consistency, Rorty took pragmatic counsel and asked, “Does it work? What difference does it make if we act upon it?” This pragmatic turn was infectious. Rorty became a hero in literature and “studies” departments. “Neopragmatism” rose into a recognized academic sect, with Stanley Fish, Frank Lentricchia, Cornel West, and other luminaries promoting it in the pages of Critical Inquiry and New Literary History. Rorty’s humane expressions— e.g., “In the end, the pragmatists tell us, what matters is our loyalty to other human beings clinging together against the dark, not our hope of getting things right” —were a refreshing alternative to the periphrastic argot of deconstruction. His antitheoretical stance invigorated nativist scholars who were fed up with the two Jacques (Lacan and Derrida), Hélène Cixous, Louis Althusser, and Michel Foucault. Critics out to turn the humanities into a multiculturalist project found in Rorty’s pragmatists a lineage amenable to their hopes.
Philosophers didn’t know how to respond. They were trained to argue cases and were ready to dispute Rorty’s terms and inferences, but he charged that their mode of argument was itself a problem. His strategy was “to try to make the vocabulary in which these objections [to pragmatism] are made look bad, thereby changing the subject, rather than granting the objector his choice of weapons and terrain by meeting his criticisms head-on.” This was a new forensics. To disarm his antagonists, Rorty devised a rhetoric of glib portraits and arch assertions. He practiced the homespun metaphor and the dismissive response. Instead of posing arguments in favor of skepticism, for instance, Rorty asserted that pragmatists “asked us to give up the neurotic Cartesian quest for certainty.” He introduced the pragmatist theory of truth with the remark, “This theory says that truth is not the sort of thing one should expect to have a philosophically interesting theory about.” He affirmed the contingency of ideas by deriding its opposite, the “Platonic urge to escape from the finitude of one’s time and place.” Of God’s existence, Rorty echoed the pragmatists’ deflection: “They just doubt that the vocabulary of theology is one we ought to be using.” In sum, Rorty advanced a few anti-epistemological premises—“there is no escaping contingency,” “mind is an instrument of coping, not a faculty of knowing”—with a bare insouciance and judged those who denied them as benighted and uninteresting. The ideas were set, the debate foreclosed. This was neopragmatist persuasion.
Louis Menand’s sweeping chronicle of nineteenth-century intellectual life, The Metaphysical Club, shares Rorty’s enthusiasm for the old pragmatists. Menand has elsewhere acknowledged Rorty’s influence, which shows here in his treatment of thinkers and ideas. Menand’s introduction to the 1997 anthology Pragmatism: A Reader set Rorty among the “classic pragmatists” while voicing neopragmatist slogans—e.g., “Theories are just one of the ways we make sense of our needs”—with the surety of a disciple. In this study, Menand has a higher ambition: to reconstruct the social and political worlds in which the pragmatists moved.
“The Metaphysical Club” refers to the dozen Harvard men who gathered in Cambridge after the Civil War to discuss the important intellectual topics of the time, such as Darwinism, induction, and the compatibility of science and religion. The group included the prodigy Charles Sanders Peirce, an expert in logic, probability, and cognition who impressed colleagues with beguiling, inscrutable theories of mind and matter; William James, son of the wealthy Swedenborgian Henry James, Sr., and beloved at the college though he had not yet settled upon a career; Chauncey Wright, the energizing spirit of the club, known for his strict positivism, bright conversation, and, sadly, his alcoholism and melancholy; and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the Boston attorney, Harvard lecturer, and editor of the American Law Review, who was just beginning to conceive the jurisprudence that would make him one of the most famous Supreme Court Justices. At one meeting in November 1872, Peirce read a paper that contained portions of “The Fixation of Belief” and “How to Make Our Ideas Clear,” essays now considered to be the first programmatic expressions of pragmatism. (Dewey, the other major figure in the book, was only thirteen years old at the time, though he did attend a Metaphysical Club at Johns Hopkins, where he heard Peirce read a paper in 1884.)
Menand’s subtitle, “A Story of Ideas in America,” indicates how the club members are to appear. They are idea-makers whose thoughts issue from their experience. As he announces in a Rortyan metaphor in the preface, “This book is an effort to write about these ideas in their own spirit—that is, to try to see ideas as always soaked through by the personal and social situations in which we find them.” Menand fills his account with biographical vignettes. He follows Dewey from undergraduate days at the University of Vermont (strongpost of German idealism) to graduate work at Hopkins (with the Hegelian George Morris) to the chairmanship of philosophy at Chicago (where he led a remarkable group of social scientists establishing the disciplines of education, sociology, and social psychology) to Teachers’ College and the formation of the American Association of University Professors. To elucidate the conflicts Dewey faced, Menand adds segments on the Dartmouth College case, argued by Daniel Webster before the Supreme Court, which secured private colleges from government interference; Jane Addams’s Hull House and the 1894 Pullman Strike, in which Dewey discerned a “thinking social organism”; and the firing of a Columbia professor for opposing the draft in World War I, which put academic freedom to the test.
