The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

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The Metaphysical Club
The Metaphysical Club - A Story of Ideas in America.jpg
AuthorLouis Menand
PublisherFarrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date
Media typePrint

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America 2001 book by Louis Menand, an American writer and legal scholar, which won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History. The book recounts the lives and intellectual work of the handful of thinkers primarily responsible for the philosophical concept of pragmatism, a principal feature of American philosophical achievement: William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey. Pragmatism proved to be very influential on modern thought, for example, in spurring movements in modern legal thought such as legal realism.


Menand traces the biography of each of these individuals, shows ways in which they were connected and how all were influenced by their times and by thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson. The book begins by examining the family history and early life of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., future U.S. Supreme Court Justice, then describes how Holmes, James, Peirce, Dewey, and others were acquainted with each other, and how their association led to James' development of pragmatism.

A main focus of the book is the influence of the American Civil War on Americans in general and on the subjects of this book, as well as how the war inspired pragmatism. For Holmes, the Civil War destroyed his entire perspective on the world and greatly shaped his judicial philosophy, which developed at roughly the same time as Dewey, James, and Peirce were beginning to develop pragmatist ideas. Other influences treated by the book are the emerging sciences of statistics and evolutionary biology.


Menand's portrayal of pragmatism has been criticized by philosophers Susan Haack, Paul Boghossian, and Thomas L. Short. In a review of his earlier anthology Pragmatism: a reader (1997), Haack criticized Menand's historical introduction for distorting the tradition of classical pragmatism into a form of "vulgar Rortyism".[1] Short, in his review of The Metaphysical Club, echoed Haack and criticized Menand for following Rorty in pushing "the relativistic tendencies in James and Dewey to an extreme, 'postmodern' relativism".[2] After a detailed analysis of the philosophical limitations of Menand's account of pragmatism, Boghossian concluded that "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".[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Haack, Susan (1997), "Vulgar Rortyism" in The New Criterion, v. 16, n. 3, November 1997. Eprint. Review of Menand's anthology Pragmatism: A Reader.
  2. ^ Short, Thomas L. (2002), "Sham Scholarship" in Modern Age 44:4, Fall 2002. Critical review of Menand's The Metaphysical Club. Eprint (the second review is the one by Short).
  3. ^ Boghossian, Paul (2001), "The Gospel of Relaxation" in The New Republic, September 2001, critical review of Menand's The Metaphysical Club. Eprint.

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Preceded by Pulitzer Prize for History
Succeeded by