Review: ‘The Club: Johnson, Boswell, And The Friends Who Shaped An Age

What began as an admirable effort to show the wide ranging influence of an eighteenth century London club whose members included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, David Garrick, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Joshua Reynolds, and Edward Gibbon rapidly devolved into an unsatisfying biography of Boswell and Johnson.

On the other hand, I learned that the classic nursery rhyme, ‘Do you know the muffin man,’ likely has salacious organization and I was inspired to do some googling and found that you can rent Boswell’s ancestral Scottish manse for your holiday.

The Metaphysical Club

What might be most interesting about The Metaphysical Club is that it purports to be about how figures like Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr, William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey (among others) created a new and modern American from the ashes of the Civil War, it manages to never explicate James’ nor Peirce’s nor Dewey’s philosophy nor that the first two are both considered the founders of American pragmatism (James association with it is mentioned once or twice; Pierce never) nor that Dewey’s has work might be connected to it over the course of three fourths of the book. Instead I found a series of frustrating threads, connecting Holmes to James and James to Peirce but not Peirce to Holmes in any meaningful sense. Supposed schools of thought like the Burlington transcendentalists (shouldn’t transcendentalist be capitalized, too, in this case, if it’s a legitimate, albeit no longer extant, school of American thought?) appear, are discussed in not insignificant length and then noted to be almost entirely meaningless to the topic and not influential at all. Jane Addams is the only woman noted beyond her relationship to a man and she gets briefly shoehorned into a lengthy rumination on Dewey’s Chicago.

With just over one hundred pages remaining (out of almost 450, not including end notes), there is finally a chapter entitled ‘Pragmatisms’ that returns us to Holmes and James and other characters I had almost forgot at this point.

I will concede that this chapter, if expanded upon, would make a wonderful book.

The chapters which follow, less so. New figures are briefly introduced and no one gets enough attention (poor Alain Locke).

As a former unionist, I appreciate Menand giving us some examples of union organizing and actions, but it’s just another example of the maddening lack of a coherent narrative. American Philosophy discussed many of the same (and many more disparate) thinkers while still managing to make it all seem tied together (thankfully, not by the author’s apparent odiousness).

Hitchens On Paine

I felt a little bad reading this because I have a nice, inexpensive copy of The Rights of Man which I have never finished and here I am putting the cart before the horse and reading about it before actually reading it. I suppose that makes me like most readers of this book but, to be honest, I have always thought I was better than most people, at least as regards my reading habits, if not morally and hygenically.

We read Hitchens, of course, for Hitchens, regardless of the ostensible focus, but we can see the appeal: a polemicist and pamphleteer in the Enlightenment tradition who made a widely recognized contribution to the course of human events. In dedicating the book to the then president of a post-Saddam Iraq, he must have been hoping, somewhere, that one day he might be recognized in some small way as contributing to a similarly successful product, even if the years appear to have only proven him more wrong on that particular adventure than it seemed even when he wrote this.

I had never heard it before and won’t vouch for its provenance, except to express my belief that Hitchens would have made a good faith effort to examine its sources, but I love the anecdote about William Blake, the mystical poet, warning Paine, the (small ‘r’) republican pamphleteer, that he was in danger of arrest, inspiring the latter to immediately cross the water to revolutionary France.

Learning about Paine’s career was the fascinating. My own knowledge, prior, was rather thin. While no substitute for a biography by a professional biographer or historian, I am not likely to read one, so I’m glad that I got this brief look at his career.

‘Through Nature To God’ By John Fiske

Have you ever had one of those experiences where you agree with someone, but really wish you didn’t, because the person was so annoying?

That is how I felt about Through Nature to God.

How did I even come to this point? I was reading through a selected works of the great American philosopher, Josiah Royce, and came across some references to some other American philosophers from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including… John Fiske. I decided, foolishly, to look for him and found Through Nature to God.

Whether it was the unsupported leaps, the leaning on poorly understood science (giving, though, some allowance for the fact that our understanding has grown since Fiske was writing), or the references to Herbert Spencer, which always, to me, at least, carry a pungent whiff of social darwinism.

He argues that the biological sciences, mostly, though not exclusively, evolution, argue for  God. He does not make a particular argument for the Judeo-Christian God, but clearly for a theistic one.

While I do, personally, see God working, at a distance, through evolution, his strident tones and arch language make it all seem… icky.

The best thing I can say about it… it’s a short book.

Varieties Of Religious Experience


I thought that I’d read this before, but now I’m not so sure. Surely, I wasn’t thinking of Henry? More likely, I was imposing some stereotypes and prejudices onto my memories.

What my memories left out was how gentle and credulous the scientist was of religious experience and feelings, most especially towards a sort of combination of positive thinking and what we would call ‘new age faith healing.’ He is slightly less gentle towards of forms of Christian belief and gives the impression of personally being a vaguely agnostic Methodist (except when receiving positive energies from new age healers).

James, when speaking about knowledge, frequently uses the term ‘warranted.’ I bring this up because of Alvin Plantinga’s advocacy of using the word ‘warrant’ instead of ‘justified’ when defining knowledge. I am cruelly and inadequately simplifying here, but one reason is that he didn’t like the moralism implied in ‘justified,’ at least not in an epistemological context. How much did Plantinga take from James’ gentle treatment of religious feeling and his use of ‘warranted?’

Things Overlooked

Not really adding anything, because I’m not in a great position to go back and re-read and re-examine, but how, when I was reading Julian, did I not think to go back and look at it Pater’s Marius!

Both are about Roman aristocrats from late antiquity with pretensions towards philosophy. Marius, of course, goes from living as a pagan (or, as Julian would have called, a Hellenic) to becoming a Christian, whereas Julian was raised in a rapidly Christianizing empire, but chose to adopt the gods of his ancestors.

A missed opportunity. I did see Marius sitting on my shelf, however, and maybe I will try and go back while Julian is more or less fresh in my mind.