Thursday, April 20, 2006

Book Review: The Metaphysical Club

Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club is an exploration of the influence that pragmatist thinkers and philosophers had on the United States in the years following the Civil War and leading up to the Depression era. Focusing on figures such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Peirce, John Dewey, and others, Menand draws our attention to developments in the concepts of truth, race, and free speech during this time period.

Pragmatism, simply put, is the idea that the test of our beliefs is their success in practical use. A belief that useful is considered true. Such a philosophy is necessarily Relativist and the enemy of most absolutisms. On the Pragmatist account truth is not fixed, it changes with time and with people and culture. What is useful and true in one circumstance is a hindrance and false in another.

Menand relates the origins of this view back to experiences of the US Civil War. The war began with absolutist views on both sides and ended with a muddling of ideas and a re-thinking of those ideas the war was fought over. Specifically the war showed that truths about slavery were subject to change. Before the war Abolitionists were considered "fringe" and a minority of the Northern population. Slavery was peculiar or distateful, but not immoral. After the war began, Northern opinion was galvanized and abolitionism became mainstream. This shift along with the horrors of the war intimated to some that truth wasn't as absolute as they had been led to believe.

The other major contributor on Menand's account was Charles Darwin's account of evolution. There had been other ideas of evolution before Darwin, but what set him apart was his rejection of teleology. Darwin's mechanism of evolution was chance mutation, not purposeful advancement. This too took the absolute out of the picture. No longer did one need to cite design or purpose in the sciences. Random chance took that place.

Holmes' view of the law is a reaction to these events. In his conception the law is just what lawyers and judges do. Legal decisions are not a simple following of judicial logic. Or as he put it, "General propositions do not decide concrete cases." Each case is a unique circumstance requiring it's own unique decision.

Holmes' experiences in the Civil War also formulated his views on free speech. He did not believe in free speech as a Right, but rather as a good (or useful) idea. Fixed ideas led to violence, the kind of violence seen in the war, on his account. Free speech was a tool for breaking down fixed ideas and keeping people open minded rather than at each other's throats.

William James' pragmatism is rooted in his psychological studies. The infant psychology of the time was devoted to finding scientific definitions of mental events. James, as well as Dewey, saw that it was impossible to objectively observe mental events and any science that claimed to was misguided. Rejecting this scientistic view, James saw that psychology could not be a science like Physics or Chemistry. Descriptions of mental events were only made sense as useful generalizations, not as observables. No theories could be made regarding them. Psychology had to find a new direction to be a science.

Charles Peirce's contribution to a pragmatic worldview came in the form of statistics. By applying new, sophisticated, statistical methods to human populations he showed that human activity could be viewed as an aggregate. Each individual person has their individual motivations, but viewed from afar the activities blend together and form a picture that can be analyzed. This stripped groups of their humanity and left behind only a useful generalization. While disturbing to many this proved to be a useful method of inquiry. Truth about people no longer had the same connection to the individual person.

Finally, John Dewey's views on knowledge and educational rejected the idea of knowledge as a set of facts, but rather emphasized knowledge as ability. To know is to be able, might have been his catchphrase. Rather than rote memorization he encouraged the use of hands on work in the classroom. His laboratory school at the University of Chicago taught students chemistry and physics through the use of cooking. Additionally he viewed his laboratory school as a psychological research project on a grand scale.

Menand also treats the subject of race in the light of pragmatist thinking. Darwinist thinking rejects the notion of species or race as an absolute concept and so our ideas about what constitutes race has to change. Race, rather than being primarily biological is viewed more as a cultural concept.

One of the hallmarks of pragmatist thinking is the notion that the world is more complex than we ususaly think it is. Many factors go into every truth and they are impossible to sort out. While we may be able to pick out a few influences we can never get the whole picture. True to form, The Metaphysical Club (or this review) can not explain everything that went into the formation of modern thinking, and it doesn't try.

In large part Pragmatist thinking in the US fell out of favor with the arrival of World War II and the Cold War. Vague notions of truth didn't jive well with the "us or them" dichotomy that was on the rise. However, with the end of the Cold War, Menand feels that Pragmatism has something to tell us. It would be interesting to see how Menand's beliefs have changed since the arrival of the "War on Terror." Is the US worldview shifting back toward the absolute or does pragmatism still have something to tell us?

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