A History of Philosophy in America, 1720-2000

By Bruce Kuklick | Go to book overview

8 Pragmatism in Cambridge, 1867-1923

Pragmatic idealism had a unique and pronounced identity in the United States. Although its links to the idealism of the personalists can easily be seen, pragmatism also had absolutistic variants and, most significantly, communitarian ones. More important, it was a philosophical position that, at least in theory, attended closely to the practice of the physical sciences and the new social sciences; and that, professionally, the younger generation of philosophy doctorates trained in the United States adopted. Pragmatism got its start, however, among amateurs in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1870s. In the 1890s Harvard institutionalized their ideas under the primary aegis of one of their number, the celebrated William James. This chapter takes up the ideas of the amateurs, chief among them the eccentric luminary Charles Peirce, and traces the growth of the reasoning that finally led to the triumph of Harvard over Yale as the premier center of thought in the United States.


The Metaphysical Club

As we have noted, speculative societies of various kinds sprang up all over New England after the Civil War. These Eastern clubs were part of a disorganized and inchoate national group bent on revitalizing American intellectual life in quasi-institutional forms. The one that proved to be most influential was located in Cambridge. This self-styled Metaphysical Club was flourishing in the early 1870s, and its members later made a mark. The core of the club consisted of six men: William James, who went on to a striking philosophical career at Harvard; Oliver Wendell Holmes, future Supreme Court justice; philosopher Chauncey Wright; scientist and theorist Charles Peirce; and lawyers Nicholas St John Green and Joseph Bangs Warner.

There were three sources of the members' opinions: Green's appraisal of the work of the British psychologist Alexander Bain, the legal analyses of Green and Holmes, and the evolutionary theorizing of Wright.

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