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?

Thoreau’s Principles

Reading: Henry David Thoreau, “Life without Principle” (originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863).

Thoreau warned his readers in the introduction to “Life without Principle” (which was based on an 1854 lecture titled “What Shall it Profit”) that he would give them “a strong dose” of himself and that he would “leave out all the flattery, and retain all the criticism.” As he considered “the way in which we spend our lives,” he did indeed indulge himself while unleashing a searing critique of the way that most Americans seemed to him to live, immersed in business, first and foremost, but also in politics and in the civil society constituted by newspapers, reform societies, and other such institutions.

In his attack on business, commerce, and other seeking of money, it should be noted, he did not say that people should stop worrying about making a living. Rather, he argued that one’s mode of getting a living was so important that it shouldn’t be dominated by materialistic concerns. He memorably stated his concern: “I do not need the police of meaningless labor to regulate me.” He explained further: “If I should sell both my forenoons and afternoons to society, as most appear to do, I am sure that for me there would be nothing left worth living for.” He was willing to work enough to support himself simply, but he suggested that working for money degraded a person.

Throughout the essay, Thoreau disparaged collective efforts of all kinds. He dismissed politics (and institutions in general) as frivolous and unworthy of attention. In doing so, he might be seen as playing the role of a gadfly, challenging his fellow New Englanders to strive for a less meddlesome and more purposeful political and society life. Unfortunately, it is also possible to read the essay as a defense of disengagement. Thoreau frankly admits to paying little attention to politics. Although he was a teacher, writer, lecturer, and friend who sought out society and companionship — albeit on his own terms — he seems relatively oblivious to the profound and sometimes positive ways in which society and culture shape individual character. In other words, he seems to have failed to see the ways in which the self that he wished to mine (like a gold-rusher) was partially a gift from society. He was perhaps thus too quick to seek respite in nature — whether the external nature of the woods or the internal nature of the self. For these reasons, his trenchant social critique at times comes across as a recipe for self absorption.

Thoreau and Disobedience

Reading: Henry David Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government,” in The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, ed. Lawrence Buell (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 257-77.

Writing in the late 1840s of his experience of being jailed overnight in 1846 for his failure to pay a small state poll tax, Henry David Thoreau declared that the American government was disgraceful, not only for its protection of slavery but also for its invasion of Mexico (presumably on behalf of slaveholder interests). In “Resistance to Civil Government” and (and a decade later in his “Plea for Captain John Brown”), Thoreau honored the memory of the American Revolution and the “right to revolution” (261), but he refused to show respect for the American constitutional order that he deemed “evil” (266). Like his mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau felt no responsibility to right every wrong in the world; unlike Emerson, however, he felt a duty to at least “wash his hands of it,” — “it” being in this case his allegiance and support of the abusive state (263). One might say, then, that Thoreau here protested against slavery and state power only insofar as they besmirched his personal sense of moral purity. But to so conclude would be to miss Thoreau’s critique of majoritarian government and its coercive machinery.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did Thoreau use the “machine” metaphor to describe the state?
  2. What criticisms did Thoreau make of electoral democracy? What alternatives did he offer?
  3. Did Thoreau have any real chance of lodging an effective protest — simply by refusing to pay his tax and by publishing this essay?
  4. How does this essay cast light on Thoreau’s 1859 plea for John Brown?

Margaret Fuller’s “Great Lawsuit”

Margaret Fuller’s “The Great Lawsuit” [1843], in The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, ed. Lawrence Buell (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 301-20.

As a woman who died fairly young, Margaret Fuller never quite achieved the same level of celebrity reached by her friend and collaborator Ralph Waldo Emerson, but she nevertheless firmly established herself as an American public intellectual. For several years, she earned money by leading a series of “conversations” for well-off women in Boston. As a writer, she completed notable translations of German texts, reported on the 1848 revolutions from Europe, and published Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), and emphatic an erudite defense of women’s equality with men. Not only did she influence her fellow Transcendentalists (and other sympathetic writers), but she also helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the women’s rights movement that would soon emerge out of the antislavery movement.

