The Pragmatists:
Founders of Modern America

By Charles Matthews
San Jose Mercury News, 2001

Politicians like to invoke the Founding Fathers, those formidable men of the 18th century who crafted the American ideology in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But as Louis Menand’s wonderful new book shows, the founding fathers of modern America were a handful of 19th century intellectuals who forged the philosophy known as pragmatism.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey changed the way Americans think. Pragmatism was born of two crises: the social and political upheaval of the Civil War and the intellectual revolution generated by of Darwin’s publication in 1859 of “On the Origin of Species.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey “believed that ideas….are tools – like forks and knives and microchips – that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves,” Menand tells us. This belief in ideas as things that can be modified, replaced, or discarded was exactly what America needed as it moved into a century of urbanization and industrial capitalism, and of coping with the social problems caused by both.

More on America in the Late 19th Century:
Here for Historian Page Smith on
U.S. Journalism of the Period,
Here for Historian Barbara W. Tuchman on
American Foreign Policy of These Years.

The subject matter and even the title of Menand’s book are a little forbidding, but trust me: this is fascinating reading. Menand, a New Yorker staff writer and a professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, takes us into Civil War battles with Holmes, on a Brazilian expedition with James, into the chaotic, self-destructive life of Peirce, and through the brutal Pullman strike of 1894 that had a profound effect on Dewey’s social thought.

Holmes, born in 1841, was the only one of the four to fight in the Civil War (he was wounded three times); his war experience made him distrust ideology and value expertise. He observed that “soldiers who understood the mechanics of battle fought better – more effectively, but also more bravely – than soldiers who were motivated chiefly by enthusiasm for a cause.” But the chief lesson Holmes learned from the war “can be put in a sentence,” Menand says: “It is that certitude leads to violence.”

Neither James nor Peirce (pronounced “purse”) fought in the war, though each was born within a year of Holmes. But they were aware of its impact, of course, and were also cognizant of the other major shock to the intellectual system, Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” published only two years before the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861. In 1872, Holmes, James, and Peirce started meeting regularly in a group called – or so Peirce recollected many years later – the Metaphysical Club.

Menand tells us that one of the things Peirce in particular wrestled with was, “What does it mean to say we ‘know’ something” in a cosmos ruled by the random variations that, in Darwin’s theory, were the basis of all change? Peirce came to believe “that in a universe in which events are uncertain and perception is fallible, knowing cannot be a matter of an individual mind ‘mirroring’ reality….knowledge must therefore be social.”

Starting with his lectures at the University of California-Berkeley in 1898, James would formulate much of the thinking of the members of the Metaphysical Club into the philosophy he called pragmatism: essentially the doctrine that the truth is whatever works – including religious belief. Menand explains: “James thought that belief in God ‘works’ in the same way that learning to shoot free throws – or to tie your shoes, honor your father and mother, or get out of the box – works: each time it issues in a successful action it gets reinforced as an organic habit….If behaving as though we had free will or God exists gets us results we want….they will be, pragmatically, true.”

The fourth major figure in Menand’s book, John Dewey, was born 20 years later than the other three men, and he carried the philosophy of pragmatism into the 20th century, becoming a major figure in American education. Dewey promoted learning through doing, not through rote memorization. “Dewey thought that ideas are the same as hands: instruments for coping,” Menand writes. “An idea has no greater metaphysical stature than, say, a fork. When your fork proves inadequate to the task of eating soup, it makes little sense to argue about whether there is something inherent in the nature of forks or something inherent in the nature of soup that accounts for the failure. You just reach for a spoon…..Knowledge is….’an instrument or organ of successful action.'”

A Related Book by Cornel West:
“The American Evasion of Philosophy”

In place of the moral, religious, social, scientific, and racial certainties of the past, pragmatism installed a pluralistic way of looking at things: “The constitutional law of free speech is the most important benefit to come out of the way of thinking that emerged in Cambridge and elsewhere in the decades after the Civil War….We do not (on Holmes’s reasoning) permit the free expression of ideas because some individual may have the right one. No individual alone can have the right one. We permit free expression because we need the resources of the whole group to get us the ideas we need. Thinking is a social activity.”

Pragmatism’s defect is that human beings continue to strive for certitude. (As Menand observes, “Pragmatism explains everything about ideas except why a person would be willing to die for one.”) And both bad and good can come from certitude – ideological conflicts produced the Cold War, for example, but on the other hand the civil rights revolution of the ’60s could not have been accomplished without the moral certitude of its leaders. As Menand comments, “Martin Luther King Jr. was not a pragmatist, a relativist, or a pluralist and it is a question whether the movement he led could have accomplished what it did if its inspirations had come from Dewey and Holmes rather than Reinhold Niebuhr and Mahatma Gandhi.” But the civil rights movement also benefited from the pluralistic attitudes fostered by pragmatism: “The value at the bottom of the thought of Holmes, James, Peirce, and Dewey is tolerance,” Menand says.

“The Metaphysical Club” brims with other extraordinary characters, such as the anti-Darwinian biologist Louis Agassiz, labor leader Eugene V. Debs, social worker Jane Addams, and the aesthete Alain Locke, who was the first African-American Rhodes Scholar. In his acknowledgments, Menand says, “There was no part of the trek I did not find almost fatally fascinating, and (this is something I never thought I would say about writing a book) I am sorry it is over.”

In a way, I was sorry, too, for I felt Menand could have gone much further in examining how the ideas of the pragmatists worked out in the public arena of the 20th century. But in its ambitions and sweep, and because of Menand’s ability to put a human face on abstract ideas, the book comes as close to being a page-turner as any book about philosophy could be.