Agassiz in The Metaphysical Club


The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand

Subtitle is "A Story of Ideas in America," and indeed that's what it is, a big honking book, some of which I skimmed. The most interesting bits to me relate to my own research, including the resurgence of John Dewey's ideas after the demise of the cold war (discussed in the conclusion) and chapter 6, which is devoted to William James' involvement with Louis Agassiz. Here's the most compelling bit about Agassiz, who I'm curious about because of Caroline Hewins' Agassiz nature study club, founded in about 1878. Basically, I'm interested in the intersection of the growth of scientific ideas with the growth of children's literature in the late 19th century, which nonfiction books were strongly promoted by librarians as the best reading for children (I presented on aspects of this topic twice last year in different venues, once at the Education in Print Culture conf. in Madison and once at the Children's Lit. Assn. conf.). (It's my blog, I can abbreviate if I want to...)

Menand is contrasting Darwin with Agassiz, and comes up with a great succinct description of the ontological problems with Agassiz's work. (Agassiz was also profoundly racist, which was another of his problems.):
"When we look as Agassiz's work we think we are seeing a confusion between science and belief. But what we are really seeing is a disjunction between those things. This is what Asa Gray had meant when he said that Agassiz had no scientific explanation for the phenomena he observed; for Agassiz had only his observations on one side and his theory on the other. His science wasn't theoretical and his theory wasn't scientific. His ideas are edifices perched on top of mountains of data. Darwin's ideas are devices for generating data. Darwing' theory opens possibilities for inquiry; Agassiz closes them." (p. 141)

Hewins was of her time, and certainly ascribe to the Victorian idea of the finite, knowable universe, which is consonant with Agassiz's ideas. Agassiz was also a rock star at the time, giving sold-out lectures in Boston to thousands... who can blame a children's librarian of the 1870s for getting caught up in the frenzy?