Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The Metaphysical Club

In my collection I have a fat 2-volume work called Dictionary of Philosophy and Psychology, first published in 1901. Louis Menand mentions this work in passing in his Pulitzer Prize winning book The Metaphysical Club (2001). A quick look at the list of contributors confirms that many of the people discussed in Menand’s book had a hand in the creation of the Dictionary: it is a snapshot of the intellectual climate in America at the turn of the century, and those contributors developed their ideas over the previous few decades.

The theme of The Metaphysical Club is the effect that the Civil War had on the thought of the Americans who lived through the experience and on those who came after. The lives and thought of Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles S. Pierce, John Dewey and others is examined. I found the earlier chapters on Holmes, James, and Louis Agassiz the most intriguing, although Agassiz’s mental processes come off as so antediluvian that it is hard to believe that anyone took them seriously, yet he was perhaps the most influential scientist working in America before the Civil War.

Charles Darwin’s ideas concerning evolution and natural selection hit the American shores in the mid-19th century and made a profound impact on the debates about race in social and intellectual circles. Combined with Darwin’s ideas, the horror of the Civil War blew away the naiveté that had previously characterized American thought. Originating in Boston and Cambridge, new currents of thought radiated out to touch every aspect of American intellectual life – theology, biology, psychology, education, the law.

The chapters on William James (a man legendary for his indecisiveness) amusingly illustrates how he would come to organize some of the ideas of Charles Pierce (who had been ostracized from society for lapses in his “sexual morality”) into the new philosophy of pragmatism. The Metaphysical Club is an exercise in “six degrees of separation”, as the work and lives of a variety of thinkers intersect and influence each other over a 100 year period. For many of these thinkers, the Civil War came to represent the danger of belief in abstractions, an understanding that specious, unfounded concepts (such as those relating to race) could lead to horrendous results. The book begins and ends with Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose jurisprudence combined his personal war experience with the ideas which evolved from a number of sources after the war.

In the end, there is a message for our time, the idea that ideas can thrive only in a society that sees its freedoms as more than abstractions:

The constitutional law of free speech is the most important benefit to come out of the way of thinking that emerged in Cambridge and elsewhere in the decades after the Civil War. We do not…permit the free expression of ideas because some individual may have the right one. We permit free expression because we need the resources of the whole group to get us the ideas we need. Thinking is a social activity. I tolerate your thought because it is a part of my thought – even when my thought defines itself in opposition to yours.

A brief examination does not give justice to the wealth of ideas and personalities represented in this book. One mourns the loss of an intellectual climate in which new ideas can flourish.

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