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The Metaphysical Club
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- A Story of Ideas in America
- Awarded the Pulitzer Prize, 2002
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A- : interesting, engaging, broad historical survey
See our review for fuller assessment.
|The American Prospect
||John H. Summers
|Christian Science Monitor
|Chron. of Higher Ed.
||John T McGreevy
||Richard D. North
|The LA Times
|The New Republic
|The New Statesman
|The NY Observer
|The NY Rev. of Books
|The NY Times
|The NY Times Book Rev.
|San Francisco Chronicle
|The Washington Post
Not quite a consensus, but most very enthusiastic -- especially about Menand's presentation and writing
From the Reviews:
- "What is enthralling and illuminating about The Metaphysical Club is its portraits of individuals and their milieus. Menand is wonderfully deft at evoking a climate of ideas or a cultural sensibility, embodying it in a character, and moving his characters into and out of one another's lives. What might have been a jumble of intellectual movements and colorful minor figures (...) is instead a subtle weave of entertaining narrative and astute interpretation." - George Scialabba , The American Prospect
- "As an exercise in public reason however, The Metaphysical Club's greatest strengths are also its signla weaknessess. Because he roots pragmatism's development in the idiosyncratic personalities of its progenitors, Menand has trouble explaining how and why these different thinkers converged on a set of tightly related ideas." - John H. Summers, Boston Review
- "(A) story of almost ludicrous breadth and depth, winding around handwriting analysis, birds, racism, railroads, universities, and God. The threat of philosophical textbookism hovers in the margins, but Menand's determination to "see ideas as always soaked through by the personal and social situations in which we find them" fends off that danger with sometimes dazzling effect." - Ron Charles, Christian Science Monitor
- "(W)itty, brilliant, and life-enhancing presentation of pragmatism (.....) The book suffers from hyperactive narrative. (...) Many people will like other parts of this book, but I liked it best as an introduction to pragmatism, when it left biography and narrative alone and frankly treated ideas, which few people writing now do with more clarity and verve than Menand." - Phyllis Rose, The Chronicle of Higher Education
- "The Metaphysical Club is that rare thing, an intensely pleasurable intellectual history offering insights (even laughs) on almost every page. (...) All this is exhilarating, as is Menand's conviction that a better understanding of these figures provides us with a better understanding of our own time. Nonetheless, specialists will occasionally shudder." - John T. McGreevy, Commonweal
- "The sheer range and variety of its material makes the many themes of The Metaphysical Club at times hard to follow. But it consistently throws light on a question about America that has so often puzzled outsiders: how does it continue to combine such cold-eyed realism with a boundless, sunny confidence ? (...) If the rewards are not always where you expect to find them, that only adds to the stimulation of an urbane and original book." - The Economist
- "This is a marvellous book, but too modest: it does not trace the effect its characters would have on future thought, and it wastes time charting the history of American universities. But what a luxury to have the sheer forcefulness of these minds laid out in front of us." - Richard D. North, The Independent
- "Here, in the major book of his career so far, Menand brings his exquisite literary and philosophical talents together to invent a new genre -- intellectual history as improv jazz. (...) Menand's sly wit and reportorial hijinks, his clarity and rigor in making distinctions, his metaphorical gift in driving home pragmatist points make The Metaphysical Club this summer's beach read for those who relax by mulling the sands of time." - Carlin Romano, The Nation
- "Menand's book is, in the words of its subtitle, a story of ideas; it is also a well written and fascinating account of intelligent people responding to awful events, told with an eye for captivating detail. (...) (A)nd frankly, it's more than a little refreshing to read a work of history that does not advertise, on every page, the political views of its author." - Michael Potemra, National Review
- "All of this book's problems can be traced to its author's weak command of the philosophical ideas whose history he wishes to recount. (...) In the end, Menand's book is just another depressing document of the immense popularity of anti-objectivist conceptions of truth within vast stretches of the humanities and social sciences." - Paul Boghossian, The New Republic
- "The Metaphysical Club is a seductively crafted work and compulsively readable. But it is deeply flawed, largely because pragmatism itself is deeply flawed, both as a philosophy and as a guide to politics." - Kenan Malik, New Statesman
- "The Metaphysical Club is rollicking intellectual history. (...) O.K.: The Metaphysical Club is not perfect. It meanders, picking up new characters and new angles along the way. (...) His take-it-or-leave-it style is appropriate to pragmatism, but it's not always exciting or stimulating. If he judged ideas with the same confidence and verve with which he judges people, his book would shake you harder." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer
- "Menand's affection for his subjects is such that his criticisms and reservations emerge only gently and almost between the lines. Nonetheless, the truth is that he writes as a friendly outsider rather than as a fellow traveler." - Alan Ryan, The New York Review of Books
- "(H)ugely ambitious, unmistakably brilliant though sometimes elusive." - Janet Maslin, The New York Times
- "Menand brings rare common sense and graceful, witty prose to his richly nuanced reading of American intellectual history (.....) On occasion, when The Metaphysical Club travels into the pure genealogy of thought, readers unfamiliar with these matters may feel a bit lost. But when the lives animate the ideas, everything works." - Jean Strouse, The New York Times Book Review
- "The clarity and energy of his writing never fail. Nor is the reader ever left wondering about the relevance of Menand's side trips into theory and anecdote. (...) The Metaphysical Club sets a new standard for anyone who would write, or read, the human story of a progress of ideas." - Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle
- "It would be nice to say that The Metaphysical Club is on balance worth having. (...) But I cannot say this nice thing. Menand's valuable information about the circumstances surrounding the emergence of ideas will badly mislead unless one already knows quite a bit about the ideas themselves." - Bruce Wilshire, Times Literary Supplement
- "(A)n amiable, light-footed account of the origins and development of pragmatist thinking in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. (....) Indeed, context often overwhelms text in Menand's intellectual history. Although cast as "a story of ideas, " the book gives short shrift to the thinking of his principal subjects in favor of extended, often entertaining, contextual digressions." - Robert Westbrook, The Washington Post
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
The Metaphysical Club of the title was a very short-lived group, formed in 1872.
