in: Character, Knowledge of Men, Podcast

• Last updated: March 4, 2022

Podcast #752: The Metaphysical Club

In 1872, a group of men that included future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., father of modern psychology William James, and eccentric polymath Charles Sanders Peirce, formed a philosophical society, called the “Metaphysical Club,” to exchange and discuss ideas. While very little is known about how this conversational club was conducted over its nine months of life, we do know that each of its individual members made significant contributions to a uniquely American philosophy called pragmatism, and that pragmatism would in turn greatly influence everything from legal theory to education.

My guest today profiles the lives and thinking of each of these interesting men in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book: The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. His name is Louis Menand, he’s a Professor of English at Harvard, and today we have a conversation about what the philosophy of pragmatism is about, why Holmes, James, and Peirce, as well as the intellectual John Dewey, arrived at, embraced, and forwarded its principles, and how pragmatism shaped American life between the Civil War and WWI. We end our conversation with why pragmatism fell out of favor, and whether it remains salient today.

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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. In 1872, a group of men that included future Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., father of modern psychology, William James and eccentric polymath Charles Sanders Peirce, formed a philosophical society called The Metaphysical Club to exchange and discuss ideas. While very little is known about how this conversational club was conducted over its nine months of life, we do know that each of its individual members made significant contributions to uniquely American philosophy called Pragmatism, and that Pragmatism would in turn, greatly influence everything from legal theory to education. My guest today profiles the lives and thinking of each of these interesting men in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. His name is Louis Menand, he’s a professor of English at Harvard, and today, we have a conversation about what the philosophy of Pragmatism is about, why Holmes, James, and Peirce, as well as the intellectual John Dewey arrived at, embraced and forwarded its principles and how Pragmatism shaped American life between the Civil War and World War I. We end our conversation with why Pragmatism fell out of favor and whether it remains salient today. After the show is over, check out our show notes at

Louis Menand, welcome to the show.

Louis Menand: Thank you.

Brett McKay: So, you wrote a book some 20 plus years ago called The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. And this book takes a deep dive into changes in American philosophy and thinking that influenced the law, it influenced how we thought about Civil Rights and freedoms and etcetera, and all this happened between the Civil War and World War I. What drove you to this period of time? What made you explore this period between the Civil War and World War I and how American philosophy changed?

Louis Menand: I got interested in it in a kind of bleak way. So, when I graduated from college, I went to law school and I didn’t like it, I didn’t really feel it was the right place for me, but I took the first year of courses and I had a professor of Torts named Morton Horwitz at Harvard, and he taught a great class, and he was a very interesting guy because he was an historian, which most law professors are not. So then I went and got a PhD in English and I became an English professor, and then in the 1980s, when I was teaching, there was a lot of interest in a school of Legal Studies called Critical Legal Studies. It was actually centered at Harvard, even though those people weren’t there when I was a student there, and they were younger, but Horwitz was sort of associated with this group, and what was distinctive and to some people disturbing about them is that they applied critical theory to legal texts. So they basically treated legal documents, judicial opinions and so forth, in a way that a literature professor might treat them, do a structural analysis or deconstruction and so on. And so because I was in an English department, this was like an intersection of two interests of mine, the one was the interest I had in the history of the law, and the other was an interest that I had in critical theory, just as a person who was in a literature department, not ’cause I was particularly devoted to it.

So I started reading some of these journal articles, there’s a lot of debates in journals between law professors, literature professors, philosophers and so on about Critical Legal Studies, and one of the articles was by Morton Horwitz and it mentioned something called The Metaphysical Club, which I had never heard of, so this was probably 1982 or something, and I just started… It stuck in my mind, What was this group? And was there a story there? And eventually, I decided to try to explore it and see if I could make something out of it, and so probably 1992, maybe 10 years later, I started working on the book, and by that point, I’d realized that The Metaphysical Club is kind of a legendary semi-mythical group, organization that met some time in the 1870s, that included a lot of several people who became quite famous in American intellectual life, and that it was associated with the ideas of Pragmatism.

So I knew that much going in and then I thought I would try to figure out if I could find out what this club was, do some research and dig up any documents that might tell me what they talked about, and see if I could tell a story. And then as I started working on it, as these things happen, you start stretching the canvas, and you realize it’s a huge story. It’s not just a story of a club that met in Cambridge for a little while in 1872, it’s actually a story about a change in American intellectual life and American culture that maps on to social changes, and in particular, it seems to me, it seemed to me that it was associated with the aftermath of the Civil War, and that it culminated in the progressive period and with the free speech opinions of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Who was a member of the club. So that’s sort of how the frame emerged, and then I spent 10 years trying to fill it… Fill it up.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think that’s interesting that you pointed out that. For me, if I look at American history and you look at your high school American history classes or college, and you look at when they explore American thought, there’s the transcendentalism movement, and you explore that, and then the Civil War happens, and then the next thing you talk about, you talk about progressivism, and you’re like, “Well, what happened in between there?”, I mean, a lot happened in between there, and this is what that book is about.

