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The Group

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 disillusioned, since that is the substitution of one obsession for another, but that we should understand how thinking organisms come to have the ideas they do, and should learn to live with that knowledge. Another way of making the point, and one that Menand himself employs, is to observe

that what these four thinkers [Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey] had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea—an idea about ideas. They all believed 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.

In Menand’s view, the pragmatists achieved the emancipation of our thinking from outdated straitjackets by an insistence on the social and collective quality of thought:

They believed that ideas are produced not by individuals but by groups of individuals—that ideas are social. They believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment. And they believed that since ideas are provisional responses to particular and un-reproducible circumstances, their survival depends not on their immutability but on their adaptability. 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.

It is something of a shock to be asked to put Justice O.W. Holmes Jr. at the center of a history of pragmatism, but Menand does not unduly stretch the reader’s credulity. In part this is because he devotes less attention to pragmatism viewed in the way a modern—that is, post–World War II—analytically minded philosopher might view it, and more attention to what one might call intellectual self-emancipation, first of the Boston Brahmins, and more widely of twentieth-century Americans at large. Peirce, James, and Dewey occupy a good deal of space, but so do Justice Holmes’s father, the “autocrat of the breakfast table,” Chauncey Wright, “the Cambridge Socrates,”* along with Henry James Sr., Benjamin Peirce, and Louis Agassiz, as well as Horace Kallen, Alain Locke, and Randolph Bourne among the inheritors of their efforts. The deeper reason why Menand is so persuasive, however, is that he writes an unusual kind of intellectual history.

Too often, intellectual history is bloodless; ideas come and go in historical sequence, but the people who think those ideas show up as cardboard cutouts, mere contingent carriers of the ideas that alone have a real life. Menand takes a different approach. If we are to believe that ideas really are the instruments with which we confront the demands of the environment, we should see thinkers thinking in order to understand the ideas being thought. If history is philosophy teaching by examples, the history of pragmatism is—at any rate in part—the biography of an exemplary group of energetic, public-spirited, high-minded, and confident thinkers who felt they owed a duty to themselves and the world at large to rethink their relationship to their environment.

Hence the plausibility of starting a few years before the outbreak of the Civil War. Of the importance of the war to Justice Holmes, there has never been any doubt. On his death in 1935, at the advanced age of ninety-three, two Civil War uniforms were found in his closet; the note pinned to them explained that the blood on them was his own. Every year on the anniversary of the battle of Antietam, he would drink a toast in memory of his dead friends and his own suffering as a young man. But Holmes was not in the usual sense a passionate Unionist; nor was he an entirely convinced adherent of the cause for which he fought. The reality of the war had taught him unwelcome lessons about the consequences of big ideas, and the near cynicism with which he later approached even his work on the Supreme Court reflected his determination that he would never again be the victim of large and dangerous certainties.

Of course, it was not as though the pre-war moral situation had itself been simple. As it turned out, the war saved the Union and abolished slavery. In the twenty or so years before the outbreak of fighting, nobody thought that both could be achieved together. Defenders of the Union were prepared to tolerate slavery in the South as the price of Union, and many in New England had too many economic ties to the South to imagine that a sudden break would be anything but disastrous. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was a Unionist, and deeply hostile to the abolitionists; the abolitionist contempt for the preservation of the Union struck him as only slightly less wicked than outright treason would have been. The abolitionists were as difficult to deal with as any group is likely to be that cares nothing for the preservation of the existing political order. “The United States Constitution is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell” was the motto on the masthead of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator, a view not calculated to make cooperation with Unionist critics of slavery particularly easy. Until the attack on Fort Sumter, the abolitionist reaction to threats of secession was that the sooner the slave states went, the better for the moral health of the remaining states.

The young Holmes became an abo-litionist as the result of an intoxica-tion with Emerson: Emerson and his father were friends, though they came perilously close to quarreling when Holmes’s father accused the abolitionists of treason. To the extent that the young Holmes modeled himself on anyone, it was on Emerson. As a Harvard undergraduate just before the war broke out, he was rebuked by the faculty for the indecorous way in which he mocked religion in a student magazine; an angry classmate complained that he was simply copying Emerson’s insulting treatment of Jesus. But when a Quaker friend recruited him to serve as a bodyguard for the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, Holmes signed up. When the war broke out in the spring of his final year, he immediately left Harvard to try to enlist.

Characteristically, he did not bother to tell the Harvard authorities; and equally characteristically, he was not impressed when he was allowed to return in June to finish his studies and not distressed when the faculty lowered his class standing as a rebuke for his unlawful absence. That out of the way, he went to war. He was almost killed in his first battle, at Ball’s Bluff in October 1861, when a ball struck him above the heart; he was wounded in the neck at Antietam, missed Fredericksburg because he narrowly escaped death from dysentery while the battle was on, and was then shot in the foot in May 1863. Although he was a staff officer when he returned to duty in January 1864, he then took part in the ghastly, grinding campaign in which Grant slowly destroyed Lee’s Confederate forces. With hindsight, that campaign seems to be a dress rehearsal for the horrors of World War I, and Holmes loathed the experience.

Although he had thoroughly lost his faith in the easy controllability of events, Holmes did not lose his faith in the professional skills of soldiers—and, in due course, the professional skills of lawyers. It was large statements of moral principle that he had come to despise, with their accompanying willingness to send other people off to get killed for the sake of their implementation. The professional who thinks as far as required for the sake of what has to be done next became a model for a serious approach to the world. It was, in fact, one of the standing concerns of pragmatism to defend professional expertise against philosophical hot air. Plumbers, mechanics, laboratory scientists had ways of arriving at reliable information about the way things work and the way they go wrong, but philosophers worrying about the materiality of mind or the ideality of matter were wasting their time. Critics of pragmatism have always complained that pragmatists don’t take truth seriously, but this has always been wrong. Pragmatists have never impugned the scientist’s search for experimental truth, or the novelist’s search for psychological truth. The only intellectual discipline they attacked was their own, philosophy; and what they attacked was the pretension of philosophy to stand in judgment over whatever else humankind was thinking and why.

  1. *

    See Menand’s article on Wright in The New York Review, April 26, 2001.

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