A review of The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand

Two pictures bracket The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand’s brilliant account of the rise of pragmatism. The frontispiece is a drawing of the soldier Wilky James, sketched by his brother William as Wilky lay convalescing from grievous wounds suffered in the Union assault on Fort Wagner in the summer of 1863. The book ends with a photograph of the pacifist John Dewey seated at his typewriter in the serenity of Nova Scotia in the 1940s. Connecting these two pictures is an epic of war and peace, an Iliad of heroism and horror of the American Civil War, and an intellectual odyssey of four men who were profoundly shaped by it, and who in turn profoundly reshaped America—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey.

“For the generation that lived through it,” writes Menand, “the Civil War was a terrible and traumatic experience. It tore a hole in their lives. To some of them, the war seemed not just a failure of democracy, but a failure of culture, a failure of ideas. As traumatic wars do—as the World War I would do for many Europeans 60 years later and as the Vietnam War would do for many Americans 100 years later—the Civil War discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it.”

The beliefs and assumptions that replaced those discredited by the Civil War came to be called “pragmatism,” a term coined by Charles Pierce in a paper he read to the final meeting of the Metaphysical Club in December 1872. The “club,” an informal discussion group, had been formed in January of that year in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and included among its members James, Pierce, and Holmes.

The core of pragmatism, according to Menand, is an idea about ideas: that they should never harden into ideologies. Holmes, James, Pierce, and Dewey “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… And they believed that since ideas are provisional responses to particular and irreproducible circumstances, their survival depends not on their immutability but on their adaptability.” Under the Darwinian imperative of pragmatism, we must be prepared to discard our old ideas as readily as we discard our old tools.

Seen from the perspective of pragmatism, the Civil War was an ideological conflict. There was nothing “provisional” about the ideas of the two sides, each of which was more than prepared to give the last full measure of devotion to its cause. Because it demands certitude, war is not congenial to pragmatism. (It is this, Menand suggests, that accounts for the decline of pragmatism’s influence during the Cold War.) War requires a life-and-death commitment, and for most people that requires a faith that what they are fighting for is worth dying for. Most men are unwilling to risk maiming or death over forks, knives, and microchips.

Democracy failed in antebellum America, the pragmatists claimed, because ideas hardened into ideologies that led ineluctably to bloodshed. “The lesson Holmes took from the war,” says Menand, “can be put in a sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence.” This is the central theme of The Metaphysical Club. Violence, being the substitution of bullets for ballots, is the negation of democracy. By teaching our citizens that a better basis for democracy is the notion that all ideas are “contingent, relative, fallible constructions,” pragmatism fills the void created by the Civil War.

World War I taught John Dewey what the Civil War had taught Holmes. Dewey therefore became a pacifist in time for World War II. Holmes had fought with incredible bravery during the Civil War, being wounded three times. Unlike Dewey, Holmes thought it neither possible nor desirable for societies to renounce the use of violence, notwithstanding his belief, shared with Holmes and Dewey, that all beliefs are groundless.

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When democracy breaks down, and disagreements between men lead to war, what is to be done? Menand’s account appears to leave us three choices: 1) we can eagerly slaughter each other in an uncompromising and self-righteous spirit of ideological fanaticism (his view of both John Brown and the Southern firebrands); 2) we can resolutely kill and be killed with full awareness that our differences are, from the point of view of human reason, utterly groundless (Holmes); or 3) we can opt out pacifically while, for example, Hitler liquidates European Jewry and embarks on a project of world domination (Dewey). The range of alternatives is, to say the least, unsatisfactory.

Which brings us to the central problem with The Metaphysical Club. Menand is a master storyteller, who has woven together threads of biography and intellectual history into a magnificent tapestry of the American mind. But one thread is missing. Where is the political philosophy of Abraham Lincoln? This is no small omission. For it was neither the principles of the Northern abolitionists nor those of the Southern slaveholders that triumphed in the Civil War and laid the basis for American political life in the post-bellum decades. It was, as Menand acknowledges, the principles of the party of Lincoln. This means the principles of the Declaration of Independence.

