Problems in American Thought

Welcome History 302 Students!

Ex Post Facto includes several of my blog posts that are optional reading.

For your convenience, here is a list of the relevant posts, in order:

  1. Thoreau’s Principles
  2. Early American Murder Narratives
  3. Enlightenment and Its Discontents
  4. Franklin, Paine, and the Enlightenment
  5. Emerson’s Giant
  6. Margaret Fuller’s “Great Lawsuit”
  7. Thoreau and Disobedience
You are not required to make comments, but I have preserved the comments from previous semesters, which you are welcome to read. Feel free to comment yourself, too, of course.  –DV

Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience, 3

Reading: Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience (Sausalito: PoliPointPress, 2007), 69-119.

This book is a work of criticism, and, as such, it forces us to confront ugliness. But White clearly also intends it as a work of hope. (Ignoring ugliness, surrendering to it, is an act of despair — which in the Christian tradition has often been called an “unpardonable sin.”) In calling us to imagine an alternative future to the one promised (threatened?) by consumer capitalism, White may seem to be tilting at windmills. As Wendell Berry once argued, however, “Hope lives in the means, not the end.” (See his essay “Discipline and Hope,” in A Continuous Harmony.) Berry later elaborated: “Protest that endures, I think, is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.” (See “A Poem of Difficult Hope” in What are People For?) White’s “spirit of disobedience” means not only not acquiescing but also self-consciously building an alternative.

In chapter 3, “Confessions of a Holy Whore,” White addresses “The difficulty of finding a political ‘outside’ innocent of complicity,” given the uncanny ability of the system to “internalize” and “digest” dissent (73). White explores the films of Rainer Fassbinder as an attempt to create this “outside,” which could then serve as a springboard for promoting an alternate world. He also confesses, as the title suggests, that he is a holy whore himself, implicated in the very system that he critiques (78). As in earlier chapters, White here dishes out criticism aplenty of both liberals and conservatives in America. His larger point is that both parties of our two-party system are servants to “the one great Party of Business” (85), which is to say that they are bound in the worst way to preserving the “spiritually bankrupt” status quo (81). The reigning order, White suggests, knows one rule: “the Market Knows Best” (93). It is the order of industrial (and presumably post-industrial) capitalism, which brings us the “strip mine” and the “strip mall,” and which is engaged in long process of making the world over in its image. In the last several pages of this chapter, White proposes his ethical alternative to the enfeebled “Golden Rule” — he enjoins us to imagine and create an alternative vision of the future.

In the 4th and title chapter of his book, White pulls together his plea for disobedience. Here, he maps out the complex relationships among Christianity, Enlightenment, capitalism, Marxism, and “Imagination” in American culture. I’ll attempt to encapsulate his criticism, but it needs unpacking: Americans have been distracted by a red herring binarism, the alleged contest between Christianity and Enlightenment. Meanwhile, the deathly spirit of capitalism has virtually won the field. Marxist-Leninism has not proven out as a viable alternative (it’s worth discussing why). Surveying the mess, White proposes a third way, a third principle that might rescue the best qualities of Christianity and Enlightenment. This third way is what White — drawing on William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson — calls “Imagination” (104).

Imagination for White is essentially the spiritual. It’s the creative power of humanity to make (and remake) the world in which we live. He does not map out a new world vision for us, but he does urge us to start creating alternatives that will allow us “a return to the fundamentals of being human” (113). In the spirit of two of his intellectual models, Henry David Thoreau and John Ruskin, White proposes a “new fundamentalism” centered on the question: “What does it mean to be a human being?” (113). One thing it means, surely, is to be alive, and thus in his epilogue, White writes of our need to be loyal to life (161).

I queried White about his use of the word spiritual, and he provided a very provocative response:

I mean intuition in … the Emersonian context.  What I’ve been trying to describe is a synthesis of the American Transcendentalist and the American Pragmatist traditions.  That’s what it comes down to.  By this description, Nietzsche was the purest American, an idea I like a lot (especially given his own fondness for Emersonian individualism.)  A homemade sublime.  Intuition is first the recognition of the falsity of the world you happen to have been born into, of the pastiche of reassuring lies that we’re asked to live in. It is, second, the recognition that this is not reason for despair or nihilism but for claiming your right to make, both individually and socially, your own world.  Every artist worthy of the name understands this.  Which is why Nietzsche and Emerson honored them above all others.  They have essentially opted on what William James called “the American bitch Goddess, success.”  They prefer a wealth that is spiritual.  Nietzsche had a vision of Jesus and it was this, “We are all the sons and daughters of God.  Live like it.” — Curtis White, email to David Voelker, 12/8/07

