Friday, September 3, 2010

Stories of Ideas/Science in America

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?

2 comments:

  1. Hi Dan - I really do like this Podcast, and I agree with you on its superiority to the CW focus of the book itself.

    However, I don't think Holmes' continued memorialization of his soldiering is the best check against the Civil-War-Epistemology argument -- I think it's the one he acknowledges, which is that the War didn't mean all that much to his other central figures. Either way, I like the Darwin line a lot more, and was glad to hear it here.

    As to your question about the national and transnational components of the story, and of histories of science/ideas in America more generally, I think Menand doesn't deliver on the transnational as much as he could or even as much as you imply he does -- but I don't think that's bad. Can't you be interested in the career of ideas (wherever they come from) in a particular context (the US, say?) because of your interest in the interplay between those particular ideas and that particular context?

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  2. Menand does very little with the transnational career of pragmatism, or the extra-US forces shaping it. He's no Francesca Bordogna.

    But I think the Agassiz chapter and the Law of Errors chapter do a pretty good job of using secondary literature to think about how Menand's characters pick up ideas from the US and Europe and create a place for them in very particular contexts in the US. Are we saying the same thing?

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