Metaphysical Graffiti

Tags: gilded age memetics, intellectual history as improv jazz, the secret of the sphinx revealed.

I’m a little stunned by how many nights back in September I stayed awake to the small hours reading Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. You might not expect the intellectual biography of four Gilded Age pragmatists to be a compulsive page turner, but for me it really was.

The four heavyweights at the center of the book are Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey, but in telling his tale Menand folds the four men into a wide-ranging, even meandering, intellectual history of late nineteenth-century America. Menand writes beautifully, and the book is just about as accessible as I think a 500-page tome on such a topic could possibly be.

Even though I study this period and I already knew all those names, a lot of the actual philosophy in this book was embarrassingly new to me. (Top down intellectual history was not exactly du jour while I was in college or grad school.) What really delighted me was how very modern Menand’s four subjects still sound. Not only in the sense that their ideas undergirded much of 20th-century American thought, but also in the ways they anticipated, and in some cases rendered redundant, a lot of things I’d describe as 21st-century thought–ideas and issues that are up-to-the-minute to the point of faddishness.

Old is the new new? You better believe it. Holmes is seminal for all of today’s intellectual property debates. Dewey (along with an eccentric partner named Franklin Ford) had the idea for the internet decades before Vannevar Bush or Al Gore. Charles Peirce’s ideas on design and chance, what he called his “guess at the secret of the sphinx,” sound an awful lot to me like chaos theory without the math.

William James’ application of Charles Darwin to the world of ideas not only prefigured memetics, it implies a kind of super meta-memetics. Check this out: James says the reason human beings possess the idea of causation, say, is not because causation exists. Which is not to say that it doesn’t exist. We don’t know if it does, and James for one doesn’t care. But the reason we believe in causation is that experience shows it pays to believe in causation. So our intellectual evolution effectively selects for that belief. That’s all truth is for William James. “All our thoughts are instrumental, and mental modes of adaptation to reality,” he wrote, “rather than revelations or Gnostic answers to some divinely instituted world-enigma.”

Is that too hand-wavey and po-mo for you? Well, in another part of the story, Charles Peirce offered an answer to postmodern “we can never really know anything” subjectivity that is more sensible and satisfying and optimistic than anything I ever heard in all the campus culture wars of the 1990s. I know I’m not going to do Peirce, or Menand, justice, but I read Peirce’s argument as follows: the mistake of 19th century nominalism (or 20th century postmodern subjectivism, whatever you want to call it) is the definition of belief or knowledge as individual belief or knowledge. Sure, yes, the beliefs and knowledge of individuals are subjective and flawed. No one person is capable of transcending their observer’s bias and attaining an accurate and objective knowledge of reality. But the aggregate beliefs of many individuals are another matter entirely. Riffing on the astronomers’ method of least squares, Peirce defines objective truth as the mean value we approach as our number of observations rises to infinity. There is such a thing as truth and knowledge, but it is inescapably social. We will never get there on our own; we can only approach it, together.

2 Comments

  1. “Check this out: James says the reason human beings possess the idea of causation, say, is not because causation exists. Which is not to say that it doesn’t exist. We don’t know if it does, and James for one doesn’t care. But the reason we believe in causation is that experience shows it pays to believe in causation. So our intellectual evolution effectively selects for that belief.”

    Oh look! I just now bought that book.

    Neat
    Tom

  2. Thanks for the review, Rob. No doubt about it: Menand’s The Metaphysical Club is a terrific book — one of those rare ones that makes me say “I wish I’d written that.”

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