September 6, 2022

When single, I jumped on a personal ad saying “interested in ideas.” But on our date, the gal seemed no intellectual. I asked what she’d meant by “interested in ideas.” She replied, “Oh, like new ways to cook spaghetti.”

Then married Therese. At a used book sale, she pointed out one I’d ignored: Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club. About American philosophy from before the Civil War to about a century later. She proposed we read it together.

We’d started with Proust’s seven-volume opus; took us over two decades, though in the early years our readings were intermittent. Then we moved on to The Brothers Karamazov, Huckleberry Finn, Adam Grant’s Think Again, and others. Mostly it’s me reading aloud to her. I enjoy the challenge of putting the emphasis on the right words, without necessarily knowing where a sentence is going. It’s an immersive exercise empowering comprehension.

And I love Therese’s astute listenership, engaging with the ideas. If a line is nonsense, Therese is right on it. How delicious having such a partner (who can also cook spaghetti).

William James

The Metaphysical Club’s title nods to a group of intellectuals who’d meet to discuss philosophy in mid-1800s Cambridge, MA. It focuses particularly on William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Dewey, and Charles Peirce. The last name less famous, though I’d known it did loom large in American philosophy, without actually knowing anything about Peirce or his thought. The book left me baffled that he’s remembered at all. His life was a mess; didn’t publish much. But William James championed Peirce’s importance, making it so.

Menand devotes much time to pragmatism, a philosophical stance associated most prominently with James and Dewey. Pragmatism valorizes an idea less on its correspondence to factual reality than on how well it works for the believer. This was mainly an effort to justify religious faith.

Which indeed was a dominating factor in 19th century American thought. James in particular, though a penetrating analyst in so many respects, was hung up on his profound yearning to validate the unseen. A similar case, also prominent in the book, was the naturalist Louis Agassiz, whose scientific work was deeply compromised by his insistence on centralizing God.

Agassiz

Of course people like Agassiz and James also desperately wanted to believe death is not final. But the book makes plain how such supernaturalism pervasively mucked up American thought all the way to modern times.

We’ve hosted a Muslim student from Somaliland. She was bugged by the evident irrationalities of her faith, and eager to discuss them.

Our bull sessions on this finally led her to realize that once she stopped trying to hammer the square peg of religion into the round hole of reality, all her conundrums dissolved, and everything made a lot more sense.

Another thread in the book concerned the nature of American society, especially its pluralism and democracy. Like with religion, pragmatism emphasized outcomes — whether or not something is good for the society as a whole — de-emphasizing what’s good for its individual members. But as Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society.” That was widely decried; however, what she really meant (I think) was that society is made up of individuals, and at the end of the day, it’s how those individuals fare that really matters.

It’s the difference between viewing humans as akin to members of an ant colony or beehive, where only the society matters, not individuals — and honoring each person’s human dignity as worthy in itself. Recognizing that what’s “good” for society cannot be purchased at the expense of what’s good for the individuals comprising it. A mistake made by various collectivist ideologies.

This doesn’t mean people living (like anti-maskers) in disregard of the societies in which they’re embedded. That embedment gives life much of its meaning. We do have duties to others (mainly avoiding harm). We honor them because that enables individuals, all of us, to thrive best.

John Dewey’s “pragmatism,” in particular, held that democracy is the best system because it optimizes the society’s contours. A classic case of putting the cart before the horse. China’s regime today is battling Dewey, arguing that its regimented top-down dictatorship (which it yet insists is somehow truly democratic!) is best for society’s flourishing.

Both are wrong. Democracy’s virtue is its serving the universal human thirst to matter individually. Not as another faceless ant in the ant-hill. Thus “Democratic participation isn’t the means to an end,” as Menand says on his final page, “it is the end.”

He also quotes Holmes that there’s no point in reading anything over twenty years old. And acknowledges that the thinkers he discusses were operating in a landscape very different from what came later; and while their ideas nevertheless “can seem familiar to us in rather uncanny ways,” they and their world also seem “almost unimaginably strange.”

Therese and I noted that the book was published in 2001 — it’s over twenty years old. And today’s America is a very different country again from the one Menand was writing in. One wonders what it will be like in another two decades.

One of the sad things about finite lives is that I don’t get to know how history comes out.

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