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?