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Book Forum: HISTORY   |    
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America ? Karl Popper—The Formative Years, 1902–1945: Politics and Philosophy in Interwar Vienna
RICHARD D. CHESSICK, M.D., Ph.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2001;158:2100-2103. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.158.12.2100
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By Louis Menand. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001, 546 pp., $27.00. • By Malachi Haim Hacohen. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press, 2000, 610 pp., $54.95.

Both of these books give us information about our postmodern era, one in which the question of truth has become a central issue in philosophy. This movement perhaps was initiated by Nietzsche in his famous preface to Beyond Good and Evil(1), asking what it would be like if truth were a woman who was fickle, changeable, and had to be continually seduced. The whole epistemological trend in the 20th century has been away from foundationalism, or what Popper called "essentialism," the belief that through the use of intuition (e.g., see Bergson’s philosophy), or the "animal faith" or "intuition" of Santayana, or the "ciphers" of Karl Jaspers and his "philosophical faith" (illustrated in my recent publication [2]), it would be possible to identify permanent essential truths in the sciences and in the field of ethics as well as other humanistic disciplines.

Both books under review here use essentially the same methodology and assumptions, although they present two incompatible views on the nature of "truth"—that of the pragmatists and that of Karl Popper. The two authors, Louis Menand and Malachi Haim Hacohen, view the formation of theories by predominant thinkers as evolving from the historical events of their times and from their specific cultural milieu. So both books pay a great deal of attention to each milieu and to the enormous variety of historical influences, including war, that they believe had a crucial role in the formation of the personalities, presuppositions, methodologies, and theory formation of the thinkers under discussion.

Louis Menand, Professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, is an experienced writer, offering us felicitous prose that moves along at a pleasant clip. In spite of its catchy title, The Metaphysical Club is not about metaphysics and not about clubs; it is about contemporary conceptions of truth and the relationship of the observer to the observed. These topics were addressed by a group of very loosely associated thinkers after the Civil War in the United States. Their ideas were brought to later fruition in the well-known work of John Dewey, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, and Charles Peirce. These men, along with others, belonged to an informal discussion group that met for a few months in Cambridge, Mass., in 1872 and called itself the "Metaphysical Club" out of irony; these thinkers were actually engaged in the demolishing of Hegelian metaphysics and replacing it with various precursors of what came to be known as American pragmatism.

Menand’s basic approach is not to offer a book on philosophy but, rather, to trace the personal and social situations that he believes led these seminal thinkers to lose faith in "certainty." This approach, of course, carries the risk of committing the well-known genetic fallacy in philosophy; furthermore, the thinkers in the Metaphysical Club were very loosely associated intellectually. Menand’s style of anecdotal writing allows the book for the most part to hang together, although at times it tends to go off in tangents that are only barely relevant to the subject. This results in a lot of name dropping that can become tedious.

Menand’s fundamental thesis is that the Civil War destroyed the intellectual culture of the Northern United States just as World War I destroyed the intellectual culture of Europe. For example, the lesson Holmes took from the Civil War was that certitude leads to violence, and this, although Holmes never specifically accepted pragmatism, caused him in his subsequent judicial life to attempt to facilitate the expression of opposing and different opinions. In Menand’s view, Holmes, Peirce, and James are linked together in their contention that ideas are tools for getting tasks accomplished rather than more or less "true" representations of any fixed or essential "reality" outside the observer.

These thinkers viewed human mentation as forming ideas and beliefs in order to cope with a world that is contingent and ruled by Darwinian chance rather than providential design. Thus, Holmes came to characterize all believing as essentially betting: since we cannot know what is right or true, we must make bets based on experience. So William James is quoted as saying in 1907, "Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events" (p. 353). Pragmatism, according to Menand, was the prevalent American philosophy from the 1890s through the 1930s; it fell out of favor in the 1950s, but, he says, it has emerged into prominence again along with the end of the cold war.

