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  • The Real Metaphysical Club: The Philosophers. Their Debates, and Selected Writings from 1870 to 1885 ed. by Frank X. Ryan, Brian E. Butler and James A. Good
  • Jessica Wahman
The Real Metaphysical Club: The Philosophers. Their Debates, and Selected Writings from 1870 to 1885. Eds. Frank X. Ryan, Brian E. Butler, and James A. Good. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2019. 474 pp. $95.00 hardcover; $35.95 paperback.

The title of this book invites the question "what makes a metaphysical club real?" Overthinkers like myself may wonder whether metaphysical clubs can partake of varying degrees of reality or whether the distinction is, more likely, one between imposters and the genuine article. It only heightens the curiosity to read, in the general introduction to the book, that metaphysical clubs both preceded and followed the so-called "real" one and that the real one was itself divided into two phases. Given, then, that there appear to have been more than one actual metaphysical club, what is the point of characterizing the subject of this anthology as real?

The Real Metaphysical Club focuses entirely and thoroughly on the club that met in Cambridge, MA, from 1872 to 1879 and that was made famous by Louis Menand in his book The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001). It includes only the materials written and often published by its members during the specific period of 1870–1885 (beginning slightly before and ending shortly after the period of the Club's existence); and, unlike Menand's text, it does not include the work of famous thinkers who never participated in the club in question, such as John Dewey. Moreover, the texts selected for the volume are said to reflect the specific debates that ostensibly transpired during these meetings. As a result, the book aims to provide the most accurate and thorough representation of the Cambridge Metaphysical Club—the various figures who participated and the ideas they developed and debated—and thus to tell the real story of what took place by compiling and sharing the written work of its various members.

The anthology contains a historical introduction to the Club (a "narrative history") by John R. Shook and is then divided into three primary thematic parts—"Science and Pragmatism," "Law and Pragmatism," and "Varieties of Idealism"—each of which includes a substantive introduction by its respective editor (Frank X. Ryan on science, Brian E. Butler on law, and James A. Good on idealism). The first two parts focus on what Shook calls the earlier pragmatist and empiricist phase of the Club while the third focuses on the idealist positions that developed in the Club's second phase. The rationale for dividing the [End Page 78] Metaphysical Club into two phases is mostly thematic but also reflects concrete interruptions created by the departure of key original members: C.S. Peirce traveled in Europe in 1875 and eventually moved to New York in 1876, while Chauncey Wright passed away in 1875. Shook also cites William James's own reference in a letter to having "reorganized" the Club in early 1876 (xviii–xix).

The book presents the work of not only the most obvious names—C.S. Peirce, William James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.—but of lesser known but still significant figures such as Chauncey Wright and Gordon Parker Bowne, and even genuinely neglected individuals (in philosophy, at least) such as John Fiske and James Elliot Cabot (Emerson's literary executor and biographer). Indeed, the anthology—which includes fifteen different thinkers and thirty-six contributions in all—aims to present a truly exhaustive compilation of the work produced by club members during the period—and as a result—of the group's discussions.

Despite the distinct subject matter of the three sections and the further discrepancy between the pragmatist and idealist phases, there are nonetheless overarching themes at work in the pages of this volume. As the three section introductions explain, the texts demonstrate a pervasive support for pluralism, relationalism, and even experimentalism (in at least some of the idealist positions), whether the topic is science, law, or metaphysics. Charles Darwin's discoveries...


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