Louis Menand: Correct.

Brett McKay: So you mentioned, okay, there is this thing called The Metaphysical Club, it’s sort of like, it was this group of guys, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, father of psychology and this other guy named Sanders Peirce that met together, it kinda reminded me of The Inklings, JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, they’re getting together just to discuss ideas. These men contributed to an American philosophy called Pragmatism. We can get into the details of what Pragmatism is here in a bit, but big picture, what is it? What is it and how is it different from other philosophies? And that might be hard to do ’cause you took an entire book of like 500 pages to suss that out.

Louis Menand: A shorthand way of explaining it is that it tried to adapt philosophical thought to Darwin’s theory of evolution. So the way Darwin described the world and on the Origin of Species changed science, obviously, because he produced a different idea of what organisms are and how they relate to one another, and how they evolve and so on. But he also, as a consequence of that theory about how life emerges and how change happens, was a different idea of the universe. And the universe and Darwin, it’s filled with uncertainty, it’s unsettled, it’s fluid, it’s constantly changing. And to the extent that philosophy is looking for what’s called first philosophy, that is sort of fundamental principles or absolute truths, which is sort of the way people thought before Darwin, not everybody, but that was a common way of thinking about what science was doing. These people thought philosophy had to adapt as well, that philosophy had to acknowledge the world that Darwin described.

Another way to put it along the same lines is to say that when we think about evolution of our species, it’s very natural to think that, “Well, we evolved to have hands with fingers, because we could just do more with the environment if we have fingers than if we only had sort of a paw or stump at the end of our arm.” Organisms that developed fingers adapted better than organisms that didn’t have them because they could use them to survive and reproduce. And but that’s generally Darwin’s theory, of course, of how characteristics evolve in every kind of organism. If you think of the human organism that way, it’s very easy for people to think “Yeah, well, hands, you can explain on an evolutionary theory. What about minds?” For the Pragmatist, the mind is the same as the hand, we develop minds as a species, which distinguishes us, we believe, as a species, because it helped us adapt better. The purpose of minds or the function of minds is to form beliefs about the world. Why do we form these beliefs? We form these beliefs because it helps us adapt better to our environment.

So the Pragmatists thought that the purpose of minds is not to mirror a mind-independent reality that’d say the way things really are, even if we weren’t there to observe them, because that has no adaptive utility. The purpose of minds is to develop beliefs that will help us cope. And when circumstances change, and the same thing is true of any other organism when circumstances change, then the way we think, our beliefs, will change too. It doesn’t have to be set in stone, in other words. So this was a challenge to a certain kind of philosophical tradition. I don’t wanna exaggerate the extent to which other thinkers never come up with this problem before, but that was what they launched their movement on.

Brett McKay: To kinda sum up, this may be a blunt way to say it. For the Pragmatist, truth is truth if it works or if it allows you to function in the world and adapt and… Yeah, it’s like that. That’s what truth is.

Louis Menand: Yeah, well, William James put it this way, “The true is the name for whatever is good in the way of belief.” Truth is a compliment we give to our successful beliefs.

Brett McKay: Okay, alright, and how did this differ? How did this differ from the reigning philosophies in the United States at the time?

Louis Menand: Well, it wasn’t so much… I don’t think it’s so much a… It’s more has to do, I think, with science. So in the pre-Darwinian scientific world, people thought of species as belonging to sort of a chart of different types that was immutable, and once you had this taxonomy of the different species, you could make a hierarchy out of them. One consequence of this, of course, is racial doctrine in the 19th century, which just makes a hierarchy out of different human races. That way of thinking suggests that God had a plan, and the plan was to create these different organisms, and it all fits into some hierarchical arrangement that doesn’t change, particularly over time. The Pragmatist saw that Darwin had, as I said, upset this way of thinking about organisms, and therefore they thought philosophy needed also to make progress. So to say that it doesn’t have philosophical antecedents is not quite right, because William James, for example, thought that the British empiricists like Hume, John Stuart Mill, Berkeley, were Pragmatists because they showed the cash value of certain philosophical terms, they didn’t think about them in terms of absolutes. It’s not that people hadn’t thought this way, it’s just that the post-Civil War period getting rid of hierarchical thinking and typologies and so on seemed like an imperative.

Brett McKay: Well, let’s kinda dig into each of these guys, you talk about ’cause all of them brought something to this idea of Pragmatism, and you start off talking about Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr, and you make the case that his experience in the Civil War, it affected him profoundly and for the rest of his life. And in a way, there was like the Darwinism going on as well, but in a way, his experiences of Civil War opened him up to the idea, to Pragmatism. Kinda big picture, what was his experience like and how did it change his thinking?