Holmes, James, and Peirce receive similar profiles. We learn where they were born, how their careers progressed, whom they loved and hated. Menand isolates fascinating episodes of the pragmatists in action, such as the Hetty Robinson inheritance case, in which Peirce and his father served as expert witnesses and used ingenious statistical analyses of handwriting to prove that Robinson had forged her aunt’s signature. Menand’s rendition of William James’s college expedition to the Amazon with the Harvard naturalist Louis Agassiz reveals a source of James’s ambivalence about science (Agassiz was a scrupulous specimen collector, but an equivocating theorist). Peirce’s captious attitude toward colleagues—some of whom, Menand shows, conspired to blackball him from academia—contrasted with his faith in the community of inquirers. The stories are fluid and readable, and Menand has a knack for selecting the illustrative event, the tic of character. He reconstructs tense political settings with judicious balance, and he handles straightforwardly the unsavory details of the pragmatists’ lives, such as Peirce’s womanizing.
The method is collective biography. Menand tracks thinkers through the decisive occasions of post-Civil War intellectual life as they struggle to “find a set of ideas, and a way of thinking, that would help people cope with the conditions of modern life.” Whereas neopragmatist interpretation invoked James and Dewey as the originators of a few handy formulae, Menand populates their social world and fleshes out their professional identities, adding Peirce, Holmes, and a host of subordinates to the drama. His characters are philosophers whose writings often slip into the hypertechnical details of logic and the laboratory, but Menand has his eye on the human scene. The old pragmatists pondered recondite questions of epistemology, such as what makes an inductive inference compelling; Menand turns their thoughts to less abstract questions, such as how to develop an elementary school curriculum. Pragmatists devoted tracts to statistical methods, sensory experiments, and theories of inquiry, but Menand manages to broach the subjects through quirky, effective tales such as Adolphe Quetelet’s computation of murder rates in France, the skull collection of the anthropologist Samuel George Morton, and the ambivalence of Holmes’s war comrade Henry Abbott, foe of emancipation but valiant Union soldier. What might have been a dry cerebral history ends up as a gripping cluster of edifying experiences, accessible to lay readers.
But popularization has its costs. However engaging the narrative of people and politics, this book purports to be a story of ideas. What ties these men together is not their life experiences, Menand says, but a single belief: “They all believed that ideas are not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but are tools.” Menand affirms that ideas are “always soaked through” with circumstance, and so he relates the social and political climate that spawned them. The story will be complete, one assumes, when it probes the experiences of James, et al., and yields ideas of rich meaning and wide applicability. But Menand preempts this conclusion. At precisely the point when the story moves from experience to idea, Menand stops being a historian and turns into a neopragmatist. The anecdotes cease, and the prose slips into a sequence of inert quasi-philosophical pronouncements. For him, ideas are the simplest of things. He says that the pragmatists “believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment.” Later: “An idea has no greater metaphysical stature than, say, a fork,” “Darwin’s ideas are devices for generating data.” Menand neither doubts these opinions nor explores how ideas differ from germs and forks. The only truth-value one has is a situational one—here it is true, there it is not. To posit otherwise is to grant ideas a “greater metaphysical stature.” This reduction divides The Metaphysical Club in two. In one part, we have a lively social saga of the old pragmatists; in the other, an overlay of facile summaries. Characters receive a history, but their ideas are left dangling. If there is any complexity in beliefs, Menand thinks, it rests in why people choose this idea over that one—an experiential or psychological question, not a substantive intellectual one. This explains why The Metaphysical Club is long on biography and short on concepts. Menand devotes large sections of his book to the pragmatists’ experience in class, in battle, and in court. But when we reach their ideas, all we find are stock simplicities and bare assertions. As Menand rises from narrative to ideas, a glib reductiveness takes over:
The lesson that Holmes learned from the war can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence. The key to Holmes’s civil liberties opinions is the key to all his jurisprudence: it is that he thought only in terms of aggregate social forces; he had no concern for the individual. This [the idea of community] was the conviction at the bottom of all Peirce’s thought. Everything James and Dewey wrote as pragmatists boils down to a single claim: people are the agents of their own destinies.
