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.