Synopses & Reviews
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."
"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
"The Metaphysical Club
is dramatic and persuasive ... something very like a history of the American mind at work."
--Alan Ryan, The New York Review of Books
"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
and#160; "Evocative new biographyand#8230;.Irmscher is a richly descriptive writer with an eye for detail, the compexities and contradictions of character, and the workings of institutional and familial power structuresand#8230;.This book is not just about a man of science but also about a scientific culture in the makingand#8212;warts and all."
and#8212;The New York Times Book Review "Compelling biography...A masterful portrait illuminating the tangled human dynamics of science."
"In Irmscherand#8217;s hands, Agassizand#8217;s life and passions are embedded in the major intellectual ideas of his timeand#8230;. The relationship between Agassiz and his second wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, the first president of Radcliffe College, is also fascinating."
"Christoph Irmscher's elegant, beautifully written account does the essential task of setting the mysterious Agassiz in his full social and historical context, where we can both appreciate his gifts and see his flaws clearly. His portrayal of Elizabeth Agassiz and her contributions is brilliant, and his exploration of Agassiz's stagnation, as the world turned without him, is both rigorous and poignant. Through the prism of Agassiz's life, much of 19th-century culture gleams freshly."
and#8212;Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal "A biography as exuberant as its brilliant but wrong-headed subject, the unforgettable forgotten celebrity scientist Louis Agassiz. Christoph Irmscher is in his element detailing the exploits of this larger-than-life anti-hero of the Age of Darwin, whose feats of discovery took him from the Swiss Alps to the Amazon jungle and made him Harvardand#8217;s reigning eminence for decades."
and#8212;Megan Marshall, author of The Peabody Sisters and Margaret Fuller "Christoph Irmscher has brought to life an essential figure in the history of American science and culture. Irmscher's expertise and talent for vivid prose open a fascinating window onto the origins of American science as we know it."
and#8212;Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club "A thoroughly satisfying biographyand#8230;Irmscher makes a convincing case that this egotistical, often wrongheaded figure deserves his reputation as a founder and first great popularizer of American science."
and#8212;Kirkus Reviews "Reading this book is a pleasure - the writing is engaging and witty, while always intellectually rewarding and#8230;. Irmscher's account of Agassiz's life reminds us always to examine our own preconceptions concerning the nature of reality and man's place in the universe."
and#8212;Tom Cronin, Professor of Biology, University of Maryland and#160;
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.
Aand#160;provocative new life restoring Agassiz--America's most famous natural scientist of the nineteenth century, inventor of theand#160;Ice Age, stubborn anti-Darwinist--to his glorious, troubling place in science and culture.
Charismatic and controversial, Louis Agassiz is our least known revolutionaryand#8212;some fifty years after American independence, he became a founding father of American science.
One hundred and seventy-five years ago, a Swiss immigrant took America by storm, launching American science as we know it. The irrepressible Louis Agassiz, legendary at a young age for his work on mountain glaciers, focused his prodigious energies on the fauna of the New World. Invited to deliver a series of lectures in Boston, he never left, becoming the most famous scientist of his time. A pioneer in field research and an obsessive collector, Agassiz enlisted the American public in a vast campaign to send him natural specimens, dead or alive, for his ingeniously conceived museum of comparative zoology. As an educator of enduring impact, he trained a generation of American scientists and science teachers, men and women alike. Irmscher sheds new light on Agassizand#8217;s fascinating partnership with his brilliant wife, Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, a science writer in her own right who would go on to become the first president of Radcliffe College.and#160;
But thereand#8217;s a dark side to the story. Irmscher adds unflinching evidence of Agassizand#8217;s racist impulses and shows how avidly Americans looked to men of science to mediate race policy. The bookand#8217;s potent, original scenes include the pitched battle between Agassiz and his student Henry James Clark as well as the merciless, often amusing exchanges between Darwin and Harvard botanist Asa Gray over Agassizand#8217;s stubborn resistance to evolution.
A fascinating life story, both inspiring and cautionary, for anyone interested in the history of American ideas.
About the Author
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
Table of Contents
List of Illustrationsand#8195;ix
AGASSIZ AT RESTand#8195;9
THE ICE KINGand#8195;41
DARWINand#8217;S BARNACLES, AGASSIZand#8217;S JELLYFISHand#8195;121
MR. CLARKand#8217;S HEADACHEand#8195;168
A PINT OF INKand#8195;219
A DELICATE BALANCEand#8195;270
A GALand#193;PAGOS PICNICand#8195;311
Abbreviations and Notesand#8195;357