The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 13, 2015

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The Metaphysical Club: Two Views
Ted V. McAllister and Thomas Short (from MA 44:4, Fall 2002) - 02/24/09

But what are we really to think about that claim? Does Menand wish us to doubt the worthiness of fighting the Civil War? What moral crusades are acceptable and why? Is violence the thing most to be avoided, and should we willingly jettison our principles in order to eliminate it? If so, then we have no principles in the first place. Pragmatism offers no assistance for those who pursue moral crusades, as they need an unalterable Good by which to reckon.

Pragmatism may help us live together in a pluralistic society—so long as that society contains only those who accept the values of tolerance. But it is far more likely that a democratic society can only survive if it rests on principles the citizens accept as universal. Pragmatism may encourage freedoms, but only because wide latitude in beliefs and actions provides more opportunities to find expressions of workable ideas for emerging contexts. Pragmatism offers another kind of freedom, to humans as such, since it makes us agents of our destiny, suggesting an escape from the determinism of a closed universe. But to accept this freedom is to accept a petty world where purposes change with the wind and meaning is lost in the swift stream of objectless history. Pragmatists, it seems, want to liberate us from our highest potentials.

—Ted V. McAllister


II. Sham Scholarship

The 2002 Pulitzer Prize for history went to Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America.1The book, highly praised in the press for its scholarship, is an amusingly written account of the philosophy named “pragmatism.” It is popular history, but that is what the Pulitzer Prize is for. So, what better recipient? The only problem is that Menand’s scholarship, even granted its nonspecialist aim, is an empty pretense. What is worse, the emptiness of its pretense is, in several ways, obvious. It appears, then, that educated, intelligent, and informed people, charged with responsibility for reviewing and judging books, can no longer tell the difference between scholarship and sham, or do not care to.

I shall examine Menand’s book and its reception as illustrating the general phenomenon of scholarship’s loss of status and respect in our society. The causes of that phenomenon can be identified; its consequences for the health of a democratic polity should be contemplated. But those are larger questions into which I shall not enter.


The Metaphysical Club, as well as being amusing, has two apparent virtues: that it brings before a popular audience some important ideas—those of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and the three major philosophers of pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey—and that it places those ideas in their historical and social context, bringing them to life. However, as one reviewer noted, context in this case overwhelms text. A maze of stories about individuals and events surrounds the slender account of the pragmatists’ ideas, like a great puff of cotton candy around a narrow cardboard core. As the contextual puff is, in fact, the major part of the book and the source of its attractions, I shall begin with it.

It is composed of digression from digression, resulting in arabesques of digression. For example, since John Dewey attended the University of Vermont, we are led to a discussion of the transcendentalism of James Marsh, a president of the University before Dewey’s birth; to Coleridge’s misreading of Kant, in an essay Marsh had edited for American readers; to the founding of Dartmouth College in 1769 and Daniel Webster’s courtroom defense of Dartmouth in 1817, the date at which Marsh graduated therefrom; and much, much more. All of which bears remotely on Dewey’s intellectual formation, but it does not help us understand his philosophy, which is never so much as summarized.

Earlier in the book, we are told a great deal that is interesting, if neither new nor germane, about the brilliant and eccentric fathers of Holmes, Peirce, and James, and about their numerous associates, including especially Louis Agassiz, Harvard’s anti–Darwinist naturalist, whose racism is examined relentlessly over some sixty pages. Menand devotes less than thirteen full pages—all told, in dispersed fragments—to Peirce’s philosophy. That compares to thirty-five pages on his father’s career and attitude toward slavery, the mysterious origin of his second, French wife, and other Peircean scandals. Similar disproportions apply to the other figures discussed. William James’s physical and psychological weaknesses and crises are examined at far greater length than are his ideas, which are treated as consequences of his maladies. Menand is more successful in relating Holmes’s life to his ideas (vide infra), but here again the ideas get short shrift.

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