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Niebuhr, “The Truth In Myths,” 1937

This is a complex essay created by a high-caliber intellect — one of the most influentual Christian thinkers of the 20th century.

It’s important to note, right from the start, that Niebuhr was criticizing, rather than promoting, the negative view of myth that he described in the essay’s first paragraph. In fact, Niebuhr drew a distinction between “primitive myth,” which he dismissed as obsolete, and “permanent myth,” which embodies an enduring insight. Part of his argument here was that the Judeo-Christian tradition includes many of these permanent myths.

I think that it’s helpful to see Niebuhr as attempting to steer between absolutist Christian orthodoxy (or fundamentalism), on the one hand, and scientific absolutism, on the other. (You may recall that William James also challenged scientific absolutism in the “Will to Believe“.) Notice that Niebuhr was not anti-science or anti-reason. Rather, he denied that science or rationality could give a complete (and therefore true) account of the nature of the universe and of human experience. (His various points about the mechanistic views of science are complex and worthy of discussion.)

The most challenging sections of this essay involve Niebuhr’s discussions of monism and dualism. Fortunately, these discussions are somewhat tangential to his main points. It’s helpful to know, however, that Niebuhr criticized philosophical monism (as opposed to theism) because he thought that it lacked a way of recognizing and explaining evil. (He explained this best at the bottom of p. 124.) He also rejected dualism, which divided existence into the spiritual and material, because it essentially (like Buddhism, he said), denied the significance of the material realm and therefore of human life on earth (see the bottom of p. 125). The point that Niebuhr was striving to make here was that neither philosophical monism nor dualism — rationalistic as they were — could capture the meaning or paradoxes of actual human life (or of the universe, for that matter). It was his contention that only Christianity could accomplish this feat.

Niebuhr went on, then, to argue that the myths of creation and the fall, although not literally (or historically) true, cast light on the great mysteries of evil, sin, and freedom, which he saw as being central to the human experience. (Each of these points deserves analysis.)

Furthermore, Niebuhr concluded with a fascinating comparison of science and religion, which I believe indicate a certain pragmatic strategy on his part. (“Religion is forced to tell many little lies in the interest of a great truth, while science inclines to tell many little truths in the interest of a great lie” [p. 129].) Niebuhr’s assessment of democracy (from The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness) also indicates a pragmatic tendency in his thought: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” It’s important to note that unlike most pragmatists, Niebuhr believed in absolute truth, but he shared the pragmatic recognition that humans could never possess that absolute truth.

In many ways, this essay allows us to see how very traditional Christian (Calvinistic) beliefs could be defended within a modern context.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why, according to Niebuhr, was it a mistake to reject the myths of Christianity? What could those myths accomplish that science could not? (pages 117-20)
  2. What did the world look like, if viewed only through the lens of science? (page 122)
  3. Like William James, Niebuhr believed that the scientific worldview included elements of faith. What mythical element did he think that secular perspectives covertly embraced? (pages 122-23)
  4. What value did Niebuhr find in the myth of the Fall? (page 127)
  5. What elements of pragmatism can you see in Niebuhr’s argument?

William James, “The Will to Believe”

Reading: William James, “The Will to Believe” (1896), abridged version

James began this classic and challenging essay with a lengthy but necessary introduction that set the stage for his larger argument. It’s important to follow these introductory concepts in order to be able to understand his main argument. The first paragraph (of this abridged version) includes a preliminary statement of James’s main point. Playing on the Protestant notion of “justification by faith,” James said that he offered a “an essay in justification of faith, a defence of our right to adopt a believing attitude in religious matters, in spite of the fact that our merely logical intellect may not have been coerced.” (Note that he stated his thesis again in paragraphs 14, 27, and 32.) Although he called this essay “The Will to Believe,” he later wished that he had called it “The Right to Believe,” as he was essentially defending the legitimacy of religious belief in the absence of definitive evidence.

