The closing of the mind. The American civil war was about more than the preservation of the Union. It was a battle of ideas. By Kenan Malik

The Metaphysical Club: a story of ideas in America

Louis Menand<em> Flamingo, 480pp, £19.99</em>

"Humanity is perfectible, and it moves incessantly from less good to better, from ignorance to science, from barbarism to civilisation." So claimed the Larousse French Dictionary in 1875. "Faith in the law of progress," the dictionary concluded, "is the true faith of our century."

What a different world we live in today. After the 20th century, which witnessed two world wars, a cold war, Nazism and the Holocaust, it seems, to many, simply mad to talk of progress. Faith in certainty, so central to 19th-century thinking, has been replaced by the embrace of indeterminacy. In science, the certainties of the Newtonian universe have disappeared; in politics, certainties seem only to lead to murderous ideologies.

There have been many outstanding studies of this transformation of Victorian positivism into 20th- century angst, from H Stuart Hughes's Consciousness and Society to J W Burrow's more recent The Crisis of Reason. Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club joins that list.

Menand's book tells the story of the development of pragmatism, which is to philosophy what the western is to cinema and jazz is to music - a peculiarly American addition to the genre. It is not a conventional intellectual history. Rather, by interweaving the intellectual biographies of four key figures - the philosopher and logician Charles Peirce; the psychologist William James; the philosopher and educationist John Dewey; and the jurist and Supreme Court judge Oliver Wendell Holmes - Menand gives us a sense of how the American mind was reshaped at the turn of the century.

"What these four thinkers had in common," Menand suggests, "was not a group of ideas, but a single idea - an idea about ideas. They all believed that ideas are not 'out there' waiting to be discovered but are like tools - like forks and knives and microchips - that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves." Moreover, "they believed that ideas are social"; they develop not "according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment".

The Metaphysical Club is a seductively crafted work and compulsively readable. But it is deeply flawed, largely because pragmatism itself is deeply flawed, both as a philosophy and as a guide to politics. Menand does not want simply to tell the story of the emergence of pragmatism; he wants to make a case for its importance today. And in doing so, he reveals the weaknesses of his own thesis. Two 19th-century developments, one intellectual, the other political, were critical to the emergence of a pragmatic sensibility. The first was the publication, in 1859, of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. The second was the outbreak of the American civil war the following year.

For many Victorian thinkers, such as the social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, Darwinism helped confirm their already deeply held beliefs in the essentialist character of species and races, in the idea of history as inevitable progress, and in their view of the universe as entirely determinist. Pragmatists, however, drew different lessons from On the Origin of Species. What they found valuable in Darwinism was its stress on chance variation and its denial of teleology. In Darwin's theory, a trait is not good or bad; it is simply more or less useful in certain circumstances. Pragmatists claimed that the same was true of human beliefs.

Charles Peirce first developed pragmatism as a theory of meaning. In scientific work, he argued, the meaning of a proposition was determined by its experimental consequences. I believe that a sample before me is sodium. If my belief is true, then, given what I know about sodium, I can predict that it would ignite were I to drop it into water. The truth about my belief lies, therefore, in the observable consequences of my experimental action.

Peirce was a realist and a believer in scientific objectivity; he saw in pragmatism a road to impersonal and objective standards. William James, on the other hand, saw truth in a more personalised and subjective sense. A belief is true, he suggested, if holding it to be so is practically advantageous. Truth is simply a matter of "what pays by way of belief" in the course of human activity.

It is on James's version that contemporary pragmatists such as Richard Rorty draw, and on which Menand focuses. The conflation of truth and utility is, however, shot through with problems. It seems clear, for instance, that a belief can be useful, but also false. Belief in the literal word of Genesis presumably passed the utility test in pre-Darwinian Europe - which is why people held the belief. So should we consider creationism to be true prior to 1859, but false afterwards? More than 50 per cent of Americans still believe that the Bible provides a true account of the origins of humanity. Do we say, then, that creationism is true for Christian fundamentalists, but that Darwinism is true for atheists and liberals - and that there is no more to be said about which account is objectively true?

In conflating truth and utility, pragmatism denies the possibility of an objective conception of truth. Menand fails to consider the problems, both philosophical and practical, that arise from such denial. He equally fails to explore the problems that emerge from a pragmatic account of political action.

The key political experience for pragmatists was the civil war. Today, we tend to think of the war as having been waged both to abolish slavery and to defend the Union. At the time, however, northern unionists were very much at odds with the abolitionists. Unionists, although mostly opposed to slavery, were nevertheless willing to compromise on the issue in order to save the Union with the south. Abolitionists, on the other hand, were willing to forgo the Union to end slavery.

The unionists blamed the abolitionists' intransigent views for forcing the southern states to secede, and hence for pushing the north into a bloody conflict. Oliver Wendell Holmes began the war as an abolitionist, but ended it sympathetic to the unionist view.

Strong convictions, Holmes came to believe, inevitably create conflict. "Some kind of despotism is at the bottom of seeking for change," as he put it in a letter to the British socialist Harold Laski. Holmes came to accept that political beliefs should be judged simply according to their consequences, rather than their supposed truth. "The substance of the law at any given time," he wrote in his landmark work, The Common Law (1881), "pretty nearly corresponds, so far as it goes, with what is then understood to be convenient."

As such, for pragmatists, just as there are no objective truths, only useful beliefs, so there are no abstract political principles, only convenient ways of acting. But does Menand really believe that it would have been better for abolitionists to have kept their heads down, and for the north to have come to some kind of compromise with the south over slavery? The problem with the civil war was not that it was fought on too sharp a point of principle, but that the point of principle was not pushed far enough. The question of racial equality was never a real issue in the conflict. Hence, in the closing decades of the 19th century, segregation was able to return to the south in the form of the Jim Crow laws, and racism became entrenched in the north, particularly in response to immigration. America is still living with the legacy of a civil war that compromised on the issue of racial equality.

Pragmatism is an outlook that is both profoundly anti-intellectual and politically disempowering. Repudiating the idea that beliefs are true or false, and political principles good or bad, undermines the possibility of real inquiry of any kind, whether into the natural or the social world, and weakens the hope of social change. Which is probably why, as Menand rightly points out, the ideas of Peirce, James, Holmes and Dewey have found new purchase in these post-cold-war, post-ideological, postmodern times. Menand quotes approvingly Holmes's dictum that strong ideas are dangerous. Indeed they are. But that is also why they are so valuable.

An archive of Kenan Malik's work is available at www.kenanmalik.com