Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Flavor of the day? Not.

I finished The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand last night. It is sort of an intellectual history of the United States, covering the period right before the Civil War until about World War I. The main stars include Oliver Wendall Holmes, William James, Charles Pierce, and John Dewey. These guys were discussing many things that we assume are "new" today - the wisdom of crowds, complex adaptive systems, and the nature of uncertainty.

But their main collective contribution was the rejection of the idea of firm dogmas in favor of pragmatism. Their common realization of this was forged by their varied life experiences during an extraordinary period of US history. (Holmes was wounded several times in the Civil War but went back to the front each time to face horrifying conditions; meanwhile, James had no stomach for fighting and stayed home on the couch.)

In the words of a citizen reviewer on Amazon:
They realized that hewing to rigid principles and old certitudes was futile, even dangerous. Together, they created pragmatism, in which keeping the public debate and political process open to dissenting views trumps any underlying theoretical framework, which, after all, might be proven wrong by the next round of scientific research.
Many of us are drawn to rigid principles and sweeping theoretical frameworks, because in the short term they make life easier to understand and navigate. But Holmes, James, et al realized that the world is too complex to be described -- much less navigated or molded -- by any such certainties.

We should all keep this in mind next time we are seduced by the latest book or idea. And students starting a graduate program in any field would be especially well advised to read this book. It will help them avoid falling under the spell of that charismatic advisor or theorist whose world view is so compelling...