Louis Menand: Yeah, Holmes is a really dramatic story in a way that the other figures in the book aren’t because he did fight in the Civil War. He was a college student at Harvard and he enlisted, which is unusual, as soon as the war broke out in 1861, and he joined the 20th regiment of Massachusetts volunteers. And he fought for three years in the war in very bloody fighting, and he was wounded three times, three different battles, but he kept returning to the war even though he wanted to get out, and he served out his three years and that was a really important experience for him. I suggest, not that I’m the only person, but I think it’s an important experience for him. So what happened was that he was an abolitionist. This is kind of buried in biographies of him, because he tried to sort of conceal this part of his past, I think, but he was an abolitionist, and Boston in the 1860s, and 1859, that era when he was a college student, that was unusual because most Bostonians were unionists. They didn’t want the South to secede, they didn’t particularly like slavery necessarily, but they also didn’t want to start a Civil War. Whereas the abolitionists were secessionists, they wanted the South to secede, they wanna have nothing to do with the South.

So he took the radical position, in other words, on slavery and on the war, so he joined in that spirit, and he wrote letters to his parents during the war, in which he talked about fighting for Christian civilization and things like that. That’s very un-Holmesian. But he was an idealist, as young people are, and the war sort of purged him of his idealism, because you know when you’re actually out there seeing people die in front of you, often he saw friends of his from Harvard would die, was shot, right, you know, in battles he was fighting in. And when you wounded yourself the first time you… He was pretty sure he’s gonna die, he was shot through the chest, you see war differently, you see that there’s nothing particularly noble or idealistic about it. And I think that he came to the conclusion when he left the army and started his career in the law, that absolutism of the kind that the abolitionists profess leads to violence. So what you need is a system which allows people to express differences of opinion and to resolve those differences by democratic means.

That failed in the case of the extension of slavery into the territories, which is the big issue after 1850, and it failed partly because these, what Holmes came to regard as fanatics, like the abolitionists, drove the north and the south to war, so he became essentially… And I think all the Pragmatists were essentially a Unionist, meaning that you can’t quit, you have to stay in the game, but the game has to… It can’t be rigged. It has to be designed so that everybody has an opportunity to settle their differences non-violently. So that’s why I think the Civil War was so important. William James did not fight in the Civil War, though he certainly could have, he was certainly the right age, the same age Holmes, but two of his brothers did, and they had a terrible war. One was really badly wounded, they went back to the South after the war to start farming with the free blacks, and that was, they were run out of town, so he knew what the cost of the war was as well. So I think the war to me, and this is, I would say, I wouldn’t… I would say this is the original contribution that my book makes, Historiography of Pragmatism is that the war really drove this way of thinking in a way that usually is, usually in histories of Pragmatism, it’s attributed mainly to Darwinism.

Brett McKay: Yeah, and I think that the whole section about the history of the Civil War I thought was really interesting because you give a look at it, I think you’re probably not gonna get in your high school history class. I mean you would typically think the Civil War’s fought over slavery. Yes, but it was a lot more complicated than that, like as you said, there was people who were pro-Union, not a fan of slavery, but if they’re like, well, if the South can have slavery and we keep the Union together, that’s fine. And then as you said, you also had the abolitionists who were at the time, they were considered very radical and they were actually, one of their solutions…

Louis Menand: That’s true. We’re radical.

Brett McKay: Yeah, yeah, I mean, one of their solutions to slavery as well, well you just have to… It was like dis-Unionism, just dissolve the country completely.

Louis Menand: It was a religious movement basically.

Brett McKay: Yeah. Okay, so Oliver Wendell Holmes, he went in an idealist Civil War, basically disabused him of that, and he said, I gotta figure out a way, how can we exist with differences in how we see things without resorting to violence, then you had… And that… So he started his legal thing, he started to go down that path, then you had… You said William James, who didn’t fight in the Civil War, but he was really involved and really saw first hand the debate about Darwinism because… Okay, he’s the father of psychology, but when he was in college, he was studying biology, and he actually went to the Amazon with this guy named Louis Agassiz, who was this Naturalist… What was William James is… What did he see in the Darwinian debate and how’d that influenced his thought later on?

Louis Menand: Yeah, it’s kind of a long story, but he didn’t go to college actually, he went to Lawrence Scientific School, which was a scientific school at Harvard, it’s essentially a graduate school where you didn’t need a college degree. You didn’t need a college degree to go to law school either in the 1850s. So he went to this scientific school, that’s where he met Charles Peirce, and he as you say, he was originally a naturalist, and so he went on an expedition to Brazil with this character named Louis Agassiz… So Louis Agassiz was from Switzerland, and he was a very famous scientist in the 1840s, who is one of the discoverers of the Ice Age, and his specialty was fossil fishes, but he was sort of an all around science maven, and he came to Boston in the 1840s and gave some lectures called the Lowell lectures that were very popular. He’s French, or he had a French accent. He was, you know, kinda flamboyant character, and he was very good at talking about fossil fishes and people fell for him, and Lawrence Scientific School was started in part to give him a job at Harvard, so he was teaching there when William James was there. And one of the things Agassiz got obsessed with when he came to United States, settled here, was race. He was virulently anti-black, and he worried about the effects of the abolition because he worried about racial interbreeding, which a lot of obviously, white people worried about, including some people who were anti-slavery.

