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Author Louis Menand, a self-described “historian of ideas,” was a special guest lecturer last week at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law. The topic was his book about the 19th-century origins of the philosophy of pragmatism, a tome that Cardozo law professor Paul R. Verkuil and Dean David Rudenstine consider so vital to the education of budding attorneys that they mailed it to all 234 incoming students this fall — at the cost of about $5,000. There was not an extra seat to be had in Cardozo’s moot courtroom as Menand — the essayist and literary critic for The New Yorker magazine who dropped out of Harvard Law School a generation ago — held forth for an hour on “The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America.” The book, published in 2001, is the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of a short-lived but highly influential discussion club in Cambridge begun in the years following the Civil War, a group that kept no formal records. It included war hero Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who would become a U.S. Supreme Court justice in 1902; psychologist William James; and philosophers Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey. By Menand’s definition, the resultant philosophy of pragmatism is “the idea that ideas are all essentially means of adaptation.” Ideas are tools to “help us cope with our environment, help us get what we want,” said Menand, who is also a contributor to The New York Review of Books and a professor of English and American literature at Harvard College. Though sometimes seen as cynical, Menand said pragmatism “acknowledges the truth about how we make judgments, including legal judgments.” Justice Holmes, he reminded students, famously said, “We know we’re right before we know why we’re right; first we decide, then we deduce.” In his introductory remarks to the Sept. 7 lecture, Dean Rudenstine told students, “This book isn’t going to help you write a lease, or make a 12-B motion to dismiss, and it isn’t going to help you write a will for anybody. What [it] does is to put in broad intellectual terms the opinions which you will read this year. “It leaves a large space between the more technical and detailed study of the law and the social and intellectual theories that Professor Menand writes about. It’s up to you to figure out what the connections are. Once you do that, it’s going to make your whole [law school] endeavor more understandable and more meaningful.” Verkuil said Menand’s illuminating tale of free-wheeling ideas expressed by Cambridge intellectuals in a previous century is indispensible to young lawyers today. In school, he warned, “Things start to close in around you very quickly, and the danger is you’ll become so professionally oriented that you’ll only read for purposes of knowing instrumental things — such as holding for a case, as opposed to why a case matters.” By reading “The Metaphysical Club,” he said, law students may understand that “all belief systems are contingent [and] the law itself reflects this reality.” The central purpose of law, Menand further suggested, is inherently pragmatic: the possibility of change without violence. “The world is unfinished and uncertain, and human beings can change the world,” Menand said of the Metaphysical Club’s views. “Change is not just a fact of life; it’s actually an imperative.” Change, which Menand equated with the process of law, requires the idea that Justice Holmes frequently put forth in his Cambridge days. “Democratic participation isn’t a means to an end, it is the end,” said Menand. “The purpose of the democratic experiment is to keep the experiment going.” In the American capitalist democracy, he said, lawyers must be aware of a constant tension between public and individual demands. Capitalism, he said, is about “tearing things down and rebuilding,” whereas the individual impulse is to preserve the familiar. While pragmatism answers the public demand, it rarely appeals to the personal side of American life. Paraphrasing the British mystery novelist G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936), Menand said he agreed with the author’s aphorism, “Pragmatism is about human needs, and one of the things human beings need is to be more than pragmatists.” Rudenstine said his students and faculty were so inspired by Menand’s book and lecture that “I think we’re going to repeat this. It was a good thing to do. Maybe the same book, maybe another.” And Verkuil urged the students, “I hope in your own study groups that you’ll have your own metaphysical clubs.”

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