It is fitting that Fuller began “The Great Lawsuit” with a discussion of the principle of liberty, because the liberation of women (and humanity in general) became her main theme. Although she recognized the limits of freedom in the United States, she declared: “still, it is not in vain, that the verbal statement has been made, ‘All men are born free and equal.'” “That, which has once been clearly conceived in the intelligence,” she hopefully asserted,” “must be acted out” (303).

Fuller’s argument reflected both Unitarian-style “self-culture” and Transcendentalist “self-dependence.” She postulated growth as a basic human need: “[H]uman beings are not so constituted, that they can live without expansion; and if they do not get it one way, must another, or perish” (306). Not only did male-dominated society impede this necessary growth in women, but it discouraged self-reliance: “This self-dependence, which was honored in me, is deprecated as a fault in most women. They are taught to learn their rule from without, not to unfold it from within” (309). Thus Fuller applied a basic Transcendental principle to help her assess the position of women in her society.

Although Fuller seemed prepared to concede that some real differences separated men from women, she denied that these differences were fundamental or definitive: “There is no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman” (319). Therefore, she drew her firm conclusion that “woman [should] lay aside all thought . . . of being taught and led by men” (320).

Emerson’s Giant

[NOTE: 2008 American Thought students: Save this post to read alongside “Self-Reliance” for 10/14. ¬†You don’t need to read it for 10/9.]

Reading: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” in The American Transcendentalists: Essential Writings, ed. Lawrence Buell (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 210-31.

In his famous 1841 essay “Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson called traveling “a fool’s paradise.” He explained by declaring “place is nothing” (227). Place was nothing because one could not escape oneself. As Emerson put it: “My giant goes with me wherever I go” (228). This phrasing seems quite apt. Emerson did bestow upon the self — both his own and the self generally — gigantic proportions. His various disquisitions on the self thus left him open to charges of “transcendental selfishness,” to use the phrase of Orestes Brownson. Although Brownson’s accusation has some merit, Emerson proposed to trust the self because he believed that the self was infused with a divine intelligence.

When Emerson told his listeners and readers to assert “godlike independence,” to “trust thyself,” or to “go alone,” he enjoined them to reject conformity and to transcend the inherited wisdom of the past (212, 211, 223). In short, he encouraged people to think, feel, and act for themselves, without being limited by social pressures, aged institutions, or yellowing texts.

Emerson’s individualistic ethos often led him to issue bold statements. Defending his resolution to follow his impulses, he told a friend: “If I am the devil’s child, I will live then from the devil” (213). Swatting at the do-gooders who knocked on his door, he declared:

[D]o not tell me . . . of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong. (213-14)

By making such statements, Emerson seemed to be showing his readers that he did not concern himself with worrying about what people would think about what he said.

Although some of Emerson’s comments might sound like pure selfishness, he repeatedly argued that the self was a conduit to a higher and divine spirit. He joked that he would write “Whim” above his door, but he also hoped “it is somewhat better than whim as last” (213). He recommended that “A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within,” precisely because he believed that inner gleam had origins outside of the self (210). He perhaps explained this phenomenon best when he said: “We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us organs of its activity and receivers of its truth. When we discern justice, when we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams” (219). He wanted Americans to open themselves to these truths that he believed would emerge from within.

Emerson was neither the first nor the last American thinker to promote such inward searching. Although his individualistic gospel has influenced American culture — notice the number of famous or familiar lines in this essay — many of his contemporaries continued to believe in the need for collective effort, and the crisis over slavery even led Emerson himself to somewhat modify his position.

Enlightenment and its Discontents

While the European Enlightenment produced a number of outliers — including skeptics and materialists — this intellectual movement in American tended to be more moderate and coherent, at least insofar as it affected culture and politics. American philosophes, to be sure, varied in terms of their opinions regarding Christianity and their faith in the possibility of human progress, but they tended to share a general confidence in the ability of human reason to identify universal human values and rights and thereby to improve both personal and social life. The founding documents of the United States and its constituent republics embodied these Enlightenment values, and they also reflected the different levels of engagement with Christianity that characterized the American Enlightenment. (For instance, while the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 asserted the duty of everyone to worship the creator and empowered the legislature to support churches through taxation, the U.S. Constitution included no mention of a deity, and with the ratification of the first amendment forbade Congress from establishing religion.) In ways that the founders did not anticipate, however, the Enlightenment principles embedded in these documents generated conflict for later generations.