So Agassiz’s position was… After the Origin of Species came out, which was 1859, his position was that the reason that you see changes in the fossil record… So in other words, to establish that there is evolution what you show is that the species in the fossil record evolve over time. So Agassiz argued that the reason that you see that is not because of evolution it’s because there were several ice ages that would wipe out everything and there would be a separate creation, and that the creation that human beings were emerged from was God’s last active creation, the culminating act of creation, and that established the hierarchy of the species and including the hierarchy of the races. So he went to Brazil amazingly, just to discover if there was an ice age there, and that’s really why he went, it’s really crazy. So William James goes there in 1864-65, I guess, right at the end of the Civil War, and he spends a year there, and he hated it.

He got some kind of eye disease, he was collecting specimens, he didn’t like Agassiz very much. He was a little horrified by the pictures he was taking of naked native women. I guess he had sort of a weird reputation in that area, so blah, blah, blah. So anyway, that’s kind of I think, where William James first started thinking about the effect of Darwinism on naturalist science and philosophy and his first articles, which were written after the Brazil trip, are about the change that Darwinism has made in the way people think about the natural world. So that was an important part of his education, is seeing up close how Agassiz operated.

Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. Okay, so the next guy is kind of a, he’s a strange guy, Charles Sanders Peirce. He was eccentric, he was plagued by personal problems his entire life, but he was like a genius. He made important contributions to math and philosophy that went on to influence Pragmatist thoughts and in fact, he’s often credited as sort of beginning, sort of making it explicit. But what’s his big idea, like what did he bring to the table to Pragmatist thinking?

Louis Menand: Yeah, Peirce was a somewhat eccentric guy and he was a polymath. So he made contributions in a lot of scientific fields. He’s thought to be the father of semiology, which is a study of signs, which is a particular obsession of his. But he also was very involved in projects like measuring the true shape of the earth, so he was hurt and he was a philosopher. So he wrote these papers in 1870s, right after The Metaphysical Club is supposed to have met, so they seem to have met just for like nine months in 1872, it’s very hard to really know exactly what they talked about, there’s some evidence… Anyway, so he writes these papers that’s published in a journal called Popular Science Monthly, which is actually a serious science journal, published in St. Louis and there, years later, when William James introduces Pragmatism to the world in 1898, he credits these papers of Peirce’s with the origins of the idea of Pragmatism. Now Peirce didn’t use the word Pragmatism in the papers. James said he used it in their discussions at The Metaphysical Club. But that’s sort of the origins of it.

So Peirce was a cantankerous guy who got fired from all of his jobs and basically the last 20 years or so of his life lived in complete poverty, supported by William James, really. He continued to write stuff, but he couldn’t get anything published. So when James accredited him with the idea of Pragmatism in his paper in 1898, when James was by then an academic star, it was to help rehabilitate or resuscitate Peirce’s reputation, but it didn’t have much effect. The use that I think, that I make of Peirce in the book is to explain why statistics and probability are important parts of the pragmatic worldview. And that was something Peirce was interested in because he was a scientist, and so he was involved with measuring things and so on, which requires the use of statistics. And he was also interested in probability, because given the uncertainty of the world, our guesses about the truth can only be probable guesses, they can’t be absolute certainty. So those were the terms that he wrestled with in his own writing and those are the terms I think, that he introduced into Pragmatism because neither Holmes nor James was particularly interested in probability theory or statistics because that wasn’t their field, but that was what Peirce did.

Brett McKay: The step he made is he said, okay, he took Darwinism, okay, this can happen to organisms. But like he said, like, it could also happen to natural laws, as well. The reason why the theory of gravity exists is because well, there’s been other, maybe there’s been other laws that tried to happen, but it didn’t fit and it failed and gravity is the one that’s left over.

Louis Menand: Yeah. Peirce had a real teleology which the others did not, which is to say that he thought there was a final state that the universe was going to approach and that eventually everything would be law-like. Right now, where things are still in a condition of uncertainty or probabilistic certainty, but eventually everything would be strictly law-like, including our beliefs. So that’s… He had a sort of cosmological view, which James and Dewey certainly didn’t have.

Brett McKay: Okay, so let’s talk about that, you mentioned Dewey, he wasn’t part of The Metaphysical Club, but you spent a lot of time talking about him. Let’s talk about John Dewey, like who was he for those who weren’t familiar with him and why is he included in this book about Pragmatism?

