Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2005 Issue

The Metaphysical Club<br>By Louis Menand

Tmc

A remarkable historical perspective on changing ideas.


Review by Bruce McKinney

The Metaphysical Club was a short lived group in the early 1870s that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts "to discuss alternative intellectual, philosophical, and historical perspectives that in time became pragmatism, a movement of varying but associated theories and distinguished by the doctrine that the meaning of an idea or a proposition lies in its observable practical consequences." In other words, leave the ice box door open and the ice cream melts. We are all neo-pragmatists today because we have learned to see the results on television and jump to conclusions, with the aid of paid flacks that stalk the network sets to offer fifteen second interpretations. We no longer read or comprehend and we certainly no longer need to think. Stupid is in. America digests what TV barflies vomit and we prance about with these conclusions without having to understand anything. It is now enough just to begin with conclusions and select facts to fit. But it hasn't always been that way.

Two hundred years ago intellectuals focused on explaining the world they inhabited. The focus was on knowing and the brain was a keyboard of white keys. While life was short and uncertain religion filled in blanks. Explanation focused on experience and that which could not be explained, was consigned, with a leap of faith, to the "other side" where belief is the currency of the realm. The prevailing theory was essentially that a supernatural intelligence existed and that the universe was the result of an idea. The God you worshipped was its author. Scientific predication, the handmaiden of more modern theory, was only beginning to come on the scene.

Along the way advocates and apologists developed theories to explain why their kind were up and other people were down. Absent scientific certainty to extinguish bizarre theories many unsubstantiated ideas found adherents and support. Many such ideas became the waist around which the hula-hoops of explanation revolved - always with tiring effect. White people took comfort in Lamarck's theory of progressive adaptation which in simple language said acquired information is heritable. White people had more knowledge and passed it on thereby maintaining and increasing their advantage over other races. Oh well. No one with teenagers of any color is able to confirm this theory.

By the time Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species in 1859 the world of the explicables was quickly increasing and the unknowns and inexplicables, the residual left for religion to explain, shrinking. Darwin sought to establish that all living things evolve by natural selection effectively moving a significant percentage of hitherto imponderables into the science category. God wasn't yet dead but he was headed for under-employment.

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