It was in the early seventies that a knot of us young men, calling ourselves semi-ironically, semi-defiantly, the "Metaphysical Club," used to meet in Old Cambridge, sometimes in my study, sometimes in William James's. (Charles Sanders Peirce)

The Metaphysical Club was a small group of intellectuals who met in Cambridge, Mass. in the year 1872. The group didn't last for longer than a year, its members were mostly lawyers, and even the most regular members were frequently absent. In spite of all this, the Metaphysical Club is often spoken of by historians of philosophy as the birthplace of American pragmatism. That its members included William James and Charles Sanders Peirce is certainly good reason for believing this; James openly declaring in his famous exposition of the pragmatist philosophy (aptly titled Pragmatism, a new name for some old ways of thinking) that his doctrine of pragmatism is only a revision of Peirce's former work in logic.

The most famous members were William James and Charles Sanders Peirce, but they probably weren't the most respected. Certainly James, at that time, was still finding his place in the world, both academically and intellectually. Among the group was the tempermental genius Chauncey Wright, whom most considered to be the leader of the group, if it could be said to have one. Wright was a positivist of sorts, who was also much impressed by the work of Charles Darwin, but his hero was the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. Wright was commonly depressed, and just as often given to drink; the man only seemed to be happy when he had a group of younger gentleman to discuss philosophical and scientific issues with. The other members of the group were the lawyer Nicholas St. John Green, the well-known lawyer Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (who couldn't have been in attendance all that often), Joseph Bangs Warner (another lawyer), John Fiske, and Francis Ellingwood Abbot. The only person ever to use the term 'Metaphysical Club' in memoirs, letters, or anywhere else, was C.S. Peirce, though James certainly makes mention of a 'group' which couldn't have been other than this one.

Charles Peirce moved to Washington D.C. in December of that year to work at the Coast Survey (an organization for which he worked on and off for most of his life), and the group's last meeting occured prior to his departure. According to a Letter from William James to his more-famous brother Henry, Peirce read the draft of a book on logic he had been working on for some time. In that final meeting, he introduced the term pragmatism to the group, borrowing it from the famous philosopher Immanuel Kant who, in his Critique of Pure Reason, defined 'pragmatic belief' as contingent beliefs that form the ground for positive action (the Greek word 'pragma' means 'action'). Kant wasn't all that fond of pragmatic belief; it certainly wouldn't count as 'reason'. Peirce, on the other hand, thought that all belief was pragmatic, and James, and later John Dewey would follow him in describing human belief as essentially a practical, social, and functional phenomenon; rather than the traditional view, espoused by Kant and the philosophers, that human belief is a phenomenon to be described by an epistemology, or a theory of knowledge that would determine its place in relation to the objects of belief. As the quote above suggests, the name given to the group could only have been in jest, as it is one of the fundamental tenets of pragmatism that practice is prior to metaphysics, that the latter will always be in service of the former.

Dewey was to later study at Johns Hopkins University when Peirce taught there. Though he did not take any of Peirce's classes until his third year of graduate study, he did attend an informal discussion group which Peirce had named, not too surprisingly, the Metaphysical Club.

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