In the introductory section (up through paragraph 19), James specified that he intended for the “right to believe” to apply only in certain situations. First, in paragraphs 2-7, he defined the “genuine option” — an option that he says must be forced, living, and momentous. He proposed that his principle applied only to such genuine options, which he acknowledged would vary from person to person. (He thus started with some recognition of cultural and even personal relativism.) Second, James recognized that his principle did not apply to all areas of human life. In many scenarios, he noted, it would seem “preposterous . . . to talk of our opinions being modifiable at will.” Particularly in the realm of science, he continued, we cannot legitimately believe simply based on our preferences. (At any rate, he didn’t think that scientific questions were generally pressing enough to count as genuine options.)

The final preliminary point that James made was that human passions (by which he meant not only emotions but also simple preferences and inclinations) play a role even in the most rigorous of scientific thinking. James denied that we can prove that truth exists or that scientific research yields truth — we can only accept the pursuit of “truth” as a matter of faith, rooted in what James called “desire” (see paragraph 12). Furthermore, he rejected what he called the “absolutist way of believing in truth,” because we cannot know anything with total certainty (paragraph 15). Within this context, James saw our passions playing another important role. While some thinkers, who James called “scientific absolutists,” seemed governed primarily by their desire to “shun error” at all costs, James was defending the right of people to follow their desire to “believe truth” (paragraph 19), even if that opened them to the risk of making a mistake.

Having established this framework for making his main argument, James then turned to the key areas of human life where he thought that his principle of the “will to believe” became necessary: questions of morality, value, and religion. Science, he argued, could not provide answers to these sorts of questions.  Here in the heart of the essay, James gave a few examples to try to illustrate, if not conclusively prove, his main point.  (See paragraphs 25, 26, and 31.)  His examples focus on “personal relations,” and perhaps the most vivid example is that of the train robbery in paragraph 26.  To make a long argument short, James concluded here that “faith in a fact can help create the fact.”  In a sense then, as Louis Menand put it in the Metaphysical Club, we “get a vote” in deciding what the world will be like (Menand, p. 220).

James thus described a universe in which human freedom, human belief, and human decisions really mattered.  He also put forward a vision of an “intellectual republic” (paragraph 33) in which the individual “right to believe” was held sacred.  In this way, he brought the concept of the right of conscience into the modern pragmatic framework.

Discussion Questions

  1. What was James’s main argument, and how did he support it?
  2. In what sense was James’s argument a reflection of pragmatism?
  3. What position did James seem to be taking regarding science?
  4. What problems or weaknesses can you see with James’s argument?

The Metaphysical Club, 6

Reading: Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, 351-58, 369-75, 431-33, & 435-42.

This selection of pages allows us to wrap up the book while skipping most of the section on John Dewey. (This section is interesting, but it takes us well beyond the three main characters from the first two-thirds of the book.)

In section 4 of chapter 13, Menand essentially provides a pragmatic description of pragmatism. He elaborates here on the implicit definition from his preface, explaining that “Pragmatism is an account of the way people think” (351). For pragmatists, the “truth” of a belief depended on its practical relevance in a particular situation: does the belief change how we behave, or does it produce tangible results? If so, it is “true” for pragmatic purposes. The implication — and this might make you uncomfortable — is that truth might be plural. (James, in fact, sometimes thought of the universe as a multiverse.) James’s famous “Will to Believe” essay provides a window into how James applied his pragmatic method to religious belief (we will read this essay soon).

At the very end of chapter 13 (p. 375), Menand perceptively points to three problems with pragmatism. The first question is whether “its theory of truth is logically supportable” — a question that he puts aside, probably because it’s not a pragmatic question. But he asks two other questions that are worth pondering. First, where do we get the “wants” that drive us? — pragmatism seems to fall silent. Menand, however, does provide some answers to this question. He shows that pragmatists saw thinking as “a circular process.” What he means is that we cannot “appeal to some standard outside of the process of coming to the belief itself” in order to justify a belief (p. 353). Our beliefs do not emerge in any straightforward fashion from transcendent principles. So, where do our beliefs come from, then? Menand hints at a Darwinian analogy of “fitness” to try to explain the pragmatist point of view: “When we are happy with a decision, it doesn’t feel arbitrary; it feels like the decision we had to reach. And this is because its inevitability is a function of its ‘fit’ with the whole inchoate set of assumptions of our self-understanding and the social world we inhabit” (p. 353).

