U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Metaphysical Club as a Bildungsroman

The following is a guest post from Bryan McAllister-Grande, a third year PhD student at Harvard University studying the general education movement in the 1930s and ’40s in relation to ideas about liberalism.

Does Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club have more at stake than historians have usually recognized? Is it a version, not of intellectual history, but of a bildungsroman?

I realize that the question, at first, sounds a bit strange. How could a work of history or non-fiction be simultaneously part of a literary genre? Yet, Menand’s subtitle may be revealing: The Metaphysical Club is not a history of ideas in America; it’s a “story” of ideas in America. The bildungsroman is a story about stories; its goal is not only to depict the transformation of characters, but also to transform the reader.

Although it had its foundations in 16th century theology and the work of Leibniz and Herder, the first full definition of the bildungsroman is typically attributed to Dilthey:

A regulated development within the life of the individual is observed, each of its stages has its own intrinsic value and is at the same time the basis for a higher stage. The dissonances and conflicts of life appear as the necessary growth points through which an individual must pass on his way to maturity and harmony.i

The Metaphysical Club takes place in stages. The first deals with the overthrow of pre-Civil War ideas and the excitement, confusion, and crisis this causes for the characters involved – and for the country as a whole. The characters undergo conflict, but they harmonize this conflict into a new understanding about the way ideas work. In the process, friendships, mentors, and fathers are discarded in order to arrive at an independent selfhood. In the process, liberalism is also born anew.

The genre is also supposed to further the reader’s bildung. It emerged in late eighteenth-century Germany as “the expression of a particular kind of bourgeois humanism…the urgency of their concern is a measure of the anguish with which they perceived the growing threat of narrowness and specialization in the society around them,” according to Martin Swales.ii Does Menand have a similar humanistic task in mind? Is he concerned with specialization and narrowness in thinking?

The bildungsroman has many interpretations associated with it, but for simplicty’s sake, I distilled three characteristics from Swales’ The German Bildungsroman From Wieland to Hesse (1978). This of course does not exhaust the meanings of the genre but it’s a rough start. I’ll take up these three characteristics each in turn, followed by some comparisons to The Metaphysical Club. Then I’ll discuss some initial thoughts on Menand’s goals.

First, the characteristics:

1) Characters undergoing personal transformation.

In the German tradition, this transformation was achieved through culture and meant the “liberation of the mind from tradition and superstition.” Part of that “liberation of the mind” includes difficult breaks from the Father, mentors, and friends. It usually involved a group of Young Turks trying to overthrow old dogmas and ideals. As Hegel defined the genre, “Especially young men are these new knights who have to make their way, and who regard it as a misfortune that there are in any shape or form such things as family, bourgeois society…It is their aim to punch a whole in the order of things, to change the world.” Hegel also notes how many of these characters get the “corners knocked off” or become philistine “just like the others.”iii

The Metaphysical Club opens as a story about fathers and continues as a story about mentors and friends. It describes Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.’s break from his father, Oliver, Sr. – who angered the younger Holmes for his flaming of “Republican sabers” and his conviction in the superiority of certain truths. Holmes criticizes his father’s superficial generalism; for Holmes, “generalism is the enemy of seriousness.”iv William James, similarly, has a complicated relationship with his father that he seeks to both honor and transcend. Charles Peirce is slightly different – his goal is to carry out his father’s anguished attempts to design a “perfect intelligence” that could know the universe through logic. Ultimately, he gets the “corners knocked off” him. John Dewey’s father is seldom mentioned, but in this case his spiritual fathers clearly seem to be James Marsh and the Vermont Transcendentalists. Dewey evolves when he overcomes his allegiance to them and to Hegel, with the help of his good friend Jane Addams.

Are there other possible Fathers presiding over The Metaphysical Club in a symbolic sense? God is an obvious candidate. The Founding Fathers are possible, too. The Metaphysical Club is about the reconstruction of liberalism or republicanism after the Civil War – it is, to use T. Jackson Lears’ type of terminology – a rebirth. The characters as a whole need to develop a new way of thinking to both preserve the democratic experiment and the possibility of religion. And they anguished over doing it, often experiencing depression or (actual or symbolic) death. Death – the death of the Civil War, of James’ brother Wilky, of Peirce, of Dewey’s son, of James himself – permeates the book.

The characters also need to break from mentors and friends. This happens quite frequently in the book. James breaks from Holmes. James breaks from Agassiz. The dissolution of the Metaphysical Club itself and the split from the positivist Wright frame the book. The complicated relationships with Peirce jets it forward. The struggle with personal and intellectual and religious “demons.” And so on and so on. I am not sure where Menand ends up on the final stages. He seems to suggest that, as far as cultural pluralism was concerned, that the pragmatists may have turned into philistines.