Although the book contains 100 pages of notes documenting his research, Menand’s narrative is not hard reading and offers a pleasant educational experience. Whether one agrees with his thesis about the origins of pragmatic thought and its importance is another question. There is no doubt that Holmes in his Civil War experiences lost his belief in beliefs and developed an idea about the limits of ideas. According to Menand, Holmes "thought that rightness and wrongness are functions of the circumstances in which our lives happen to be embedded" (p. 63). Holmes is quoted as saying in 1918, "Men to a great extent believe what they want to" (p. 63). How true!

The authentic genius behind the pragmatic thrust was the eccentric and self-defeating Charles Sanders Peirce. Menand convincingly traces the flailings and flounderings of this unfortunately disturbed individual as he careened from defeat to despair while at the same time remaining almost fanatically devoted to the basic problems of philosophy. Even the efforts of his politically well-connected friend William James were unsuccessful in establishing Peirce’s academic career, which Peirce himself so often torpedoed. James was finally forced to raise money to ensure Peirce’s literal survival.

In 1879 Peirce began another Metaphysical Club, and John Dewey became an active member. Much of the latter half of Menand’s book is taken up with the work and contributions of Dewey. As Menand cleverly puts it, "In later years Dewey deliberately adopted an antirhetorical style, in the belief that readers should be persuaded by the cogency of the thought rather than the felicities of the prose. He was uncommonly successful in getting rid of the felicities" (p. 304). Some of the differences in the generally pragmatic approach of these four thinkers are also spelled out nicely by Menand. The bottom line of the pragmatism of all of them was,

There is no noncircular set of criteria for knowing whether a particular belief is true, no appeal to some standard outside the process of coming to the belief itself. For thinking just is a circular process, in which some end, some imagined outcome, is already present at the start of any train of thought. (p. 353)

One of the main thrusts of the pragmatic movement was against the much more popular movement of experimental psychophysiology, a positivistic approach to the human mind that allowed lots of measurements and statistics but simply left out the human. This problem is still with us today! However, even Menand recognizes that pragmatism has serious deficiencies as a school of thought. It provides no way to judge whether an interest is worth pursuing, nor does it explain where we get our desires, a crucial question asked by Sigmund Freud and others. It has no explanation for why people develop wants and beliefs that can lead them to their own destruction; this does not seem to be mentation in the service of coping and adaptation! In spite of this, Menand claims that pragmatism is again being taken seriously in the United States, and anyone familiar with the writings of the prominent philosopher Richard Rorty (3, 4) might agree. I highly recommend this well-written book to all who are interested in what constitutes truth and how the ideas and beliefs that underlie scientific investigation and determine its results are developed. I have focused elsewhere (5) on these issues in psychiatry and psychotherapy.

In the second book reviewed here, Malachi Haim Hacohen clearly idealizes Karl Popper and considers him one of the greatest philosophers of all time. His book deals with the most famous of Popper’s publications, especially The Open Society and Its Enemies(6) and The Logic of Scientific Discovery(7). The former was published in 1945 while Popper was an émigré in New Zealand, and the latter was published in 1935 in Austria, so the book deals with the "young" Popper, from his birth in 1902 to 1945 (Popper died in 1994). Hacohen is Associate Professor of History at Duke University, and his intellectual upbringing began at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and continued at Columbia University; this book is an extension of his Ph.D. dissertation. In addition to doing a great deal of scholarly research, Hacohen interviewed Karl Popper in January 1984 for 4 hours, but it is not clear that this was a particularly useful experience. Hacohen specifically states that he will not write a second volume about the "mature" Popper, who was born and raised in Vienna, emigrated to New Zealand in 1937, and settled in England in 1946.

