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?