Although historians (including, most notably, Henry May) have identified multiple stages or versions of the Enlightenment in America, the movement generally accepted a creed that might be boiled down as follows: the rational and benevolent creator God (whether the Judeo-Christian Father or the less anthropomorphic “Nature’s God”) made an orderly, law-abiding universe, within which fairly rational and good-natured human beings might live freely and happily, if only they could organize their societies and governments to harmonize with the divine laws of nature. Such a vision was versatile: it could mix as easily with Christian millennialism as with market capitalism, and for many Americans it informed both.

Although Enlightenment modes of thought became pervasive in American culture, they did not by any means fully displace older Christian ways of thinking and seeing. Many Americans still believed in an interventionist God whose grace worked in their hearts and whose millennial plan for making earth into heaven was slowly unfolding. Those who did embrace Reason found that their idol often came up short. In politics, for instance, onetime democrat Orestes Brownson was stunned at how easily “the people” had been fooled during the election of 1840. In the realm of religion, a variety of ministers, former ministers, and writers, who became known as Transcendentalists, began to turn to the intuition (or “the heart”) for spiritual knowledge, rather than relying exclusively on the empirically observed world for information.

While the Enlightenment was doubtless liberating for some Americans, for others it had quite the opposite effect. As Herman Melville tried to show in his 1853 short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” to be reasonable could mean embracing one’s own oppression (see page 13, line 37). Thus, black and white abolitionists turned against the federal constitution that permitted slavery. Small numbers of women began to question the reasonableness of their exclusion from political privileges. And various reformers began to question the logic of the market revolution that seemed to enrich some while making others dependent or impoverished.

Writing in the early 1920s and sounding much like a latter-day Henry David Thoreau, D. H. Lawrence lashed out at the pretensions of the Enlightenment (symbolized for him by Benjamin Franklin):

We do all like to get things inside a barbed wire corral. Especially our fellow men. We love to round them up inside the barbed wire enclosure of FREEDOM, and make ’em work. “Work, you free jewel, WORK!” shouts the liberator, cracking his whip. Benjamin, I will not work. I do not choose to be a free democrat. I am absolutely a servant of my own Holy Ghost.

The Enlightenment made many promises. The question was whether or not they could or would be kept.

Franklin, Paine, and the Enlightenment

Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine were born about three decades and a few thousand miles apart. Neither came from especially privileged families, but both achieved international celebrity. While Franklin gained fame first as a scientist and then as an American patriot and revolutionary, Paine earned renown as the author of several revolutionary pamphlets, including Common Sense, Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason, with the first two of these probably being the most widely read English-language pamphlets of the 18th century, and with the latter being popular but also fiercely attacked.

Franklin and Paine met briefly because of their common intellectual interests when Franklin was serving a diplomatic mission in England, and his letter of introduction helped Paine to land on his feet (after recovering from serious illness) when he arrived in Philadelphia in late 1774. While both Franklin and Paine supported republican revolution in the late 18th century, Paine took more radical positions, leading scholar Craig Nelson to describe him as “Benjamin Franklin unleashed.”

Franklin and Paine also both had religious upbringings: Franklin as a Presbyterian and Paine as an Anglican and Quaker. Neither, however, was inclined to accept the creed of any church, and each tried his hand at writing (and publishing) a personal statement of belief. (These credos are included in the assigned excerpts.) Ultimately, both men believed that religion was necessary to support public virtue — note the second paragraph of the Paine excerpt, for example — but while Franklin charitably supported multiple Christian churches, Paine launched a vociferous attack on revealed (Biblical) religion, which he considered to be both false and morally harmful. Franklin only leaned strongly towards the firm deism that Paine adamantly promoted.

Discussion Questions

  1. How did Franklin and Paine, each in their own way, articulate Enlightenment principles in these writings?
  2. How did Franklin’s and Paine’s views on religion (and Christianity) differ?
  3. How do these two excerpts reflect the influence of Protestant thought?

For an irreverent, alternate view of Franklin, see D. H. Lawrence’s famous 1923 send-up.