Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Metaphysical Club, by Louis Menand

One word crops up unexpectedly often in The Metaphysical Club: "invidious." Well, it only turns up seven times (and two of those are actually "invidiousness"), but I sincerely doubt I (or you) have read many books, even of greater length, which use the word or its inflections more frequently.*

This frequency should not, after some reflection, be all that surprising; one of the consistent themes of much writing about pragmatism—particularly the version we receive from Richard Rorty—is its impatience if not antipathy toward dualisms which smuggle preferences in under the cover of either nature or truth, a trick which makes for a pretty good definition of the word "invidious." What Menand says of Dewey here goes for the most part for his readings of James, Peirce, and Holmes, as well as for the secondary characters like Chauncey Wright, James Marsh, Horace Kallen, Franz Boas, Jane Addams, Alain Locke, and (a little distortedly) Randolph Bourne:
The "Reflex Arc" paper is the essential expression of Dewey's particular mode of intelligence. It is the strategy he followed in approaching every problem: expose a tacit hierarchy in the terms in which people conventionally think about it. We think that a response follows a stimulus; Dewey taught that there is a stimulus only because there is already a response. We think that first there are individuals and then there is society; Dewey taught that there is no such thing as an individual without society. We think we know in order to do; Dewey taught that doing is why there is knowing.

Dewey was not reversing the priority of the terms he identified in these analyses. Invidiousness was precisely what he wished always to avoid. In condemning (as he did) the elevation of thinking over doing as a reflection of class bias (Veblen would have said that philosophical speculation is a form of conspicuous consumption: it shows we can afford not to work with our hands), Dewey was not proposing to elevate doing over thinking instead. He was only applying the idea Addams was trying to explain to him when she said that antagonism is unreal: he was showing that 'doing' and 'thinking,' like 'stimulus' and 'response,' are just practical distinctions we make when tensions arise in the process of adjustment between the organism and its world. Later in his career, Dewey would criticize, in the same manner, the distinctions between mind and reality, means and ends, nature and culture. As Henry Steele Commager testified, a generation (or part of a generation, anyway) seems to have found Dewey's manner of calmly and often rather colorlessly chewing through received ideas irresistible and indispensable.
What is striking about Menand's writing in The Metaphysical Club (but which uncharacteristically does not come across in this passage) is the linearity and curtness of the vast majority of Menand's sentences**; where there are semicolons or colons, they serve mainly to hold a thought just long enough for it to be completed or reinforced. Rarely are they used to extend a point onto adjacent ground or to make even the slightest of tangents. Parallelism or antithesis is also, as far as I can remember, if not infrequent, at least quite understated; strong oppositions are not Menand's choice for pursuing his narrative. (Even the treatment on Agassiz, who is the closest thing we may have here to a villain, is directed more to showing how William James's reaction to the fights between Agassiz and the Darwinians was crucial in pointing him toward his notion of pluralism {143}.) Strong oppositions are inevitably always too close to "invidious distinctions."

The other really notable stylistic trait of the book is its huge number of parenthetical comments, each one basically like the parentheses about Veblen above: effectively self-contained, of small pertinence to the sentence off of which it is hanging, usually either recapitulating a point made earlier or tossing in a value-added factoid. Effectively, they're non-citational footnotes—not meant to direct the reader to a particular source for further research or to acknowledge the origin of the information or quote, just meant to use up all the scraps of information Menand gathered. One of my favorites is this: "(James's assignment seems to have been to investigate the effects of a particular brand of baking powder on the kidneys—in other words, self-urinalysis. After three weeks, he asked [Charles William] Eliot to assign the experiment to someone else. It was the beginning of a lifelong aversion to laboratory work.)"

The impulse behind this habit probably is a combination of wanting to entertain and also not to waste any research; certainly not bad impulses, and these little nuggets rarely seriously distract, but these ephemera also do the job of making the principal characters of the book a good deal weirder, but in a rather superficial manner. The "lifelong aversion to laboratory work" is kind of funny when one thinks of it as the result of James taking the piss out of himself, but it also truncates a better (and necessary) discussion of James's relation to the scientific method or to fieldwork. Menand does broach these subjects (particularly in the chapter titled "Brazil") but all too often he abbreviates or curtails such topics with these pat parentheticals. Perhaps this is in fact a method or a principle: maybe Menand means to say that our more immediate reactions like this one are the better places to look for our habits, inclinations, and dispositions, and that the trail of our more thoughtfully considered rationales and philosophies are basically just a forest of garnishes blocking our view of this slenderer meat, to mix metaphors rather carelessly. I actually wouldn't go quite so far as to say that—Menand does a very creditable (but not overwhelming) amount of source work—but there is a sense in which these parenthetical asides assume a surprisingly foundational role in building the narrative.

* [Later edit:] This was before I read Thorstein Veblen. Theory of the Leisure Class uses the word "invidious" 75 times!

** My friend Craig Fehrman pointed out to me before I read The Metaphysical Club how uncannily short Menand is able to keep so many of his sentences. As Craig noted, this curtness is in excess of even the relative directness of his New Yorker essays or his other work. It's my feeling that it is precisely the effort to avoid "invidious distinctions" that Menand is aiming at with these very linear sentences.

1 comment:

Shelley said...

A curt philosopher? Will wonders never cease!