Louis Menand: In his day, he was more famous than any of them, really. He was a major American public intellectual in the 20th century. He was born in 1859 in Vermont, so obviously wasn’t part of The Metaphysical Club, that met in 1872. So most of those other guys are born in the early 1840s. So he’s younger, but he went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins. He went to University of Vermont, then he went to Hopkins, and his teacher was Charles Peirce. So he knew Peirce, and Dewey’s thought evolved from, he was really an Hegelian, interestingly, a Neo-Hegelian, but it evolved in the general direction of Pragmatism, so that by the time in 1898, when James publishes his paper called, I think, Philosophical Conceptions of Practical Results or something like that, but as for Pragmatism, Dewey’s already, he’s there too and then they sort of team up like tag team wrestling, and they, for the next 10 or 12 years until James dies in 1910, they debate philosophy with philosophers all over the world. So he becomes very important in getting the word out beyond just James’ circles and certainly Peirce’s circles to a larger public and he’s the one who influences, but James too, but mainly Dewey, journalists and so on, progressivists… They read Dewey because he writes on… He was a public intellectual, he wrote on social topics, political topics, up until his death in 1952. So he’s really important because he was this kind of dominant figure in American philosophy.

Brett McKay: He was also known as like an education reformer. It seemed like what he was doing, he was actually trying to take Pragmatism and apply it to education. So before Dewey and his idea, it was like, you just go to class, you just sit there and the idea was like the professors are just supposed to transmit information into the students’ head.

Louis Menand: Right. Yeah.

Brett McKay: Dewey took this idea, well, no actually knowledge isn’t like that, it’s… Okay, so this Darwinian… If it works, it’s true, and the way you figure out what works is you actually have to do things, and so he kind of introduced this idea of, well, instead of teaching about the digestive system with a diagram, we’re gonna make graham crackers or something, and then you eat it and then the student will be able to explore Chemistry, Math, Physiology by doing, so learning was doing for Dewey.

Louis Menand: Yeah, learning by doing. So most really child education to this day is learning by doing, kids do stuff, they make things, let’s say, and the idea is that it’s by doing stuff in the world that we acquire knowledge, and then that knowledge enables us to do more stuff in the world, that’s how it works. So the disjunction between learning and doing, which he thought dated back to the Greeks was an outmoded way of thinking that we learn and do at the same time. So he created this school, he was first teaching at the University of Chicago in the 1890s, created a school, which is still in Chicago, called The Laboratory School, which instituted this theory of education. And then he became very famous and influential as a philosopher of education, traveled all over the world talking about his theories of education and his books had a lot of influence in that area, but it’s, as you say, connected with his Pragmatism.

Brett McKay: Let’s talk about the influence, this sort of pragmatic thought had on all these guys and had on America, and we talked about Holmes. So Holmes, originally he was an idealist, Civil War made him jaded and he kind of became pessimistic about what was possible in life, he didn’t think utopia was possible, so he took a pragmatic approach to his jurisprudence as a judge, he’s like,”Well, we’re gonna do the best we can, and just whatever works”. And for him, what worked was like, what can you do to dissipate violence? It seemed like that was… How can we avoid another civil war? How did, so actually the question is how did Holmes apply his pragmatic thought to his jurisprudence, and how do we see that Holmesian legal theory that’s influenced by Pragmatism, how do we see it today?

Louis Menand: Yeah, so just on one point there… He definitely did not… So Holmes was a judge from 1882 to 1902, he was a judge on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, eventually, I think he was Chief Justice. And then in 1902 he was made Associate Justice in the Supreme Court by Theodore Roosevelt and he served for another 30 years on the Supreme Court, so he spent 50 years as a judge, and course of last resort, meaning that he wrote opinions. You’re supposed to have written over 2000 judicial opinions, so he did not use the law to further his political objectives. His theory… He does make a contribution at the very end, near the end of his career, but we’ll try to get to that in a second, but in general, his judicial opinions are notable for their lack of commitment to the idea of rights. So that’s a complicated thought so I’ll try to explain it.

We think of rights as individual liberties, like the First Amendment right to free speech, for example. But in the 19th century, the courts generally thought of rights as in terms of the needs of business, so the court confected something called Liberty of Contract, which allowed, supposed to have allowed workers to contract to work under conditions that might be inhumane, but that prevented the government from regulating those conditions, let’s say, working 12 hours a day or something like that. The government can’t interfere with that because the worker has freely entered into a contract to work 12 hours a day, and that’s protected by this right called Liberty of Contract. And they also believed in the right of property, which also prevents the government from regulating business because it was interfering with the right of the property owner to use a property in the way they saw fit. So Holmes was skeptical of this whole idea of rights protecting people or individuals or corporations or businesses, and that included individual rights. He was very skeptical of individual rights having any particular value because he thought that a democracy is supposed to allow the legislature, the government to decide on what basis society should be organized.

He said, “If the majority of people want a socialist country, it’s their right under the Constitution to have one.” He said he wouldn’t want one. He was perfectly happy with laissez-faire capitalism, but he said it wasn’t his opinion that governed that, it was the opinion of the majority. So in other words, he had a democratic defense of law, but, and therefore he found rights to be a kind of abstract principle that was an obstacle to the majority of doing what it wanted to do, so that was part of his position. What changed that was in the time of the First World War, the Congress passed something called Alien and Sedition Act, which made it… Or maybe the Espionage Sedition Act, I’m sorry, which made it illegal for people to interfere with the war effort, including by making anti-war speeches. So there were several cases in 1919 after the war, of people who have been convicted under the Sedition Espionage Act, whatever the act was, claiming First Amendment right to speech and the court Holmes was on upheld the convictions on all three cases, but in the third of the three cases, called Abrams against the United States, Holmes wrote a famous dissent and he upheld the right of the defendants who would distribute the anti-war leaflets to express their views. And he argued that the reason that we have protection of speech is because it allows dissenting views to be expressed.

