The Metaphysical Club


The MetaPhysical ClubI was a bit of a late bloomer when it comes to philosophy. I think the first book that really got me thinking about the subject (if we don’t count Dawkin’s Selfish Gene, which got me thinking about everything) was A.C. Grayling’s What is Good?, a superb and accessible read. Since then, I’ve been following the philosophical breadcrumbs and taking a rather haphazard approach to the whole business. However, recently the fantastically funny and thought-provoking Emily Levine told me that I had to read The Metaphysical Club, a Pulitzer-Prize winning book by Louis Menand.

The Metaphysical Club tells the story of pragmatism, possibly the greatest American contribution to philosophy, through the lives of some of its key characters. Beginning with the Supreme Court judge and civil war veteran Oliver Wendell Holmes and weaving in the Logician Charles Pierce, the Psychologist-Philosopher William James, Jane Addams (known as the first social worker) and the Polymath John Dewey.

It is an incredibly elegant book, interweaving the various stories of its protagonists with skill and subtlety. One gets a decent idea of pragmatism’s meaning and importance, but Menand also places the philosophy and its leading lights squarely in their historical context, showing how the civil war and the religious battles of the day influenced pragmatism’s development. The Metaphysical club also gave me a small introduction into the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is someone I intend to delve far more deeply into. The book is rich in beautiful quotes and I’ll leave you with one by Oliver Wendell Holmes that seems appropriate to my line of work too:

“No man has earned the right to intellectual ambition until he has learned to lay his course by a star which he has never seen—to dig by the divining rod for springs which he may never reach…. Make your study heroic, for to think great thoughts you must be heroes as well as idealists. Only when you have worked alone—when you have felt around you a black gulf of solitude more isolating than that which surrounds the dying man, and in hope and in despair have trusted to your own unshaken will—then only will you have achieved...”


2 responses to “The Metaphysical Club”

  1. Hmm.. On the topic, I’d recommend William James too- seminal thinker, fantastic and inspiring writer, top bloke and usually misrepresented out of all recognition by people who go a bit gooey at a striking/shocking phrase or two…

  2. I was reading and enjoying William James’ Pragmatism right up until in my dopy post-Greenland state I left it on the flight from Reykjavik. Will have to get another copy