Until the pragmatists came along, most Americans did not regard the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” as provisional or in need of re-tooling. But for the pragmatists the principles of the Declaration were among the beliefs “discredited” by the Civil War. Citing Horace Kallen (student of William James and a founder of multiculturalism), Menand says that for him “the Declaration was an instrument of its time, and its assertion of natural rights was the appropriate response to the assertion of the divine right of kings. Still, times had changed and the Declaration needed to be rewritten.”

Abraham Lincoln did not believe that the principles of the Declaration were provisional, transient, contingent, relative, or fallible. He thought that they were true, everywhere and always. He did not believe that the doctrine of natural rights had been appropriate in the 18th century but had hardened into an ideology by the 19th. The central principle of the Declaration is the proposition that all men, including all black men, are created equal. Did the Civil War discredit this proposition? 

Richard Rorty, the leading contemporary heir to the thought of James and Dewey, does not shrink from the conclusion. The proposition, “Blacks have no rights which whites are bound to respect,” is not, he says, one that human reason can refute. According to pragmatism, the rights of black people, like the rights of all people, are contingent and transient—not a birthright arising from a common humanity, as Lincoln had argued. Is this alleged discovery by pragmatism truly an advance in human thought?

Menand is aware of the problem. Martin Luther King, Jr., he notes, “was not a pragmatist, a relativist, or a pluralist, and it is a question whether the movement he led could have accomplished what it did if its inspirations had come from Dewey and Holmes….” King, like Lincoln before him, believed that the Declaration of Independence was true, and that America ought to live up to it.

But doesn’t the certitude of a King or a Lincoln lead to violence, as the certitude of the abolitionists and the secessionists led to violence? If the statesmanship of Abraham Lincoln, like that of Martin Luther King, demonstrates anything, it is that strong moral beliefs do not necessarily imply fanaticism. This rather decisively cuts the ground out from under Menand’s brief for the pragmatists.

“The political system [the pragmatists’] philosophy was designed to support was democracy. And democracy, as they understood it, isn’t just about letting the right people have their say; it’s also about letting the wrong people have their say,” Menand observes. “It is about giving space to minority and dissenting views so that, at the end of the day, the interests of the majority may prevail.” But this is not an insight unique to pragmatism. The reconciliation of majority rule with minority rights is one of the great themes (and problems) of the American founding.

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The Founding Fathers and Lincoln would have rejected the pragmatist claim that we need to jettison all certitudes in order to make democracy work. On the contrary, certitude about the doctrine of human equality is the basis of modern democracy. Equality entails both protection of rights and the consent of the governed. American constitutionalism is the translation of these principles into practice. In their defense of human rights as they understood them, the abolitionists and the slaveholders were united in their willingness to sacrifice the Constitution, i.e., to proceed without attempting to secure the consent of a constitutional majority. Lincoln was not. This difference accounts for their fanaticism and Lincoln’s moderation.

Lincoln’s prudence, like that of all great statesmen, was not ideological in character. It operated with a certain latitude or flexibility or means, yet always within a fixed moral horizon, in the absence of which it would have been unintelligible. The problem with pragmatism is that it wrongly extends the latitude and flexibility that the prudent statesman exercises in the realm of means to the realm of ends. In so doing, it reduces all human ends to mere preferences or subjective values and thus renders unintelligible democracy itself. Democracy, the process by which the consent of the governed is secured, cannot rationally claim an exception from the subjectivity of all human ends. But if the commitment to consent of the governed is a mere preference, then there is no objective, rational basis on which pragmatism can condemn the abolitionists and the secessionists. As Leo Strauss once put it, “Liberal relativism has its roots in the natural right tradition of tolerance…but in itself it is a seminary of intolerance.”

Although Louis Menand’s account of the development of pragmatism is illuminating and historically faithful, it never takes off its philosophical blinders. We are left with a rich portrait of the pragmatists, but an impoverished picture of the important thinkers they contended against. “As with every change,” writes Menand, “there was gain and loss. This story, if it has been told in the right way, should help make possible a better measure of both.” By this standard, The Metaphysical Club is a double disappointment: it fails to persuade us of what was gained, and it fails to tell us what was lost.