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The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in Americaby Louis Menand
Synopses & Reviews
The Civil War made America a modern nation, unleashing forces of industrialism and expansion that had been kept in check for decades by the quarrel over slavery. But the war also discredited the ideas and beliefs of the era that preceded it. The Civil War swept away the slave civilization of the South, but almost the whole intellectual culture of the North went with it. It took nearly half a century for Americans to develop a set of ideas, a way of thinking, that would help them cope with the conditions of modern life. That struggle is the subject of this book.
The story told in The Metaphysical Club runs through the lives of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Civil War hero who became the dominant legal thinker of his time; his best friend as a young man, William James, son of an eccentric moral philosopher, brother of a great novelist, and the father of modern psychology in America; and the brilliant and troubled logician, scientist, and founder of semiotics, Charles Sanders Peirce. Together they belonged to an informal discussion group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872 and called itself the Metaphysical Club. The club was probably in existence for only nine months, and no records were kept. The one thing we know that came out of it was an idea — an idea about ideas, about the role beliefs play in people's lives. This idea informs the writings of these three thinkers, and the work of the fourth figure in the book, John Dewey — student of Peirce, friend and ally of James, admirer of Holmes.
The Metaphysical Club begins with the Civil War and ends in 1919 with the Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Abrams, the basis for the modern law of free speech. It tells the story of the creation of ideas and values that changed the way Americans think and the way they live.
"Readers of Menand's New Yorker and New York Review of Books pieces and of his incisive study of T.S. Eliot, Discovering Modernism, will recognize his deft syntheses of difficult ideas and disparate motivations....The wealth of anecdotes, local exegeses and political asides will leave readers astonished. And the passionately maintained disinterest of the carefully constructed sentences and chapters comes amazingly close to that critical holy grail: transparency. Over its narrative arc and the arc of its subjects' lives, the book slowly and surely makes the ideas of another era available and usable to our own." Publishers Weekly
"...The Metaphysical Club makes a genuinely original contribution to our national self-understanding...as evocative, and precise, as a Luminist painting." Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
"...This is a richly populated, intellectually thrilling book in which America is shown to be discovering its future." Richard Poirier
"Menand writes with the vividness and dash of a novelist...has a clarity and energy of mind all his own..." Robert D. Richardson, Jr., author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire
The Metaphysical Club is the winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History.
A riveting, original book about the creation of modern American thought.
The Metaphysical Club was an informal group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872, to talk about ideas. Its members included Oliver Well Holmes, Jr., future associate justice of the United States Supreme Court; William James, the father of modern American psychology; and Charles Sanders Peirce, logician, scientist, and the founder of semiotics. The Club was probably in existence for about nine months. No records were kept. The one thing we know that came out of it was an idea — an idea about ideas. This book is the story of that idea.
Holmes, James, and Peirce all believed that ideas are not things "out there" waiting to be discovered but are tools people invent — like knives and forks and microchips — to make their way in the world. They thought that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals — that ideas are social. They do not develop according to some inner logic of their own but are entirely depent — like germs — on their human carriers and environment. And they thought that the survival of any idea deps not on its immutability but on its adaptability.
The Metaphysical Club is written in the spirit of this idea about ideas. It is not a history of philosophy but an absorbing narrative about personalities and social history, a story about America. It begins with the Civil War and s in 1919 with Justice Holmes's dissenting opinion in the case of U.S. v. Abrams-the basis for the constitutional law of free speech. The first four sections of the book focus on Holmes, James, Peirce, and their intellectual heir, John Dewey. The last section discusses some of the fundamental twentieth-century ideas they are associated with. This is a book about a way of thinking that changed American life."
About the Author
Louis Menand is a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and has been a contributing editor of The New York Review of Books since 1994. He is the author of Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and His Context and the editor of The Future of Academic Freedom and Pragmatism: A Reader.
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