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.

The world to which Holmes returned was not only wracked by uncertainty whether the cost of the Civil War in lives and money was remotely worth paying, but unsettled by the impact of science on old certainties, especially the impact of Darwinian evolution. Menand has much to say about the negative effects the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz had on the Cambridge intellectual world; Agassiz was a peculiar mixture of scientific distinction and show-business charlatanism, but whichever aspect predominated it issued in a conviction that species were fixed, that God had created the natural world with all the species in place—and by extension that social relations between white Americans and black were fraught with mischief. This did not prevent him—as the young William James gleefully recorded in the diary of his time as a research assistant to Agassiz on his Brazilian expedition of 1865–1866—from engaging in some unusual fieldwork:

On entering the room found Prof. engaged in cajoling 3 moças [young women] whom he called pure indians but who I thought & afterwards appeared, had white blood… Apparently refined, at all events not sluttish, they consented to the utmost liberties being taken with them and two without much trouble were induced to strip and pose naked.

By 1865, Agassiz exemplified something other than the easy hypocrisy of someone who deplored miscegenation but enjoyed the sexual attractiveness of mulatto girls; he also exemplified an extinct form of science. Darwin’s account of evolution rested on statistical evidence, and appealed to the sheer improbability of any mechanism other than evolutionary pressure accounting for the various kinds of flora and fauna that collectors in the field came up with. Agassiz stuck doggedly to his belief that species first existed as ideas in the mind of God and arrived in the world after the periodic cleansings by glaciation that God employed to eliminate old species and make room for new ones.

The impact of new, probabilistic ways of thinking about the world took some time to make itself felt, though the young William James was naturally receptive to it. It is here, however, that Chauncey Wright steps onto Menand’s stage, and the short-lived “Metaphysical Club”—short-lived if it ever existed at all—makes its appearance. The only reference to the club by a proper name occurs in an unpublished manuscript written by Charles Saunders Peirce thirty-five years afterward:

It was in the earliest seventies that a knot of us young men in Old Cambridge, calling our-selves, half-ironically, half-defiantly, “The Metaphysical Club”—for agnosticism was then riding its high horse, and was frowning superbly upon all metaphysics,—used to meet, sometimes in my study, sometimes in that of William James.
The other members of the group included Holmes and Wright. That some group met to discuss metaphysical questions is certain, however, from a couple of good-naturedly mocking letters that Henry James wrote to his friends Lizzie Boott and Charles Eliot Norton, announcing to the latter that “Wendell Holmes is about to discourse out here on jurisprudence. He, my brother, and various other long-headed youths have combined to form a metaphysical club, where they wrangle grimly and stick to the question.”

Menand is more than aware of the differences of view that make it somewhat perilous to describe James and Peirce, let alone Dewey, as jointly subscribing to pragmatism. So great were these differences that when James described himself as a pragmatist, Peirce, who had originally coined the word, redescribed himself as a “pragmaticist” on the grounds that the word was too ugly for anyone to misappropriate. But Menand finds an elegant way around the bog into which philosophers cannot but stray when they attempt to compare and contrast Peirce, James, and Dewey on the subject of truth. This is provided by Chauncey Wright, himself physically inelegant but of extraordinary intellectual agility; he was just about the only man in Cambridge who was up to the Peirces’ mathematical standards. It seems to have been he who pulled together Peirce, James, and Holmes. And out of their arguments over almost twenty years—Wright met C.S. Peirce in 1857 and died of a stroke in 1875, aged only forty-five—pragmatism emerged.

The differences between the members of the Metaphysical Club were sharp; Wright believed that the universe was perfectly orderly but that the human mind could not reduce it to anything better than probabilistic laws, while Peirce thought that reality itself was only governed by probabilities; both Peirce and Wright vastly disapproved of James’s enthusiasm for “the will to believe,” and did not care much for the alternative formulations of “the duty to believe” and “the right to believe” that he was happy to offer in place of the offending phrase. None of them was as unconcerned about cosmological problems as Dewey was, some thirty years afterward. Peirce in particular was in his way a metaphysician in the grand manner, unwilling to let go of the conviction that the world is meant to be known to us, even if it was only after an infinitely prolonged encounter between the community of inquirers and the world inquired into.

