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A social notion of ideas and American pragmatism

Apropos the social aspects of theorizing, Kalle suggested I should have a look at Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (MacMillan 2002; ISBN: 9780374528492).

The book sets out to chronicle the new ideas – in science, law, social affairs, psychology, education – that shaped the United States following the Civil War, through four key protagonists: William James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles S. Pierce and John Dewey. A key argument is that what united this new generation of thinkers – the pragmatists – was their notion that ideas are engendered through social interactions, as summarized neatly on the back cover and in the preface of the book:

The Metaphysical Club was an informal group that met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872, to talk about ideas. Its members included Oliver Well Holmes, Jr., future associate justice of the United States Supreme Court; William James, the father of modern American psychology; and Charles Sanders Peirce, logician, scientist, and the founder of semiotics. The Club was probably in existence for about nine months. No records were kept. The one thing we know that came out of it was an idea — an idea about ideas. This book is the story of that idea.

Holmes, James, and Peirce all believed that ideas are not things “out there” waiting to be discovered but are tools people invent – like knives and forks and microchips – to make their way in the world. They thought that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals – that ideas are social. They do not develop according to some inner logic of their own but are entirely dependent – like germs – on their human carriers and environment. And they thought that the survival of any idea depends not on its immutability but on its adaptability.

Several of the sociologists contributing to the emerging literature on social science theorizing explicitly draw on Pierce. Swedberg’s book begins with a story about Pierce – how he solved a crime by following his intuition and making a guess – and ends with an appendix on How to theorize according to Charles S. Pierce, expanding on the notions of abduction, induction and deduction and their role in the theorizing process. Tavory & Timmermans, as noted, also pay hommage to Pierce and present an abductionist view of theorizing. Yet, as I noted earlier, neither Swedberg nor Tavory & Timmermans have much to say about the social aspects of generating ideas – which seems to have been central to Pierce and his fellow pragmatists, on Menand’s account.

I’m no expert on Pierce or pragmatism, so I can’t vouch for Menand’s intellectual biography of the first generation of American pragmatists, and I know philosophers have raised some interesting criticisms of Menand’s account. In a podcast interview with Robert Talisse on her book The American Pragmatists (OUP 2013, ISBN: 9780199231201), Cheryl Misak, for one, calls Menand’s account of Pierce “lunatic” because, she argues (at 34:00′), he anachronistically ascribes Richard Rorty’s subjectivist view to Pierce.

The received view has it that Pierce and James invented this view in the 1870s and then Dewey picked it up. And then somehow after Dewey’s death just disappeared from the philosophical scene … because those bully boys of logical empiricists came around and chased pragmatism out of the best philosophy departments in America. You, Bob, had this lovely term for this received view, you call it the Eclipse View, and both you and I agree that it is a wrong-headed view of the history of American pragmatism.

Let me throw in another view that is even more wrong-headed, that is the Menand view. … Menand argues for – I should choose my words carefully; I wanted to say lunatic view – Menand argues for a very unusual view of the history of American pragmatism. He takes pragmatism to be more or less Richard Rorty’s view and quite rightly says that this is the view that James had but he identifies pragmatism in 1867 with Richard Rorty’s very let’s call it subjectivist view, and says that after the Civil War such a searing event for Americans, that at the end of it they were really sick of the idea of certainty and confidence, and they wanted nothing to do with anyone who said they knew the truth about anything. Look where the truth got them, it got them all the horror and blodshed of the Civil War

So pragmatism was born out of that desire not to have views of truth that involved any kind of certainty. Once the Cold War came about people wanted certainty again and so pragmatism was in the doghouse and when the Cold War ceased to become an urgent thing on people’s minds … uncertainty could rule again and hence Richard Rorty would come in with pragmatism again and make it popular again. …

Part of what I want to do in this book is to correct both that Received View and the Menand View.

Other critics have used equally strong language. One reviewer calls the book “sham scholarship“, another reviewer calls Menand’s account of pragmatism (in another book) “vulgar rortyism”. While I much enjoyed reading the sprawling story, I’m tempted to agree with the critique that Menand’s book is really not so much about that “idea about ideas” he claims was so central to pragmatists. He tends to provide so much context that the core topics are never really in focus. As one reviewer notes about the book:

It is composed of digression from digression, resulting in arabesques of digression. For example, since John Dewey attended the University of Vermont, we are led to a discussion of the transcendentalism of James Marsh, a president of the University before Dewey’s birth; to Coleridge’s misreading of Kant, in an essay Marsh had edited for American readers; to the founding of Dartmouth College in 1769 and Daniel Webster’s courtroom defense of Dartmouth in 1817, the date at which Marsh graduated therefrom; and much, much more. All of which bears remotely on Dewey’s intellectual formation, but it does not help us understand his philosophy, which is never so much as summarized.

Thomas Short: Sham Scholarship

A more friendly reviewer picks up on how the Darwinian revolution set in motion a profound shift in Western thought and culture, away from the essentialism that had dominated basically ever since Plato – the shift Menand seeks to chronicle in all its complexity:

For these pragmatists, ideas matter because they assist in change or evolution, not because they point to the unchanging.

The greatest revolution—the revolution that sundered the Semitic cosmology of Genesis—came in the mid-nineteenth century most powerfully and creatively with Charles Darwin. Even limiting oneself to the story as told by Menand, a reader might therefore ask if Darwin is a more substantial starting point than the Civil War. Menand characterizes Darwin’s motives for writing Origin of Species (1857) as to “debunk the concept of supernatural intelligence—the idea that the universe is the result of an idea.” The introduction of natural selection as the mechanism for evolution, and therefore the explanation for variation and change, forced a reorientation in thinking that was cosmos-shattering. Applied broadly, Darwin’s ideas suggested that the universe and all its parts have no stable essence and no unified purpose; therefore, while the abstract language employed by humans may order their experiences, it does so without any genuine reference to a stable reality.

Darwin’s impact on the pragmatists was profound, suggesting that ideas are part of an evolutionary process that allows organisms to adapt to, and change, their environment. As things change, one is forced to abandon old ideas and find new ones. The pragmatists crafted a philosophical perspective appropriate for a people who could no longer believe in a closed universe. By emphasizing the constant experimentation with ideas to find those that work, they believed they were preparing themselves and others to live “forward” in a rapidly changing society. These ideas took peculiar forms relative to each thinker.

Ted V. McAllister, A Pragmatic History of Pragmatism

Whatever the merits of Menand’s account of the history of pragmatism, a social, instrumental and evolutionary notion of ideas along these lines seems quite useful for exploring the social aspects of theorizing. To be continued…

2 replies on “A social notion of ideas and American pragmatism”

Interesting stuff! It was a while since I read Menand’s book, but yes – looking back upon reading it – it really was quite a roundabout exposition of the pragmatist story. (I remember getting a bit bored with it sometimes, but probably thought it was my fault.)

And true – the actual ideas are only covered in brief passages. I guess it stems from the fact that Menand is less of a philosopher and more of a essayist/English scholar/cultural historian.

Yes, on a benevolent interpretation, the digressions from digressions actually are a roundabout way of illustrating Menand’s point about ideas as being social, produced by groups of people, evolving through complex relationships and networks, in non-linear and unpredictable ways.

One thing I found interesting in Menand’s account is the many connections across the Atlantic that he documents. One tends to think of pragmatism as a homegrown US invention, but it actually (or at least on Menand’s account) also grew out of contacts with intellectual developments in Europe at the time.

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