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    Unless we find a way of conciliating the notion of truth and change, we must admit there is no
    truth anywhere.
        -William James

    Pragmatism :
    school of philosophy, dominant in the United States during the first quarter of the 20th century,
    based on the principle that the usefulness, workability, and practicality of ideas, policies, and
    proposals are the criteria of their merit. It stresses the priority of action over doctrine, of
    experience over fixed principles, and it holds that ideas borrow their meanings from their
    consequences and their truths from their verification. Thus, ideas are essentially instruments and
    plans of action.
        -Encyclopaedia Britannica

    Pragmatism :
    Pragmatism as a tendency in philosophy, signifies the insistence on usefulness or practical
    consequences as a test of truth. In its negative phase, it opposes what it styles the formalism or
    rationalism of Intellectualistic philosophy. That is, it objects to the view that concepts, judgments,
    and reasoning processes are representative of reality and the processes of reality. It considers them
    to be merely symbols, hypotheses and schemata devised by man to facilitate or render possible the
    use, or experience, of reality. This use, or experience, is the true test of real existence. In its
    positive phase, therefore, Pragmatism sets up as the standard of truth some non-rational test, such
    as action, satisfaction of needs, realization in conduct, the possibility of being lived, and judges
    reality by this norm to the exclusion of all others.
        -Catholic Encyclopaedia

Louis Menand's Metaphysical Club is in many ways an exemplary intellectual history.  In it he tells the parallel stories of four men who helped to create the philosophy of Pragmatism : Oliver Wendell Holmes; William James; Charles Sanders Peirce; and John Dewey.  In particular, he focusses on the societal and psychological imperatives which led this group--and other contributors like Jane Addams--to fashion what became the dominant philosophy of the turn of the Century.  He builds the book around a central thesis which gives the whole story a cohesion that the disparate life stories and professional disciplines of the various players might otherwise lack : he argues that they developed the concept of pragmatism, loosely defined as the belief that the truthfulness or value of an idea resides in its social utility, in response to a desire to drain political disagreements of their ideological passion, passions which they blamed for the defining moment of their generation, the bloody Civil War.  Less central to his narrative, but equally important, as the first generation to adopt a belief in Darwinism, they had to come up with a philosophy that would reconcile their faith with the fact that the theory was not susceptible to scientific proof, that touchstone of the Age of Reason.  In this context, Pragmatism can be seen as a conscious effort to make all of human knowledge seem relative, so as to reduce social tensions, on the one hand, and to rescue a dubious theory--but one which was vital to their worldview--on the other.

Menand handles his material very well, managing to make even obscure and antiquated ideas accessible and interesting.  His affection for this cast of characters is obvious in his generous treatment of them and of their foibles.  His charity towards his subjects seems grow out of his view that they were largely responsible for the development of modern theories of free speech and academic freedom, subjects about which he has written previously.  Though this treatment makes the Pragmatists more likable than they might otherwise have been, it has also prevented him from examining their philosophy with the rigor one would have liked to see applied to an idea that the author considers so important.

A more critical analysis would have revealed any number of problems with Pragmatism.  First of all, as a scientific concept it suffers the fatal flaw of circularity, perhaps not surprising since this is the fatal flaw of Darwinism too.  William James defined truth as follows :

    [T]he true is the name of whatever proves itself to be good in the way of belief.

Thus, that which experience leads us to believe is true, is "true."  This is little more than a tautology :

    Truth is a function of our beliefs.
    We believe that statement to be true.
    Therefore, it is true.

It is, of course, possible to adhere to a philosophy that would maintain that the belief in a geocentric universe is sufficient to prove that the sun orbits us, but it is hard to see why this philosophy would be helpful.  As Karl Popper, the great philosopher of science, demonstrated, one of the defining features of any scientific theory must be that it can be disproved.  Pragmatism, in trying to banish the concept of absolute truths, is itself absolutist.

This brings us to the second problem with Pragmatism.  It was intended to allow for greater social experimentation and diversity of beliefs, which would both reduce the contentiousness between peoples who believed in different things and allow for progressive ideas to be tried out.  In fact, the latter half of the 19th, and the first half of the 20th, Century did see an explosion in such experimentation.  Intellectuals of every ideological stripe treated mankind as so many lab rats.  John Dewey was the godfather of such practices in the field of education.  James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience (see Orrin's review), basically argued that Man's many forms of religious belief are all equally valid.  Holmes laid the groundwork for judicial activism, though he was trying to do the opposite, when he said that : "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience."  Holmes may have merely been trying to suggest that judges should allow legislatures greater leeway to experiment, but in untethering the Law from set principles he made it possible for judges themselves to participate in the experimenting.  Together, the Pragmatists established the intellectual climate which was responsible for the virtually unrestrained doctrines of Free Speech and Academic Freedom that Menand celebrates in the final chapters of the book.

