The Metaphysical Club, 3

Reading: Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, Part Two

This section of the book (like every section), covers a great deal of ground and is full of lively characters, but the center of Menand’s inquiry here is William James and Darwinism. Menand finally uses the word pragmatism on page 75, and again on pages 88-89. He asserts that James actually invented pragmatism in order to allow him to believe in both religion and modern science, but it’s important to note that James was not a traditional religionist. Still, Menand makes a case that, like his father, James was a “super-Protestant” (88) and that his philosophy evolved out of the Protestant tradition in America — which explains why Menand pays due attention to unique beliefs of Henry James, Sr., and to the Second Great Awakening.

We will learn a bit more, but not a lot, about William James’s religious beliefs later. He was profoundly undogmatic. As Menand mentions in passing, James was very interested in the paranormal, and he was a founding member of the American Society for Psychical Research, through which he helped study psychic mediums who claimed to communicate with the spirits. (On this subject, see my review of the recent book Ghost Hunters, by Deborah Blum.)

The biggest intellectual issue that Menand tackles in this section deals less with James than with the disjunction between the differing scientific approaches of Louis Agassiz and Charles Darwin. Agassiz’s pet idea was that God repeatedly wiped out all life on earth in order to start anew, and that these periodic extinctions explained the fossil record. In other words, he firmly denied evolution. (This belief led him to Brazil to look for evidence of Ice-Age glaciers, which he erroneously thought that he had found; James went on that expedition.) Agassiz also argued for the theory of polygenesis, which led him to a secondary project of discouraging what he thought of as racial amalgamation in the wake of the abolition of slavery.

The problem was that although Agassiz “preached . . . strict induction” (100) (that is, drawing conclusions based solely upon empirical observation), he actually operated on the basis of preconceived theories that were not strictly scientific in nature. It’s worth considering at some length the distinctions that Menand draws between Agassiz’s and Darwin’s science (see especially pp. 126 and 141). We should also consider how Menand characterizes both Darwin’s theory and James’s views of it. Both of these issues are crucial to the evolution of James’s pragmatism. We might also note that this section, like the section on Holmes, sets up a generational divide. How did William James differ from his father?

9 thoughts on “The Metaphysical Club, 3”

  1. I thought it was really interesting to see the generational divide between William James and his father. William grew up as a Calvinist, although he rebelled and eventually became a pragmatist. He never seemed to know what he wanted, when he was in America he longed for Europe, and when he was in Europe he longed for America. He believed that self hood was simply egotism, not a value that should be highly valued. He like so many men at the time believed that women were inferior to men,African Americans are inferior to white men, and that someday sexual relations will someday be decided by each couple individually. He was a true man of the Second Great Awakening, he did not believe in everything that his father had, but he still had a moral base for all his thoughts.

  2. Darwin’s new theories and ways of obtaining scientific evidence began playing a stronger role on how people viewed the world. People now had a concrete way to rationalize concepts they previously didn’t understand. The idea about “survival of the fittest” provided an explanation which justified that: “The war was just part of the struggle for existence, a means by which the species moved ahead” (Menand, 143).
    After the atrocities of the Civil War, society seemed ready to accept a change of thought.

  3. I think part of the reason Agassiz was so intent on disproving evolution was its inherent lack of the absolute. Darwin characterized natural selection as “a blind process” and he thought that “variations occur by chance, and that chance determines their adaptive utility” (Menand, 122). Agassiz firmly believed that the fossil record was explained by ice ages which led to a complete extinction and a “starting over”, a process directed by God which is not plagued by chance but is instead an absolute. Menand writes about how Agassiz would give fish to his students and they would have to be able to accurately describe it in detail. This reliance on absolute truth undermined his beliefs regarding the origin of life, as evolution could not be directly observed and there existed no definite evidence to even remotely begin to understand how any species may have arisen. Fixed, unchanging species allowed Agassiz to continue to rely on absolute truths to explain a world steeped in uncertainty.

