At the heart of The Metaphysical Club is the American Civil War, an epochal event which split America in two and forever scarred a generation of Americans. It was so profound an experience that many Americans would, like Oliver Wendell Holmes (one of the four “members” of the Metaphysical Club), drink libations each year in memory to their fallen countrymen. Such an experience rendered the old modes of thinking about life obsolete and after the Civil War Americans were in search of new ideas through which they might interpret and understand their existance and the society in which they lived. The discovery and development of these ideas is principal concern of Menand’s book.
Pragmatism is the philosophy most closely connected to the post-war American generation, and it is around this philosophy which Menand constructs his narrative. Menand carefully shows how each of pragmatism’s four principal developers (the four members of the Metaphysical Club, Holmes, Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey) contributed to making it a uniquely American response to the challenge posed by a new era.
And what a new era it was. Post Civil War America was filled with startling ideas such as evolution, determinism, psychoanalysis, and statistics. As Louis Agassiz, whose lectures on the superiority of the white race were delivered to packed audiences, could tell you Americans were fascinated by these ideas, some of which were used to solidify old myths, while others arose and threatened to overturn some of the most basic assumptions of human understanding. Menand skillfully relates these important ideas and draws on historical events to illustrate the logic and impact these new thoughts had on American society.
Portraits of the lives and times of the four principal figures in the development of American pragmatism—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey—are well-drawn and robust. The personal development of these four principals is traced, examining the events and conditions that helped build each man’s pragmatist philosophy. Menand is concerned not only with telling each man’s story, but in examining how each came to discover pragmatism for himself. The last section of the book unites each man’s tale, bringing the four lives together in a beautiful synthesis of understanding and revelation.
Although these four figures are the focus of The Metaphysical Club, Menand’s book also creates a compelling picture of the post-Civil War generation by bringing alive several tributary characters including the eugenist Louis Agassiz, Charles Pierce’s father, Benjamin, William James’ brother and father, Henry and Henry, Sr., respectively, humanitarian Jane Addams, and the socialist Eugene Debs. The narrative is filled with interesting, even at times thrilling, anecdotes featuring these characters, each of which illustrate some crucial fact or idea.
Overall Menand’s book points to where we (America) as a society have been and where he believes we are headed. The strong reception this book has received speaks to how many people agree with his analysis. After reading The Metaphysical Club do not be surprised to find yourself discovering that the very same ideas that captivated Americans of the post Civil War generation still figure most prominently into contemporary America.
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