The Metaphysical Club, 5

Reading: Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, Ch. 9

On page 201, we are finally introduced to the “metaphysical club” of the book’s title, only to find out that it was something of a joke. The group was one of many intellectual clubs that met in Cambridge during this era, and it existed for just under one year. The group’s (apparently unofficial) name was an attempt at sarcasm, as its members were decidely anti-metaphysical. Metaphysics, the pragmatists tended to believe, were obsolete. (The pragmatic definition of truth did not center on the correspondence between and idea and a metaphysical reality. Menand suggests, however, that in working to refute nominalism, Charles Peirce had not given up on metaphysics. But note that he was the odd man out, here. See pp. 228-29.)

Although Menand had sparse documentation about the club, he nevertheless makes a good case that the club represented an important convergence of intellectuals, at least for his purpose of exploring the birth of pragmatism. Not only were Holmes, James, and Peirce involved in the group, but Chauncey Wright also played an important role as a gadfly or “boxing master” (221). Menand does not give Wright an especially positive role in his story; instead, he characterizes Wright as a skeptic and nihilist (these labels deserve some discussion) (213-14). Some members of the club (especially James) clearly reacted against these tendencies of Wright. James’s arguments for the “duty of belief,” the “will to believe,” and “the right to believe” are probably the best examples of Wright’s negative influence (220-21).

Nevertheless Wright’s concept of “cosmical weather” did, according to Menand, play a significant role in how Holmes, Peirce, and Nicholas Green (the lawyer who rejected legal formalism) formulated their versions of pragmatism. Perhaps the most important questions to ask of this chapter, then, are: what was “cosmical weather”?; and how did the idea influence Holmes, Peirce, and Green? Part of the answer has to do with the idea of believing as betting (227).

This chapter is crucial to Menand’s larger narrative because he comes really close to spelling out here what pragmatism meant to James, Holmes, and Peirce. It’s important to note, though, that they each went in their own directions. Pragmatism was not monolithic. It was a flexible method of thinking, rather than a preordained set of conclusions.

12 thoughts on “The Metaphysical Club, 5”

  1. I was, at first, in disagreement with the characterization of Wright as a nihilist, but upon reflection I cannot provide any evidence to refute that claim. I think his beliefs are a more attractive form of nihilism, because while he does not believe that morals, or philosophic certainty, are of worth, he does not deny the usefulness of such speculation. Wright thought of religion as “‘good words through which one of the subtlest forms of tyranny is exercised over freedom of thought'” and his motto, “‘Where we cannot be certain, we must affirm nothing'” only serves to deny any real meaning to the affirmations of philosophical thought. However, he is characterized as being happy and to some extent fulfilled by the company of intellectuals in “schools”. He regarded human instinct as superior to any abstract moral system and he did not simply write off intellectual discussion as worthless. While he did not believe there was purpose or certainty in the universe (his cosmical weather) he still provided insight into his belief of the worth of speculation and discussion of such subjects.

  2. The Metaphysical Club explored numerous philosophical and scientific principles and concepts addressing the metaphysical even if they considered it false. As C. Pierce asked, “What does it mean to know of something in a world in which things happen higgledy-pigglety?”, appears to ask a metaphysical question.
    If pragmatism is a theory that ideas are tools formed by beliefs and those tools are used to construct (or fabricate) reality, then there must exist an object of that creation: truth and reality. C. Wright’s “cosmic weather” theory is difficult to comprehend or apply to pragmatism. It describes an infinite cycle of “vast counter-movements” working out the purpose of perpetual existence. This law of change seems to spiral toward a central philosophy for some moral behavior and principle of social direction that although “constantly swerving” leads to a comprehensive certainty, not an uncertainty with which we frequently struggle. Therefore, chance, and free will, could be thought to produce the reality of fate and the existence of truth in “traditional thought”.
    Pragmatism then, might be a tool for believing our actions are producing practical truth from diverse ideas, or “all believing is betting” that there must exist some formal reality like Benjamin and Charles Pierce acknowledged, the “world IS made to be known by the mind”, therefore pragmatism is a tool for gaining that knowledge.
    I’m not sure if pragmatism is a social approximation of truth which people believe to be true, or if there is a gravitation of society toward an absolute truth and our actions are only approximate. If any of this makes sense, maybe I’m beginning to understand pragmatism.

  3. C. Wright’s idea of “cosmical weather” makes alot of sense when considering the idea that everything is changing, and often occur randomly. Additionally, it accompanies Darwin’s theory of natural selection as well. Even Wright though, who was incredibly insightful and possessed good faith and hopes for society, must have possessed some sort of doubt, frustration, and confusion demonstrated through his alcoholism.
    Though Peirce, Holmes, James, and Wright all differed in their certainities about life, I can not necessarily verify one perspective which is more accurate. I think this fact, that one can accept different opinions and possibilities, is a key aspect of pragmatic thought. Pragmatic thought is simply a means to understanding, an end. However the end is uncertain, allowing us to approach it differently.