Where is the harm in all this ?  Aren't freedom and experimentation good things.  Aren't they important means by which humans make progress ?  Undeniably.  But the idea that Man was a fit subject for experimentation also led to such things as Socialism, Communism, Fascism, and Nazism.  It fostered an ethical environment where eugenics, euthanasia, abortion, clinical medical trials on humans, and the like were all permissible.   If everything truly is relative, necessarily including the value of human life, and we can only arrive at even tentative truths via experimentation, then what experiment is not allowed.  As recent history has shown us, they are all allowed, no matter how pernicious.

But even these obviously horrific results of Pragmatism might have some value, if we learned anything from them.  But it is here that we arrive at the final, and most important, problem with Pragmatism : its two strands, experimentation and utility on the one hand, and disavowal of the possibility of arriving at final truths, on the other, are ultimately at cross purposes with one another.  For no amount of negative evidence is ever accepted as having disproved the utility of these ideas.  Did the rise of totalitarian socialist government result in the murder of hundreds of millions ?  Well, that just shows that the specific systems were flawed, not the idea itself.  Does ready access to abortion result in millions of deaths, declining populations, and gender selectivity ?  Well, that's all regrettable, but so what ?  Does turning public education into a gigantic laboratory where children are subjected to every half-baked idea that educators can come up, while education standards decline precipitously ?  Maybe.  Has sexual experimentation actually yielded any desirable results ? are humans healthier, happier, and better adjusted, or are they ever more angst ridden, unhappy, and disease prone ?  Has unrestricted academic freedom yielded a university which is better and more diverse, or are our colleges less effective as educational institutions and entirely unaccountable to students, parents, and administrators ?  Has a Free Speech which knows no boundaries given us a healthier politics and a more beautiful culture, or have both become uglier ?

The problem with all of these questions is that Pragmatism carried to its inevitable extreme basically denies that they can be answered.  It is a system which is designed to foster experimentation but removes the standards by which we judge the success of the experiments.  If nothing is true or false then the results of such experimentation are beyond our very capacity to measure.  Pragmatism has bequeathed us a world where no social experiment ever ends, no matter how deleterious its effects, because no one can ever credibly say that it has failed.  The majesty of the scientific method resides in the fact that once you perform an experiment, if the results contradict your thesis, you discard the thesis.  Ideas can not ever be proven to be finally true, we must always allow the possibility that later evidence will show them not to be true, but they can be shown to be false.  Pragmatism removes the element of falsifiability--it does this largely because it must protect the almost infinite diversity of human beliefs--and in so doing is unable to restrain the experiments which it unleashes, like Pandora opening the mythical box.  This ultimately makes it a force, not for good, but for evil in the world.

[It is important to note that Menand himself suggests that even taken on its own terms, Pragmatism is provably false.  As he notes : "Pragmatism explains everything about ideas except why a person would be willing to die for one."  The truth we attach to ideas can not be exclusively a function of their utility if their end effect is to get us killed.  By definition, such ideas are not useful.]

Finally, even if everything I've just said is complete hogwash, there's the esthetic objection to Pragmatism.  Why would want to live under such a utilitarian regime ?  Recall Holmes's infamous line in the forced sterilization case (Buck v. Bell): "three generations of imbeciles are enough."  Suppose that you could prove to your own satisfaction that the world would be an objectively better place if we were to exterminate everyone below a certain IQ level.  Would the world that you proceeded to make really be a better place ?  Or take the issue of slavery.  Let's accept Menand's thesis that Pragmatism was meant to provide a system of thought which would rob such ideas of their resonance and emotion and prevent men from killing each other over them in the future.  Would the world be a better place today if the House was still Divided, and some of were slaves to others ?  Suppose I could show you an economic chart that would indicate that slavery was a viable economic system and that both slave and master benefited from  it; would that make it worth preserving ?  No, it is this objectification of humankind which really makes Pragmatism so ugly in practice, no matter how well-intentioned the members of the Metaphysical Club were when they dreamt it up.

