Don’t let the title put you off: Louis Menand’s cultural history of American pragmatism is a lot more clubby than it is metaphysical. Menand’s meticulous genealogy tracks the emergence of pragmatism as the most distinctively American philosophy by telling the stories of its four main proponents in the 19th and early 20th centuries: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, C.S. Pierce, and John Dewey. Along the way, Menand sheds light on the country’s historical calamities of the day, from the Civil War to progressive education. In the end, though, we don’t exactly know where he stands: Was pragmatism the salvation of the United States, or its ruination? Only a pragmatist could say for sure, and Menand, whatever else he is, is decidedly not a pragmatist.
The popular catchphrase to characterize American pragmatism–“The end justifies the means”–obviously doesn’t do the philosophy justice. Neither, really, do Menand’s too-broad claims: “Pragmatism is an account of the way people think–the way they come up with ideas, form beliefs, and reach decisions.” At least for William James, in a passage Menand doesn’t quote, the functions of pragmatist philosophy are much more delimited. “The pragmatic method,” James writes in Pragmatism (1907), “is primarily a method of settling metaphysical disputes that otherwise might be interminable.”
This arbitration is accomplished, in pragmatist thought, by abandoning quests for fundamental agreement; people needn’t agree on foundations, say the pragmatists, as long as they can agree on desirable outcomes. And a good thing, too, since fundamental beliefs, according to the pragmatists, are always products of contingent, relative, and infinitely variable self-interests. Even people who think they agree on the fundamentals, the idea goes, will find on closer examination that they really don’t. That’s why, in America, you’re not supposed to talk about religion or politics in polite company, so fervently do we cherish our precarious illusions of cosy accord.
Such illusions are harder to nurse than ever these days, and Menand’s intricate narrative, which manages to be both straightforward and digressive, starts with that originating moment of intra-American conflict, the Civil War. Histories of pragmatism have often made that war central, on the assumption that pragmatism arose as a reaction to the fundamental rift in American nationalism that the Civil War represents. How was it possible to maintain a unified country if the divisions within it ran so deep? The pragmatist answer was that American unity could be found in shared goals, even if the bases of those goals, or the motivations toward them, were incomprehensibly diverse–as, of course, they were and are, just as the goals themselves, in these post-pragmatist times, can seem dizzyingly splintered, too.
“One of the effects the Civil War had on American culture,” writes Menand, “was to replace the sentiment of section with the sentiment of nation.” The first half of Menand’s tale is the story of a group of privileged, provincial types, mostly Bostonians circling around a small, insular college called Harvard, whose conception of America was bounded by the Charles River. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was able in 1858, blithely and quite sincerely, to name Boston as “the hub of the solar system.” His son, after two life-threatening injuries sustained in the Civil War, was deprived of such hearty tunnel-vision: “He had not fought for Boston,” Menand writes, “he had fought for the United States, and the experience taught him that the two were not the same.” Even if America’s regions remain stamped with a spirit of place conferred by the strife of the war, it is hard not to see its conceptions of democracy and pluralism, too, as outcomes of that conflict.
In fact, one of the basic ideas of pragmatism is that positive consequences often result from cataclysmic causes; that’s exactly why effects are privileged over causes in the system. A utilitarian theory rooted in classical liberalism, pragmatism was, among other things, an effort to reconcile an affirmative spiritualism with the rising tide of scientism in the 19th century. In Pragmatism, James expends considerable energy demonstrating how the transformation of the Eucharist is really a pragmatic event, and Pierce, for all his seeming hyper-rationalism, regarded pragmatism as the culmination of God’s laws.
Menand’s book combines juicy intellectual gossip with lucid intellectual exposition. Any writer who can reasonably explicate Hegel in three paragraphs is worthy of respect, but the bulk of the book concerns the highly localized interpersonal relations among the charter members of the so-called Metaphysical Club (a misnomer, by the way, since one point of pragmatism was to circumvent metaphysical debate)–their mutual affections and back-stabbings, their epistemological comings and goings.
