In 1776, a congress of savvy landowners in Philadelphia announced
to the world (particularly to King George) that they held self-
One hundred years later, a few misfit geniuses in Boston
confessed that they could hold no truths at all. In fact, they
could barely hold each other's attention.
But both groups changed the world. The first, of course, created
the United States of America. The second created the modern mind.
The story of how the idea of truth could evolve from self-
evident certainty to indeterminate irrelevancy is the plot of Louis
Menand's fascinating history called "The Metaphysical Club." His
title comes from an unpublished manuscript written by Charles
Peirce, referring to "a knot of us young men in Old Cambridge" who
met for about eight months in 1872.
Peirce was a gifted (and almost incomprehensible) scientist and
logician, whose life eventually descended into poverty and
humiliation. But in the flush year of 1872, he and his friends
congregated to discuss a new method of thought later known as
"pragmatism." Among that group were Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Civil
War hero who would go on to serve on the Supreme Court for 30
years, and William James, the future founder of American
This triumvirate forms the cast of Menand's eloquent biography of
American thought. Along with John Dewey, who revolutionized
education, these men proposed that "ideas are not 'out there'
waiting to be discovered, but are tools - like forks and knives and
microchips - that people devise to cope with the world." Menand
continues, "They believed that ideas do not develop according to
some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like
germs, on their human carriers and the environment. And they
believed that since ideas are provisional responses to particular
and unreproducible circumstances, their survival depends not on
their immutability but on their adaptability."
Explaining the meaning, significance, and development of that
belief is the story of "The Metaphysical Club," a story of almost
ludicrous breadth and depth, winding around handwriting analysis,
birds, racism, railroads, universities, and God. The threat of
philosophical textbookism hovers in the margins, but Menand's
determination to "see ideas as always soaked through by the
personal and social situations in which we find them" fends off
that danger with sometimes dazzling effect.
He begins with the Civil War, a battle between differing ideals
that tore the nation apart. Young Holmes marched to battle
radiating Boston's radical liberalism. But suffering from a near-
fatal wound at Ball's Bluff, his faith in absolutes drained away
with his blood. He spent the many remaining decades of his life
considering, articulating, and finally establishing in American
constitutional law his new suspicion of all "truth" claims. …