Menand leads us to believe that Holmes understood the process of thinking in this way. Holmes wrote that a judge should make a decision on a case and then (after deciding) determine the legal principles that justify the decision. As Menand points out, this strategy “does not mean that legal decision making is arbitrary” (p. 217). As a legal theorist, Holmes gave much more weight to “experience” than to abstract legal principles; and by “experience,” Holmes meant what we would probably call “culture” (p. 342). Holmes denied that there was a fixed set of general principles that could guide our behavior. All that we can do is make the best “bet” that we can about what behavior (or judicial decision) is going to work to achieve our goals (which, again, have no transcendent source).

The second problem with pragmatism is that some people hold very unpragmatic beliefs. (Does this fact mean that pragmatism does not accurately describe how people think?) Consider, for a moment, that Martin Luther King, Jr., “was not a pragmatist” (p. 441). There is an important sense in which pragmatism can support a status quo that many people would find undesirable. Pragmatism could be seen as a denial that such principles as justice could ever be realized or even adequately defined.

Having said that, it seems to me that a pragmatist could consistently defend the principle that all human beings possess certain inalienable rights, and that they are equally entitled to enjoy liberty. Such a statement, it seems to me, lays a necessary foundation for a democratic society, which pragmatists tend to value. In these ways, I don’t think that pragmatists necessarily support the status quo. In fact, by recentering values around human purposes, American pragmatists have often supported reforms of one sort or another.

The end of the book leaves us with more questions, including:

  1. Do you think that pragmatism was a positive development in American thought?
  2. Can you answer this question without resorting to pragmatic criteria?
  3. What impact does pragmatism seem to have had on American culture?

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.

Menand’s Authorial Strategy

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.

The Metaphysical Club, 4

Reading: Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, Ch. 7-8

The Peirces (Benjamin, the father, and Charles, the son) perhaps come out of these chapters seeming too smart for their own good, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. For the purposes of Menand’s larger narrative about the rise of pragmatism, it seems most relevant here to try to understand Charles Peirce’s dilemma, as he tried to defend his father’s conviction that “the universe makes sense” in a post-Darwinian intellectual context where uncertainty and chance seemed to reign.

Both father and son embraced the “law of errors,” which allowed a researcher to take account of the fact that humans inevitably make mistakes when they record observations about the world. (The analogy about the target and arrows helps explain how this law works, quite nicely and without mathematical equations.) Menand will eventually show how this way of thinking played into pragmatism.

As Menand illustrates, too, the new statistical ways of thinking could lead in different directions. On the one hand, there was the idea of “social physics,” which was predicated upon the assumption that everything in the universe is determined, including human social behavior. According to this view, the universe has an underlying order that humans often can’t see directly but that can be quantified statistically. For the social physicist, freedom and chance were both illusions. On the other hand, Darwinian science seemed to embrace chance. According to Darwin’s view, the biological world, at least, lacked an underlying order beyond the basic principles of natural selection, where chance played many roles. (William James and others have seen the indeterminism of Darwin’s world as a harbinger of freedom.)

Charles Pierce had to deal with these various ways of looking at the world, as he took up the burden of defending his father’s way of thinking. These chapters don’t yet explore how Peirce made this defense, but Menand hinted at the beginning that Peirce wasn’t going to be very successful. For the present, however, it seems important to describe Benjamin Peirce’s worldview, in order to understand the intellectual problems that his son faced.

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?

The Metaphysical Club, 2

Reading: Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, Ch. 3.

This chapter provides some poignant description of Holmes’s wartime experience (including a gruesomely poetic line from Holmes about the wounded “writhing under superincumbent dead”). The real crux of the chapter, for the larger purposes of the book anyway, begins on p. 59 where Menand addresses Holmes’s “rejection of the intellectual style of prewar Boston.” The next section (4) really comes around to the point of Menand’s analysis of OWH’s wartime experience. Thankfully, Menand puts the “lesson” that OWH learned from the war into “a single sentence” — “that certitude leads to violence” (61). Menand goes on to discuss this lesson at some length, explaining its significance for OWH’s political opinions and, more importantly, for his legal opinions as a Supreme Court justice. (This whole section is crucial for Menand’s argument.)