Hacohen views Popper’s thought as superseding that of Dewey, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein as a more effective version of nonfoundationalist (nonessentialist) options and as the best solution to postmodern dilemmas. Popper is distinguished from the poststructuralists and pragmatists by his belief that we can approach the truth from experience, especially from errors. Popper attempted to apply his theory of how science ought to progress to the methodology of all fields of endeavor. The method of science, as Popper saw it, was the creative production of hypotheses that could lead to predictions that in turn could be verified or negated by experience. So Popper regarded any discipline that does not lead to empirically verifiable predictions, such as Marxism or psychoanalysis, as a pseudoscience.

Popper made quite an impression when he first put forth these ideas; to a certain extent they were Popper’s reaction to the famous Vienna Circle of logical positivist philosophers. Hacohen recognizes that he was "writing as much a book on interwar Viennese culture as on Popper" (p. 8). Hacohen’s book abounds with innumerable names of thinkers who may or may not have influenced Popper, and the average reader will have difficulty in identifying many of them unless he or she is quite well versed in philosophy and the social sciences. This makes this very scholarly book rather difficult reading; at times it seems excessively long.

Popper was an extremely unpleasant person. He had no tolerance for differing ideas and was totally preoccupied with his own narcissistic interests, making enemies wherever he had to work with colleagues. He was extremely inhibited in the area of sexuality, advocating a prudish, outmoded morality. He hated psychoanalysis, and he was utterly intolerant of the needs of others unless they could serve some purpose for him. His wife devoted herself to him as a "selfobject," typing and retyping his many manuscripts and living in exile in New Zealand with him in a most unhappy state. Hacohen adds, "It is difficult to imagine another woman sustaining a life-long relationship with this difficult man" (p. 179). Popper’s two sisters were also rather disturbed; one committed suicide and the other seems to have been promiscuous and unattached.

Popper suffered throughout his life from bouts of depression and hypochondriasis, although he lived to an advanced age. He was a disturbed, difficult youth and began a number of projects that he never finished; this continued even in the first years after World War I, "for Popper a period of loss of direction and constant experimentation" (p. 107). One of his projects was teaching; apparently a student under his care had a fatal accident that seemed to affect Popper in an existential way. After that occurrence, which Hacohen calls the "1925 tragedy" (p. 131), Popper avoided political engagement and focused on his intellectual interests and his professional career, ending his years of rebellion, antibourgeois life style, and unconventional life pattern. Mercifully, Hacohen, a professional historian, spares us from speculative psychoanalytic interpretations of these events. He simply tells us that Popper’s life "represented a singular fusion of hope and anxiety, openness to change and attachment to habit, critical awareness of one’s self and mistrust of friends who refused him blind protection" (p. 148). In The Logic of Scientific Discovery(7), Popper created a model of natural science; he extended this model to social sciences in both The Open Society and Its Enemies(6) and his methodological treatise, The Poverty of Historicism(8).

Popper believed that no scientific theory could ever be conclusively verified or declared true. All we can do is repeatedly make predictions and attempt to verify these predictions and so approach conviction about the correctness of the theory in an asymptotic manner. Scientific theories, he says, are simply regulative ideals or logical fictions constructed for the purpose of deducing predictions for their testing. This was the fundamental idea that Popper followed in his various writings: all science is falsifiable and hypothetical. The demarcation between science and metaphysics is simply whether the theory can be falsified; so he asked of both Freud and Adler, "Under what conditions could your theory be falsified?" If there were no such conditions, then from Popper’s point of view the theory could not be called a science and was in the area of metaphysics. He differed from the positivists in that he was not trying to eliminate metaphysics and philosophy but simply trying to prevent the contamination of the sciences with metaphysics—to keep them separate on the principle of demarcation that he proposed.

