Climbing down from the shoulders of giants?

One of my all-time favourite books is Louis Menand’s 2001 The Metaphysical Club, an intellectual history of a quartet of philosophers whose influence helped the United States emerge from the trauma of the Civil War and grow into the successful society, economy, world power it became in the 20th century. The philosophy of the four – Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, John Dewey and Charles Peirce – was pragmatism. This is best understood not as a body of ideas but – in Menand’s words – as “an idea about ideas”. Ideas are not entities out there in the world but are produced by groups of people. Ideas are social.

“The belief that ideas should never become ideologies – either justifying the status quo, or dictating some transcendent imperative for renouncing it – was the essence of what they taught. … They taught a kind of skepticism that helped people cope with life in a heterogeneous, industrialized, mass market society. … This skepticism is also one of the qualities that make societies like that work. It is what permits the continual state of upheaval that capitalism thrives on. Holmes, James, Peirce and Dewey helped to free thought from thralldom to official ideologies, of the church, the state, or even the academy. There is also, though, implicit on what they wrote, a recognition of the limits of what thought can do in the struggle to increase human happiness.”

I highly commend this book to anyone unfamiliar with it. It is beautifully written and a gripping story as well as a philosophical reflection. Its relevance as background reading in the year of a dispiriting US presidential election should already be obvious.

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

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