The title of Louis Menand’s exhaustive book refers to a short-lived conversation society formed by a group of radical young intellectuals in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1872. Although there is no detailed record of their meetings, a sampling of its membership suggests that it was a singularly important convocation – the future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the philosophers John Dewey and Charles Peirce, and the psychologist William James were at one time or another part of the group. These four would go on to become the leading thinkers of their generation, creating the loose doctrine of thought known as ‘pragmatism ‘. From its humble beginnings in the banter of some idealistic young men, pragmatism became a way of thinking that would hold sway over America until well into the next century.
Two profoundly different factors informed these minds. The first was the recent carnage of the Civil War – Holmes was wounded twice, while the others had numerous acquaintances and relations cut down in the conflict. To each of these young men, the war was a sort of cultural terminus, after