An intellectual coven that moved America

The Metaphysical Club
January 3, 2003

The end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th were of vital significance to the task of nation-building in the US. The legacy of the civil war endured, symbolised in the tenebrous wall of segregation established throughout the US and legitimised in the Supreme Court's famous 1896 ruling permitting "separate but equal" arrangements (and overruled only in 1954). The Dawes Act marked the end of physical coercion of Native Americans and their exposure to intensive Americanisation. The strategy of "making Americans" was also employed to socialise the millions of eastern and southern European immigrants teeming into America.

Uniting popular understanding of these groups was the world-view of racial and eugenic hierarchies expounded by an increasingly influential school of so-called experts. The reach of this turn-of-the-century world view into the American polity was long and deep, concurrently shaping the outlooks of progressive reformers and atavistic segregationists. It took the second world war and, indeed, the cold war, to induce finally the transformation from this mentality to one necessary to democratise the US.

It is this dimly recalled, but monumentally important, turn-of-the-19th-century era in which the "Metaphysical Club" flourished that is the subject of Louis Menand's intellectually ambitious, deeply researched and elegantly written book. He focuses on the strand of American philosophy, known as pragmatism, that has exercised a continuing influence on philosophers - at least in the US.

Menand approaches this task of intellectual genealogy in an original and engaging style, examining the development of the "Metaphysical Club", founded in 1872 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In particular, he recounts the intellectual biographies of four leading members, each of whom made a substantial impact on American life. These are the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, the philosopher-mathematician Charles Peirce, the psychologist William James and the philosopher of education John Dewey.

Menand asserts that they proved "responsibleI for moving American thought into the modern world". This intellectual prodding was observable in each discipline and constituted a collective attitude. Thus, Menand argues that "we can say that what these four thinkers had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea - an idea about ideas. They all believed 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 in which they find themselves. They believed that ideas... are social."

Furthermore, ideas should be articulated, defended, refined and revised in an atmosphere of openness and pluralism, not sectarianism or violence (and the civil war hung over this group as a reminder of the cost of un-civil solutions). Such tolerance provided a logical base for pragmatism. Menand's book places the emergence of pragmatism in a broadly drawn canvas depicting American society in the six post-civil war decades.

The term pragmatism is attributed to Peirce, who used it in one of the papers he read to the club in its first year. Despite the club's rapid dissolution, the term stuck. James quickly implanted it in his writings in psychology, and the other two found much of value in the term. It was deeply affected by the political context of the times: achieving political integration amid tumultuous social change and building a distinct American community. These concerns infected Peirce's deliberations as he asked "whether men really have anything in common, so that the community is to be considered as an end in itselfI is the most fundamental practical question in regard to every public institution the constitution of which we have it in our power to influence". This agenda feeds into continuing American public discourse, notably in discussion of communitarianism.

The devastation of the civil war was one influence shaping intellectual and popular perceptions of America's decades of rapid change. A second one, Menand argues, was Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species , published in 1859. This not only provided ammunition to a racially hierarchical view of the world but, in its crude and populist formulation, appeared to advise on the importance of building a demographic future. But whereas many thinkers buttressed an essentialist view of "race", the pragmatists found appealing in Darwinian logic the role of chance variation since it argued against a teleological perspective of human development. Chance might also be germane to reviewing the beliefs held by individuals, and hence gave foundation to the principle that beliefs and ideas are socially constituted, capable of amelioration.

But the darker narrative of social improvement, pursued in the turn-of-the-century eugenicist project, did not pass this group by entirely. Indeed, as a US Supreme Court justice, Wendell Holmes, gave the most resounding judicial and constitutional legitimacy to a eugenically controlled project when, in the Buck v. Bell (19) decision, he approved of sterilisation in order to end the reproduction of so-called imbeciles. This decision upheld Virginia state's law permitting sterilisation of the "feeble-minded"; it, and many comparable state laws, remained on the statute books for several decades after the second world war. Wendell Holmes had no difficulty in reconciling support for such a brutalising policy with his own abhorrence of "certainty" or "dogmatism" that he believed generated the civil war.

The pragmatist belief that ideas should not become ideologies sits uneasily with these sort of scientific and expert views about the politics of demographic governance. This dangerous propensity toward illiberal policy poses the greatest challenge to communitarian visions of the good polity. Menand has made an important contribution to our understanding of the origins of this dilemma in US politics and culture.

Desmond King is professor of American government, University of Oxford.

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

Author - Louis Menand
ISBN - 0 00 712689 1 and 712690 5
Publisher - Flamingo
Price - £19.99 and £8.99
Pages - 546

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