What Menand is not yet saying, is that Holmes’s way of think was essentially a form of pragmatism — the war had made Holmes into a pragmatist. It seems to me that the most important question to ask here is: what, in Holmes’s mind, went wrong with the intellectual system that he had been raised up in? What values or ways of thinking did he have to reject in order to embrace his pragmatic approach? (Menand gets back to Holmes on pp. 216-17, where he quotes Holmes identifying himself as a “bettabilitarian.”)

The Metaphysical Club, 1

Reading: Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, preface-Ch. 2 and 351-58.

In his preface, Menand reveals that the “story of ideas in America” (of the subtitle) that he’s going to tell has to do with a new mode of thinking that developed gradually in post-Civil War America. The Civil War, he tells us, “swept away . . . almost the whole intellectual culture of the North” (x). (This claim seems somewhat hyperbolic, given the importance of Darwinism, but Menand later makes a good case for the impact of the war on two of his main characters, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and William James.) Menand credits Holmes and James, along with Charles Peirce and John Dewey, with developing the modern mode of American thought. He proposes that these men shared “an idea about ideas”–“that ideas are not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but are tools — like forks and knives and microchips — that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves” (xi). This “idea about ideas” — the notion that ideas are simply tools rather than universal truths — is the core premise of the new philosophy of pragmatism that Menand argues that Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey invented during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Oddly, Menand does not use the word pragmatism in his preface!

Given that this is a book about pragmatism, it seems worthwhile to skip ahead to the section where Menand takes another stab at defining what pragmatism means. He does so on pages 351-58. Because you have to skip over 300 pages to get to this section, it’s not going to be completely clear at first glance, but it’s still useful to look ahead.

Menand starts here by giving pragmatic description of the human decision-making process. He concludes near the top of page 353 that “so often, we know we’re right before we know why we’re right,” because “there is no noncircular set of criteria for knowing whether a particular belief is true.” This idea is too complex to be swallowed easily. If we bear with Menand for a few more pages, though, he explains that William James believed that “no belief . . . is justified by its correspondence to reality, because mirroring reality is not the purpose of having minds” (356). This (negative) analogy does help. Minds are not mirrors. It sure would be nice here to have a positive analogy to explain what a mind is or does, wouldn’t it? Menand doesn’t quite give us that, but he does give us, in these pages, a few formulations of James’s idea that “the true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief” (355). We could probably rephrase this to say that “the truth is what works.” Our minds don’t mirror reality, then, but they do provide us with tools for coping with reality. We cannot possibly say if our ideas match up to reality–all that we can know is whether or not our ideas have what James called “cash value.” Having said all of this, don’t get too bent out of shape if this section still seems obscure. Menand is going to tell many personal stories about his main characters in order to help us understand pragmatism.

Back to the beginning of the book. The focus of part one is Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Harvard graduate and Civil War veteran who eventually served on the Supreme Court. In these early chapters, Menand introduces a multitude of characters, most of whom don’t come up again. In doing so, though, he paints a brilliant picture of the context from which Holmes emerged — namely, the context of pre-Civil War Boston and Harvard. As we read, then, we need to pay attention to how Menand connects that context to Holmes. Menand’s main point for this whole section of the book involves the impact of the Civil War on Holmes. Menand argues that the war made the assumptions of pre-war Boston “obsolete” and that the war made Holmes “lose his beliefs in beliefs” (4). Oh dear.

As we forge ahead, the main thing to keep an eye on is how the young Holmes was influenced by our old friend Ralph Waldo Emerson (who was a friend of his father) and was subsequently drawn into the movement to abolish slavery and the Civil War itself. By the end of the second chapter, we can see that Holmes was becoming somewhat disillusioned by the war effort.

In addition to the questions on your reading guide, by my lights there two main questions to ask about these first two chapters: 1) How and why did Holmes get drawn into abolitionism and military service, and 2) Why did he begin to lose faith in the war?