Personal Pragmatism

Originally published in the Boston Review in October/November 2001.

Biography’s contribution to intellectual history depends on its ability toexpress relationships among formal ideas, personal qualities, and historical circumstances. Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club—a collective biography that traces the origins of American pragmatism to the four decades after the Civil War—merits close inspection as a contribution to such a history.

In its pursuit of “changing assumptions,” the book explores a stunning array of late nineteenth and early twentieth century topics: Darwinism, American Transcendentalism, German Idealism, Statistics, Astronomy, abolitionism, assimilationism, nativism, labor unions, research universities, to name a few. Yet the narrative core of the book centers on the lives and ideas of four men: jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., and philosophers Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. These four shared and promoted a new attitude to human inquiry, captured, Menand says, in “an idea about ideas:” “they 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.” Knowledge, according to this way of thinking, is socially produced by groups, not by individuals, and the survival of ideas in a culture depends not on their correspondence with the world, but their adaptability to prevailing circumstances.

How and why did Holmes, Peirce, James, and Dewey come to these conclusions? Menand’s answer takes the form of a series of highly nuanced intellectual portraits, which give each of the four an idiosyncratic (but partly convergent) march of development that features their personalities alongside their ideas. The book contains a multitude of anecdotes—always interesting, sometimes fascinating—involving family background, social rank, political viewpoint, institutional position, professional jealousies, personal taste, private habit, and so on. For Menand, inclusiveness is a matter of intellectual method, not personal prurience. By presenting ideas as deeply embedded in circumstance—“soaked through by the personal and social situations in which we find them”—and not in splendid intellectual isolation, Menand has attempted to write a history of pragmatism on its own terms.

The pragmatists, he contends, “believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment.” Menand’s interpretation of this claim puts special emphasis on “human carriers.” His “story of ideas in America” is a record of distinctive personalities and biographical experiences. This dramatization of human culture helps explain The Metaphysical Club’s popular appeal: its biographical portraits make for terrific reading, and its success as popular history is assured. Most of the discussions surrounding the revival of pragmatism in modern American thought have remained within the universities. That Menand’s book has already brought this complicated philosophical movement into the broader culture is no small achievement.

As a work of intellectual history, however, The Metaphysical Club leaves much to be desired. Because Menand roots pragmatism’s development in the idiosyncratic personalities of its progenitors, he has trouble explaining how and why these different thinkers converged on a set of tightly related ideas. He strains to emphasize two biographical experiences that all four men are said to have shared—the American Civil War and the brief-lived metaphysical club of the title—but neither explanation is compelling. Moreover, by so thoroughly locating pragmatism in specific personalities and biographies, Menand diminishes his ability to explain it as a set of ideas with broad contemporary significance.

Dramatic episodes of the Civil War introduce The Metaphysical Club, and lay the groundwork for Menand’s interpretation of pragmatism as a philosophical reaction to the conflict’s absolutist temper. “Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey wished to bring ideas and principles and beliefs down to a human level because they wished to avoid the violence they saw hidden in abstractions,” Menand insists. “This was one of the lessons the Civil War had taught them.” Thus, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., a Union solidier, came to regard the war as the “central experience” of his life and the fulcrum of his philosophical obligations to uncertainty. A participant in some exceptionally bloody battles, the thrice-wounded Holmes thereafter carried deep physical and emotional scars. Eventually, as Menand puts it, the war “changed his view of the nature of views,” and “made him lose his belief in beliefs.”

But Menand’s subsequent efforts to keep alive the moral tension of the war and its intellectual impact frequently seem forced. When the youthful William James decided to accompany Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz on an expedition to Brazil, he was, according to Menand, actually choosing to serve in the war, “in a sense.” Joining with Agassiz, who was constructing a polygenic hierarchy of the races, meant, furthermore, that James had chosen “the wrong side.” Menand likewise strains for links between John Dewey’s ideas and the Civil War, finding little more than the fact that his father, Archibald Dewey, enlisted on the side of the North, served for the duration, and remained a committed Republican throughout his life.