  4. I’m not sure if my explanation of “cosmic weather” will be correct, but I will explain it in a language that portrays what I understand it to be. From what I understand, Wright uses the metaphor “cosmic weather” to explain the fact that there is no absolute truth or certainty in the world. Truth is like weather, because it can change, clear up, and eventually pass away. When you predict the weather there is no certainty, it is subject to change.
    In relation to this metaphor’s influence on Holmes, Peirce, and Green, you can refer back to page 227 (more so about Peirce). Wright’s “cosmic weather” is similar to Kant in his example of a physician making a diagnosis based on a patient’s symptoms. The physician is not always right and there is not absolute certainty. This is when Menand bring up Pierce’s belief that all believing is betting. This conclusion made by Pierce could stem from these two examples.
    Am I making any sense to anyone?

  5. I actually really enjoyed reading this chapter for a few reasons. One I liked learnint about Wright’s idea of cosmic weather. As soon as I starting reading that it made me think about the obvious link it had to Darwinism thought. At the time suggesting that people and species evolve because weather forced them to seemed like a pretty good idea. At least that is what I got out it. I was also intrigued by how not all of them but a few of these intellectuals fell on depressing and alcoholic times. I always wondered if this would happen because these intellects are constantly thinking and disscussing and being disproved. They would totally comit to ideas and those ideas would become their entire life at times. Like when James carried that book around everywhere like a paronoid child with his teddy bear or somthing. I don’t know to me it just seemed like that kind of a breakdown would have to occur for some of these intellects maybe that is just me though.

  6. Chauncey Wright’s concept of “cosmic weather”, from what I can tell, relates closely to his views on weather and Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Wright saw the weather as something that was a mechanism for change, as was natural selection, and “cosmic weather” was taking these concepts and applying them to people’s lives. People’s lives and subject to outside forces that allowed them to change and go into new directions, which they would otherwise not be able to do on their own. I think.

    I do see Menand’s point that Wright may have been a nihilist, as Wright’s concept of “cosmic weather” somewhat flies in the face of prior thought, especially when it came to viewing change as equaling improvement.

  7. I like the way in which C. Wright explains the world, as ever change. Wright says we can only predict what will happen next, but even that prediction could turn out to be wrong because of the ever changing world we live in. It is also said that we are in turn just betting on the out come of an event. Both of these ideas are very true, one can only guess (bet) on an event and then watch what the out come is. Even then we can never be certain that it is the end. What I really like in this chapter is that Menand brings all the characters together in the “Metaphysical club”; where we can see how different each and every few is on this way of thinking (pragmatism) really is. Menand really shows use that there is not just one definition that can cover all the pragmatist ideas of thought.

  8. t was interesting reading this part of the Metaphysical Club and how the club was finally formed together in this chapter. Wright reveals his “cosmic weather” which implied that change always happens and knowledge is an understanding to an end. Wright seemed to also rely on Abbot for direction in religion. I also found it interesting as Chris pointed out that Wright, James, and others suffered from depression and alcoholism. At the end, Peirce seems to also convey that everything changes and uses that no two astronomers can make the same observation. It seems like the pragmatic thought relies on evolving thought that is always changing.

  9. I believe that it was very smart of Menand too hide the meaning behind this book until this time. Because of the simple fact it build’s up his own evidence without people knowing what is going on. Somewhat tricking the reader into believing his point about Pragmatism. Opening the minds of people to a subject which they would of otherwise been ignorant towards. If he was to simply shown his hand at the beginning of the reading, many would not of cared to read the stories as a example. Rather reversing the order of this fixed what many of us viewed the book. If we had not already know it was a book about pragmatism of course.

  10. Like Thomas I enjoyed seeing our main “characters” come together in this chapter. I think the importance of the “Metaphysical Club”, and why Menand named the book after it, was found in the way the characters used each others’ ideas and thoughts to progress and adapt their own. An example of this can be seen in the way Peirce calls Wright their “boxing master.” Wright would contest the ideas of Holmes, James, Peirce and that made them sharper in their arguments. These great individual thinkers were able to become even greater when they were able to get together in these type of clubs and share their insights with one another.

  11. I agree with Wright as he said: “there is no reason to think that the present solar system constitutes the final state of anything” (211). The solar systems is evolving constantly, creating and destroying planets all the time. We know so much more about the solar systems, then he could have imagined. I also agree with him on his religious views. Wright thought was: “If faith satisfied an emotional need, there was nothing more to be said about it, except that no one had the right to impose his or her religion on anyone else” (212). There are many religious groups who want to change the way people think. Most Muslims and Christians want to change people, and push their faith on them. What ever happened to “Judge not, and ye shall not be judged” Luke 6:37. I believe if you brake Gods law let him sort it out, if you brake the law of the land, let THE courts take care of it.

  12. I agree with Stephanie to an extent on the cosmic weathering in that it is hard to predict the weather as is its hard to predict the truth. The part I really do not agree with is that the truth just does not clear up and go away. As we explained with pragmatism the truth is what a person believes so there will always be truth. The only problem is there is no way to know what it is until its there.

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