2) A method of teaching the reader – of fostering the reader’s ownbildung

This is an essential characteristic of the genre. Like other literary genres, but in a very special way, the bildungsroman seeks to educate the reader, both about how ideas operate and about specific ideas. Ideas are important, the bildungsroman claims, but they should never be taken out of their historical development and mutations. “History is the vital domain in which the idea and the empirical reality, interact,” Swales summarizes of the genre’s philosophy of history.v The book examines this interaction repeatedly, most notably in the sections on Darwin, the Hetty Robinson case, and the Pullman strike. In all three cases, ideas are never presented as cohesive units floating through history. They always touch some kind of ground, and their effectiveness is never immediately given.

On a different level, I think Menand alsoseeks to break down the still-present (although fading) line between intellectual history and the creative act. Objectivity and rationality, however transformed and re-configured, is still arguable the goal for most intellectual historians. We may talk about “communities of discourse” now, and we may deal with emotion and personalities and death, but we still mainly construct arguments that read rationally and systematically. Perhaps Menand, drawing on his own educational roots and frustrations, wants to break that dualism down. I have talked to some young historians who said they were inspired by The Metaphysical Club to write differently, and it will be interesting to see what form this takes in future years.

The more specific idea could be any educative theme that the author seeks to educate his reading public about. The more specific theme here seems to be the relativity of ideas itself and the moral (and perhaps religious and political) issues that relativity and cultural pluralism continue to bring up in our contemporary world. We must break from our established traditions, Menand asserts, and pragmatism offers a clue – not an answer, but a clue, to what was gained and what was lost.

3) I will discuss this one very briefly, but a conferring of “poetic serious on what was hitherto an improbable narrative of colorful episodic events” and adiachronicnarrative follows from the bildungsroman philosophy of history.

As Swales puts it, “linearity of plot occasionally gives way to symbolically patterned recurrence.”vi In the case of Menand, we might re-write this to say often. There are so many interconnections, wonderful tangents, and symbolic patterns in the book that it would be difficult to do any justice to them. But notice how all of these tangents form a unified whole – few, if any, are treated as isolated events. For Menand, it is poetically important as well as historically accurate that Alain Locke and Horace Kallen are in the audience when James gives his Hibbert Lectures. For it allows Menand to connect pragmatism to cultural pluralism in a way that might normally deserve some scrutiny.

If you are with me thus far, we might ask – if Menand consciously crafted his book as a contemporary bildungsroman, why would he do so? I would be interested in hearing others’ thoughts. I think there is some historical explanation to consider, having intimately to do with the evolution of the modern university and the place of the humanities. Menand might be tired of his own field’s past traditions – New Humanism, New Criticism, Post-Structuralism, and the like. He may want to transcend his field’s past feuds with history. But perhaps he also wants to keep the central humanist quest in tact – the idea that poetic and emotional and the transcendent are just as equal to, if not more important than, the scientific, rational, and particular. Ideally, in any human society, the two are always engaged in a dialogic relationship. The role of the poet-critic, like the philosopher or the historian, is essentially to teach.

I took a seminar with Menand at Harvard last year. He is one of the nicest and most gracious teachers I’ve ever encountered. Despite his humble nature, he still exudes an old-fashioned sort of intellectual force. Maybe we need some more of that these days. I think Menand asks us to re-consider the liberal experiment anew in a time when ideas and intellectuals seem less important than they once did.

i Quoted in Martin Swales, The German Bildungsroman from Wieland to Hesse (Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 3.

ii Swales, p. 15.

iii Quoted in Swales, p. 20-21.

iv Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), p. 45-46, 57-58.

v Swales, p. 16.

vi Ibid, p. 30.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. I think you make some excellent points in regards to how we should read “The Metaphysical Club.” I’d certainly never thought of it that way!

  2. Bryan, thanks for this meditation on Menand.

    What’s striking to me is how much Menand’s book might be a part of the bildungsroman of many U.S. intellectual historians. It certainly is part of mine. I read The Metaphysical Club very early in my PhD program, and I understood what I could understand then — which was probably enough at the time, but not nearly what I would get out of it now on a re-read.

    And we do re-read things. A lot. History — especially intellectual history, I think — is recursive. We are a conservative lot, and we tend to go back to the same wells that have yielded that clear, cool water, running deep and strong, that makes the millwheel turn.

    I have written elsewhere and elsewhen about the experience of reading and re-reading the same text — two, three, four times — until at last you see it clear. But of course all the time we’re drawing from the stream, we’re carried along by it. So the seeing, the clarity, lasts only for as long as you can get it on paper. And then it’s part of the current for somebody downriver — even if that somebody is just you or me, further on down the line.


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