The blood of the war may well have washed away Holmes’s early faith in the certainty of abolitionism, and any other certainty: “Time,” Holmes said in dissent in Abrams v. U.S., “has upset many fighting faiths.” But the “great lesson he thought the war had taught him,” did not directly apply to the others, including his friend William James. Indeed, Menand’s evidence on the role of the Civil War is sometimes so scanty that he compels tattered analogies into service. On the trip to Brazil, James endured “a sort of wound:” smallpox. As for Dewey, Menand links his development as a pragmatic intellectual to conversations with reformer Jane Addams about the Pullman strike, another of the seemingly intractable political and moral conflicts faced by late-nineteenth century thinkers. That Dewey would be so interested in public affairs in the first place, Menand suggests, owes to a lesson imparted by the Civil War. Only this lesson seems opposite Holmes’s. Immediately after explaining Archibald Dewey’s soldierly enthusiasms, Menand indicates that John Dewey was raised “in a family with a culture of social commitment.” His father was a “die-hard Republican all his life.” On Menand’s evidence, Archibald Dewey not only appears to embrace precisely the kind of principled certainties that Holmes most distrusted, but also appears to have transmitted these values to his son.

Such complications make Menand’s interpretative focus on the war unconvincing. The book’s opening pages make Northern abolitionism stand generally for the toxicity of grand ideas. By the book’s end, abolitionism stands as a trope. The war imbues the story with a sense of drama, though it seems less able to explain the emergence of pragmatism as a sustained, collective phenomenon.

If a shared reaction to the Civil War does not account for pragmatism’s common appeal to thinkers with such distinct personalities and perspectives, neither does shared membership in a short-lived Metaphysical Club in Cambridge. The reader who flips through two hundred pages to find the contribution made by the club will find that for two of the book’s principal figures it had only slight intellectual significance. Holmes was “probably not a frequent participant in the Metaphysical Club discussions,” and “James did not need the Metaphysical Club to reach his conclusion about the nature of beliefs.” The presence of Charles Peirce and fellow-philosopher Chauncey Wright (whose alcoholism is presented as the decisive factor in his philosophical failings) furnishes the most compelling reasons for Menand to present the ‘founding’ of the club as a landmark in the long history of pragmatism. Yet even Peirce and Wright had “fought out nearly a thousand close disputations, regular set-tos concerning the philosophy of [John Stuart] Mill … before the Metaphysical Club had been started.” Perhaps, Menand finally says, the club never existed in the first place.

Menand repeatedly strains historical and philosophical interpretation in the service of personalized animation. While he provides an ample account of Charles Peirce’s struggle with the indeterminacy of meaning and the fallibility of convictions, his faith in the personal context leads him to push Peirce’s published writings on the topic aside, in search of a biographical moment of cohesion. “What does it mean,” Menand asks, “to say that a statement is ‘true’ in a world always susceptible to ‘a certain swerving’?” Then he offers an entirely speculative answer: “Peirce got a hint of how this question might be answered from another member of the Metaphysical Club, Nicholas St. John Green.” Carried along by Green’s critique of the legal concept of “proximate cause”—so the story runs—Peirce was inspired to write a paper about the “practical bearings” of human inquiry that he read during the final meeting of the club. Or did he? Menand cannot say for sure, yet he indicates that the reading of that paper came to occupy the center of pragmatic thinking, its contents—later elaborated in Peirce’s “How To Make Our Ideas Clear”—quickly spreading to the others through channels direct and indirect. That no record exists to document the club’s activities—other than Peirce’s own fragmented recollection—means that Peirce may have read virtually anything.

More important than the specific conclusions that Menand draws from the war or from the presumed existence of The Metaphysical Club, the burden of the book’s biographical arguments—which locate causal relationships from within the immediate spheres of these thinkers’s lives—makes personal epiphany a motor of intellectual development. Such personal revelation is fine as far as it goes, but often it fails to move ideas far enough away from the individual thinker to allow them free play.

