Pragmatism claims that human thinking and acting, from the least sophisticated to the most sophisticated, are driven by the need to respond to problems: all thought and action are provoked by a tension between ourselves as needy organisms on the one side and, on the other, the environment that must satisfy those needs. We think and act in order to reduce that tension. We are hungry, so we identify food, acquire it, and eat it; we are puzzled by the recurrent patterns of the stars, so we elaborate our first astronomical theories, and as they produce more puzzles, we refine them. Our beliefs about food and the stars are labeled as “true” if what we get is what sustains us. What we call the truth about reality is just a way of describing successful thinking. What, then, is the problem to which pragmatism is an answer? What tension between which organisms and what environment produced that philosophical position as an answer?
Louis Menand’s answer in The Metaphysical Club is both dramatic and persuasive. It is, he thinks, the Civil War to which we must look for the answer. More exactly, it is the Civil War as it was experienced by the young Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. and by his teachers, friends, and intellectual antagonists in mid-nineteenth-century Cambridge. The “problem,” to which the philosophy of pragmatism seemed eventually to supply a solution, was the problem of conviction. The idea that the nineteenth century was the century of a crisis of faith is familiar enough. Yet pragmatism was a solution to a somewhat different crisis of faith. It was not the loss of conviction but a surfeit of it that pragmatism addressed. In Menand’s account of the thinking of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, pragmatism aimed to wean us off religious and ideological convictions—convictions of which the social, political, and moral beliefs of most people are subspecies. The problem of belief to which pragmatism provided an answer was not the familiar Victorian problem of a loss of faith, but the problem of an excess of faith.
John Maynard Keynes memorably expressed his anxiety about the malign impact of ideology when he wrote, “Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are usually distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back.” Holmes would have agreed, save that it was not so much academic scribblers that he had in mind as the abolitionists whose passionate desire to see an end to slavery had finally provoked the Civil War that killed many of his closest friends, all but cost him his life, and took from him every vestige of a faith in fixed principles for whose sake we might feel duty-bound to get ourselves killed.
The problem, then, might be expressed as that of discovering some way in which we can be in command of our ideas rather than vice versa. The goal is to think clearly, and without illusions—not that we should be…
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