What they concurred in was that however things turned out ultimately, human thinking had two crucial properties. One was that it was social rather than individual, and the other that we carve up reality as we need to, not in some fashion that reality itself simply dictates to us. It has always been a complaint against pragmatism that it is shifty about the objective existence of a reality independent of ourselves; but the truth is that pragmatists—at any rate, Peirce, James, and Dewey—were not shifty about the objective existence of the real world; they were simply uninterested in philosophical discussions of the issue. They had absorbed Hume’s observation that it is not a failure in logic for a man to believe that the world is a figment of his imagination, any more than it is for a man to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of his little finger. Like Hume, they thought that anyone who seriously maintained either position was simply mad, impossible to imagine as a member of a normal human community.

The question one might retrospectively pose to them was, What next? Once we have junked old obsessions, what are we to attend to instead? Although Menand refrains from ranking his quartet of pragmatists, there is a sense in which it is Dewey who most nearly fulfills the historical role that Menand assigns them. In some ways it could hardly be otherwise. Holmes was a judge, and although he was a notable commentator on the nature of law and justice, his impact on American society stemmed from that fact. Peirce was self-destructive, given to causing sexual scandals, incapable of securing steady employment, and for the last twenty five years of his life kept from starvation by the charity of his friends. James died sooner than he should have done; had he lived as long as Dewey or Holmes, he would have lived until 1940. As it was, his quirky curiosity about psychic research and his continual harking back to the puzzle of religious belief meant that he had little to say about large social and political issues. Or, one might say, he was still thinking about the things that bothered the Boston Brahmins, not about the anxieties and enthusiasms of America at large.

Dewey, on the other hand, had a great deal to say about large social and political issues; the thirty-seven volumes of his Collected Works attest to that. He was certainly not a Boston Brahmin. He might have been born in Burlington, Vermont, but he was very happy to get out of New England; indeed, nature seemed to have made something of a mistake putting him there in the first place, and belatedly to have corrected the error by sending him to Ann Arbor and Chicago for the most creative two decades of his working life. He was born in Burlington in 1859, and died in New York City in 1952; he was one of the first students at Johns Hopkins University, where he failed to learn anything from C.S. Peirce, did not get on with G.S. Hall, the first, autocratic, and almost entirely unsympathetic president of Clark University, and went off to teach at the University of Michigan, where the mentor he did admire, George Sylvester Morris, was head of the department of philosophy. He possessed extraordinary intellectual and literary stamina: he began by writing unexciting essays for the Journal of Speculative Philosophy when he was twenty-two and he hardly slackened pace until he was in his mid-eighties.

Dewey’s range was protean: from logic, through the poetry of Matthew Arnold and Robert Browning, to education, democracy, international relations, and the uncertain prospects for peace in the mid-twentieth century. It was not surprising that the historian Henry Steele Commager said of him that America only knew what it thought when Professor Dewey had spoken. Although he quarreled with President W.R. Harper at Chicago, Dewey was at home with citywide or national institutions rather than New England lunch and dinner clubs, and he had the unaggressive temper needed to make them work. Menand describes how he helped to found the Amer-ican Association of University Professors to defend academic freedom. He was for years the president of the League for Industrial Democracy, tried to restrain both the Marxist and the anti-Communist enthusiasms of his follower Sidney Hook, and wasastonishingly less prickly than most philosophers. It took something like thirty years of malicious misrepresentation by Bertrand Russell before Dewey was moved to observe, “You know, he gets me sore.” Even then, he stood up for Russell in 1940 when he was famously deprived of his professorship at City College by a Brooklyn court, and persuaded Albert Barnes to hire Russell to give the lectures that eventually became his History of Western Philosophy.