When prompted, White confirmed for me that his understanding of the spiritual was decidedly unsupernatural, but with a twist. He sense of the spiritual, he said, was:

Absolutely not supernatural, but with the good sense to be respectfully in awe at the miracle of being, as per the deists, Voltaire et al.  (Voltaire, another of Nietzshe’s favorites.)  — Curtis White, email to David Voelker, 12/10/07

This sense of awe or reverence of life, then, seems to be White’s starting point for imagining an alternative to the status quo. Rather than stopping with this point, however, White concludes his book with a series of interviews about time, home, and food — three of the fundamentals that he connects to being human. Although I don’t have time to discuss these interviews here, I think that they are an important part of the book, because they illustrate that what White is calling for is within reach.

As I see it, the concluding chapters of the book raise several key questions:

  1. Why is White so hard on the liberal and conservative punditcracy? Why does he find them harmful?
  2. What is the problem with corporate capitalism? Why has White made it the chief villain of his book? Are his criticisms justified?
  3. In the end, what does White seem to think of the political left and its guiding philosophy of Marxism?
  4. What is White’s positive or hopeful vision of the future? Does it have anything in common with the pragmatic and transcendental traditions that we have studied? Is it satisfying?

— D. Voelker

Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience, 2

Reading: Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work (Sausalito: PoliPointPress, 2007), 19-68.

This selection of White’s book includes two chapters, which I will take up separately.

In chapter 2, “Imagination Dead Imagine,” White begins to formulate a “spirit of disobedience” by looking at the spiritual role of art. Over the course of the chapter, he considers four main artistic expressions, including the film Office Space, the novel The Da Vinci Code, Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, and the film Brokeback Mountain. Interesting, while he defends Hamlet and Brokeback as authentic art, he condemns Office Space and the Code as betrayals of art. The latter two works, in fact, White sees as representative of a “self-disciplining” or self censorship, which is another way to say that they are sell-outs (21). He chose these two contemporary blockbusters for criticism, however, because they both exhibit a certain subversive potential, which he pretty persuasively argues that they betray. I want to save a more detailed dicussion of his criticism for class, but it’s worth noting that White uses Office Space to elucidate “our” fear-hate relationship with what he calls the “corporate life-world” (24), and he uses the Code as a way to point to our spiritual impoverishment. His criticism of these two works (and his positive analyses of Hamlet and Brokeback) plays a key role in his larger critique of American culture. In short, we should pay attention to what White is saying about good art and fraudulent art.

Chapter 3, “Beyond the Golden Rule,” is a more trying chapter to read — especially if one doesn’t share White’s hostility toward the status quo — because he shifts from a critique of our culture’s art to our overall way of life. Although White unleashes attacks here on Dick Cheney, George W. Bush, U.S. foreign policy, and Wal-Mart, it’s important to note that the chapter is not in any simple way a liberal screed or rant. Yes, White’s targets in the chapter are common subjects of liberal criticism, but he uses the chapter to make a larger point that transcends the liberal-conservative divide. In a nutshell, he is arguing that the Golden Rule of Christianity is “unavailable to us in the present” (27). The various segments of this argument deserve consideration, but he introduces one concept that seems central to the chapter and the book: the idea of “radical evil” (48).

These two chapters leave us with a great deal to discuss, so let me close by raising just a few of questions.

  1. Why does White see Office Space and The Da Vinci Code as betrayals? What do they betray?
  2. How does White define real art? How does art fit with his larger concept of disobedience?
  3. What does White mean by “radical evil,” and how does the concept play into his argument about the current inaccessibility of the Golden Rule?

— D. Voelker

Introduction to Curtis White’s The Spirit of Disobedience

Reading: Curtis White, The Spirit of Disobedience: Resisting the Charms of Fake Politics, Mindless Consumption, and the Culture of Total Work (Sausalito: PoliPointPress, 2007), 1-18.

(By way of introduction to the book, see also my brief interview of Curtis White.)

Curtis White, writer and Distinguished Professor of English at Illinois State University, begins this provocative work of criticism with a couple of questions about “purportedly secular liberalism, confidently established in the powers of Reason.” He asks: “Is [secular liberalism] really so free of the religious prejudices and superstition it has always claimed to despise? Has it no need for the spiritual?” (2). White seems to be writing primarily for a “liberal” — that is to say, progressive — audience, but he quickly challenges common liberal assumptions regarding the role of Reason in creating a better society. Reason, he suggests, boils down to a tool through which society extorts obedience from its members (9). Reason has become a cult, or an idol, that stifles not only thought but also creativity and justice. He thus offers this book as a reflection on the “spirit of disobedience” — a spirit that he sees in early Christianity, among other places.