If we suppress them then the people who hold those views will rightly feel that the government is not legitimate, because they were not allowed to express and persuade other people of their opinions. So what makes majority opinion legitimate is because the majority has had its say. But at the end of the day, when the majority wins, minority has to accept the rule of the majority, because they’ve had their say. So that became the basis for the protection of political speech in the 20th century. So that dissent is really the first time that the Supreme Court protects what we think of as the right of free speech.

Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s an interesting point ’cause I think oftentimes we think, “Well, that was been around since the 1780s, when the Constitution was drafted and ratified.” It really wasn’t until late 19th century or early 20th century that this idea, “I can say what I wanna say”, free speech as we know it, that’s when it came to… So it’s not a very old idea.

Louis Menand: No. Obviously, the original language of the Amendment is freedom of the press, and it was illegal to… It wasn’t constitutional to exercise prior-restraint. In other words, you couldn’t prevent somebody from publishing something, but you could persecute them after they published it. [chuckle] The First Amendment is a football. It is today, it’s very controversial because it requires us to tolerate opinions that we find abhorrent. It’s hard for people to do that, but Holmes would say, in his opinion, he says, even ideas we find “loathsome and fraught with death,” he said, “We have to protect the right to express them.”

Brett McKay: I think another point you made too, sort of a meta idea about the importance of free speech was that when you censor someone else, he says you are actually censoring yourself, because for him, knowledge, again, this is a very pragmatic idea, knowledge is a social thing.

Louis Menand: Yeah, yeah.

Brett McKay: And, so if you don’t allow everyone to say their say, no matter how much you disagree with it, there’s a chance that we are missing out on getting closer to the truth, whatever that is.

Louis Menand: Yeah. That’s a pragmatic idea. That’s a Peirceian idea.

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Louis Menand: It’s that you need a lot of points of view, to get the right point of view. When you’re measuring something, or trying to measure something precisely, let’s say the position of a star in astronomy, you’re gonna get discrepant observations, because for all kinds of reasons, they’re not all gonna be exactly the same. So you need a method of sorting out, out of all the variety of observations that you have, all the differences, what’s likely to be the truest observation. This was a problem in astronomy that dates from the 18th century. In Holmes’ opinion, he uses the phrase “marketplace of ideas,” it’s the same idea, it’s a Darwinian idea, which is that, the more ideas you introduce, even really bad ones, the closer you can get to figuring out what the right idea is, and the right thing to do is. You need the contributions of, even of wackos.

That’s how Wikipedia is edited, for example. It’s basically wisdom of crowds. You have all these different people contributing to a Wikipedia page who have partial knowledge of the subject, and their partial knowledge is corrected by the partial knowledge of other people, but you add it all up together, you get something approximating the right account of whatever it is the Wikipedia article is about. So Wikipedia is very insistent on not discriminating against contributors, even though some of them may be wacko, or frauds, or impostors, because you need the outliers to know where the norm is.

Brett McKay: Another… So let’s talk about William James. He’s an interesting character, ’cause with his Pragmatism, it seemed like he was trying to figure out how to jive Darwinism with religious belief.

Louis Menand: Yeah.

Brett McKay: William James was a guy… He was a scientific… A man of science, but he also, he really wanted to believe. It seems like he was struggling with that with his entire life. How did Pragmatism help William James resolve some of that tension that existed between accepting Darwinism, which said, “Okay, things happen because it’s just… God’s not even involved,” but then also, this desire that humans have to believe in a higher power?

Louis Menand: Yeah. Well, you’re right, James has an interesting personality. And you have to understand it a little bit to kind of get what he’s doing with Pragmatism, but what you said is correct. He had a kind of mercurial health. He had a bad back that made him depressed. He would have extended periods of depression, clinical depression. He also, starting about 10 years before his death, he had serious heart problem. And he was a guy who thought a lot about the meaning of life, let’s put it that way. And his father, Henry James Senior… His brother was the novelist Henry James. His father, Henry James Senior, was a theologian, a very eccentric theologian, who really believed in divine providence. He was a Swedenborgian.

And so he grew up in a household which his father, who was independently wealthy, and just rode and traveled around with the family, talked a lot about theology, and he, William James himself, could never quite bring himself to believe in God, but he felt it must be real to people, because you ask them about it, and it’s quite genuine when they say, “Yes, I believe in God. There is a God.” So, he wrote, probably his most popular book, Varieties of Religious Experience 1902, that’s what it’s about. It’s about the fact that human beings, many human beings, most human beings probably, will tell you that they have religious experiences. They feel the truth of religion. There’s some kind of supernatural being or entity out there that shapes the world that we’re in, and that we should be guided by.

