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The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

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The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America is a Pulitzer Prize
Pulitzer Prize
The Pulitzer Prize is a U.S. award for achievements in newspaper and online journalism, literature and musical composition. It was established by American publisher Joseph Pulitzer and is administered by Columbia University in New York City...

-winning 2001 book by Louis Menand
Louis Menand
Louis Menand is an American writer and academic, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Metaphysical Club , an intellectual and cultural history of late 19th and early 20th century America....

, an American
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 writer and legal scholar. The Metaphysical Club recounts the lives and intellectual work of the handful of thinkers primarily responsible for the philosophical
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

 concept of pragmatism
Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition centered on the linking of practice and theory. It describes a process where theory is extracted from practice, and applied back to practice to form what is called intelligent practice...

, a principal feature of American philosophical achievement: William James
William James
William James was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher who was trained as a physician. He wrote influential books on the young science of psychology, educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and on the philosophy of pragmatism...

, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. was an American jurist who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932...

, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey
John Dewey
John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. Dewey was an important early developer of the philosophy of pragmatism and one of the founders of functional psychology...

. Pragmatism proved to be very influential on modern thought (for example in spurring movements in modern legal thought such as legal realism
Legal realism
Legal realism is a school of legal philosophy that is generally associated with the culmination of the early-twentieth century attack on the orthodox claims of late-nineteenth-century classical legal thought in the United States...


Menand traces the biography of each of these individuals, connecting them in places and showing how all were in a sense influenced by their times and by thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century...

. The book begins by examining the family history and early life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., the future U.S. Supreme Court
Supreme Court of the United States
The Supreme Court of the United States is the highest court in the United States. It has ultimate appellate jurisdiction over all state and federal courts, and original jurisdiction over a small range of cases...

 Justice, and goes on to recount the acquaintance among Holmes, James, Peirce, Dewey and others, and how their association led to James' development of pragmatism.

A main focus of the book is the American Civil War's
American Civil War
The American Civil War was a civil war fought in the United States of America. In response to the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States, 11 southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America ; the other 25...

 influence on Americans and on the men the book focuses on in particular and how that influence inspired the contributions of pragmatism. For Holmes, the Civil War destroyed his entire perspective on the world and greatly shaped his judicial philosophy, which, later on, emerged at roughly the same time as Dewey, James and Peirce were beginning to develop pragmatist ideas. Other influences treated by the book were the emerging sciences of statistics
Statistics is the study of the collection, organization, analysis, and interpretation of data. It deals with all aspects of this, including the planning of data collection in terms of the design of surveys and experiments....

 and evolutionary biology
Evolution is any change across successive generations in the heritable characteristics of biological populations. Evolutionary processes give rise to diversity at every level of biological organisation, including species, individual organisms and molecules such as DNA and proteins.Life on Earth...


Menand's picture of pragmatism has been criticized by philosophers Susan Haack
Susan Haack
Susan Haack is an English professor of philosophy and law at the University of Miami in the United States. She has written on logic, the philosophy of language, epistemology, and metaphysics. Her pragmatism follows that of Charles Sanders Peirce.-Career:Haack is a graduate of the University of...

, Paul Boghossian
Paul Boghossian
Paul Boghossian is professor of philosophy at New York University, where he held the chair for ten years . His research interests include epistemology, the philosophy of mind, and the philosophy of language....

, and Thomas L. Short
Thomas L. Short
Thomas Lloyd Short is a published philosopher of science, teleology, semeiotics, and conceptual change, specializing in the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce.-Career:...


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