Tag Archives: history of ideas

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 Earth, The Gods and The Soul

The Earth, The Gods and The Soul — A History of Pagan Philosophy: From the Iron Age to the 21st Century by Brendan Myers is due in November 2013 from Moon Books, and may be of interest.

Brendan Myers The Earth The Gods and The-Soul from Moon Books

“Philosophy was invented by pagans. Yet this fact is almost always ignored by those who write the history of ideas. This book tells the history of the pagan philosophers, and the various places where their ideas appeared, from ancient times to the 21st century. The Pagan philosophers are a surprisingly diverse group: from kings of great empires to exiled lonely wanderers, from devout religious teachers to con artists, drug addicts, and social radicals. Three traditions of thought emerge from their work: Pantheism, NeoPlatonism, and Humanism, corresponding to the immensities of the Earth, the Gods, and the Soul. From ancient schools like the Stoics and the Druids, to modern feminists and deep ecologists, the pagan philosophers examined these three immensities with systematic critical reason, and sometimes with poetry and mystical vision. This book tells their story for the first time in one volume, and invites you to examine the immensities with them. And as a special feature, the book includes summaries of the ideas of leading modern pagan intellectuals, in their own words: Emma Restall Orr, Michael York, John Michael Greer, Vivianne Crowley, and more.” [via]

The Genius Figure in Antiquity and the Middle Ages

Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Genius Figure in Antiquity and the Middle Ages by J C Nitzsche from Columbia University Press:

J C Nitzsche's The Genius Figure in Antiquity and the Middle Ages from Columbia University Press

 

This monograph seems to be the only extended treatment of its topic within the academic literature of the history of ideas. Fortunately, it is rather excellent. [via]

 

 

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