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The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
By Louis Menand
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
546 pgs. US$27/C$43

Ideas of truth

By Steven Martinovich
web posted June 25, 2001

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in AmericaLeonard Peikoff once wrote that it was the philosopher that occupied the highest rung of the intellectual ladder and society as a whole. Peikoff's reasoning was that it was the philosopher that created a systematic worldview that gave the rest of society the necessary tools to understand their world - essentially, a picture of reality. By their nature, the philosophies that these people come up with demand rigorous thought and dedication to their principles or otherwise they become useless. The war between democracy and communism in the 20th century certainly proved that point. Communism didn't fall so much as its defenders simply gave up in the face of reality.

In this post Cold War world, old ideas seem to be new again. Uncomfortable with any system of thought that demands total acceptance of all its principles, as warriors for democracy and communism demanded, people are casting about for philosophies that allow them to live in harmony with other belief systems. If Louis Menand is right, the philosophy they are looking for was defined in the 19th century by intellectual giants William James, Charles Sanders Pierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes and John Dewey. Pragmatism is a philosophy that will either be passionately loved or hated by the reader of The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America.

Pragmatism essentially puts forward the principle that co-operation is more important than ideology. If a conviction to rightness is strong enough, resistance to that idea will sooner or later lead to violence. Pragmatists believe that each person is entitled to their own idea of truth and that the best way for a person to learn what that truth is and avoid violence, is through experience and exchanges with other people. Ideas, holds a pragmatist, are produced by groups and as such as social in nature. Using this approach, it's not hard to see why pragmatism all but disappeared during the Cold War.

Menand's imminently engaging account - which documents the lives of James, Pierce, Holmes and Dewey and a host of other characters - details that although pragmatism can be traced back to the 1700s, the experiences of the Civil War led many to believe that opinions as inflexible as an iron peg hammered into frozen ground inevitably led to bloodshed. Fiercely held opinions led to the deaths of more than 600 000, property damage estimated at $5 billion and opened wounds that are still in evidence today. Faced with the effects of what is still the most costly war in terms of American lives, people naturally wanted to avoid further strife.

Of course, a philosophy that promotes that any idea of truth is valid leaves itself open to plenty of problems, a key problem with Menand's account of both the philosophy and the men behind it. By its nature, philosophy is an integrating science that deals with questions spanning the entire range of human thought - from religion to science, art to industry - and demands in the end attachment to some absolute. If each person is allowed their own version of truth, that is, allowed to choose what is rational or irrational, is there not a danger that nothing could ever be accomplished because everyone holds different standards? Menand himself admits that the civil rights movement of the 1960s - a movement necessarily tied to absolutes - couldn't have even been founded on a base of pragmatism.

Along with his failure to be at all critical, Menand also frequently digresses to the point that the primary figures of his account disappear for extended periods of time in favor of focusing on secondary characters not as germane to the story. At the end, a reader may know enough about pragmatism but they shouldn't expect to know as much about the long road taken by James, Pierce, Holmes and Dewey to define it. It might be fitting that Menand entitled his account The Metaphysical Club, a Cambridge-based group that met for less than one year before breaking up and doesn't appear to have had any real significance to the philosophy of pragmatism.

That said Menand does a remarkable job bringing a complex topic and its seemingly endless threads together. Those inclined to philosophies like pragmatism will find plenty of self-justification for their beliefs while those more inclined to absolutism and individualistic philosophies can at least take it as a warning sign that the nature of thought may be undergoing a not too subtle shift in this new millennium. The fact that Menand was able to condense a quadruple biography, a history of a philosophy and innumerable character sketches into a single readable book speaks volumes of his skill. The only pity is that he didn't use that considerable talent to critically examine a philosophy that is ill suited in a world where absolutes will always reign, perhaps making pragmatism at best a still-born idea.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.

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