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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.

By Ron Charles / November 29, 2009



[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.

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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 His title comes from an unpublished manuscript written by Charles Peirce, referring to "a knot of us young men in Old Cambridge" who met for about eight months in 1872.

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.

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