Perhaps in the final analysis it does not suffice for ideas to be useful; perhaps, for whatever reason, they must also be beautiful.  The Pragmatists wanted to make us see that ideas are nothing more than tools, but what if they also partake of the quality of works of art ?  War undoubtedly shows Man at his worst, but perhaps in the willingness of one man to die to vindicate the rights of another (a decision inexplicable in the realm of Pragmatism) it also shows Man at his best.  Louis Menand has done a great job of recreating the intellectual and moral climate in which these people created Pragmatism.  The book is readable and interesting and challenging.  We can only wish that he had engaged Pragmatism itself more critically and sought to answer these objections more thoroughly.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Louis Menand Links:

    -REVIEW: of The Metaphysical Club (Albert Mohler, Crosswalk)
    -REVIEW: of The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War by Louis Menand (Crispin Sartwell, Splice Today)

Book-related and General Links:
    -LOUIS MENAND  Ph.D., Columbia University. (Professor, Graduate School. English. email:
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of The Metaphysical Club
    -BOOK SITE : THE METAPHYSICAL CLUB: A Story of  Ideas in America  by Louis Menand  (FSB Associates)
    -SLATE BOOK CLUB : This week, Slate's Book Clubbers read The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand's history of pragmatism (which might be the most influential philosophy you've never heard of). From: Christopher Caldwell To: James Fallows
    -ESSAY : College: The End of the Golden Age (Louis Menand, The New York Review of Books, October 18, 2001)
    -ESSAY : Mixed Paint : America is less a mosaic than a can of paint whose colors are running together. But having enabled integration, liberalism has had to take the blame for the cultural antagonisms that integration has caused.  : A political essay by Louis Menand (Mother Jones)
    -ESSAY : Mar 9, 2000 Louis Menand: A Fine Detachment (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY :  Dec 2, 1999 Louis Menand: Opening Moves   (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : Pop Technology :  How Star Wars changed the world. (Louis Menand, Feb. 11, 1997, Slate)
    -ESSAY : Capture the Flag : Jasper Johns' own private icon (Louis Menand, Oct. 29, 1996, Slate)
    -ESSAY : New York State of Mind : A city of buildings, gangsters, and hats (Louis Menand , July 30, 1996, Slate)
    -PROFILE :  Laurie Anderson: United States, 1983.(Louis Menand, Artforum, March 1999)
    -REVIEW : of THE SHORT STORY Henry James to Elizabeth Bowen By John Bayley (Louis Menand, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE COLLECTED LETTERS OF JOSEPH CONRAD Volume Two: 1898-1902. Edited by Frederick R. Karl and Laurence Davies. Ill (Louis Menand, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of   Juneteenth By Ralph Ellison (Louis Menand, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of   THE UNCONSOLED By Kazuo Ishiguro (Louis Menand, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW :   Apr 26, 2001 Louis Menand: The Socrates of Cambridge, NY Review of Books
       The Evolutionary Philosophy of Chauncey Wright, Volume One: Philosophical Discussions
       The Evolutionary Philosophy of Chauncey Wright, Volume Two: Letters of Chauncey Wright
       The Evolutionary Philosophy of Chauncey Wright, Volume Three: Influence and Legacy edited
    -REVIEW :  May 25, 2000 Louis Menand: Bloom's Gift, NY Review of Books
       Ravelstein by Saul Bellow
    -REVIEW :   Aug 12, 1999 Louis Menand: Kubrick's Strange Love, NY Review of Books
       Eyes Wide Shut a film by Stanley Kubrick
    -REVIEW :   Jun 24, 1999 Louis Menand: Billion-Dollar Baby, NY Review of Books
       Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace a film by George Lucas
    -REVIEW :   Dec 17, 1998 Louis Menand: William James & the Case of the Epileptic Patient, NY Review of Books
       Genuine Reality: A Life of William James by Linda Simon
       William James Remembered edited by Linda Simon
       The Thought and Character of William James by Ralph Barton Perry
       Manhood at Harvard: William James and Others by Kim Townsend
       The Correspondence of William James edited by Ignas K. Skrupskelis and Elizabeth M. Berkeley
       Volume 4, 1856-1877
       Volume 5, 1878-1884
       Volume 6, 1885-1889
    -REVIEW : Oct 22, 1998 Louis Menand: Beat the Devil, NY Review of Books
       The Time of Our Time by Norman Mailer
    -REVIEW : Sep 24, 1998 Louis Menand: Jerry Don't Surf, NY Review of Books
