Much have I studied in the pages of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club

July 14, 2010 at 2:40 am (Book review, books, History)

And much did I struggle with and not quite comprehend…

The subtitle of Menand’s book is “A Story of Ideas in America.” Some of those ideas were sufficiently abstract – not to mention abstruse – that it was as though I had strayed into “how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin” territory.  I felt this all the more keenly because most of the passages to which I refer came after a description of a Civil War battle – the so-called Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania – that was so horrifying that I knew at once that I could never read an entire book about that savage conflict:

‘In a small space along the breastworks of Confederate trenches, in the pouring rain, the two sides had fought hand to hand continuously for eighteen hours in a kind of blood frenzy. Men thrust bayonets through the logs or jumped onto the barricade and fired into the mass of soldiers below until they were themselves shot down. A tree eighteen inches thick was completely severed by bullets.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was not at this battle; nevertheless, as a first lieutenant in the Twentieth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry (aka “the Harvard Regiment,”), he saw plenty of action and was wounded more than once. In later life, he rarely  spoke of his wartime ordeal.

(I have ever confused Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. – eminent jurist and Supreme Court Justice – with his father, who was a physician and a poet. OWH Senior wrote one of my favorite poems: “The Chambered Nautilus:”

This is the ship of pearl, which, poets feign,
Sail the unshadowed main,–
The venturous bark that flings
On the sweet summer wind its purpled wings
In gulfs enchanted, where the Siren sings,
And coral reefs lie bare,
Where the cold sea-maids rise to sun their streaming hair.

Its webs of living gauze no more unfurl;
Wrecked is the ship of pearl!
And every chambered cell,
Where its dim dreaming life was wont to dwell,
As the frail tenant shaped his growing shell,
Before thee lies revealed,–
Its irised ceiling rent, its sunless crypt unsealed!

Year after year beheld the silent toil
That spread his lustrous coil;
Still, as the spiral grew,
He left the past year’s dwelling for the new,
Stole with soft step its shining archway through,
Built up its idle door,
Stretched in his last-found home, and knew the old no more.

Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee,
Child of the wandering sea,
Cast from her lap, forlorn!
From thy dead lips a clearer note is born
Than ever Triton blew from wreathed horn;
While on mine ear it rings,
Through the deep caves of thought I hear a voice that sings:–

Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul,
As the swift seasons roll!
Leave thy low-vaulted past!
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou at length art free,
Leaving thine outgrown shell by life’s unresting sea!

In my youth, I thought this poem sappy. I now find it beautiful and am grateful for its optimistic spirit.)


These days, America’s favorite luminary of early 19th century New England is Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau barely figures in Menand’s narrative, whereas Ralph Waldo Emerson is a crucial figure:

“…Emerson was a genuine moralist whose mistrust of moralism led him continually to complicate and deflect his own formulations. He was a preacher whose message was: Don’t listen to preachers. ‘I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching,’ as he put it in the essay on ‘Self-Reliance’…Emerson represented the tradition of the New England churchman, which is one reason he became an honored and respected figure despite his anti-institutionalism; and at the same time, he represented that tradition’s final displacement. Unitarianism had rescued the integrity of the individual conscience from Calvinism. Emerson rescued it from Unitarianism–which is why after his famous address to the Harvard Divinity School in 1838, in which he scandalized the Unitarians by renouncing organized Christianity in favor of personal revelation, he was not invited to speak at Harvard again for thirty years.

In 1958, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. received, as a birthday gift from his parents, a five volume edition of Emerson’s writings. At the time, Holmes was a freshman at Harvard. Writing many years after the fact, he says of  Emerson that he “set me on fire.”

There is much in The Metaphysical Club concerning Holmes’s philosophy of jurisprudence. I admit that I found the material tough going.

At the conclusion of the section of the book devoted to Holmes, the author describes a poignant scene.In 1932, the distinguished jurist, now retired, attempts to read a poem about the war to Marion Frankfurter, wife of Felix Frankfurter. Unable to proceed with the reading, Holmes  broke down and wept:

‘They were not tears for the war. They were tears for what the war had destroyed. Holmes had grown up in a highly cultivated, homogeneous world, a world of which he was, in many ways, the consummate product: idealistic, artistic, and socially committed. And then he had watched that world bleed to death at Fredericksburg and Antietam, in a war that learning and brilliance had been powerless to prevent.


Next we turn to William James.

In our house, we have frequent recourse to that stale bit of humor in which one person asks, “Do you have trouble making decisions?” and the other responds, “Well, yes and no.” The chapter on William James is entitled, “The Man of Two Minds.” He was, apparently, a master equivocator.

He was also a formidable intellect, from a family of formidable intellects. His father Henry was a theologian who came to embrace Swedenborgianism. William’s younger brother was the novelist Henry James.

Part of Henry Senior’s formative experience involved being swept up in what is called the Second Great Awakening, which began in New England at the turn of the 19th century:

‘From one point of view, the Second Great Awakening, which lasted from 1800 to the eve of the Civil War, was, as Tocqueville interpreted it, a kind of democratization of European Christianity, a massive absorption onto American popular culture of the Protestant spiritual impulse, , stripped of most of its traditional heirarchies and formalities. But from another point of view, it was the last blast of supernaturalism before science superseded theology as thee dominant discourse in American intellectual life.

