I’ve commented earlier on Louis Menand’s Metaphysical Club. He’s a great writer and the book is a brilliant structure for examining the major American ideas of the late 1800s.
Menand does a superb job on Pragmatism. He gives its various perspectives and does the best job I know of in connecting the ideas of Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey.
Menand did one wonderful thing for me and failed in two others.
I have long been a devoted of Peirce, having read his work when I was 16 years old. To me, Peirce is one of the few great American minds. I have always been baffled by the rejection of Peirce, the person, by his entire generation and the academic world of his day. Menand explains it.
Peirce’s problem was that he loved woman, was brilliant enough to be arrogant and was careless with money. Since he was living with his glamorous second wife before divorcing his first wife, he was fired from Johns Hopkins. Since he squandered money and kept poor records, traveling on business, he was fired from his government job. Since he was arrogant, the three way combination made him unsuitable for academic work. At the time there was no other venue for intellectuals.
(His first wife had strong feminist opinions: housewives should be paid salaries by their husbands and adultery should be punished by the death penalty.)
Where Menand failed is to appreciate that Peirce’s pragmatism is THE pragmatism of America. American pragmatism is not the watered down versions of James or Dewey. In Peirce’s pragmatism, all ideas and forms are constructs of our social context. Ideas and forms survive, historically, because of their viability and functionality. What was unique to Peirce was the notion that ideas have an ultimate truth. That truth emerges in the future as the way ideas are used and the human condition, converge. This latter point is only conjecture, untestable, but it reflects a deeper understanding of the whole concept of pragmatism.
Menand is a revisionist in looking at the anti-ideology of the three thinkers. That is current 21st century language projected backwards. Pragmatism is inherently anti-ideology, but it took Hitler, Stalin and a few others to convince most of us of the horrors of ideology. It took fifty years of good anti-left thinkers to come to that understanding.
I have little affection for John Dewey (prominent Lefty pacificist by WWII) but his understanding of democracy and dialogue are very important. Menand does an inadequate job on that subject.