My title is a mouthful: I am referring to Louis Menand’s strategy as author of the Metaphysical Club. This book is a history of the rise of American pragmatism that doesn’t use the word pragmatism until page 75. In some circumstances, this fact might be seen as a fatal flaw. In this case, however, it’s indicative of the brilliance of the book. An admirer of pragmatism himself, Menand has attempted to give us a pragmatic history of his subject. He thus admits up front that he is telling only one among many possible stories about the rise of pragmatism. Please note that this does not mean that he is fabricating evidence or that anything goes. But Menand does mean to suggest, in the spirit of pragmatism, that it is not possible to construct a single accurate account of the rise of pragmatism. He reveals early on that his main characters came to share “an idea about ideas” — “They all believed that ideas are not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but are tools . . . that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves” (xi).
If ideas are tools, then this book about ideas can be seen as a tool created by Menand for a specific set of purposes. Menand, I believe, tried to do more than simply explain the rise of American pragmatism. He wrote a book that also shows ideas developing in the ways that pragmatists believed that they developed. He also wrote a book that allows readers to experience the indeterminacy and uncertainty of the pragmatic worldview. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and their friends did not immediately see that they were forging a new method of thinking. So, in telling his story, Menand rightfully delayed introducing the term.
Menand argues that pragmatism developed only gradually in response to a jarring collapse of an older, more traditional way of thinking. In the U.S., he argues, the Civil War and the introduction of Darwin’s theory of evolution by “natural selection” triggered this collapse, which shook thinkers like Holmes and James into developing a new way of thinking. Menand’s section on Holmes and James thus shows that the Civil War and Darwin’s theory had a destabilizing effect. Insofar as he can, Menand draws readers into the turmoil and uncertainty that Holmes and James experienced as the pre-war, pre-Darwinian intellectual world of their parents and mentors fell to pieces. In these two sections, I think, readers share with Holmes and James the difficulty (and even frustration) of being unable to grasp anything solid.
This collapse — this intellectual crisis — forced Holmes, James, and others to develop not so much a new philosophy but a new method of thinking. This new method, dubbed pragmatism, was also a new way of thinking about knowledge — about what knowledge is and where it comes from.
Given all that they had experienced, the pragmatists could no longer believe, as their parents had, that humans had access to absolute truth (whether through revelation, observation, reason, or some combination of the three). Pragmatists no longer saw truth as something that was simply “out there” for them (and everyone else) to reach out and grab. Instead, they redefined truth as an idea that works, in a particular time and place, to achieve particular goals. And they believed that this version of truth was the best that we could do. So, the “law of gravity” (and the various mathematical equations association with it) works to allow humans to send spacecraft millions of miles to explore another planet. In that sense, those equations are true. But this fact does not mean that the equations accurately describe the fundamental nature of the universe. On the scale of the solar system, Newtonian physics basically works. On the scale of the galaxy or the whole universe, it does not. What is true, then, depends on the context. Neither Newtonian or Einsteinian physics are absolutely true. Each works in a particular context, for a particular purpose. Pragmatists would say that this sort of relativity applies to all knowledge.
At the core of pragmatism, then, lies uncertainty. Menand, I think, strategically exposes his readers to the unknown. As a result, we have a book that necessarily challenges (and even frustrates) at times, but I believe that if we bear with it, the book has great “cash value,” — to use a pragmatic phrase. Pragmatism is a very difficult concept to grasp, but Menand leads us to it in perhaps the best way that he can, by walking us through the experiences of several innovative intellectuals who struggled together to develop a new mode of thought.