A colleague shared this podcast with me earlier this summer.
In it, Louis Menand gives the short version of his pulitzer prize-winning The Metaphysical Club. I’ve long been a fan of the book, but what struck me in hearing the short version was the centrality of Darwin and the comparative unimportance of what seems like the main argument (the impact of the Civil War). I’ve long felt that the Civil War argument—that the generation that experienced the war learned from its experience a deep distrust of universal truths and unwavering belief—did not hold up to much scrutiny. For one thing, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. seems to have remained quite a fan of martial valor, despite the horrors of war. I would expect someone so deeply scarred by war that he gave up belief in Truth to also be skeptical of war itself. Darwin, however, makes a very convincing predecessor to pragmatism. Don’t take my word for it, though. Listen to the podcast.
I’ve also been thinking about the subtitle to Menand’s book: “A Story of Ideas in America.” Menand takes a nice, commonsensical approach to one of the key problems we face as either historians of science in America or historians of American science. How do we square a concern for a subject (science/ideas) that’s usually transnational with a concern for integrating science/ideas into broader histories delineated by nation? We look locally and trace globally—at least that’s what Menand does. He’s looking at James, Holmes, Dewey, and Peirce—in the U.S.—but he’s tracing the movement of ideas that traversed the globe—Darwin’s Origin, to be sure, but also Quetelet’s l’homme moyen and Agassiz’s creationism. And the upshot—pragmatism—hardly respects national borders in its philosophical career.
What do you think? Look locally, trace globally. Too kitsch?