Chauncey Wright was a village philosopher whose village happened to be Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was not a professor—he taught two courses at Harvard near the end of his life, and both were generally considered complete failures—and he never wrote a book. His production consisted almost entirely of dense and extremely dry periodical pieces, generally book reviews, for The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and The North American Review. He died, quite suddenly, in 1875, at the age of forty-five. But he flourished—and had an influence on such younger contemporaries as Oliver Wendell Holmes and William James—during one of the most disruptive decades in American intellectual history, the decade between the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, which forced the revision of many of the prevailing systems of philosophical and scien-tific thought, and the inauguration of Charles William Eliot as president of Harvard in 1869, which marked the closing of the era of the American college, with its emphasis on moral instruction, and the beginning of the era of the modern university, with its emphasis on scientific research.

In between those events, of course, was the Civil War, which, like all traumatic wars, made the beliefs and assumptions of the pre-war period seem, to younger people especially, naive, complacent, and obsolete. Those beliefs and assumptions had not prevented the country from going to war, and they seemed to have done nothing to prepare it for the terrible violence the war released. Young Cambridge intellectuals who lived through the war scarcely needed the incitement of Darwin’s book to question the verities of their parents’ generation. They were in the market for a mentor who was not associated with the pre-war intellectual establishment, and whose views seemed systematic, hardheaded, and up-to-date. Chauncey Wright was their man.

Two of the three volumes that make up the new edition of his work, The Evolutionary Philosophy of Chauncey Wright, are reprints: Philosophical Discussions is a selection of Wright’s essays edited by Charles Eliot Norton and first published in 1877, two years after Wright’s death; Letters of Chauncey Wright is a memorial volume, printed privately in 1878. The third volume is a collection of tributes to Wright by some of his contemporaries and of articles on Wright by twentieth-century historians. This volume is introduced by Edward H. Madden, a longtime student of Wright’s life and work.1 The edition is certainly welcome, but there is an odd omission. Not all of Wright’s pieces were published in Philosoph-ical Discussions. The new edition not only does not include any of these uncollected writings; it does not even provide a complete bibliography of Wright’s work. It seems unfortunate to have gone to so much trouble to resurrect this almost forgotten figure and then to leave part of his body still buried in the stacks.


Wright was a man who, almost literally, lived for conversation. He came to Cambridge from Northampton, where he was born in 1830, and where Wrights had lived since the seventeenth century. He attended Harvard and became a student of the leading American mathematician of the day, Benjamin Peirce. After his graduation, in 1852, Wright went to work for the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac, a federally financed publication for which Peirce served as consulting astronomer. Wright was what was known in the nineteenth century as a computer: he performed mathematical calculations. His job at the Almanac was to compose ephemerides, tables giving the future positions of the sun, moon, planets, and principal fixed stars for use in navigation. It was a full-time job, but Wright squeezed the entire year’s work into three months, partly by devising new methods of calculation (he was a talented mathematician) and partly by working (aided by a constant infusion of nicotine) almost around the clock. The other nine months, he talked.

When he was in college Wright had developed a habit of turning up in his friends’ rooms and sitting quietly, sometimes for hours, doing nothing in particular until someone asked him a question. Then he would begin to converse; and once he got going, people had a hard time stopping him. “He could talk well,” remembered Norton, in whose house Wright was at one period an almost daily habitué, “too long for average human nature.” Wright was a large, phlegmatic man, but he was gentle, serene to the point of indolence, and, in a bland and unassuming way, a kind of genius. He had a knack for assimilating ideas. People rarely saw him do more with a book than glance at the table of contents and read a page or two at random, but he always seemed thoroughly informed about the latest work in philosophy, mathematics, and science. And he could explain anything. He once wrote a young woman a thousand-word letter explaining why taffy turns white when you pull it.


