Classic review: The Metaphysical Club

Louis Menand's fascinating history profiles a group of misfit geniuses who, in Boston in 1872, helped to shape the modern mind.

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[This review from the Monitor's archives ran originally ran on June 21, 2001.] In 1776, a congress of savvy landowners in Philadelphia announced to the world (particularly to King George) that they held self-evident truths. One hundred years later, a few misfit geniuses in Boston confessed that they could hold no truths at all. In fact, they could barely hold each other's attention.

But both groups changed the world. The first, of course, created the United States of America. The second created the modern mind.

The story of how the idea of truth could evolve from self-evident certainty to indeterminate irrelevancy is the plot of Louis Menand's fascinating history called The Metaphysical Club. His title comes from an unpublished manuscript written by Charles Peirce, referring to "a knot of us young men in Old Cambridge" who met for about eight months in 1872.

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Peirce was a gifted (and almost incomprehensible) scientist and logician, whose life eventually descended into poverty and humiliation. But in the flush year of 1872, he and his friends congregated to discuss a new method of thought later known as "pragmatism." Among that group were Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Civil War hero who would go on to serve on the Supreme Court for 30 years, and William James, the future founder of American psychology.

This triumvirate forms the cast of Menand's eloquent biography of American thought. Along with John Dewey, who revolutionized education, these men proposed that "ideas are not 'out there' waiting to be discovered, but are tools - like forks and knives and microchips - that people devise to cope with the world." Menand continues, "They 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. And they believed that since ideas are provisional responses to particular and unreproducible circumstances, their survival depends not on their immutability but on their adaptability."

Explaining the meaning, significance, and development of that belief is the story of "The Metaphysical Club," a story of almost ludicrous breadth and depth, winding around handwriting analysis, birds, racism, railroads, universities, and God. The threat of philosophical textbookism hovers in the margins, but Menand's determination to "see ideas as always soaked through by the personal and social situations in which we find them" fends off that danger with sometimes dazzling effect.

He begins with the Civil War, a battle between differing ideals that tore the nation apart. Young Holmes marched to battle radiating Boston's radical liberalism. But suffering from a near-fatal wound at Ball's Bluff, his faith in absolutes drained away with his blood. He spent the many remaining decades of his life considering, articulating, and finally establishing in American constitutional law his new suspicion of all "truth" claims. That attitude may sound dark and cynical, but it led Holmes to create the modern concept of free speech, a tolerance he hoped would prevent the violence inspired by certainty and allow ideas to struggle for survival in the social marketplace.

His friend William James didn't fight in the Civil War, but by a different path (actually, many different paths) he arrived at the similar conclusion that "certainty was moral death." His sister once described him as "a blob of mercury." He complained even about the constraints of standardized spelling. He infuriated his medical colleagues at Harvard by defending spiritual healers.

The triumph of "The Metaphysical Club" is the author's dramatic demonstration of the parallel between developments in science and philosophy. For instance, his examination of the way astronomers began using new concepts of probability to develop more accurate star measurements seems at first an arcane detour. But at just the right moment, this exploration snaps into relevance with his discussion of a new philosophy for arriving at moral judgments. Connections like this produce a kind of rare intellectual delight that erupts throughout "The Metaphysical Club."

Menand notes that Peirce "rarely glimpsed a path down which he was not tempted to wander," and the same could be said about this book, a study that bristles with curiosity and curiosities. Menand is as excited to explain the theory of "causeless cause" as he is to gossip about an affair one of his subjects had with a teenage girl. But he catches the rhythms of 19th-century America with striking clarity, swinging from complex explanations to epigraphic summaries. The doors of "The Metaphysical Club" look intimidating, but don't be put off. It's 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 is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

William James thought that belief in God "works" in the same way that learning to shoot free throws - or tie your shoes, honor your father and mother, or get out of a box - works: each time it issues in a successful action, it gets reinforced as an organic habit. What "imprints" the belief is the action. If behaving as though we had free will or God exists gets us results we want, we will not only come to believe those things; they will be, pragmatically, true.

- from 'The Metaphysical Club'

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