       Saving Private Ryan a film directed by Steven Spielberg and screenplay by Robert Rodat
    -REVIEW : Dec 4, 1997 Louis Menand: Not Getting the Lesson of the Master, NY Review of Books
       Washington Square a film directed by Agnieszka Holland
       The Wings of the Dove a film directed by Iain Softley
    -REVIEW : Aug 14, 1997 Louis Menand: Inside the Billway, NY Review of Books
       Locked in the Cabinet by Robert B. Reich
       Whatever It Takes: The Real Struggle for Political Power in America by Elizabeth Drew
       Trail Fever by Michael Lewis
    -REVIEW : Jun 26, 1997 Louis Menand: Made in the USA, NY Review of Books
       American Visions by Robert Hughes
       American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America by Robert Hughes
    -REVIEW : Jun 12, 1997 Louis Menand: Entropology, NY Review of Books
       Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
    -REVIEW : May 15, 1997 Louis Menand: How Eliot Became Eliot, NY Review of Books
       Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 by T.S. Eliot and edited by Christopher Ricks
       The Waste Land, the 75th anniversary edition by T.S. Eliot
    -REVIEW : Feb 20, 1997 Louis Menand: Born Free, NY Review of Books
       What It Means to Be a Libertarian: A Personal Interpretation by Charles Murray
    -REVIEW : Feb 6, 1997 Louis Menand: It's a Wonderful Life, NY Review of Books
       The People vs. Larry Flynt a film by Milos Forman
       The People vs. Larry Flynt: The Shooting Script by Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
       An Unseemly Man: My Life as Pornographer, Pundit, and Social Outcast by Larry Flynt
    -REVIEW : Jan 9, 1997 Louis Menand: Between Planes, NY Review of Books
       Airframe by Michael Crichton
    -REVIEW : of The Irony of Free Speech by Owen Fiss (Louis Menand, Slate)
    -THEATRE REVIEW : of The Beckett Festival : Now What I Wonder Do I Mean By That : Interpreting Beckett (Louis Menand, Slate)
    -FILM REVIEW : Just Like a Woman : Adrian Lyne's Lolita stops way short of pedophilic perversity (Louis Menand, Slate)
    -FILM REVIEW : of Evita  (Louis Menand, Slate)
    -INTERVIEW: Q & A: Louis Menand: The Pulitzer Prize winner and author of "American Studies" is a critic who like to tell it like it is. (Kenneth Baker, December 2002, SF Chronicle)
    -AUDIO INTERVIEW : 'The Metaphysical Club'  -- Robert Siegel talks with Louis Menand, a staff  writer at The New Yorker, about his new book, The Metaphysical Club. The book details the transition in intellectual thinking in America before the Civil War and after. (All Things Considered, May 24, 2001, NPR)
    Aspidistra (Leon Wieseltier, 02.11.03, New Republic)
    Orwell, right or wrong? (Tim Rutten, February 15, 2003, LA Times)
    -ARCHIVES : "Louis Menand" (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : pragmatism (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : "Louis Menand" (Slate)
    -ARCHIVES : "Louis Menand" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "Louis Menand" (Mag Portal)
    -REVIEW : of The Metaphysical Club (Jean Strouse, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Metaphysical Club (JANET MASLIN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Metaphysical Club (Robert Westbrook, Washington Post)
    -REVIEW : of The Metaphysical Club (Kenneth Baker, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Metaphysical Club (Adam Begley, NY Observer)
    -REVIEW : May 31, 2001 Alan Ryan: The Group, NY Review of Books
       The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand
    -REVIEW : of The Metaphysical Club (The Economist)
    -REVIEW : of The Metaphysical Club (Fritz Lanham, Houston Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of The Metaphysical Club (Adam Kirsch, Chicago Tribune)
    -REVIEW : of The Metaphysical Club (George Scialabba, American Prospect)
    -REVIEW : of The Metaphysical Club (Matthew Price, Lingua Franca)
    -REVIEW : of Metaphysical Club (Kenan Malik, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW : of The Metahysical Club (David A. Hollinger, American Scientist)
    -REVIEW : of Pragmatism: A Reader, edited by Louis Menand (Susan Haack, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of The Future of Academic Freedom Louis Menand, editor (John Bugge, Emory Report)
    -REVIEW : of The Future of Academic Freedom by Louis Menand ( Danny Yee)
    -REVIEW: of American Studies by Louis Menand (John Freeman, The Denver Post)
    -REVIEW: of American Studies by Louis Menand (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
    -REVIEW: of American Studies by Louis Menand (Derek Coppold, Texas Mercury)

