The Metaphysical Club:
A Story of Ideas in America
By Louis Menand
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
546 pages, $27
Several years ago, Richard Rorty gave a speech on the origins of
the American labor movement. It was, he said, "a blood-drenched
history of violent struggle." Winning the smallest reforms--the
eight-hour day, the five-day week--required near-revolutionary commitment
from workers who had to be willing to undertake "repeated and deliberate
criminal acts." The speech--called "Labor's Flag Is Deepest Red"--was
striking, but still more so was the fact that Rorty gave it: Here
was a leading pragmatist who seemed to believe that simple political
victories require an absolute faith, an unwillingness to treat one's
beliefs as though they permit compromise.
The original American pragmatists, who wrote in the era of Homestead
would have been surprised to hear it delivered by one of their number.
As Louis Menand's excellent new history of pragmatism, The Metaphysical
Club, shows, the "fear of violence" spurred the intellectual development
of the first pragmatic thinkers. Pragmatism, he suggests, was born
in a wave of late-19th century revulsion against political ideology.
One of its major inspirations was hatred of the Civil War, when abolitionists
"marched the nation toward self-destruction in the name of an abstraction,"
and the style of thought gained popularity at the fin-de-siècle
in large part because of widespread fear of a new civil war between
labor and capital.
John Dewey (left) and Oliver
Menand hails pragmatism as America's great philosophical contribution
to the Western tradition, its optimistic plasticity and bright-eyed
hostility to theory the natural intellectual offspring of a land
of prosperity and reform. He admires the pragmatists' willingness
to snap the moorings binding them to the past, and the sense of
human possibility that resulted from their jarringly cheerful break
Well known for balancing a double career as an English professor
at the City University of New York and a New Yorker writer,
Menand is also, like the pragmatists, no friend of scholarly jargon,
elaborate theory or hyper-specialization, and The Metaphysical
Club is clear and elegant in style. But even as Menand celebrates
pragmatism's flexibility, he also suggests the extent to which pragmatism--both
at the end of the 19th century and in its reinvigoration today--is
the product of a conservative political mood. Shadowing its embrace
of openness and experimentation, its constant willingness to re-invent
the world and the self, there is a darker aspect to pragmatism,
a tinge of anti-radicalism that borders on ideology itself.
The Metaphysical Club (the name was ironic, since all its
members abhorred metaphysics) is more than a clever title. There
was a real club for a few years in Cambridge in the 1870s, though,
like Groucho Marx's, it was one that none of its members wanted
to claim. While it is briefly mentioned in the letters of Charles
Peirce, and disparagingly noted in those of Henry James (who was
not a member, but whose brother William was), none of its participants
say a word about it anywhere. Yet it was the meeting place for the
best-known pragmatic thinkers--William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes,
Peirce--as well as influential hangers-on like depressive alcoholic
Chauncey Wright, whose nihilistic mutterings seem to have influenced
all of the greats.
The absence of the Metaphysical Club from the memoirs of its members
reflects the discomfort all of them felt for the label of pragmatism.
James coined the term to describe Peirce's philosophy, but he would
have preferred to describe his own thought as "humanism." John Dewey--who
was a bit too young to be a member of the original Club--liked "instrumentalism"
instead, while Holmes pronounced pragmatism an "amusing humbug."
Even Peirce, for whose benefit it was invented, had little use for
the word until it was established enough to have some PR value.
Then, he changed it to an infelicitous neologism--"pragmaticism"--to
distinguish his work from that of Dewey and James.
It seems fitting that the leading pragmatic thinkers should have
been unwilling to identify themselves as such. Doubt, after all,
was the hallmark of their philosophy. Theirs was a school of opposition
to schools. As James wrote, they had in common "a method only":
to oppose "rationalism" and "intellectualism," and to treat anything
that reached for the grandiosity of philosophy with a bemusement
occasionally bordering on scorn. They laid their faith in rational
empiricism and methodical effort--trying things to see what worked,
what brought order to a chaotic society or lessened the pain of
human existence--instead of formal theory or abstractions about
truth and virtue.
