Crossing the divide between academic analysis and insightful storytelling, this social and intellectual history explores the ideas of pragmatism by charting the lives of its founding fathers.
Pragmatism, a philosophy that makes experience the decisive test of truth and rightness, has experienced a renaissance after the chill of Cold War decades, and Menand, a New Yorker staff writer and eminent scholar, counts as one of its latter-day midwives. Significantly, then, we are told that pragmatism (with its Emersonian overtones) came into being as a radical, progressive critique of the various philosophies that fueled the American Civil War. Pragmatism’s early proponents looked upon scientific or religious belief as “one of the pieces people try to bundle together with other pieces, like moral teachings and selfish interests and specific information, when they need to make a decision.” It was, therefore, a philosophy of method and process, of probability and function, and (when imbued with a constructive skepticism) it created common ground for cultivating democracy and pluralism over ideology. In his sharp and expansive appreciation of pragmatism’s formative quartet (Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey), Menand brings their intermingled lives into colorful focus: Holmes goes to war, James to Brazil, Peirce becomes homeless, and Dewey helps organize the American Association of University Professors. Each takes center stage in one of the story’s first four sections, forming a sequence of eclectic biographies that accumulate a narrative tension as lives and ideas cohere or clash. A fifth section measures pragmatism’s limitations as well as its role in modernizing American thought: it cannot, for example, explain why someone would be willing to die for his beliefs, but it represents the “intellectual triumph of unionism.”
A singular achievement of intellectual history as well as a weighty entertainment. (21 b&w drawings and photos)