Wright was unmarried. He lodged, after 1861, in the house of Mary Walker, a fugitive former slave from North Carolina whose children Wright helped to locate and to bring north during the war. He seemed to have spent most of the time he was not composing ephemerides in other people’s houses discoursing on whatever subjects arose. His friends thought that his conversation was inspired, and that his published pieces gave a poor idea of the quality of his mind; they hoped for grander things. But Wright had few literary or scientific aspirations. He was content to serve as the local Socrates. He was also a depressive and an alcoholic, and it seems likely that the hospitality he enjoyed was due partly to his gifts as an interlocutor (he also invented card tricks, built ingenious mechanical toys, and juggled), and partly to a general concern for his welfare. He was the kind of loner loneliness makes miserable.

Socrates was Wright’s model, but unlike Socrates, Wright had a doctrine. He was a positivist, and positivism was the view he defended in conversation against all comers. In the nineteenth century positivism was a movement associated principally with French thinkers—Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, Charles Fourier, Joseph Proudhon—but Wright despised the French, whose culture he thought fetishized ideas, and he considered positivism a quintessentially Anglo-Saxon philosophy. His heroes were Englishmen: Francis Bacon and John Stuart Mill.

What Wright meant by positivism was an absolute distinction between facts and values. Fact was the province of science, and value was the province of what he called, always a little deprecatingly, metaphysics. Wright thought that metaphysical speculation—ideas about the origin, end, and meaning of life—came naturally to human beings. He didn’t condemn such ideas out of hand. He just thought they should never be confused with science. For what science teaches is that the phenomenal world—the world we can see and touch—is characterized, through and through, by change, and that our knowledge of it is characterized, through and through, by uncertainty.

His favorite illustration was the weather. Everyone believes that the weather is purely a product of physical cause and effect, but no one can predict it with certainty. “Unlike planetary perturbations, the weather makes the most reckless excursions from its averages, and obscures them by a most inconsequent and incalculable fickleness,”2 Wright maintained in one of the first articles he ever published (not included in Philosophical Discussions), “The Winds and the Weather,” in 1858. We accept this state of affairs about the weather—that it is a perfectly lawful, rather mundane phenomenon whose complexity nevertheless vastly exceeds our ability to understand it—and yet we freely pontificate about the causes of human unhappiness and the future progress of society, things determined by factors presumably many times more complex than the weather. It would be too much to say that this inconsistency roused Chauncey Wright—he was not an excitable man—but it attracted his attention, and he spent much of his career attempting to correct it.

It is not, on Wright’s view, that every event is not completely determined by physical causes. Wright believed that every event was so determined. It is just that precise knowledge of those causes and how they operate is inaccessible to science in its present state—and, considering the multitude of factors, each with its own degree of probability of occurrence, involved in producing the outcome of even the simplest events, such as flipping a coin, that knowledge will probably remain inaccessible.

Wright had a theory about the fickleness of the weather. He thought that it was the reason organic change occurred. Plants and the lower orders of animals have no power to develop by themselves, he suggested; they need the stimulation of external forces that act on them destructively. The inconstancy of the weather, he thought, might perform this function, by (for example) killing organisms prematurely by unusual cold or heat or wind. And it may also be that the changes we observe in plants and other simple organisms due to the weather also explain the evolution, long ago, of all life forms. For

the classification of organic forms presents to the naturalist, not the structure of a regular though incomplete development, but the broken and fragmentary form of a ruin. We may suppose…that the creation of those organic forms which constitute this fragmentary system was effected in the midst of an elemental storm, a regulated confusion, uniting all the external conditions which the highest capacities and the greatest varieties of organized life require for their fullest development; and that as the storm subsided into a simpler, but less genial diversity,—into the weather,—whole orders and genera and species sank with it from the ranks of possible organic forms. The weather, fallen from its high estate, no longer able to develop, much less to create new forms, can only sustain those that are left to its care.3

The vision is very close to Darwin’s; and so it is not surprising that when On the Origin of Species appeared a year later, Wright was enchanted. It is one of the few books he was observed to have read all the way through, and he read it more than once. Darwin became his hero. They corresponded.