(I wanted especially to quote the above passage as an illustration of the sheer elegance of Menand’s prose.)


Next we meet Swiss paleontologist and geologist Louis Agassiz, who relocated to the U.S. in 1846 and eventually accepted a professorship at Harvard University. In 1850, the widowed Agassiz married Elizabeth Cabot Cary, a pioneer is women’s education who eventually became the first president of Radcliffe College.

Here’s an interesting fact concerning the state of scientific inquiry in the U.S. in the early 19th century:

‘One of the things that had held back scientific education in American colleges…was the dominance of theology in the curriculum, which obliged scholars in every field to align their work with Christian orthodoxy.  Theology was the academic trump card.

One of Louis Agassiz’s great contributions to intellectual endeavors in this country was his insistence that the study of science be divorced from all aspects of religious belief.


At this juncture in his narrative, Menand once again focuses on William James, who first met Agassiz on a research expedition to Brazil in 1861. At this point, Darwin’s discoveries and theories begin increasingly to dominate scientific discourse in America. Here’s how Menand explains James’s take on Darwin, as elucidated in James’s masterwork The Principles of Psychology (1890):

‘There is intelligence in the universe: it is ours. It was our good luck that, somewhere along the way, we acquired minds. They released us from the prison of biology.

(My first thought on reading this was, We have not been entirely released from that prison: along with every other organism on the planet, we are still mortal.)


Next we meet Charles Sanders Peirce. Peirce was “…an all-around prodigy of science, mathematics, and philosophy, and he was not shy about displaying his erudition or his disdain for less initiated minds.” (Peirce’s father Benjamin was a mathematician who taught at Harvard.)

In a never-published manuscript dated from 1907, Charles Peirce gives this account of the founding of the Metaphysical Club in 1872:

“‘It was in the earliest seventies that a knot of us young men in Old Cambridge, calling ourselves, half-ironically,  half-defiantly “The Metaphysical Club,”–for agnosticism was then riding its high horse, and was frowning superbly upon all metaphysics,–used to meet, sometimes in my study, sometimes in that of William James.’

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was also a member, but the prime mover was Chauncey Wright, a gifted mathematician and philosopher. Wright’s story is a poignant one. Brilliant and intense, he was also gentle and kind. He suffered repeated bouts of depression and ultimately died of a stroke at  the age of 45.

The Metaphysical Club was in existence for less than a year. But it retains its luster due to the sheer brain power of its members and the fact that the discussions engaged in by those members helped give birth to the philosophy of pragmatism. (This was yet another topic in this book that challenged my understanding.)


The last major figure profiled in this work is philosopher, psychologist, and educator. John Dewey. Dewey’s achievements and influence were tremendous. I won’t try to recount them here but will refer you instead to Wikipedia’s comprehensive entry.


As I’ve indicated, there were times when I bogged down in my reading of The Metaphysical Club. The soft cover edition currently before me runs to 442 pages. I own that as I was approaching the home stretch I gave myself permission…you’ve probably guessed… (gasp!!) to skim some of the material.

But  then I was stopped in my tracks. Just shy of the book’s conclusion, there’s a chapter entitled “Pluralisms.” It deals with the concept of the Melting Pot, with racism, anti-Semitism – how these forces were playing out at the turbulent beginning of the twentieth century. It’s riveting stuff. Immigration comes in here, too. This is the kind of reading in which you discover that although the players are different, many of the crucial social and political issues confronting us today were equally contentious in the past. A hundred years ago, these same battles were being fought, and with equal ferocity.

In this chapter, we encounter the great W.E.B. Du Bois. One of Du Bois’s many groundbreaking accomplishments was that he was the first African- American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. (The year was 1895; the subject was history.)

I had, of course, heard of the author of The Souls of Black Folk. But I hadn’t heard of Alain Locke (though obviously I should have). Menand enumerates the challenges faced by this individual:

‘He had heart trouble and an unusually slight physique (he was five feet tall and weighed ninety-nine pounds); he was homosexual; and he was black.

Locke earned his undergraduate degree in English and philosophy from Harvard in 1907. He then went on to be the first African-American Rhodes Scholar. Subsequently, he studied philosophy at the University of Berlin and attended the College de France in Paris in 1911. Locke returned to Harvard to complete his doctoral work in philosophy. He then went to Howard University, where he chaired that institution’s philosophy department until his retirement in 1953. In the course of his life in academia, Locke wrote numerous books and articles.

Some people are just unstoppable…


I recommend the site History of American Thought for additional reading on the history of American philosophy.

The Metaphysical Club is  filled with riches; I have barely skimmed the surface here. It was a challenging but ultimately hugely rewarding book, and it won for its author the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in history.



W.E.B. Du Bois

William James

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr

John Dewey

Chauncey Wright

Alain Locke

Louis Agassiz and Benjamin Peirce

Henry James Senior and Junior

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Here is Louis Menand being interviewed at the University of California at San Diego in 2004:

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