And welcome to...
The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand (2001). Okay, I must begin by admitting that I did not finish this book. I was 20 pages short when I had to leave it behind, due to an... altercation with a library security guard. I promise I will get back to it at some time and finish it. In the meantime, though, I don't believe anything was going to happen in those last 20 pages to change my overall impression.
This book is meant to be a history of thought and ideas in 19th c. America. Obviously this is a big topic (what with there being no internet or TV in the 19th c., people had plenty of time to think) so Menand concentrates on four major players: Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles Peirce, and John Dewey and their influences on, respectively, legal thought, psychology, mathematics and philosophy, and education. Needless to say, their lives intersect with many other influential 19th c. figures, such as Louis Agassiz, Jane Addams and Eugene Debs, and many others whose names escape me right now because I'm rather tired and do not have the book with me to check (see intro).
Menand's main idea seems to be that almost every idea and philosophy developed in this time period was an attempt to wrestle with evolution via Darwin and the aftermath of the Civil War. The idea of being a scientist as we know it was rather new in the 19th c. (I think the term scientist didn't really come into use until about the 1820s) and science, that is the use of observation, evidence, and experimentation to understand the world sat uneasily with these very Christian men. Much of the philosophies and beliefs developed here are attempts to reconcile the logical world of science with the desire for religion. Needless to say, this makes for some tortuous thinking. I have not studied philosophy, but my untrained mind would suspect that sound beliefs are not constructed by choosing a result and then jamming, pounding and stretching logic and evidence to fit that result. Anyway, these men were preoccupied with questions of free will, the origins of cause, race and culture (the ideas behind these last two being incredibly cringe-inducing). All kinds of schools of thought are presented--pragmatism, American Transcendentalism, the Vermont School, the Chicago School. There are Wundtians, Hegelians, all kinds of -ians, etc., etc.
Menand explains all of these in a remarkably lucid manner that even the most philosophically impaired can understand. There is a lot to learn here, and it is interesting to see the development of thought, and the role played in that development by human frailties and individual quirks. This is a fine book that deals easily and clearly with important, often difficult subjects. That said, I feel no passion whatsoever for it.
(Then again, maybe all my current inner turmoil is getting to me and maybe I have exhausted my supply of any feeling I might bestow on this book. Sigh.)