Menand makes a great deal of an incident in Dewey’s life that certainly made an enormous impression on Dewey. Dewey met Jane Addams at Hull-House some years before he went to Chicago in 1894. They talked about the need to find some way of resolving disagreement without antagonism. Dewey had already abandoned his faith in the God of his mother—she was a lapsed Unitarian, which is to say a devout Congregationalist, who was prone to embarrass her son by asking him and his friends if they were “right with Jesus.” The cause of his loss of faith was not metaphysical; nor, so far as one can see, was it connected with any personal events in his own life. He thought, however, that the idea of God as a distant Creator and Judge was simply unhelpful to human life. He was always hostile to what he termed “apart thinking,” and found the thought of God judging us human sinners antipathetic, just as he found conventional conceptions of morality antipathetic. With their imagery of conscience constantly on the watch for sin, conventional moralists simply replicated the judge and sinner picture that he disliked.

Jane Addams’s emphasis on the elimination of antagonism sometimes struck him later on as utopian and wildly optimistic; they nearly severed relations during World War I, which he supported and she opposed. But Addams’s aspirations entered very deeply into his ideas about how one might conduct economic and political life in a democracy. For one thing, it was one more of the influences that made him a mild but definite socialist; to see the world defined as a struggle of capital versus labor, owners versus workers, struck him as a misrepresentation of the deeper truth about the cooperative quality of the production and the distribution of the means of life and happiness. Any notion that democracy can be boiled down to “majority versus minority” is self-evidently ruled out if the removal of antagonism is a principal aim of the sound life—save, of course, for the crucial speck of antagonism that like the grit in the oyster creates something new, interesting, and perhaps beautiful.

Menand’s affection for his subjects is such that his criticisms and reservations emerge only gently and almost between the lines. Nonetheless, the truth is that he writes as a friendly outsider rather than as a fellow traveler. (It is hardly possible to say of someone that he is a true believer in pragmatism; anyone who was that would surely have missed the point.) Of course, whatever one’s own views, it is anyway impossible to side with all the pragmatists since they held such different views on crucial issues. But Menand makes two criticisms that would, if they were valid, undermine the attractiveness of almost any sort of pragmatism; one is that pragmatism is oddly incurious about the sources of our desires, wishes, wants, interests—whatever we wish to call the driving force of our interest in the world. Freud, to take only one of many instances, pointed out how carefully we hide from ourselves what we really want. We form beliefs about the world in order to satisfy our desires. But, asks Menand, what does pragmatism have to say about how our desires are formed?

Secondly, says Menand, pragmatism may have originated in the wish to prevent Americans from getting themselves killed on behalf of unexamined ideas. But what pragmatism is oddly unable to explain is why people get themselves killed for the sake of ideas in the first place. It is, he says, a philosophy that can explain anything about our ideas except why we hold some of them with sufficient intensity to be willing to die on their behalf.

This—indeed both his complaints—seems to me to be not quite on target. The pragmatist need not take interests at face value. Although Dewey was astonishingly untouched by the twentieth century’s interest in sex, he thought many people stuffed themselves with consumer goods precisely because they were frustrated at work, had unhappy marriages, too few friends, and no sense that their society cared about them. Unlike others who have said as much—Herbert Marcuse, for instance—Dewey thought that we might make their lives a great deal happier without revolution or violence.

Nor, in extremis, will the pragmatist be unready to go to war. Not certainly, for “an idea,” if that means for an unthought-through idea, a mere unexamined prejudice, or a superstition; but Holmes, James, Dewey, and any other pragmatist with half an ounce of common sense would think it worth risking our lives in self-defense, or in defense of values otherwise likely to go down to defeat. Dewey’s own record was not impressive, since he approved of US entry into the morally dubious World War I and objected to the US getting into World War II until Pearl Harbor made argument irrelevant. Still, he might have known better or thought differently without dropping anything central to pragmatism. Indeed, it is hard to imagine either James or Holmes having the least hesitation in advocating US entry into World War II.

If one might argue with this or that judgment, and wish for a little more—I think never a little less—on this or that philosophical argument, The Metaphysical Club is a very considerable achievement. It does something extremely difficult, which is to integrate what might otherwise be a string of disparate semibiographical essays into something very like a history of the American mind at work, and to do so without slighting either the individual thinker or the larger, national setting. And it does so with a clarity, elegance, and sympathy for people and ideas that anyone working in the same field will envy and admire in equal measure.

This Issue

May 31, 2001