It isn't very well-known, and didn't make a great impression.
Louis Menand notes that most of its members didn't even make mention of it in any of their public and private writings.
Menand, too, devotes relatively little space to the club itself in his book: it serves only as a convenient axis.
It is the ideas behind the club, and the people involved, that are Menand's true subjects.
Four men loom largest in Menand's book: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey.
It is their stories, and the evolution of their influential ideas (and, specifically, pragmatism), that Menand focusses on.
Even so, Menand wants to present the largest of pictures, and so, while they are the most prominent figures on this broad tapestry, many others -- and a great deal of history -- play a significant role as well.
The book proceeds largely chronologically.
Significantly, the stories of Holmes, James, and Peirce are presented first as the stories of their fathers.
These men were significant figures in their own right.
The senior Oliver Wendell Holmes was a doctor and, more, famously a breakfast-table autocrat, poet, and philosopher, as well as founder of The Atlantic Monthly and well-known Boston intellectual.
The senior Henry James, father to -- among others -- William, novelist Henry, and Alice, made his greatest mark through his children, but was also a formidable figure.
Professor Benjamin Peirce was -- so Menand -- "probably the first world-class -- in the sense of internationally recognized -- mathematician the United States produced."
Menand introduces the sons through their fathers, shifting focus from figure to figure.
The intersections among the lives of Holmes Jr., James, and Peirce (and later Dewey) are important, so he does pay heed to their relationships (as friends, colleagues, correspondents), but he is equally willing to emphasize their distinctiveness.
Menand offers biography, but he keeps it, for the most part, tightly focussed.
There is much more to the book than the life-stories of the four cornerstones he has chosen.
Where elaboration fits his theses Menand takes that route.
Thus the seemingly surprising beginning, focussed on the Civil War and then Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.'s experiences in the conflict.
Menand artfully introduces his picture of a changing America.
The issues of the Civil War -- focussed on questions of race, but involving countless permutations and many other issues (some a consequence of the racial questions, others of a different nature) as well -- continue to crop up throughout the book.
Similarly, the shadow (or bright shining light) of Darwinism hangs over much of the book.
Menand is not one for loose ends: he dangles a great many threads, but in the end the book is a tightly woven construction.
Menand covers many fascinating episodes from American life between the Civil War and just after the First World War.
Intellectual life is the focus, but other things also come into play.
Longer relevant asides cover the infamous Howland will case, the Pullman strike, and the work of Louis Agassiz, among others -- each worthy of its own book (and, indeed, many books have been written about each).
Menand ties all this together, along with the more important themes he is getting at.
The book is, after all, "a story of ideas", and Menand constantly returns to this central point: that these thinkers developed a new way of looking at and thinking about ideas themselves, and that this fundamentally "changed the way Americans live".
His case is fairly convincing.
The reason he chose these four thinkers was because of one specific area of overlap:
(...) what these four thinkers had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea -- an idea about ideas.
Menand likes the overarching concept.
In a similar vein he finds that in Oliver Wendell Holmes' case the Civil War "changed his view of the nature of views", or describes a disagreement between Jane Addams and Dewey as "an argument about argument".
So, repeatedly, from all angles, he pounds his point home.
But he makes his point well, and uses constantly engaging and entertaining examples from the lives (and thought) of these and others in making his case.
Menand writes well enough that the split between life-narratives (and history) on the one hand and text-about-ideas on the other isn't a terribly annoying one.
One simply enjoys the book, as The Metaphysical Club is a consistently entertaining, fast-paced read.
Still, it does fall somewhat short in it its philosophical exposition (though Menand weaves a great deal in, almost entirely painlessly).
And it is also somewhat gossipy, as Menand goes for a surprising amount of tabloid appeal (dressed in intellectual garb) in presenting his story.
Menand writes very well, striking a fairly good balance between storytelling (at which he excels) and the exposition of ideas (which he doses very carefully in this book).
There are occasional lapses in style -- too clever play, such as saying of General George B. McClellan that: "He was an admirer principally of George B. McClellan."
But generally the book reads very well.
Overall Menand tries -- and generally manages -- to be fairly evenhanded.
His portraits of his four principal characters are excellent introductions to these men (the neglected Peirce especially, but the others also), and he can be excused for ignoring aspects of their lives, given the limited ambit of his book.
He at least makes a good (and generally very interesting) case for most of his boldest statements, such as: "The 'Reflex Arc' paper is the essential expression of Dewey's particular mode of intelligence."
The Metaphysical Club is a very good, broad survey of an interesting and significant slice of American intellectual history, which also considers the larger implications of the ideas that are considered.
A thoroughly entertaining and often thought-provoking read, it can certainly be recommended.
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The Metaphysical Club:
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:
Charles Sanders Peirce:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
American author Louis Menand is a professor at the City University of New York.
He is also an editor of The New York Review of Books and a staff writer for The New Yorker.
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© 2001-2010 the complete review
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