    -Pragmatism (Catholic Encyclopaedia)
    -AMERICAN PRAGMATISM (Radical Academy)
    -The Pragmatism Cybrary
    -The Value of Knowledge: a Miniature Library of Philosophy
    -ARCHIVES :  Pragmatism (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES :  +Empiricism +Philosophy   (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of Pragmatism: A Reader, edited by Louis Menand (Susan Haack, New Criterion)

WILLIAM JAMES (1842-1910) (William James was born in New York City on January 11, 1842) :
    see Brothers Judd's William James Links

    -Arisbe : The Peirce Gateway
    -PROFILE :  Discovering the American Aristotle (Edward T. Oakes, First Things, December 1993)
    -PROFILE :  The Wasp Leaves the Bottle: Charles Sanders Peirce (Josiah Lee Auspitz, The American Scholar,  Autumn, 1994)
    -ESSAY : Peirce's Logic (Eric M. Hammer , Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
    -REVIEW : of His Glassy Essence: An Autobiography of Charles Sanders Peirce, by Kenneth Laine Ketner (National Review)

    -Center for Dewey Studies
    -John Dewey (Philosophy Pages)
    -ARCHIVES : "john Dewey" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "john dewey" (NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY : Dewey's Criticisms of Traditional Philosophy: Towards a Pragmatic Conception of Philosophy (Charles Lowney, Boston University)
    -REVIEW : Feb 22, 2001 Alan Ryan: Schools: The Price of "Progress", NY Review of Books
               Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms by Diane Ravitch
    -REVIEW: of The Education of John Dewey by Jay Martin (RICHARD RORTY, NY Times Book Review)

    -OBITUARY: Washington Holds Bright Memories of Justice Holmes's Long and Useful Life: Soldier, Jurist and Philosopher, He Sprang From New England's Cultural Dominance (THE NEW YORK TIMES, March 6, 1935)
    -GRAVE SITE : Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  Captain and Brevet Colonel, US Army  Associate Justice, US Supreme Court (Arlington National Cemetery)
    -Harvard Regiment Home Page
    -The Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Papers (American Legal Manuscripts from the Harvard Law School Library)
    -ETEXT : The Common Law by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
    -SPEECH : Memorial Day - Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  :  "In Our Youth Our Hearts Were Touched With Fire..."
    -HOLMES, Oliver Wendell, Jr. (Law Books USA)
    -ARCHIVES : "wendell holmes" (Find Articles)
    -ARCHIVES : "oliver wendell Holmes" (NY Review of Books)
    -PROFILE : Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. : The Man Who was Touched with Fire (Bob Dame , Civil War Magazine)
    -ESSAY : Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. : American Jurist (Lucid Cafe)
    -ESSAY : Man of the Law, and of Letters as Well (ELIZABETH COHEN, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Dissenting Opinions of Mr. Justice Holmes, Mr. Justice Holmes (H.L. Mencken, May 1930, The American Mercury)
    REVIEW : of Law Without Values The Life, Work, and Legacy of Justice Holmes. By Albert W. Alschuler (Jeffrey Rosen, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Law Without Values (Phillip E. Johnson, First Things)
    -REVIEW: of Law Without Values. (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of Law Without Values (Peter Schuler , University of Chicago Chronicle)
    -REVIEW : of Law Without Values (Ramesh Ponnuru, National Review)
    -REVIEW: of Law Without Values (Peter Berkowitz, Times Literary Supplement) Law without Values (Peter Berkowitz, Times Literary Supplement)
    -REVIEW : of JUSTICE OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES Law and the Inner Self. By G. Edward White (Nathan Lewin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of HONORABLE JUSTICE The Life of Oliver Wendell Holmes. By Sheldon M. Novick (Edmund Morris, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Justice From Beacon Hill The Life and Times of Oliver Wendell Holmes By Liva Baker (HERBERT MITGANG, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of HOLMES AND FRANKFURTER Their Correspondence, 1912-1934. Edited by Robert M. Mennel and Christine L. Compston (Richard A. Posner, NY Times Book Review)

    -ESSAY : Staving Off the Silencers (Anthony Lewis;  December 1, 1991 NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS FREE SPEECH And It's a Good Thing, Too. By Stanley Fish (Calvin Woodard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of FIGHTING FAITHS: The Abrams Case, the Supreme Court and Free Speech By Richard Polenberg (Walter Goodman, NY Times Book Review)