The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America

Front Cover
Macmillan, 2001 - History - 546 pages
370 Reviews
The Metaphysical Club is the winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for History.
A riveting, original book about the creation of modern American thought.

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 depent -- like germs -- on their human carriers and environment. And they thought that the survival of any idea deps not on its immutability but on its adaptability.

The Metaphysical Club is written in the spirit of this idea about ideas. It is not a history of philosophy but an absorbing narrative about personalities and social history, a story about America. It begins with the Civil War and s in 1919 with Justice Holmes's dissenting opinion in the case of U.S. v. Abrams-the basis for the constitutional law of free speech. The first four sections of the book focus on Holmes, James, Peirce, and their intellectual heir, John Dewey. The last section discusses some of the fundamental twentieth-century ideas they are associated with. This is a book about a way of thinking that changed American life."

What people are saying - Write a review

User ratings

5 stars
4 stars
3 stars
2 stars
1 star

Review: The Metaphysical Club

User Review  - Goodreads

There are many sections in this book that I do not agree with, but the author is very skilled in writing, which makes this an enjoyable read. Read full review

Review: The Metaphysical Club

User Review  - Robin Friedman - Goodreads

Louis Menand's "The Metaphysical Club" is a rare book which manages to be both scholarly and popular. As a popular work, it offers an accessible exposition of complex ideas and thinkers. On a more ... Read full review


one The Politics of Slavery
two The Abolitionist
three The Wilderness and After
four The Man of Two Minds
f1ve Agassiz
seven The Peirces
e1ght The Law of Errors
n1ne The Metaphysical Club
Part F1ve
th1rteen Pragmatisms
fourteen Pluralisms
f1fteen Freedoms
Works Cited

ten Burlington

Other editions - View all

Common terms and phrases

References to this book

All Book Search results »

About the author (2001)

Louis Menand is a professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and a staff writer at The New Yorker, and has been a contributing editor of The New York Review of Books since 1994. He is the author of Discovering Modernism: T. S. Eliot and His Context and the editor of The Future of Academic Freedom and Pragmatism: A Reader.

Bibliographic information