The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America, by Louis Menand
This was actually a re-read of a classic of about 15 years ago, but that I had not previously reviewed here. I have found the period from 1865 through the end of the 19th century a fascinating time of intellectual development in America. Many studies almost skip from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the age of Teddy Roosevelt in the Spanish-American War, but in fact, the evolution of life in America during this period was transformative at many levels beyond the country’s well-documented and rapid industrialization, not least of which was in the development of what has been called America’s only original philosophical idea, that of “pragmatism”. Menand takes us on an ambitious ride through about five decades of thought, interaction, and dialogue among thinkers and intellectual leaders, including Oliver Wendell Holmes, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Louis Agassiz, and John Dewey, along with a number of other somewhat lesser players who had their own influence on the American mind and some of whom actually met as a group called the Metaphysical Club established in Boston in 1872. And he presents this story of American ideas as the story of pragmatism, the roots, influential events, twists and turns, and development of which is his primary theme. Essential reading on the development of ideas that shaped the American mind of the 20th century, some for the better, in my opinion, some not so.
The Man Who Knew: The Life and Times of Alan Greenspan, by Sebastian Mallaby
A friend gave me a signed copy of this book early this year and, frankly, it was not one that would have been on my “to read” list, but I finally got around to it this past summer, and it was actually very rewarding. As a former banker, the best thing about this book was that it is good history of U. S. monetary policy and behind the scenes Federal Reserve policy and politics over the past 40 years, completely covering my career in banking and actually providing a comprehensive overview of Fed policy that had been a lived experience for me “on the ground” in the policy debates of the day. But I also enjoyed getting to know more about Greenspan the man, who was more fascinating than I had thought from knowing him only through the daily headlines. I was particularly interested in his relationship with Ayn Rand and how her radical libertarian thought and objectivist philosophy had a continuing influence on his thinking as a four-term Federal Reserve Chairman. A well done biography.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J. D. Vance
Again, here is a book that, despite its overwhelming popularity, was not on my list. But during the first week of the recent flood displacement, I picked it up to kill a little time in the hotel. It was a fairly breezy and fun read in some ways, very depressing in others, and it occurred to me almost a companion to Coming Apart, Charles Murray’s sociological study of a few years ago which details the trending plight of white Americans in their prime years of 30-49 over the period from 1960-2010. Vance’s description of his dysfunctional poor white Appalachian family brings to high relief the severe cultural decline portrayed in the data produced by Murray’s study and as the book jacket says, he tells the story of what a social, regional, and class decline truly feels like when you are born with it hanging around your neck. In reading this book, I couldn’t help but think that these are Donald Trump’s people, his political base, and frankly, to many of them, he appears as their only hope. I also thought of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quote, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself”. In the case of J. D. Vance’s people and the folks Charles Murray has studied, I wonder.
The Kingdom of Speech, by Tom Wolfe
With this book, Tom Wolfe takes on the entire evolution edifice and makes the bold statement that human speech–not evolution–is responsible for humanity’s complex societies and achievements. He notes that language in all its forms advanced man far beyond the boundaries of natural selection, allowing him to think abstractly and plan ahead; measure things and record measurements for later; comprehend space and time, God, freedom, and immortality; and remove items from nature to create artifacts, whether axes or algebra. No animal has any of these capabilities. He devotes quite some space in this small book in reminding us of the history of the theory of evolution and the competing claims of Darwin and Wallace, then fast forwards to the linguists of our day and the bold research of anthropologist Daniel Everett, whose work has substantiated the grounds for denying the current wisdom advanced by evolutionists that language is hardwired in humans. In so doing, he highlights the mounting evidence that celebrity linguist Noam Chomsky’s long-standing notion that language is “innate” is almost certainly just flat wrong and that language has not evolved from anything, a conclusion that to me seems to put the entire macro-evolution paradigm in question. This is provocative stuff and, so far, Chomsky and company have no answers.
The House of Truth: A Washington Political Salon and the Foundations of American Liberalism, by Brad Snyder
One look at the title would suggest that this book is a close companion to The Metaphysical Club, and that is true in a large sense. The players are different, although Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is very much alive and well in both networks, but the venue here is primarily the policy world of Washington, D. C. and the train of thought moves past the philosophical concept of pragmatism and into its implications for the development of liberalism, understood in a post-classical sense, and in its application in public policy. The principal players here, in addition to Holmes, are Robert Valentine, Winfred Denison, future Justice Felix Frankfurter, journalist Walter Lippmann, future Justice Louis Brandeis, and sculptor Gutzon Borglum. Their headquarters was a row house on 19th Street near Dupont Circle in Washington, where several of the principles lived from time to time while entertaining and hosting wide ranging discussions among a “who’s who” of intellectuals, government officials, journalists, and policy advocates over the first couple of decades of the 20th century. Snyder weaves together the thinking of the core group of regulars at this “house of truth” and how it shifted from the ideas of progressivism into what we now know as the liberalism of the mid to late 20th century. Again, if you’re into American ideas and how they have evolved, this is great stuff.