Wright did not consider himself (the title of the new edition is a little misleading) an evolutionist. To Wright, the term “evolution” denoted a belief that the world was getting, on some definition, “better.” His loyalty was only to the theory of natural selection, which he thought corresponded perfectly to his notion of life as weather. “The principle of the theory of Natural Selection is taught in the discourse of Jesus with Nicodemus the Pharisee,” he once explained in a letter to Charles Norton’s sister Grace. The discourse with Nicodemus is in the Gospel according to St. John, and the words of Jesus that Wright was referring to are these: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it go-eth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” Wright was one of the few nineteenth-century Darwinists who actually thought like Darwin—one of the few evolutionists, that is, who did not associate evolutionary change with progress. “Never use the word[s] higher & lower,”4 Darwin once scribbled in the margins of a book that was in many ways proleptic of the Origin, Robert Chambers’s Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published in 1844. The advice proved almost impossible to follow to the letter, even for Darwin, but if anyone respected its spirit, it was Chauncey Wright.

Wright’s particular bête noire was the evolutionist Herbert Spencer, whose work seemed to him a flagrant violation of the separation of science and metaphysics. “Mr. Spencer,” as he put it, “is not a positivist.” Spencer’s mistake was to treat the concepts of science, which are merely tools of inquiry, as though they were realities of nature. The theory of natural selection, for example, posits continuity in the sequence of natural phenomena (evolution does not proceed by leaps). But “continuity” is simply a verbal handle we attach to a bundle of empirical observations. It is not something that actually exists in nature. Spencer failed to understand this, and he therefore imputed cosmic reality to what are just conceptual inferences—just words. He did with the word “evolution” what the anti-Darwinists did with the word “creation”: he erected an idol to an unknowable entity. He abandoned science for metaphysics.

“Mr. Spencer’s philosophy…contemplates the universe in its totality as having an intelligible order, a relation of beginning and end—a development,”5 Wright complained. But the universe is only weather:

Everything out of the mind is a product, the result of some process. Nothing is exempt from change. Worlds are formed and dissipated. Races of organic beings grow up like their constituent individual members, and disappear like these. Nothing shows a trace of an original, immutable nature, except the unchangeable laws of change. These point to no beginning and to no end in time, nor to any bounds in space. All indications to the contrary in the results of physical research are clearly traceable to imperfections in our present knowledge of all the laws of change, and to that disposition to cosmological speculations which still prevails even in science.

“No real fate or necessity is indeed manifested anywhere in the universe,” Wright wrote, elsewhere, to a friend,”—only a phenomenal regularity.”

Wright especially objected to Spencer’s adoption of the nebular hypothesis—the theory, advanced by the great French scientist Pierre-Simon Laplace, that the solar system was formed by the condensation, through gradual cooling, of the gaseous atmosphere (the nebulae) surrounding the sun. Wright regarded this theory as a classic example of evolutionism in the bad sense: it described a development from lower to higher, from chaos to system. Possibly the solar system had evolved out of the sun’s nebulae, Wright argued; but if so, what was to prevent it from devolving right back into gas again? “The constitution of the solar system is not archetypal, as the ancients supposed, but the same corrupt mix of law and apparent accident that the phenomena of the earth’s surface exhibit,” he insisted. And since all natural movements produce, eventually, countermovements—since the sun eventually drives out the rain—there is no reason to think that the present solar system constitutes the final state of anything. Judging from what we observe in the rest of nature, in fact, there is every reason to assume that the solar system will some day swing back in the direction of relative chaos (or homogeneity), from which it will again evolve into a different kind of relative order (or heterogeneity). In explaining how this process might work, Wright introduced his signature phrase:

Of what we may call cosmical weather, in the interstellar spaces, little is known. Of the general cosmical effects of the opposing actions of heat and gravitation, the great dispersive and concentrative principles of the universe, we can at present only form vague conjectures; but that these two principles are the agents of vast counter-movements in the formation and destruction of systems of worlds, always operative in never-ending cycles and in infinite time, seems to us to be by far the most rational supposition which we can form concerning the matter.

For Wright’s friends, “cosmical weather” became the term that summed up his thought.