The most satisfying moments in The Metaphysical Club occur when the emotional arc of one of the characters meets the articulation of an idea. When Holmes is discovered metamorphosing his war-time experiences into a philosophy of jurisprudence, for instance. Or when Charles Peirce and his famous father, the Harvard mathematician Benjamin Peirce, partner as expert witnesses in a celebrated trial, Robinson v. Mandell. The Peirces, according to Menand, used the occasion of their 1867 testimony to test and promote the “law of errors,” the same analytic tool that would become central to Charles’s social theory of knowledge.

Even during such moments, however, one is pulled back and forth between edification and enlightenment. Menand’s efforts to contextualize pragmatism in a web of personal, social, and intellectual sensibilities compete with the reader’s efforts to understand pragmatism as a body of ideas that evolves, enlightens, and succeeds (or fails) on its own terms. Menand often seems too impressed by the intimate cocktail party of nineteenth-century intellectual life, with all its coincidences and connections, and insufficently attentive to argument. A typical passage begins: “In 1888, on a train to Cleveland to attend a scientific meeting, [Franz] Boas got into a conversation with the man in the seat next to him, who, at the end of the trip, offered him a job. The friendly passenger was G. Stanley Hall, recruiting for the newly opened Clark University. Boas taught at Clark for four years,” and so on. Serendipity adds much to the book’s aesthetic feel, little to its explanatory power.

No doubt, by recasting some of the action in pragmatism’s development from its abstract philosophical inheritance to odd personalities, wars, and lawsuits, Menand offers readers a story that is sometimes both thrilling and illuminating. Equally certain though, this “story of ideas” is often overwhelmed by a thicket of personality and circumstance. Consider, for example, Menand’s portrayal of the animosity between critic Randolph Bourne and his former teacher, John Dewey. Menand observes that Dewey became angry over Bourne’s review of a book to which Dewey had contributed an introduction, then records Dewey’s support for war in 1917 (the occasion for their feud). He says in summary of both topics: “[Dewey’s] momentary advocacy of violent means during the First World War is a peculiar episode in his career, but his reaction to the Alexander review is even more peculiar.” His displeasure at Bourne may seem “peculiar,” given Dewey’s mild-mannered disposition and his failure to realize that Alexander’s book might affront Bourne for personal reasons. But do Dewey’s support for the war and his personal insensitivity issue from the same kind of “peculiar?” Are these two instances of Dewey’s intellectual character really so commensurable?

Engaging with his pragmatism in its own right is vital to judging its merits, not least because Dewey’s support for World War I can hardly be understood as “momentary.” Menand could have represented the relationship between Dewey’s pragmatist philosophical commitments and his wartime politics in any number of ways. A contradiction? A logical entailment? An elective affinity? Almost anything would improve “peculiar,” a characterization that permits no real response.

Not only do broad, historical explanations become more difficult to sustain as Menand descends to the idiosyncratic details of private life, but his focus on those details does not aid evaluation of pragmatism as a philosophical outlook. To be sure, such blurring of contexts constitutes a purposeful aspect of Menand’s contribution to intellectual biography, his “point about the nature of intellectual culture.” But certainly there are other ways to historicize pragmatism, equally attentive to its contextual scruples, that seem more conducive to the task of intellectual assessment.

In 1942, C. Wright Mills, then a 26-year-old sociologist fresh from the University of Wisconsin, completed an intellectual history of pragmatism from a perspective that also emphasized the social character of knowledge. Mills considered the pragmatists to be his intellectual “godfathers.” The major gestures and problems of his post-war social criticism, expressed in popular books such as White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956), issued from a commitment to their anti-metaphysical premises. Yet it is Mills’s earliest work, “A Sociological Account of Pragmatism,” that best illuminates by contrast what is lost in Menand’s highly personalized approach to the subject.

