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  July 6, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

Let's Get Metaphysical

The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
by Louis Menand
546 pages, $27 (hardcover)
Published by Farrar Straus & Giroux

IN 1872, A GROUP OF YOUNG, INTELLECTUALLY gifted inhabitants of Cambridge, Massachusetts met in a discussion group to talk about philosophy. The group was short lived, but, as Louis Menand traces in his new book, its members-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Pierce, William James, to name the most important-together fashioned an epochal transformation in American thought: they brought about the rise of pragmatism. Menand's account is no dry-as-dust recitation of teachers and texts: In the manner of Edmund Wilson, Menand has crafted a tale that is concerned with both ideas and personalities, and the book has been met with much praise.

"The generation that came to maturity in America after the Civil War and Darwin's Origins of Species is the subject of Menand's superb study," wrote George Scialabba in The American Prospect "Actually, 'study' is almost too stuffy; it really is, as the subtitle asserts, a story full of color, incident, and personality. What is enthralling and illuminating about The Metaphysical Club is its portraits of individuals and milieus. Menand is wonderfully deft at evoking a climate of ideas or a cultural sensibility. embodying it in a character, and moving his characters into and out of one another's lives." And Carlin Romano of The Nation enthused, "Menand brings his exquisite literary and philosophical talents together to invent a new genre-intellectual history as improv jazz."

In the National Review, Michael Potemra called the book a "well written and fascinating account of intelligent people responding to awful events, told with an eye for captivating detail." Keeping his audience's sensibilities in mind, Potemra also noted that "conservatives who are familiar with Menand's essays in The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, and other magazines will be pleasantly surprised by this book. The polemical Menand who viewed the dawn of the Reagan era as 'depressing'-and wrote one of the most memorably stingy reviews of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind -is not on display here; and frankly, it's more than a little refreshing to read a work of history that does not advertise, on every page, the political views of its author."

Alan Ryan of The New York Review of Bookstook issue with some of the implicit criticisms of pragmatist thought that he found in Menand's book. John Dewey, Ryan stressed, was concerned not only with the satisfaction of our desires but also with understanding how those desires are formed. But Ryan too joined the chorus of praise: "It does something extremely difficult, which is to integrate what might otherwise be a string of disparate semibiographical essay into something very like the American mind at work, and to do so without slighting the individual thinker or the larger, national setting."

Matthew Price

Critics cited:
George Scialabba, The American Prospect
Alan Ryan, The New York Review of Books
Michael Potemra, National Review
Carlin Romano, The Nation

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