And so on. The key, the lesson, the question, the conviction—this is where Menand arrives once he “un-soaks” ideas of circumstances. Holmes and the others meander through a maze of universities, clubs, expeditions, strikes, and wars, bounce off troublesome mentors and adversaries, but their ideas remained, if we are to believe Menand, crystal clear and unproblematic. Rarely does he examine the complex make-up of ideas or the conceptual problems they generate. When he does recount how an idea inspired someone, the inspiration is due to the environment of the recipient. When he articulates ideas, he neglects analysis for the sake of quips. What does it mean, for example, to say that “William James invented pragmatism as a favor to Charles Peirce”? Six pages later Menand tells us that “James invented pragmatism … in order to defend religious belief in what he regarded as an excessively scientistic and materialistic age,” while early on in the book he writes of “the conception of a closed universe … that William James designed pragmatism specifically to subvert.” Defend or subvert: Which is it?
Sometimes Menand’s quips lapse into cuteness, as in this favored pattern:
[W]hat these four thinkers had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea—an idea about ideas. This is not because he changed those views. It is because he changed his view of the nature of views. Addams and Dewey got into an argument. It was an argument about argument.
At other times he prefers the casual metaphor: “culture is a Rubik’s Cube of possibilities” and “In the midst of this mutilation and mayhem, Holmes did an extraordinary thing: he road-tested his beliefs.” The rhetoric suggests that Menand doesn’t take his material all that seriously. Holmes’s “thing” occurred the night he lay in a hospital cot after the Battle of Ball’s Bluff, surrounded by severed limbs and expecting to die from a bullet wound just above his heart. Is it apt to term his midnight ruminations on death and duty a “road-test”? The trope trivializes the experience.
Menand’s procedure is more than a stylistic habit—it is an epistemological principle. The facile phrases serve an anti-metaphysical—indeed, an intellectual—function, dragging ideas back to earth whenever they threaten to take on a life of their own. Menand is so concerned to ward off theories of mind that posit ideas as representations of reality that he reduces intellection to a sociological reflex. For most people, truth and justice are lofty things best pursued disinterestedly. But for Menand, “making those kinds of decisions—about what is right or what is truthful—is like deciding what to order in a restaurant.” To distinguish between judging what is right and selecting an entrée, apparently, would be to venture outside the world of real human action.
It is with such pat maxims that Menand ends his analysis. Since Rorty defined pragmatism as “a thorough-going abandonment of the notion of discovering the truth,” Menand feels he need go no further. But for the pragmatists themselves, the catchphrases they sounded were beginnings, not ends. William James composed neat transformative adages—“‘the true’ is only the expedient in the way of our thinking”—but he used them to reorient abiding questions such as the place of God in the universe, not to close them. The pragmatists regarded ideas as complex, potent creations that provide judgments, interpretations, and laws, as well as pain or relief. This is one reason Peirce intended pragmatism as “a method for the analysis of concepts,” and James and Dewey spent so many years responding to critics who had misconstrued their ideas. For Menand, the pragmatic turn sends us back to the details of experience, but for the pragmatists the turn threw them into spirited debates about truth, faith, and reality, things which Menand downplays. He believes that ideas are implements, that the mind is an adaptive mechanism, and that reality is a pragmatic construct. Period. When philosophers accused James, Dewey, and F. C. S. Schiller of believing the same, they replied in scholarly journals with lengthy, nuanced restatements. When colleagues interpreted pragmatism as antirealism, Dewey countered with an essay on “The Realism of Pragmatism,” which proclaimed: “Speaking only for myself, the presuppositions and tendencies of pragmatism are distinctly realistic.” James’s response to the antirealist charge began, “It is difficult to excuse such a parody of the pragmatist’s opinion.”
This doesn’t mean that the pragmatists were realists and that Menand’s constructionist characterization is wrong. What it shows is their recognition that the mind-reality issue was more complicated than their pithier formulations implied. Menand admits that pragmatism was “contested in its own time, and [is] contested today,” but he is disinclined to join the contest, claiming he is writing an “historical interpretation,” not a “philosophical argument.” This is a hedge, a way of forwarding ideas as right opinion without having to support them or to respect their contraries. Menand savors the aphorism—“Human beings produce culture in the same sense that they produce carbon dioxide”—and lets it stand.
For him, ideas are now pedestrian things, easily fitted to historical narratives. Holmes’s observation of soldierly discipline in battle taught him a pragmatic lesson: “to admire success more than purity of faith.” When did James first conceive “relational thinking”? On his trip to Brazil, when he witnessed the urbane civility of the exotic-looking natives. It is easy to explain ideas by their biographical origins. But Peirce endowed ideas with the power to convert doubt into belief, annoyance into comfort, while James remarked that wrong ideas can kill us, right ones can save us. Menand recognizes that power—and tames it. He returns all questions to the realm of circumstance, where complexities may be narrated as personal conflicts. The result is an entertaining but superficial exercise in intellectual history, one in which ideas are wheeled on not because of their substance or truth value but because of their anecdotal force.