Since he considered metaphysical speculation groundless, how did Wright propose that people should approach moral and religious questions? In public matters he was content with the standard utilitarian formula—the good is equal to the greatest happiness of the greatest number—but in personal matters his indifference was settled: “About what we really know nothing we ought not to affirm or deny any thing,” he told his friend the philosopher Francis Ellingwood Abbot.

Still, though he professed neutrality on the question of the existence of a god (“Atheism is speculatively as unfounded as theism, and practically can only spring from bad motives,” he explained to Abbot), he was hostile to organized religion, which he considered oppression through the fetishization of words. “Religion” and “religious,” he wrote to Norton, are “good words through which one of the subtlest forms of tyranny is exercised over freedom of thought.” In the modern world, though, concepts were at last being properly understood as the means, and not the ends, of inquiry. “‘Fixed ideas,’ once controlling elements, are now subservient instruments of great purposes or characters,” he informed Norton (who was traveling in Italy, a perilous recreation that moved Wright to send him a number of reminders about the baleful history of superstition). “They are still needed for discipline, but are not worshipped as masters.”

Wright thought that religious faith was beyond argument. If faith satisfied an emotional need, there was nothing more to be said about it, except that no one had the right to impose his or her religion on anyone else. Morality was another matter. Religion is personal and unconditional, but morality is social and conventional. Morals do not require philosophical grounding, and they can be imposed on other people, since they simply represent the rules a given society has found reason to enforce. Yet philosophers persist in devising abstract moral systems. Since, on Wright’s view, all such systems are speculative, sheer metaphysical word-worship, how are we supposed to justify our moral choices?

Wright believed that this was not a problem, and he laid out his views in a letter to Abbot. “I have always believed that the really essential positions of morals and religion could be sustained on the ‘lower’ ground of common-sense,—on what men generally understand and believe independently of their philosophical theories,” he explained. Philosophers like to deduce dire practical consequences from the theories of their opponents; but in daily life people’s philosophical beliefs don’t have very much to do with the way they actually behave:

Men conclude in matters affecting their own welfare so much better than they can justify rationally,—they are led by their instincts of reverence so surely to the safest known authority, that theory becomes in such matters an insignificant affair…. To stake any serious human concern on the truth of this or that philosophical theory seems to me, therefore, in the highest degree arrogant and absurd, as coming from a confused begging of some philosophical question,—from taking for granted that something is important practically which is in theory problematical; from taking for granted, for example, that our duties would be different, or be more or less binding on us according as our faith in a future life should be well or ill founded.

Wright wrote those words in 1867, two years after one of his brothers died from wounds suffered at the battle of Cold Harbor in Virginia. If the Civil War taught anything, it was that beliefs have consequences; in this sense, Wright’s entire position was a form of denial. Where, after all, is the bright line that divides common sense from philosophy, or the practical from the theoretical, or what we call facts from what we call values? The effect of belief on conduct may be impossible to predict in an individual case (this, too, was a lesson of the war), but what is imponderable is not therefore irrelevant—as any student of the weather ought to know. “Where we cannot be certain, we must affirm nothing” was the motto to which Wright’s positivism reduced.

What Wright might have said in his letter to Abbot is that people are better off relying on their instincts of sympathy and common sense than they are trying to obey the dictates of a system of abstractions. But that would have sounded like constructing a morality from first principles, and Wright had ruled this out as an empty exercise. He had, with impressive scientific authority, driven himself into a moral dead end. For some young Cambridge intellectuals in the years after the war, Wright’s thought represented a mature debunking of the philosophical and scientific certitudes that had failed to prevent—in some cases had even incited—four years of mutual destruction. Their challenge, as they perceived it, was to devise a theory of conduct that made sense in a universe like the one Wright described, a universe of uncertainty. But for Wright himself no such theory was imaginable. His nihilism was fairly complete.


