This book involves the reader on so many different levels that a review is sure to leave lots of information untouched. In short (very short!), Menand argues that studying the philosophical works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey will tell us about where America has been, and where it is now. Menand argues that these four people influenced the way we think and act today.
Oliver Wendell Holmes fought in the Civil War as a young man. Later in life, he became one of America's leading legal theorists as a justice of the Supreme Court. The war deeply scarred Holmes, calling into question his conceptions of life and truth. In his legal rulings and scholarly articles, Holmes subscribed to the view that "certitude leads to violence," which means those with absolute ideas (like abolitionists and pro-slavery forces) won't compromise their belief systems. The result of this unwillingness to compromise is often bloody violence. Many of Holmes's rulings and writings support the belief that ideas, no matter how repugnant, should find full expression in society regardless of how unworthy they may be. Better to battle over a belief in socialism or communism through public debate then on the battlefield where thousands perish.
Charles Peirce was a philosopher and mathematician. While he is relegated to relative obscurity today, Menand argues that Peirce is tremendously significant in American philosophical history. Peirce worked as a statistician for the government, but in his off time he wrote intricate philosophical arguments concerning the nature of ideas and belief systems. The underpinning of all of Peirce's writings is the belief that human knowledge cannot rely on the observations of individuals. Peirce argued that humans have limited sensory perceptions that detect limited information. Just because we see something in front of us does not mean that it is an absolute. Even the law of gravity may not be absolute because we cannot see it in action everywhere that it exists. The best way, or at least the way with the least room for statistical error, to come to some form of "true" knowledge is to rely on the collected perceptions of the community. This idea can be extended to a "community over the individual" mentality, and it reached its greatest expression in the writings of John Dewey.
One of Peirce's ardent admirers was William James. James is best known today for the philosophy of Pragmatism (he is also the brother of novelist Henry James). Pragmatism is a method of philosophical inquiry that attempts to find a middle ground between absolute belief systems. It does not rely wholly on empirical based beliefs or theological based beliefs, as neither one of those systems provide an adequate explanation for why people believe the things that they do. According to James, ideas or beliefs that do not benefit humanity are irrelevant; discussion or debate about these inactive ideas is merely mental gymnastics. Only beliefs that may be actualized are worth believing in. In short, beliefs must have a "cash value," they must WORK in everyday life. Only then do they assume the value of truth.
John Dewey also adopted the pragmatic method in his numerous philosophical investigations. Dewey's most significant contribution (depending on how you look at it) is to the modern educational system. While at the University of Chicago, Dewey took a pragmatic approach towards education by rejecting the rote memorization of intangible concepts in favor of a "hands on" education. Children didn't learn tables of measurements from a chart; they actualized measurements through cooking classes. What they did is DO; they took a belief (measurements) and made it real in everyday life. The children also worked together, embodying another important Dewey concept: the emphasis of community over the individual. Most people believe that there are individuals first and then they form a society, but Dewey believed that there is no individual without society. The distinction is a difficult one, but important when applied to education, politics, and other fields of human endeavor. It is not surprising modern conservatives despise Dewey.
What impressed me most about Menand's book is the importance of Charles Darwin to philosophy. It was Darwin's theories that defeated the pseudo-scientific racial theories of Louis Agassiz, Samuel Morton, and Josiah Nott. Darwin's greatest contribution was clearing a path through the theology based educational systems in 19th century America. After Darwin, empiricism gained ground rapidly in schools and in philosophical arguments. Some reactionaries attempted to weld religion and science together, but the damage was already done. Our modern, secularized society with its mania for technological innovation can be traced back to this groundbreaking figure.
Menand's book is an absolutely fascinating read. He does digress often, but these digressions are unbelievably entertaining (read about William James's father and see why) and necessary to the arguments of the book. By providing the background and the influences of these four individuals, we see them outside the vacuum-sealed world of their arguments. Louis Menand, you deserve your Pulitzer Prize.
Menand provides a brilliant portrait of the intellectual life of America in the post-Civil War era. The story is told from a generalist and not a specialist point of view. If one is interested in pragmatism, this provides the background and an outline of an introduction to the subject. As historical background, this book is unsurpassed. But it is crucial to keep in mind that it is background, not foreground. It does not begin to rival, for instance, such studies as Murry Murphy's tragically out of print study of Peirce's thought, or Gerald Myer's biography of James, or Bruce Kuklick's study of the development of American Philosophy. Apart from the works of the figures themselves, these are the secondary works to which one would go for greater depth on the subject. But none of these works provides Menand's delicious breadth.
The number of subjects that Menand takes up is stunning. In some 440 pages he deals with such a variety of topics as abolitionism, slavery, Daniel Webster, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Emerson, the American reception of and reaction to Darwin, Louis Agassiz, Jane Addams, the Pullman Strike, W.E.B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Franz Boas, Benjamin Peirce, Chauncey Wright, theories of race, Boston societal structure, the development of the American university, several key decisions by the Supreme Court, Swendenborg, 19th Century conceptions of laissez-faire, the development of probability, the rise of statistical thinking, and a host of other issues. But what is striking is how well Menand integrates each new individual or idea with the rest of the work. He never introduces anyone just in order to chat about them; in each instance the introduction deepens and enhances the issue at hand. Each new idea helps take the story to the next stage.
Finally, I want to point out just how marvelously well written this book is. The prose is never less than utterly clear; it frequently rises to the level of exhilarating. It is not just that the book tells a story that deserves telling. The book is so well written that it is flat out fun. It is the nearest thing to an intellectual page turner as one is likely to find. The book is also enhanced by a number of superb photographs of all the principal characters.