“A Sociological Account of Pragmatism” argued that to understand the work of Peirce, Dewey, and James one must certainly understand their biographies—the “human carriers and the environment.” More specifically though, one must know how their biographies intersected with the decisive, large-scale changes in American social structure that shaped and sustained their ideas. Mills argued that Dewey’s experimentalist pragmatism developed out of his institutional contacts with skilled tradesmen, scientists, and newly professionalized teachers—each of whom inhabited a dynamic occupational context that required the flexible use of intelligence, rational thinking, and manipulation of symbolic material. His account ascribed Dewey’s pragmatism neither to the intellectual sensibilities of the man nor to the “inner logic” of his philosophical inheritance. Nonetheless it successfully demonstrated the social and moral relevance of the pragmatist experiment. By offering his reading public access to different, developing spheres of social and professional life, Mills argued, Dewey “helped build and worked within the increased spread of ascent chances for the sons of farmers and businessmen into professional careers.” From above, he encountered the “new educational managers and the gilded philanthropists who were the financial midwives” for the research universities of the late nineteenth century—that is, for the new universities where he taught. Beside him emerged a new class of students and academicians, people moving upward in a more fluid economy and society. Epochal transformations in American occupational structure “formed the scaffolding for many newly founded institutions” that formed, in turn, the scaffolding for Dewey’s pragmatism. Such were its “direct determinants,” according to Mills.

Menand writes compellingly of the universities of Vermont, Michigan, and Chicago, of Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Columbia and of other institutional bulwarks of the new professional social structure. But even here, Menand reverses Mills’s priorities. The sociologist insisted that “the mechanics and structures which set the institutional base of an intellectual milieu ‘go on behind the backs’ of the individuals participating in them.” The literary critic represents ideas through the transits of the intentional, the breezily personal.

The most important consequences of contrasting “A Sociological Account of Pragmatism” and The Metaphysical Club—otherwise complementary projects—surpass the dissimilarities between the academic disciplines of sociology and English. Mills and Menand each have a popular appeal that transcends their respective disciplinary boundaries.

Within a decade after Mills completed his examination of the subject, he contended that American pragmatism could no more become a renewed “nerve of progressive thinking” than Victorian Marxism. Mills had argued that Dewey’s experimental theory of action was tested upon those “free professionals” who were “predominately outside the rationalized structures in which the action of individuals faces decisions, and almost by definition, decisions involving new factors that have come into the actor’s horizon and path.” A decline in the substantive rationality available to Dewey’s white-collar professional publics meant a decline in opportunities for his theory of action. (Mills subsequently traced this decline in White Collar.) Mills’s influential search for a radical social philosophy, however, held fast to the first premise that guided his early work: since structures and institutions exercised determinate power across American civilization, it was structures and institutions that deserved critical examination. In this conviction Mills joined an entire postwar generation concerned to know how the “institutional bases of intellectual life” affected its basic assumptions and problems.

The Metaphysical Club reflects the distance traveled by our public intellectuals from these assumptions. By so emphasizing personal qualities, Menand asks less of his subjects as thinkers, and so less of his readers as critics. Unlike Mills, he finds himself at book’s end with no criteria clear enough to mount a firm evaluation. Though he notes, in his epilogue, the powerful reemergence of pragmatism at the end of the Cold War, and, thus, suggests such evaluation is of more than historical interest, he fails to help contemporary readers assess pragmatism’s reduction of truth to efficacy—of the correctness of an outlook to its usefulness in our lives. “Whether this nineteenth-century way of thinking really does have twenty-first-century uses is not yet clear,” he concludes after four hundred and forty pages of discussion. The absence of an incisive critical sensibility owes in part to Menand’s personalization of the philosophical. Personal dispositions—William James’ indecisiveness, Dewey’s amiability—are walled off from criticism because, unlike institutions and occupations, they are not collectively and publicly and historically transmitted; criteria for evaluating them do not readily materialize. When ideas are so closely fastened to what Menand calls “unreproducible personalities,” the reader gains few resources for critical judgment. Menand does offer a consideration of pragmatism’s merits and deficiencies. But his evaluation of Holmes, James, Dewey, and Peirce as thinkers, compressed into a few summary sections, tends to take the form of declarative statements that carry synoptic modifiers such as “at bottom,” “boils down,” and “fundamentally.” The problem is not that his evaluations are necessarily wrong; it is that they are pressed to the margins.

Menand’s book flatters a present sensibility that offers little place for big ideas or independent moral judgment, but reserves many seats for dramatic personalities. The biography of intellectuals, thus conceived, is concerned with imputation and exposition at the expense of criticism and argument.