Tag Archives: Anthropology

The Metaphysical Club

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America by Louis Menand.

Louis Menand The Metaphysical Club

The Metaphysical Club of Menand’s title was a small, fairly short-lived conversation society organized by Chauncey Wright in 1872 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with members including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and Charles Pierce, among others. Menand represents this coterie as the seedbed of the American philosophical school of pragmatism, and uses it for a point of orientation in tracing the intellectual formation and accomplishments of pragmatists James, Pierce, and John Dewey. Along with Holmes, who despite his distaste for the label “pragmatism,” shared in much of the intellectual innovation of his erstwhile club colleagues, these men were “the first modern thinkers in the United States,” according to Menand’s account. (pp. xi, 432-3) This phase of American thinking germinated during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, flowered in the first decade of the twentieth, and persisted until the middle of the twentieth century—a span punctuated by the Civil War at one end and the Cold War at the other.

The Metaphysical Club offers an imposing tangle of vivid biographies, in order to repeatedly demonstrate how the “modern” perspectives of the pragmatists and their peers differed from their immediate predecessors: the “modernizing” generation of their parents and teachers. Intellectual biographies of the pragmatists’ fathers serve as points of comparison and contrast, rather than contributing causes of their sons’ careers. The Cambridge-based Saturday Club of Emerson, Hawthorne, Longfellow, Agassiz and their associates (including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.) helps to make this comparison concrete. The signal event that divided these two generations was the Civil War. And Menand suggests that a driving principle of their thought was “fear of violence,” a fear instilled by the Civil War and activated by economic and social conflict in the 1890s (p. 373).

Menand’s description of the intellectual mode of the pragmatists emphasizes their attention to liberty and tolerance, unity of thought and action, contextualism, and a refutation of natural essences. At the same time, he remarks the extent to which thinkers like Holmes and Dewey were actually quite alien to the standards usually at issue in characterizing “liberal” thought. They were hostile to individualism, scientific instrumentalism, and laissez-faire economics. Their typical tendency was to discuss complex phenomena as differentiated wholes, rather than combinations of reified elements. Menand also shows how the philosophical “pluralism” coined by William James was significantly different than its later mutation as cultural pluralism.

With his chosen cast of characters, Menand is able to explore the expression of the pragmatist viewpoint in the diverse fields of law, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, statistics, and education. At the same time, he provides an account of a key phase in the professionalization of the academy. He details the beginnings of graduate education in the US, the founding of several key universities, the establishment of AUUP and key juridical precedents for the intellectual freedom of academic professionals. [via]

The Greeks and the Irrational

The Greeks and the Irrational by E R Dodds, the 1966 paperback from University of California Press, is part of the collection at the Reading Room.

E R Dodds The Greeks and the Irrational from University of California Press

“Greek culture has long been identified with the triumph of rationalism. The role of primitive and irrational forces in Greek society has been largely glossed over or neglected even when it was obviously touched on by the Greeks themselves. In this volume, armed with analytical weapons of modern anthropology and psychology, Professor Dodds asks, ‘Why should we attribute to the ancient Greeks an immunity from ‘primitive’ modes of thought which we do not find in any society open to our direct observation?'” — back cover

The Rites of Passage

The Rites of Passage: a classic study of cultural celebrations by Arnold van Gennep, a paperback from University of Chicago Press, is part of the collection at the Reading Room.

Arnold van Gennep The Rites of Passage from University of Chicago Press

“Birth, puberty, marriage, and death are, in all cultures, marked by ceremonies which may differ but are universal in function. Arnold van Gennep (1873–1957) was the first anthropologist to note the regularity and significance of the rituals attached to the transitional stages in man’s life, and his phrase for these, ‘the rites of passage,’ has become a part of the language of anthropology and sociology.” — back cover

The Anger of Achilles

The Anger of Achilles: Mênis in Greek Epic by Leonard Muellner, a 1995 paperback in the Myth and Poetics series edited by Gregory Nagy from Cornell University Press, is part of the collection at the Reading Room.

Leonard Muellner The Anger of Achilles from Cornell University Press

“Leonard Muellner’s goal is to restore the Greek word for the anger of Achilles, mênis, to its social, mythical, and poetic contexts. His point of departure is the anthropology of emotions. He believes that notions of anger vary between cultures and that the particular meaning of a word such as mênis needs to emerge from a close study of Greek epic. Mênis means more than an individual’s emotional response. on the basis of the epic exemplifications of the word, Muellner defines the term as a cosmic sanction against behavior that violates the most basic rules of human society. To understand the way mênis functions, Muellner stresses both the power and the danger that accrue to a person who violates such rules. Transgressive behavior has both a creative and destructive aspect.” — back cover

The Wedding Book

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Wedding Book: Alternative Ways to Celebrate Marriage by Howard Kirschenbaum and Rockwell Stensrud.

Howard Kirschenbaum Rockwell Stensrud The Wedding Book

In 21st-century America, same-sex marriages are a matter of social contention. In the 20th century, public concerns about marriage tended to dwell on differences of race and religion. In The Wedding Book (1974), though, there’s no sense of conflict or controversy. A wave of experiment starting in the 1960s had progressed to the point where “traditional” wedding features were less taken for granted, and the authors here advocate for the “personal wedding,” in which all details of the event are tailored to the character and ambitions of the wedding couple themselves.

Unsurprisingly, some aspects of this 40-year-old book are quaintly dated, if not obsolete. There is an assortment of advice about how to announce an engagement, for example, that is happily ignorant of Facebook and Twitter. (It even mentions newspapers!) Still, the “Handbook for Personal Weddings” is an approachable and highly practical examination of the scope of possibility involved in wedding procedures and practices. The book as a whole is replete with examples of 20th-century “personal wedding” custom and liturgy, ranging from the hypertraditional to the innovative. The authors assume a desire for sanctity on the part of wedding participants, but they admit a range of exclusivism, ecumenicism, and secularism to accommodate the varying religious dispositions of marriage couples.

There are two historical chapters: “The Origins of Marriage” and “The Roots of Wedding Ritual.” These are accessible accounts, but not awfully sophisticated ones. The authors occasionally present anachronisms, as when, for instance, they retroject into earlier eras a modern notion of the division of church and state. They also offer some explanations rooted in anthropological studies that were a little shopworn and past crediting even in the 1970s. Even without the accompanying etiological theories, though, these chapters do offer a usefully broad inventory of marriage concepts and customs.

Today’s appetite and even need for “personal weddings” far exceeds the one framed in this 1970s account. Not only the precedent violations of interreligious, interracial, and same-sex marriages, but the increased frequency of second and third (and higher-ordinal!) marriages incline couples towards modifications of wedding practices. As the authors point out, the personalization of any wedding is an opportunity for the couple to articulate their shared will and to communicate it to the society in which they live. I will keep this book in my collection for reference in my ministerial work, and I view it as a highly useful resource for clergy of my sort. [via]


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