White is not the first of the authors we’ve read in this course to question the conventions of allegedly rational (or scientific) discourse. In the “Will to Believe,” for instance, William James argued that the practice of science rested in part on faith, including the faith that science is worth pursuing because it yields a certain kind of truth. Likewise, Reinhold Niebuhr contended in “Truth in Myths” that secularists often smuggle faith into their worldviews in the form of an unwarranted belief in progress. Notably, neither James nor Niebuhr meant that science was illegitimate because of its reliance on these faiths. Instead, they meant to defend the right of religious and ethical thinkers (and believers) to likewise rest upon first principles that could not be empirically proven to be true.

White, I think, fits into this tradition of challenging those who would claim that science and rationality yield the only legitimate form of knowledge. He does so, as I mentioned above, by denying that Reason is a neutral tool for obtaining objective truth. There is also a pragmatic element of his rejoinder to Reason. He calls disobedience a form of “world making.” In defining “the spirit of disobedience,” he writes of “reclaiming” the world “in the name of that most exasperated human quality, creativity” (18). And what are the sources of this creativity? White refers to “an intuitive understanding of the good,” which he sees as ultimately spiritual in nature (17). Here, he sounds like an heir not only of William James but also of the Transcendentalists, about whom he writes favorably in this book.

By situating White’s book within these larger discussions of science, rationality, religion, and ethics, I do not at all mean to suggest that he is simply a latter-day James or Thoreau. On the contrary, I think that White takes us into relatively new territory when he suggests that “the Golden Rule is for complex reasons no longer functional or available in our society” (17). As we move ahead in the book, we will have an opportunity to assess that claim and to see what White proposes that we do about it.

— D. Voelker

Interview with Curtis White on the “Spirit of Disobedience”

Note: Curtis White generously agreed to answer a few questions that I posed about his book, The Spirit of Disobedience (2007), which my students are about to tackle. He responded to these questions via email on 23 Nov. 2007. — D. Voelker

DV: At the end of The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves (2003), you suggest that imagination and art have an important role to play in changing the world. Can you reiterate your point, briefly?

CW: My feeling about my life and the culture around it has always been that I am/we are vulnerable to the “automatic.” To stay alive is to want to reinvent yourself at every moment. In this sense I am nothing more than Nietzsche’s boy. This culture kills eros. Nietzsche’s Dionysus reasserts it not through “sex” but through the impulse to make your own world. Fascism is the fascination of the already thoroughly digested and automated. Being free from that is a spiritual, artistic and political act.

DV: Throughout this book, you draw on various intellectual, spiritual, and artistic traditions from the past. What role do you suppose that history might play in helping us to live good lives in the present?

CW: If nothing else, it allows you the reader/audience to immerse yourself in one of Nietzsche’s “free spirits.” When I listen to Beethoven (or Radiohead), I think, “This is alive in a way that we should all seek to be alive.” It allows for a depth of spirit and emotion that our “administered” reality does not. Consider Theodor Adorno’s maxim: “Life does not live.” The job of artists (who, after all, are nothing more than humanity’s proxy) is to live. That always also means resistance of the status quo.

DV: You’ve written favorably about Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club and the pragmatic tradition that he elucidates. Do you think that you drew on that pragmatic tradition for this book?

CW: What I like about the pragmatists is the Americanness of feeling that we get to make up our own world. A homemade world. A primitive world, perhaps, but richly alive. Our “cussedness.” Not a European world. But what has happened instead, beginning in the late 19th century, is that we got “incorporated.” Literally, taken within something that has essentially digested us. You can call it capitalism or corporations or fascism. It’s the administered life in education, work and church and even in our most private lives.

DV: It seems to me that disobedience is a deeply personal and potentially lonely stance. Is there some danger that disobedience can lead to misanthropy or despair?

CW: Yes. I accuse myself of both those things all the time. But it is the inevitable consequence of saying “I will not be dead in my own life” while no one else around you seems to think much about it (or so it seems) and every institution seems bent on a world of death (ranging from boredom to poverty to oppression to literal planetary destruction: all at work at present for anyone who refuses to be comforted by lies).

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.