  4. I believe that the Civil War lead many too believe there was no reasoning in life on the earth. Because there was reasoning now in the world, did we actually lose reasoning for life in the world? Somewhat a loss of hope? I beleive that is what this is also questioning.

  5. You have to give Agassiz create for the theory developed to explain fossils, although his theory would be invalid in the Southern Hemisphere. Ice Ages created by God that completely wiped out the world’s species so God could create new ones appealed to scientists and religion. Agassiz had every detail of his views worked out and therefore could not accept Darwin’s theory of natural selection, because “he had given himself no room for compromise” (127). He went so far as to go to Brazil to disprove Darwin’s theory and prove his own glacial theory because he could not accept both God and evolution.

  6. There is no question that the central theme to the arguement against Agassiz was that he relied on assumptin that God underlied all phenomenalogical events. As Menand points out, “He couldn’t separate the phenomenal from the transcendental: his entire system was tied to the belief that all observable order in nature is prima facia evidence of a supernatural intention.” (127) Most intellectuals of the time distanced themselves from Agassiz believing that he “ignored fact in favor of preconcieved ideas.” (127)

    It is important to note that ,although this was the primary sentiment of the time, James’ arguement was different. Menand notes, “But for James anti-Darwinian scientists were not mistaken because they ignored the facts in favor of preconcieved theories, but for the opposite reason, but for the opposite reason-because they collected facts without a working hypothesis.” (141) James argued that Agassiz simply had “idea’s on one side and his theory on the other.” Quite simply, there was no congruence between Agassiz’s scientific theory and his observable data. That is Agassiz “collected facts without a working (scientific)hypothesis…His science wasn’t theoretical and his theory wasn’t scientific.” (141) That is, his science (or collected data) had nothing to do with his overall theory. Menand go on to note, “His ideas are edifices perched on top of mountains of data. Darwin’s ideas are devices for generating data. Darwin’s theory are devices for generating data. Darwin’s theory opens possibilities for inquiry while Agassiz’s closes them.” (141)

    In conclusion it is possible to see where James argument with Agassiz differed from the general concensus’ arguement. James wanted both hypothesis and the collection of facts to be more congruent. It was partly due the uniqueness of James arguement which led Menard to to label James as the founder of pragmatism.

  7. I really like Menand’s definition of pragmatism at the top of page 89. “Pragmatism belongs to a disestablishmentarian impulse in American Culture– an impulse that drew strength from the writings of Emerson, who attacked institutions and conformity, and from the ascendancy, after the Civil War, of evolutionary theories, which drew attention to the contigngency of all social forms.” Undoubtedly James, along with Holmes helped introduce pragmatic thought to America. And though James view and interpretation of the world was different and more radical then his father’s, his habitual way of thought, shaped early in his youth by his father and men of his father’s generation was undoubtedly present. He believed in an evolution which later prooved to be wrong, he believed in white supremecy, and also male supremecy. However he remained practical. This strange moral dillema James faced is represented well in a few passages on page 77. “He was so extremely natural that there was no knowing what his nature was, or what to expect next.” Additionally, Menand comments in reference to his position on racial relations in the US, “the peculiar thing about James’s role was that he served on the wrong side. But this was consistent with the general haphazardness of his early life.”

  8. It finally struck me, why William James? Who is he? I’m unfamiliar with his significance in history and I haven’t read any of his work. As it turns out, I’ve read some of his brother, Henry James, (Turn of the Screw) and liked it. I now know a little about William James and pragmatism, and am interested in learning more. It seems that much of my own world view can be attributed to the development of pragmatism in America. Diverse opinion is not a hinderance to progress and should not paralyze us. Idealism can coexist with uncertainty. Whether certain ideals will be manifested in our lifetime is unknown, but decisions must be made and sometimes with indifference to absolute truth (if it exists).

  9. At that time it seemed to be a good explanation why fossils existed. It was because God created the ice age, and destroyed all living beings. Something like a fresh start. Today we have different views of why we have fossils. A hundred years from, (if we last this long) we will have yet another opinion on why.

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