Menand’s lucidity, by far his greatest strength as a writer, guides him through passages where, with all those Holmeses and Jameses, you can’t tell the one from the other; or where, to get John Dewey on a train from Ann Arbor to Chicago, Menand must detour through the life of Eugene Debs, the history of the Pullman company, and the railroad strike of 1894. (As I said, both straightforward and digressive.)
This lucidity seldom flags, but it sometimes costs. Though Menand later refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “evasiveness” on the subject of abolition, he cites early in the book a letter from Emerson to Holmes of 1855 to suggest Emerson’s attitude toward abolition, then quotes Emerson’s essay, “The American Scholar,” to buffer the point. But the letter, only partially quoted, is much more ambiguous in full than Menand’s excerpt allows, and his point depends on a debatable connection between two phrases that he presents, in the text, as contiguous. Glossing the quote, he connects Emerson’s phrase “the small minority of disengaged and thinking men” to his own referent–“abolitionists,” a word Emerson does not even use in the letter. Moreover, since “The American Scholar” was published in 1837, and since it breathes not a word about slavery, it can’t effectively illustrate Emerson’s growing support of abolitionism. Such instances are indicative more of the Procrustean nature of certain types of lucidity, I think, than of any pervasive faults in the book, and they do not diminish its richness as intellectual history.
What may motivate Menand’s curious emphases at certain points of his argument is the kind of genealogy he wants to write. Menand is a progressivist, not a pragmatist–Jane Addams is his real idol in the book–and he wants to show how ideals of pluralism and freedom evolved from what he takes to be the rather archaic ideas of pure pragmatism. The wonder of America, for Menand, is how a history of racism gave rise to a dream of multiculturalism. To demonstrate that ascent, he recruits Emerson to the cause, and shows how the pragmatist sons rose above the reactionary fathers–especially in the case of Holmes Jr., overcoming the backward ideologies of Holmes Sr.
But just as the evidence regarding Emerson seems a little skewed, so the treatment of a figure like Charles Darwin, for instance, is rife with problems. For Menand’s argument to work, Darwin must be a progressive thinker who helped the pragmatists free themselves from the grip of provincial superstition, paving the way for their embrace of pluralism. Thus, Menand distances Darwin from James’ teacher Louis Agassiz, a rabidly racist anthropologist whom Menand calls “anti-Darwinist” because of his racial views. Menand is so eager to protect Darwin from bad uses made of his work that he emphasizes how the Darwinian catchphrase “survival of the fittest,” sanctioning raw competition among species, originated “not with Darwin, but with Herbert Spencer, seven years before On the Origin of Species appeared.” True, but what Menand does not mention is that Darwin was so taken by the phrase that he incorporated it into later editions of his book.
Darwin’s reputation as progressive rests wholly on the fact that his detractors have tended to be such reactionary boobs. If such people ever bothered to read Darwin, they’d probably be delighted by much of what they found there. In The Descent of Man, for instance, Darwin frequently speaks of higher and lower races, and muses upon an idyllic future where the “civilized” races will have exterminated the “savage” ones. The real question would seem to be, then, how pragmatism could incorporate such ideas and still reach toward a greater pluralism. It is not a question Menand’s thesis allows him to explore.
No pragmatist will need to ponder the source of Menand’s apparent biases, since all beliefs originate in self-interest. Menand himself, at times abandoning his studied neutrality, rightly wonders where, then, does the self-interest come from? When his equanimity falls away altogether, one may wonder why he has spent 500 pages elucidating a theory he seems to hold in such low regard: “There is a sense in which history is lit by the deeds of men and women for whom ideas were things other than instruments of adjustment. Pragmatism explains everything about ideas except why a person would be willing to die for one.” At such moments, Menand’s relatively traditional and morally inflected idealism seems to blind him to the more complex, less predictable idealism of the pragmatists: their vision of a world, after the worst has happened, where people would no longer have to die for their ideas.