Tuesday, March 17, 2015

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

Many portions of this book were interesting.  The Metaphysical Club: A History of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand (Flamingo, 2001), traces the development of key ideas in American intellectual life from just before the Civil War to the first several decades of the 20th century.  I was especially interested in his account of the influence of Darwin’s theory of evolution on American thinkers, the abolitionist movement, the development of pragmatism (to an extent), and the philosophy of John Dewey.  I found the book most fascinating in its account of the (mostly) men behind these ideas.  Several figures especially emerged—Louis Agassiz, who played a major role in the development of the fields of geology and anthropology and whose ideas on race (he was obsessed with proving African Americans as biologically inferior) were deplorable, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, and Charles Sanders Peirce (more interesting for his lifestyle than for his thought—he is portrayed as brilliant but never quite able to get his ideas down into essays and books in finished and cohesive form).

The Metaphysical Club is well written, wide ranging, willing to wander off on rewarding tangents, and, too often boring, especially in the latter half where we encounter dense discussions of competing philosophical ideas.  (I spent too much time eager to reach the final page).  I credit Menand for not beginning with preconceptions or received wisdom.  Contrary to popular opinion, many abolitionists did not believe in racial equality (a few did; many did not).  He portrays the leading figures in his narrative three dimensionally, not as icons but as thinking men whose ideas develop over time and who could sometimes be wholly wrong headed.  Menand treats these figures as participants in an evolving and developing American intellectual culture, men who gradually moved away from venerated traditions towards a more modern view of the world, of ideas, of philosophy which is contingent and ungrounded in absolutes.

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