Saturday, February 5, 2011

Thoughts on The Metaphysical Club

I just finished The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand. I can't recommend it highly enough - a truly enjoyable book. It is an intellectual history of American Pragmatism, written as a biography of four men: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William James, C.S. Peirce, and John Dewey. There is a considerable amount of history in it too - Boston abolitionism, the Civil War, the coming of Darwinism to America, the Pullman Strike, and a big chunk of the history of American higher education. This made for a very engaging read - part intellectual history, part biography, and part history. I would like to write a book like this one day.

I've had a sympathy with American Pragmatism for a while. Kate had the book John Dewey: The Political Writings from a political philosophy class back at William and Mary, and I've effectively appropriated it and browsed through it for years now. I've always been attracted to Dewey. I never knew as much about the others, though. This book both firmed up and raised questions about my relationship to Pragmatism. There's a lot I like and a lot I don't like in each of these figures. I've also started to try to familiarize myself with Rorty. I take him much the same way I take Peirce (although Rorty himself preferred James). Rorty strikes me as technically being closer to right than the others, but I do see why people consider him a nihilist. He asks the question "well who is interested in truth anyway?" to which I want to respond "I'm interested in truth, even if I agree with you it's elusive!". Where Peirce gets the contingency of our insights right, but then is too optimistic about where all that leads, I think Rorty gets the contingency of our insights right, and then is too pessimistic (even if he insists he isn't). Rorty did not come up at all in the book, which was interesting - even in the epilogue where the author discussed the role of Pragmatism in the post-war period. I suppose that would have opened up a whole other can of worms.

I should say the other thing that I like about Rorty is that he brings in two others that I've always admired - Foucault and Heidegger. I've been marginally familiar with and generally impressed with Foucault since my time studying sociology at William and Mary. Heidegger has been of more recent interest, and I can credit Evan with introducing me to him (Evan also gave me this book, btw). I just recently found out Rorty explicitly connects Foucault and Dewey on rights and coercion. That was tremendous to learn, because I've made that connection myself for a while now, but I've never been especially sure about it. It's good to know that a celebrated philosopher came to the same conclusion. Rorty is also nice because he accepts a late logical-positivism (as long as it is sufficiently chastized about its own limitations). He sees value in the logical positivists who were more introspective in that sense (just as he sees value in Heidegger for doing the same with phenomenology). I have always enjoyed Bertrand Russell, so that's nice to see in Rorty (even though he's obviously abandoned analytic philosophy in important ways too). Ultimately, philosophically I'm still floating about, but I definitely see a coalescence with the Pragmatists.

There are absolutely unmistakable connections between the Pragmastists and Keynes in terms of action under uncertainty. I checked A Treatise on Probability (1921), and Keynes cites Peirce a few times. Gladys Parker Foster writes about the compatibility of Keynes and Dewey here. I've recently become very interested in Foster and her late husband - he especially wrote a lot about the American contribution to economic thought, and while I haven't gotten a great grasp of his views yet, he seems to suggest there was a lot in American thought that paved the way for a broad acceptance of Keynes. What's even more exciting is that he's identified many of the points I remark on - Jeffersonianism, the frontier, etc.

I'm not sure what I'm reading next - I'll decide by tonight. Possibly The Road to Serfdom, although I'm not sure I'm in the mood. Maybe The State and Economic Knowledge, which has been tempting me for a while. Maybe Forged Consensus which has also been tempting me for a while. Maybe Cycles of Unemployment, a short book by William Berridge from 1923 on the causes of unemployment. Maybe The Eerie Silence, about detecting extraterrestrial life - just for a lighter read. I feel somewhat adrift... not sure what it will be.

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