For Popper, science progresses not by discovering essential truths but by eliminating errors. The basic statements of science, which are there for the purpose of predictions and testing, are simply relative, transitional, and conventional. Hacohen accepts Popper’s philosophy and insists, "This was the end of foundationist philosophy" (p. 231). He argues that "Popper got it right" (p. 235) but at the same time admits that "antifoundationism has become today almost an article of faith" (p. 234). Hacohen speaks only briefly of some of the pitfalls of Popper’s theory, but philosophers of science have generally considered Popper’s description of how science works to be inaccurate; Kuhn’s description (9) has largely supplanted it. What is felicitous about Popper’s thought is his recognition that speculation and faith cannot be eradicated from science: "All empirical sciences develop historically from metaphysics" (p. 247). Theories are creative activities; what makes them science, says Popper, is if they lead to predictions that can be verified or falsified.

Popper was extremely grandiose. He was surprised that his book on the logic of scientific discovery did not change the course of the world overnight, and he regarded the adoption of his book on the open society as a necessity for the survival of the human race. He was an "eternal dissenter and intellectual loner" (p. 303) and suffered from a persecution disorder: "In postwar years, he was convinced that an academic conspiracy existed to diminish his philosophy" (p. 303). His colleagues recognized him as a genius but found his personality extremely offensive and were reluctant to help him. What gave him an enduring name was his critique of Marxism, which was used by politicians as a weapon to depreciate Soviet Communism, something that was far from Popper’s intent. This was an instance of a book emerging in the cold war that was published in the right place at the right time, ensuring the popularity of its lucky author.

Popper decried "historicism," the insistence by some thinkers like Marx that history has a pattern and a scientifically predictable development with inevitable results. Popper attacked the use of this kind of thinking in an attempt to create utopias. However, Hacohen writes, "Most classicists regarded Popper’s totalitarian Plato as scandalous; Hegel scholars dismissed his Hegel as a myth; and Marxists attacked him as a liberal apologist" (p. 383). Popper’s move to England facilitated his rise to fame, but, Hacohen tells us,

He became progressively isolated among British philosophers. It did not take long before his tactless conduct brushed against their easy sociability. Many admired his seriousness and abilities but found him insufferable. (p. 525)

Popper became a fellow of the British Academy in 1958 and was knighted in 1965. His students "found him unreceptive to any published criticism and ungracious in his responses" (p. 537).

For the serious reader who is willing to pay close attention, Karl Popper—The Formative Years, 1902–1945 offers a great reward because it provides the basis for an in-depth understanding of the still unresolved problems of what constitutes truth and what constitutes scientific endeavor. These issues, which in the 19th century were considered obvious and firmly established in the correspondence theory of truth, have now moved to the center of current philosophical and scientific debate. For psychiatrists and psychoanalysts they have immediate and very important ramifications, and each of us, whether we like it or not, will have to take a stance on what we consider to be "truth" or "facts" in our mental health sciences.

Nietzsche A: Beyond Good and Evil (1886). Translated by Kaufmann W. New York, Random House, 1966
 
Chessick R: Emotional Illness and Creativity. Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1999
 
Rorty R: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1979
 
Rorty R: Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1985
 
Chessick R: What Constitutes the Patient in Psychotherapy. Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson, 1992
 
Popper K: The Open Society and Its Enemies, vols 1, 2. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1971
 
Popper K: The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York, Harper & Row, 1965
 
Popper K: The Poverty of Historicism. New York, Harper & Row, 1964
 
Kuhn T: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1962
 
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References

Nietzsche A: Beyond Good and Evil (1886). Translated by Kaufmann W. New York, Random House, 1966
 
Chessick R: Emotional Illness and Creativity. Madison, Conn, International Universities Press, 1999
 
Rorty R: Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1979
 
Rorty R: Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1985
 
Chessick R: What Constitutes the Patient in Psychotherapy. Northvale, NJ, Jason Aronson, 1992
 
Popper K: The Open Society and Its Enemies, vols 1, 2. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1971
 
Popper K: The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York, Harper & Row, 1965
 
Popper K: The Poverty of Historicism. New York, Harper & Row, 1964
 
Kuhn T: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1962
 
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