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The Metaphysical Club
The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand; xii & 546 pp. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001, $27.00.
"They didn't just want to keep the conversation going; they wanted to get to a better place" (p. 440). So much for the most prominent contemporary pragmatist, Richard Rorty, who remains unmentioned except in the acknowledgments. That better place is participatory democracy (a phrase that does not appear in the book), which "means that everyone is equally in the game, but it also means that no one can opt out" (p. 441). The true name of the game is skeptical tolerance. There are no unquestionable duties or inalienable rights, no immutable natural laws, no absolute moral rules, no highest principles, no inherent virtues, no absolute standards, no stasis, no absolutely certain truth. There are no individual destinies, because the social comes before the individual, and the individual is embedded within and cannot exist without society. Scientific knowledge is always probabilistic, not necessarily because nature is indeterministic, but because we can never know enough to calculate its regularities if they exist. To wit, there are no Platonic Ideas or unchanging universals. All is change, nothing that happens is ever repeated, our general ideas and laws of nature are merely tools for getting along in the world. Above all, ideas do not refer to things, only to other ideas. What expedites our thinking is true. What expedites our acting is right. Whenever we act according to principle, rule, or law, we are making a bet that events will turn out the way [End Page 353] we think they will. If we keep this always in mind, we will never succumb to violence or war in the name of belief or principle. Whatever we believe, it could be otherwise. Such is a general summary of pragmatism as it has filtered down to the textbooks. It is (again befittingly) more or less accurate. The can-do American seeks out cash value in practical life.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Saunders Pierce, and John Dewey crafted the only indigenous philosophy that has so far been produced in America. Its roots are in Laplacean probability theory, Darwinian evolutionism, and Chauncey Wright's indeterminism. While James hoped to save a place for religion (if it works, go with it) and Pierce a place for God (he thought there had to be a designing intelligence to account for order), the pragmatic result is profoundly skeptical and secular. Neither Holmes nor Dewey thought that individuals imbedded in societies had any need of absolutes. Holmes said that people first decide on the basis of experience, then they deduce. Dewey said that people first behave commonsensically, then they rationalize.
There is nothing as condensed as the above in Louis Menand's beautiful book on the ideas, personalities, and influence of Holmes, James, Pierce, and Dewey. I know of no clearer exposition of their ideas, and few biographers have made them come so alive. In particular, Menand's coverage of peripheral (but by no means insignificant) figures is very rich. He describes the development of graduate universities in America in detail from their autocratic beginnings to the institution of academic freedom as we know it today. University presidents, trustees, and administrators are presented luxuriously as the villains, and the professors gloriously as the heroes. Menand remarks with slight amazement that society bought the concept that professors were beholden to the public at large and not to the state or private university owners. He could have commented further on the fact that the concept of academic freedom has become virtually irrelevant in today's corporate research universities.
"It is a remarkable fact about the United States," Menand begins his book, "that it fought a civil war without undergoing a change in its form of government" (p. ix). This is a breathtaking fact, and I don't suppose Menand had any intent to explain it. "The Civil War swept away the slave civilization of the South, but it swept away almost the whole intellectual...