But he himself found that prayer never really worked, and so on. So he wished that he had religion, ’cause he felt when he got depressed, he would feel better if he thought there was a God, or he could pray, and he felt God was answering his prayers. So in other words, his rather fragile psychology, it’s one of the things that got him interested in the possibility of there being some kind of supernatural being. And so after Darwin, the common way for scientists to deal with the question of whether God exists, was to say that, “We’re scientists and therefore we can’t claim to know anything unless we can empirically prove it. Since it’s impossible to empirically prove the existence of God, we have to be agnostic,” that’s when the term agnostic is created by Thomas Huxley.

So James thought that was stupid. He thought it should be possible to believe in God without having to prove it scientifically that there is a God. And his name for this was what he called The Will to Believe. And The Will to Believe, the doctrine or the idea behind the concept of The Will to Believe, is that I can believe in God if belief in God makes a difference for me in the world. It’s just like believing in causation. You can’t prove causation ’cause nobody can see causation, but we all believe in it because it cashes out, it pays to believe that there’s causation, it’s not just random shit out there. So James thought the same thing could be true for belief in God, if it changes the way you live in the way you want it to change it, then it’s true, pragmatically. So it is interesting that everything he writes about Pragmatism, from 1898 or even earlier in The Will to Believe, which is earlier at that decade, through the book Pragmatism, which, I think is 1907, is basically comes down to justifying on pragmatic grounds, people’s belief in the supernatural.

Brett McKay: So basically, it’s like the idea is, “Well, if it works for you… ” If it’s…

Louis Menand: Yeah, but if you think about it…

Brett McKay: Yeah.

Louis Menand: But that’s kind of what religion is. Religion says… If you take… Like Christianity, if you take Jesus into your life, you’ll be happier, you’ll be a better person. You don’t have to show that there is a real spirit of Jesus out there, you just have to believe. And that’s what James… So James says people have done this throughout history, and it made a difference to them. We can’t say, “Oh, they never proved it.” What proof is there? Why do you need proof? So he thought generally, the claims of 19th century science, this is a big period of science, post-Darwin period of science, that 19th century science was too sure of itself. He believed there might be extra sensory perception, he believed there might be seances who might actually be in contact with the souls of dead people. He believed… He didn’t… He was never convinced of it, but he thought we should have an open mind about it. We shouldn’t just assume that what 19th century science tells us, is the way things are or have to be. We should be open to the possibility that they’re wrong, that there’s all kinds of stuff they don’t know. So that’s why he was a great thinker, but it’s also why he’s kind of out there in terms of the stuff that we’re talking about.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I think something that was happening in the 19th century with Darwinism, is that scientists were trying to figure out, “Okay, this works with animals and natural laws, let’s apply this to human beings.” They were trying to create like a mechanistic world where every aspect of life could be explained with science. And it’s a very deterministic view, it’s like, well, it’s all leading up to this certain idea. And James was like, “Well, no, humans are irrational, they do things that aren’t deterministic.” This could even… Like, this is a debate about free will that we’re having. Well, does free will exist? In a deterministic world, no. And James said, “No, free will exists,” then his argument was like, “My first Act of Free Will is to say that free will exists. I say it exists, so therefore it exists.”

Louis Menand: Yeah, to believe in free will, yeah.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And yeah, it’s something that people still struggle with today. And we’re seeing… You can see James’ influence there.

Louis Menand: Well, it’s sort of like… A Pragmatist would say, if somebody tried to convince you that free will is [0:43:21.9] ____ phenomenal, that is to say that you think you’ve made a conscious decision, but actually you’ve already made it before you thought you made it, your answer could be, “But so what? I still experiencing free will.” I still experience that I’m consciously choosing to talk to you. [chuckle] You could persuade me that it was all determined by our set of genes or whatever, that we would have this conversation, but I don’t experience it that way.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I know. His idea about faith too, it’s like, faith’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Louis Menand: Yeah.

Brett McKay: If you don’t… Like, he gives an example of a leap of faith, right?

Louis Menand: Yeah.

Brett McKay: It’s like, if you don’t believe that you can make the leap of faith, you’re not gonna make it.

Louis Menand: Yeah, he has this silly analogy of, let’s say you’re mountain climbing and you come to a crevasse that’s like six feet across. You can jump over if you believe you can jump over. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: But if… Yeah, if you don’t, you’re gonna go down…

Louis Menand: If you don’t, you’re gonna go down.

Brett McKay: Well, okay, so Pragmatism, it was a serious thing in American thought. It influenced legal theory, it influenced psychology, it influenced even how we thought about religion, it influenced education reform with John Dewey, but then it just kind of disappeared. We don’t really talk about it. Like, why did Pragmatism fall out of favor in the United States, when like… What took its place?