Wright’s historical importance does not lie in his ideas. It lies in his associations. His principal accomplishment was to have surrounded himself with accomplished people. Before it was published in The Atlantic Monthly, Wright had read his paper on “The Winds and the Weather” to a small group of male friends who called themselves the Septem. The group had come together in 1856, and its seven members included two old friends of Wright’s from Northampton who had also been his classmates at Harvard—James Bradley Thayer, later a professor at Harvard Law School and the author of an influential essay on constitutional interpretation, and Ephraim Gurney, a historian and eventually the first dean of Harvard College. The group met usually in Wright’s rooms, and its transactions were not exclusively philosophical. Thayer, who served as secretary, recorded in the minutes of one meeting that the only thing he could remember afterward was that someone had made a motion to change the name of the group to the Whiskey Punch Club.

In 1859, after two of its members got married, the group broke up. In 1863 Wright fell into a depression and began drinking heavily. He had somehow injured his foot and healing was slow: the more he drank, the longer it took. Gurney and Norton undertook to resuscitate him by doing duty as conversationalists; Norton began soliciting pieces regularly from him for The North American Review, which he had taken over as editor in 1864; and in 1865 the Septem (with some new members) was revived by Gurney, and Wright had his school back.

The impulse to form schools was in Wright’s nature. They were his surrogate for family. Sometimes his school was someone else’s actual family, as was the case with the Nortons. Sometimes it took the form of a tutorial, as was the case with Francis Abbot, to whom Wright sent long letters gently correcting his philosophical errors. (Abbot lived in New Hampshire, where he worked as a Unitarian minister until he was fired by his congregation for preaching that the authority of Jesus was no greater than the authority of his own reason, a doctrine too unsupernatural even for Unitarians.) And sometimes the school was an actual club, usually composed of younger, unmarried men.

In 1868 Gurney married Ellen Hooper (the sister of Henry Adams’s wife, Clover); the Nortons went abroad, where they remained for four years; and Wright suffered another alcoholic breakdown. This one lasted nearly two years and forced him to abandon his work for the Almanac. Once again he was helped out by the intercession of friends and by the formation of a new club, this one consisting entirely of himself and two young disciples: Eldridge Cutler, a Harvard professor, and Charles Salter, another former Unitarian minister who had resigned because of theological doubts and had turned to the law. (It was a short-lived club: Cutler and Salter both died, unexpectedly, in 1870.) Wright never fully recovered from this second collapse, but he was back in business. And in 1872, he became a participant in the legendary group called the Metaphysical Club.

Part of the reason the Metaphysical Club is legendary is that so little is known about it. It seems to have existed for less than a year—it was evidently formed in January 1872, and held its final meeting the following November—and only one participant ever mentioned it in published writings, unpublished manuscripts, or letters. No minutes were kept. But we do know that three of the most interesting and important intellects of their generation were among its members: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce.

There are many affinities in the mature work of these thinkers; there are also many points of disagreement. The affinities make it natural to assign some special role to the club—to picture it as the place where a certain strain of modern American thought got hammered out. But this is almost certainly an exaggeration. Though they were all in their early thirties in 1872, Holmes, James, and Peirce were already well along the paths that brought them to the views for which they are now famous. Their influence on one another (apart from the stimulation of the company) seems, actually, to have been fairly small. But they did know each other, and they also knew Chauncey Wright.

Wright’s importance did not lie in forging the affinities among those three thinkers, but in bringing out the disagreements. Holmes, for example, identified completely with Wright’s positivism. “Chauncey Wright, a nearly forgotten philosopher of real merit, taught me when young that I must not say necessary about the universe, that we don’t know whether anything is necessary or not,” he wrote to his friend the British jurist Frederick Pollock in 1929, when he was in his eighties. “So I describe myself as a bettabilitarian. I believe that we can bet on the behavior of the universe in its contract with us. We bet we can know what it will be. That leaves a loophole for free will—in the miraculous sense—the creation of a new atom of force, although I don’t in the least believe in it.”6

James, on the other hand, did believe in free will (what would it mean to bet, after all, if we were not free to choose the stakes?), and he was repelled by Wright’s reduction of the world to pure phenomena. He thought Wright made the universe into a “Nulliverse,”7 and he regarded the abyss Wright placed between facts and values as a fiction. James thought that Wright’s decision to separate science from metaphysics was itself a metaphysical choice—that Wright’s disapproval of talk about values was just an expression of Wright’s own values. Wright was a positivist because positivism suited his character: moral neutrality was his way of dealing with the world—and that, in James’s view, is what all beliefs are anyway, “scientific” or otherwise.

