Richard Nisley

The Metaphysical Club
History - American Released - Oct 01, 2017

I read the “The Metaphysical Club” some time after it was published. I turned to it again recently and found its message relevant to the toxic atmosphere that pervades Washington politics. The book was a gift from my wife. The following is the review I posted on


The Civil War changed Oliver Wendell Holmes, as it had to so many of his generation. Holmes had grown up in a highly cultivated, homogeneous world, a world of which he was, in many ways, the embodiment: idealistic, artistic, and socially committed. As a soldier, he had watched that world bleed to death on the killing fields of Fredericksburg and Antietam, in a war that learning and brilliance had failed to prevent and was powerless to stop. When he returned to his home in Boston, New England had changed, and so had American life. He would go on to become one of the most influential justices ever to sit on the bench of the Supreme Court, but he never forgot what was lost. “He told me,” said a friend, “that after the Civil War the world never seemed quite right again.”

After the war, Holmes thought about trying to make a career as a writer of philosophy, like his family friend Ralph Waldo Emerson. He decided it was not for him, and enrolled at Harvard Law School. After graduation he took up the practice of law and for about a year met informally with a group of high-brow friends who referred to themselves as “The Metaphysical Club.”

The name was something of a joke, as the group was anything but about metaphysics. Indeed, their discussions led to the creation of a branch of philosophy known as pragmatism. The most noted members, besides Holmes, were Charles Sanders Pierce (a prodigy in math, science and philosophy) and William James, three years out of medical school. “They wrangle grimly and stick to the question,” James' brother Henry wrote to a friend. “It gives me a headache merely to know of it.” The club existed only for a year (Jan. 1872 to Dec. 1872), but over the remainder of the century and into the next, Holmes, James, Pierce and their intellectual heir John Dewey wrangled with the philosophical questions that defined modern American life.

The Metaphysical Club is the subject of the 2002 Pulizer-Prize winning book “The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America,” by Louis Menand. The book covers American history in the years between the Civil War and the end of the First World War, and provides informative and compelling profiles of four giants of American thought: Holmes, James, Pierce and Dewey. The book is fascinating but often I felt awash in a world of ideas that were sometimes ponderous and tedious. My ignorance, I’m sure. But with Holmes as my guiding light (of whom I was most familiar) I pushed on to finish an enlightening book.

Menand defines pragmatism as “an account of the way people think—they come up with ideas, form beliefs and reach decisions” in a world “shot through with contingency,” a world in which Darwinian chance rather than providential design determines outcomes. “The challenge, if there is no higher ‘truth’ or ‘good’ out there waiting to be discovered, is to determine how people can distinguish right from wrong, decide how to act or choose what to believe.”

The lesson Holmes took from the war—and that of his New England friends—can be summed up in one sentence. It is that certitude leads to violence. “This is a proposition that has an easy application and a difficult one,” writes the author. The easy application is to ideologues, dogmatists, and bullies. These are the people who believe they are right and anyone who opposes them is not only wrong but probably evil. Writes the author: “If the condition of rightness is powerful enough, resistance to it will be met, sooner or later by force. There are people like this in every sphere of life, and it is natural to feel that the world would be a better place without them.”

Holmes, however, did not believe that the world would be better off without them, because he thought that everyone was like this, including himself, and “this is the difficult part of his belief about certitude and violence,” writes Menand. “It is easy to condemn unwarranted certainty in others; we are always confident that people we disagree with would be improved by a little self-doubt. We even remind ourselves, in our better moments, to be skeptical of our own convictions. In the end, though, there just are some things that we are certain about. We have beliefs we cannot help feeling are valid.” In Holmes’ youth, it was the abolition movement that made him want to take up arms in the name of what he thought was right. “When that day came, nothing could save him from the resort to violence, not even the knowledge that what he was fighting, in the end, was a preference,” writes the author.

The only solution to such personal convictions was tolerance. And this is the core belief of Holmes, James, Pierce and Dewey. “Though we may believe unreservedly in a certain set of truths, there is always the possibility that some other set of truths might be the case,” writes Menard in summing up the thinking of the Metaphysical Club. “In the end, we have to act on what we believe; we cannot wait for confirmation from the universe. But the moral justification for actions comes from the tolerance we have shown to other ways of being in the world, other ways of considering the case. The alternative is force. Pragmatism was designed to make it harder for people to be driven to violence by their beliefs.”

For Holmes, in one of his greatest Supreme Court opinions, this meant allowing the widest possible latitude of free speech, even speech we strongly disagree with. This was one of the lessons the Civil War had taught him and the others. Democracy isn’t just about letting the right people have their say; it’s also about letting the wrong people have their say. “It’s about giving space to minority and dissenting opinions that, at the end of the day, the interests of the majority may prevail. Indeed, the idea is not to stop the dialogue among competing factions, but to keep it going. Democracy means that everyone is equally in the game, but it also means that no one can opt out. In modern American thought—the thought associated with Holmes, James, Pierce, and Dewey—tolerance is the saving grace.

- END -

Copyright © 2012-2017 Richard Nisley - All Rights Reserved.