Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand

This is a very good group biography that doubles as a primer to a philosphy, like At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell or The Life You Save May Be Your Own about the Existentialists and mid-20th Century Catholic writers respectively. It documents thoroughly the milieu which gave birth to pragmatism. In that sense it is a powerful intellectual history that fills in some gaps of my understanding of that century. 

I hadn't really considered Pragmatism as a philosophy before, so I appreciate that the bulk of the book is about the conditions that gave rise to it. Like the Existentialists and WWII, the trauma of the Civil War was a huge factor. As was Transcendentalism. And the rise of evolutionary theory, both in terms of its acceptance as science and various reactions to the pseudoscientific ways it was applied to society. Probability theory played a huge role. The battle between the rise of capitalism proper and the original progressive movement factored in. Racial ideas were woven throughout, as were religious ideas. I've long rejected, or at least tried to reject, easy explanations, or "the dogma of simple causation" in the words of a an article by someone with the last name Shera I read in grad school. Menand does a great job of providing many possible antecedents. Against this melange of ideas, an attempt to reach for what works versus what suits an ideal is very tempting. Menand is not uncritical of pragmatism, which I appreciate, but he does an impressive job of showing its appeal.

The book primarily focuses on the lives and works of Charles Pierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James and Thomas Dewey, though as my last paragraph hints, it includes much of what they were reacting to and against. It was a very satisfying reading experience in that sense; it contextualizes their ideas even as it summarizes them. And many of the conversations that were happening then: race, class, the relative importance of the individual versus the collective, the problems with capitalism and more were happening then as well. All through a different lens, as that age was starkly different from ours, but I've had conversations about most of these things just in the last couple months before reading this. This argues against Holmes's (at least I think it was Holmes quoted near the end of the book) that books over 20 years old are useless in terms of keeping up with the conversation. That The Metaphysical Club itself is about that old and felt so fresh does as well. It will take at least a second reading to understand, but even though I don't fully get all that it contains, it has been a remarkable spur to thought and is invaluable to understanding a period of time I've read about from different angles before.

Holmes's approach to law (to the best of my understanding based on this book), that legal decisions come before legal principles, that law is essentially judicial behavior, reminded me of an idea I first encountered in Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks, that people don't reason their way to their beliefs, they generally manufacture reasons for what they believe instinctually. This doesn't encompass all of pragmatism, of course, but it seems axiomatic to it. And while it may be somewhat off-putting, I have a hard time arguing against it. 

All in all a very good history of ideas that I will be returning to, probably in the next couple of years.

Highly Recommended.

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