Louis Menand: Yeah. Well, so in the end of the book, Metaphysical Club, I’ve added a very short epilogue, and I say that Holmes, James and Dewey were colossal figures in American intellectual life in the first half of the 20th century. And then after 1945, they get eclipsed, they kind of disappear. And Pragmatism doesn’t really make a comeback until the end of the Cold War, around 1989. And then, there was a huge amount of interest in Pragmatism… This is the 1980s, huge amount of interest in Pragmatism, largely because of the work of a philosopher called Richard Rorty. And my book came out of that interest. So what was this thing that was going on back then that we didn’t learn about when we were in school? So I’ve gotten more criticism for that part of the book than anything else, because people say, “Oh no, it was still around, it was still important.” But I don’t think so. When I was in college, I never heard of John Dewey, we never read William James.

Brett McKay: Yeah, never, never did…

Louis Menand: Never did.

Brett McKay: At all. Yeah.

Louis Menand: We read Nietzsche, we read Marx, we read Freud. We should have been reading John Dewey, but we didn’t. So, I think that they really weren’t somehow compatible with the mindset of the Cold War period, which is a mindset very much based on principle. And as we’ve talked about, Pragmatism is kind of anti-principle. So, Pragmatism says beliefs are sort of contingent, they are provisional, they sometimes work, sometimes they don’t. Principles aren’t supposed to be like that. Principles are supposed to be immutable, good for all purposes, good for all occasions, a man for all seasons. So I think that’s… To me, that’s why that kind of thinking went out of fashion. Then after the Cold War, when the world became less bipolar and there seemed to be kind of more diversity intellectually and ideologically, Pragmatism comes back because it’s kind of appropriate to that kind of world.

Brett McKay: And what do you think that the state of Pragmatism is in the 21st century? Is it relevant?

Louis Menand: I don’t see it… So as I said, the period between about… So Rorty published a book called Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature in 1979, which is sort of his big book, but he doesn’t… It’s an attack on analytic philosophy, but he doesn’t mention Pragmatism in that book. And then he published a book in 1982 called Consequences of Pragmatism, that’s where I first encountered his writing, and that was about… A lot of those essays were about… A selection of essays about Pragmatism. And then following that in 1982, there began a growing interest in Pragmatism among people in literature, and then eventually people in the art world, architects began… People began reading Dewey again and quoting Dewey. There’s a biography of Dewey that was very influential, and then Robert Westbrook.

And there just was a revival, [0:47:33.0] ____… Then all these editions started coming out, all the letters were being collected, there’s a lot of scholarly activity, I was writing my book. So really between maybe 1980 and 2000 or so, it was just flooded… Flooded the field, there was also a lot of debate about it, a lot of people hated it, there was a lot of argument about it and so on. And then after 911, I think it kind of faded from the scene a little bit. And then after Rorty died, interestingly, it just sort of died out, which is odd because… I think a lot of it was because of Rorty ’cause he was very prolific and people were fascinated by what he was saying. And then it kind of died out a little bit, so I don’t know why…

Brett McKay: You don’t know why, yeah.

Louis Menand: But I… Yeah, to me it’s no longer really a central part of intellectual life. But as we’ve been saying, it’s one of those things that can come and go. It fits a certain kind of moment really well, it doesn’t fit other kinds of moments very well.

Brett McKay: Well, it’s pragmatic, right? If it fits, it fits. Right.

Louis Menand: It’s pragmatic, yeah. But if you’re really for something or really against something, you tend to hold those positions on principle. You don’t wanna hear somebody saying, “Well, there might ESP.” [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Right. Yeah, that’s my… I’m sort of ambivalent about Pragmatism. Like on one hand, I’m gonna be like, “Well, that makes sense. If it works, then it works.” But then there’s other things like… Well, what about principles? You gotta have some sort of foundational principles that sort of platonic… I don’t know how to…

Louis Menand: Yeah, but Dewey would say… Your principles, you hold those principles ’cause they make sense. In other words, you don’t hold them because they’re out there in the sky somewhere that your principles correspond to, you hold them because they work for you. So one of the principles that people have is their desire to believe in absolutes, but that’s… Pragmatism would say, that’s fine, but understand why you believe in absolutes, ’cause it works for you. [chuckle]

Brett McKay: Well, this has been a great conversation. I got to explore an idea that I’m… Yeah, ’cause I keep on bumping into these guys in my reading in American History, and it was great to finally like, “Okay, what were these guys really about or all about?”

Louis Menand: Yeah, good. I’m glad.

Brett McKay: Louis Menand, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Louis Menand: It’s a pleasure for me too, thanks so much.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Louis Menand, he’s the author of the book, The Metaphysical Club. It’s available on and book stores everywhere. Check out our show notes at where you can find links to resources where we delve deeper into this topic.

Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Make sure to check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles throughout the years about pretty much anything you’d think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher premium. Head over to, sign up, use code “manliness” at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. If you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you all who are listening to our podcast to put what you’ve heard into action.

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