Charles Peirce was the only member of the club who (it was thirty years later) ever mentioned it in print. Charles was the son of Benjamin Peirce, Wright’s old mentor at Harvard and boss at the Almanac. They met in 1857, when Charles was eighteen and Wright was twenty-seven, and soon began getting together almost daily to debate the nature of the universe. Their main point of contention was determinism. For unlike Wright, who thought that every event had a physical cause, Peirce believed in the existence of absolute chance—the uncaused cause. This belief, which he eventually called “tychism,” became the basis of his cosmology.

It was by means of Peirce’s reminiscences that the Metaphysical Club achieved its semimythical status. For Peirce claimed that the club was the place where he first introduced the term “pragmatism” to philosophy—a term resurrected twenty-six years later by William James and made the name for the school of thought led by James and his younger admirer John Dewey. To a great extent, Wright’s survival as a figure in intellectual history depends on this connection between his club and the later writings of James and Dewey. Still, his own contribution to pragmatism was a limited one. He insisted on the idea, central to what James and Dewey wrote, that the world is shot through with contingency, that what looks like necessity is often simply the way things happen to be, when they might easily be different. He would have had no patience, though, with James and Dewey’s idea that our knowledge of that world is always soaked through with our interests, our values, and our hopes. The split between our beliefs and the way things really are was one he knew no way across.

The Metaphysical Club unraveled because Harvard University was reformed. Charles William Eliot, who was named president of Harvard in 1869, was a chemist (he was on the faculty at MIT when he was offered the job). His appointment constituted a recognition that American higher education was changing, and that Harvard was in danger of losing its prestige. Harvard picked Eliot because it wanted to become more modern and scientific, and Eliot did not disappoint. He became the greatest professionalizer in the history of American higher education. He soon hired William James, who went on to become an academic star, first as a psychologist (his major work, The Principles of Psychology, was published in 1890) and then as a philosopher (Pragmatism appeared in 1907). Eliot did not get along with Benjamin Peirce, and he disliked Charles intensely. He thought him disagreeable and dissolute, disapproved of his love affairs, and eventually had him banned from the campus.

In his first year as president Eliot inaugurated a series of lecture courses designed for graduates and local residents. Holmes gave one course; Wright was invited to offer another. Wright’s topic was “Expositions of the Principles of Psychology,” and his lectures were a disaster. He never had more than twelve students in attendance, and he turned out to have no flair for classroom instruction. “The lectures were delivered in a monotonous way, without emphasis, and they failed to arouse interest,” one of Wright’s young disciples, the lawyer Joseph Bangs Warner, later recalled with some pain. “The picture which is vividly before me is of his face rather a blank, his eyes fastened on the desk below him and therefore appearing shut, his frame almost motionless, and his voice even, to a monotonous degree.”

Wright’s friends persisted, and in 1874–1875 he was given a class in mathematical physics. This, too, was a bomb, and in July Eliot wrote him to say the course would not be repeated. Only one student had registered. On September 12, Wright’s landlady found at him slumped over at his desk; he had suffered a stroke during the night. That day he had a second stroke, and he died without recovering consciousness. William James was out of town. He got the news in a letter from his father, Henry James Sr. “He had been drinking moderately for a few days, but not harmfully,” Henry James wrote. “He was in here a few days ago to read to you a proof of his article on Darwinism in this last week’s Nation. He sat with me two hours & over and we had a charming conversation…. I said to the family when he left, that Chauncey was in his very best bloom.”8 Wright was a modern intellectual in every respect but one: intimacy was the necessary condition for his mind to work. His was a type the university made obsolete.

This Issue

April 26, 2001