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Lloyd Eby's review of Louis Menand's book The Metaphysical Club interests me because I was a member of two intellectual clubs. However, I do not think the Peirce club was really about the importance of ideas, as Menand asserts, and I doubt that its members were giants of American thought, unless one believes that the standard for being a giant is lower in America than in Europe. What Charles Sanders Peirce is renowned for and why he is regarded by many as the greatest American philosopher is his development of pragmatism.

That philosophers work with ideas and concepts goes back to classical Greece. The issue that confronted Peirce, and countless philosophers before him, is the relationship between concepts and reality. The world in which Peirce carried on his work was that of the breakdown of the Hegelian system, the last gasp of the millennial quest for necessarily true knowledge. Thus, Peirce was concerned not with the importance of ideas but with finding a philosophical ground that allowed ideas to convey knowledge.

And the idea that these men were giants, except possibly for Peirce, is highly overdone. James played a significant, but not unique, role in the development of psychology as an empirical discipline. Perhaps he was very important in this respect but far from being a giant who loomed above contemporaries. I doubt that Peirce had much intellectual respect for him, although Peirce's ambiguous circumstances made James' friendship important. James misunderstood Peirce's thought so thoroughly that, in order to separate the concept of pragmatism from James' puerile "cash value" concept, Peirce coined the solecism "pragmaticism."

Holmes had a great career as a jurist, but it owed more to his charismatic character and the eventual popularity of his opinions than to the acuity of his legal reasoning. And if Dewey was more than the Vermont farmer some of his envious colleagues accused him of being, there is little if anything in his philosophical writings that is of more than minor interest. His social philosophy still has adherents, but I believe that many, and perhaps most, now believe that his educational ideas did more harm than good.

The truth of the matter is that there are few giants: Newton, Einstein, and perhaps Maxwell and Planck in physics; Plato, Aristotle, Hegel, and perhaps Peirce in philosophy. And all had feet of clay. Newton was a spiritualist. Einstein was a fool in politics. Aristotle thought that men had more teeth than women and that some were naturally slaves.

There is a lot to be said for honoring people who are less than giants, even if, as is more often than not the case, the awards usually go to dullards who are chosen by their intellectual peers. This ambiguous practice keeps alive the idea of excellence and persuades the rest of us to keep our noses to the grindstone. Out of this spur to effort, and the great mass of mediocrity and dreck it produces, comes the occasional touch of brilliance, although not greatness, that justifies the effort. Emphasis on honoring endeavor has a downside as well. It spurs outsized egotism and one-sidedness in character.

The idea of an intellectual club is a fascinating one. I was in two-- and there were no giants in either, although there were outstanding intellects in each. One consisted of the fellows of the second year of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences on the Stanford campus, in which I was fortunate to have as colleagues Howard Raiffa, Jacob Marschak, Ross Ashby, Shmuel Eisenstadt, and Leonid Hurwicz.

I joined the second when I left the center for the University of Chicago in 1956. I immediately joined a Saturday lunch roundtable that was scintillating. Its regular members included Leo Szilard, one of the key figures in the development of the nuclear age and biophysics, Nobel laureate in physics Harold Urey, Nandor Balacz, and Dick Meier.

Szilard dominated the lunches, spouting ideas and pounding the table. Ninety-nine out of a hundred were crazy but the hundredth was brilliant. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Szilard fled the city with supplies for an isolated area. The afternoon prior to Kennedy's speech, Grant McConnell asked me if I knew that Kennedy would be speaking that night. No, I had not heard that. What might it be on, he asked. I said that was simple. The president was going to announce that there were Soviet missiles in Cuba and demand that they be taken out. That night, the student newspaper called me and asked for my comment on the war crisis. I said there was no crisis, that Khrushchev would remove the missiles.

The McNamara conference in Cuba a few years back got fed the yarn that the Soviet military commanders had authority to use nuclear weapons. I knew this to be bunkum at the time, as was most of what McNamara believed. Since then, Soviet documents have revealed that the local commander asked for authority to use tactical nuclear weapons and was turned down by the Secretariat. Kennedy's decision to put judgmental boobs like McNamara and Rusk in positions of power was a monumental mistake. It led to blunders in policy that were outrageously costly in lives and money.

No giants in the Saturday roundtable, and we all had feet of clay. But for the 10 or so years that the roundtable lasted, it was a wonderful intellectual experience. It has colored my view of the University of Chicago ever since.

--Morton A. Kaplan

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Title Annotation:intellectual clubs
Author:Kaplan, Morton A.
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2001
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