In the context of the late 19th century, this meant breaking with
the pompous creeds of Social Darwinism and legal formalism, making
possible the reforms of the Progressive era. As James put it, the
pragmatists sought "the open air and possibilities of nature, as
against dogma, artificiality and the pretense of finality in truth."
Yet at the same time, the pragmatic thinkers were tentative about
deemed most important. On the one hand, they celebrated the open-endedness
of the world, claiming vast reforming powers for will, idealism and
reason. Yet there was something diminutive about their treatment of
ideas, their relish at puncturing any "fighting faith." They were
similarly ambiguous about ends and outcomes. Ideas were supposed to
be justified by the ends that they made possible--as James put it,
"truth happens to an idea"--but how was one to recognize what the
worthy end might be?
William James (left) and
What makes Menand's interpretation of the pragmatists unique is
his suggestion that this paralyzing uncertainty was precisely what
they were hoping to achieve. Other scholars of pragmatism have portrayed
the philosophy as the solution to the fin-de-siècle
crisis of authority in American life--the decline of small-town
communities, the decreasing prestige of the clergy, the unfamiliar
dilemmas of the modern world. Pragmatism freed people at the turn
of the century from allegiance to old, outmoded schemas--like a
metaphysical belief in the infallibility of laissez-faire--opening
the way for government action and reform.
The idiosyncratic lives of the pragmatists certainly suggest that
their embrace of indecision was more than a philosophical creed.
William James, for example, was famously incapable of making up
his mind. It took him years to decide to marry his sweetheart. When
trying to determine whether to retire from teaching at Harvard in
1905, his diary would one day read "Resign!" and the next, "Don't
resign!" and the third, "Resign?" (He wound up staying one more
year.) Charles Peirce's whole life--punctuated by sexual scandal
and bouts of unemployment, and ending in an obscure, impoverished
old age--was one long law of errors. The personal insecurity and
anxiety of the pragmatists made them curiously suitable advocates
for a philosophy that held self-doubt as its highest virtue.
But Menand goes further. He suggests that--in addition to teaching
that "people are masters of their own destinies," an appropriate
philosophy for a society in flux--pragmatism is a political position,
a revolt not simply against formalism but against political ideology.
The pragmatist philosophers rejected abstraction, he suggests, because
they feared that excessive certainty would lead to violence. If
people were willing to die for their ideas, they would be willing
to kill others for them as well. This, Menand argues, was the lesson
that they learned in the Civil War: The passion of the abolitionists--their
"infatuation with an idea"--had led to mass death. In the late 19th
century, it seemed that the revolt against capitalism and the struggles
of workers threatened to do the same: "In a time when the chance
of another civil war did not seem remote, a philosophy that argued
against the idolatry of ideas was possibly the only philosophy on
which a progressive politics could have been successfully mounted."
Oliver Wendell Holmes is Menand's best example of the relationship
between pragmatism and political disillusionment. When Holmes was
a college student, he was a fervent believer in anti-slavery. His
father, the doctor-poet, was active in Boston's abolitionist circles,
and when the war came, Holmes left Harvard before the semester was
finished, rushing off to join the Army so quickly that he almost
missed getting his degree. He was, Menand says, a "student radical."
But Holmes quickly became horrified with his war. According to Menand,
he systematically destroyed every letter he wrote that mentioned
his abolitionist sympathies or his belief in the justice of the
cause. Invited to fight with the Massachusetts 54th, the all-black
regiment, Holmes refused. Fredericksburg, he wrote, was "an infamous
butchery in a ridiculous attempt." He left the war before it was
But he never forgot it. Every year for the rest of his life, Holmes
drank a glass of wine on the anniversary of Antietam (where he was
shot and briefly left for dead behind enemy lines). When he died,
two Civil War uniforms were found in his closet, bearing a note
saying that the blood upon them was his. Holmes' pragmatism, Menand
suggests, his reluctance to believe in anything too fervently, was
the lesson he had learned in the war: that "certitude leads to violence."
In later life, Holmes would write, "Some kind of despotism is
at the bottom of seeking for change. ... I would fight for some
things--but instead of saying that they ought to be I merely say
that they are part of the world I like--or should like."
For Holmes, disdain for theory was intertwined with aversion to
political conviction. No faith should be too deeply or confidently
held; no position elevated to mandate action. Yet even as Menand
shows the pragmatic turn against ideology, he suggests that their
worldview was not only one of ironic flexibility, but also of political
disappointment. The great jurist's agnosticism was colored by a
sense of disengagement and even emptiness. "This is not the kind
of world I want to bring anyone else into," he wrote, and had no
children. In 1932, a few years before his death, Holmes broke into
tears reading Marion Frankfurter (Felix's wife) a poem about the
Civil War. After Holmes' death, Lewis Einstein said that Holmes
had told him, "After the Civil War, the world never seemed quite
Unlike many other studies of pragmatism, The Metaphysical Club
makes it clear how much it was often bound up with hostility toward
broader kinds of political idealism. The rejection of the faiths
of the Civil War era, after all, came at a time when the federal
government was denying any responsibility for the slaves that the
war had set free. In an exchange with Dewey, Jane Addams declared
the war futile, because "we freed the slaves by war & now had to
free them all over again individually, & pay the costs of the war
& reckon with the added bitterness of the Southerners alike."
But saying this in the 1890s, while Jim Crow was on the rise, was
not so much an argument against ideological warfare as it was one
in defense of the reigning ideology--doing nothing to protect the
rights of African-Americans. Similarly, the fears of the pragmatists
that the passionate faiths of socialists and anarchists might lead
to violence seems to overlook the fact that the deeply entrenched
desire of employers in the late 19th century to keep things as they
were resulted in repression, arrests of striking workers and the
calling out of the state militias.
On a deeper level, The Metaphysical Club shows the political
conditions that underpin one of the recurrent themes of American
intellectual life: the periodic rejection of ideology. Americans
are supposed to be quintessentially pragmatic people. But in reality,
the notion that ideas are dangerous and that we have reached the
end of ideology always seems to surge to the foreground when conservatism
is on the rise. In Menand's interpretation, pragmatism was forged
against the backdrop of the decline of the egalitarian dreams of
the Reconstruction era.
The most famous renunciations of all political faith came at the
height of McCarthyism, when Judith Shklar proclaimed "the end of
radicalism" while Daniel Bell wrote, "ideology ... has come to a
dead end." Seymour Martin Lipset wrote that "politics is now boring,"
famously quoting a Swedish journalist to the effect that "the only
issues are whether the metal workers should get a nickel more an
hour, the price of milk should be raised, or old-age pensions extended."
Today, the prominence of pragmatists like Rorty has its roots in
the end of Communism and the political defeats of the '60s. In moments
of political loss, all radical visions start to appear utopian and
chiliastic, easy to denounce as destructive nihilism.
Yet at the same time, The Metaphysical Club suggests that
this is only temporary. As new political movements emerge--combining,
as they always do, immediate and practical reforms with a broader
vision of transformation--the old ambivalence about commitment falls
away. Even the pragmatists knew that it sometimes mattered most
to know which side you were on. During the Pullman Strike of 1894,
John Dewey--then a young philosopher at the University of Chicago--met
one of the strikers on a train. "I only talked with him 10 or 15
minutes, but when I got through my nerves were more thrilled than
they had been for years; I felt as if I had better resign my job
teaching and follow him round till I got into him. One lost all
sense of the right or wrong of things in admiration of his almost
fanatic sincerity and earnestness, & in admiration of the magnificent
combination that was going on."
Dewey proclaimed himself "a good deal of an anarchist," and commented
at the end of the strike, "I think the few thousand train cars burned
up a pretty cheap price to pay--it was the stimulus necessary to
direct attention, & it might easily have taken more to get the social
organism thinking." Forty years later, during the New Deal, Dewey
would use the lessons that he'd learned during Pullman to criticize
businessmen who organized Liberty Leagues--for whom old-age pensions
and the question of whether to pay a nickel more an hour were issues
of great ideological and political significance. "Democracy," he
wrote then, "is a fighting faith."
What might this erstwhile anarchist have made of Seattle and Genoa?
To tweak Russell Jacoby, perhaps it is time to declare an end to
the end of ideology once