The excerpt below is taken from the preface of "The Metaphysical Club," Winner of the 2002 Pulitzer Prize Winner for History.
It is a remarkable fact about the United States that it fought a civil war without undergoing a change in its form of government.
The Civil War swept away the slave civilization of the South, but it swept away almost the whole intellectual culture of the North along with it. It took nearly half a century for the United States to develop a culture to replace it, to find a set of ideas, and a way of thinking, that would help people cope with the conditions of modern life. That struggle is the subject of this book.
There are many paths through this story. The one that is followed here runs through the lives of four people: Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James, Charles S. Peirce, and John Dewey. Their ideas changed the way Americans thought -- and continue to think -- about education, democracy, liberty, justice, and tolerance.
If we strain out the differences, personal and philosophical, they had with one another, we can say that what these four thinkers had in common was not a group of ideas, but a single idea -- an idea about ideas. They all believed that ideas are not "out there" waiting to be discovered, but are tools -- like forks and knives and microchips -- that people devise to cope with the world in which they find themselves. They believed that ideas are produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals -- that ideas are social. They believed that ideas do not develop according to some inner logic of their own, but are entirely dependent, like germs, on their human carriers and the environment. And they believed that since ideas are provisional responses to particular and unreproducible circumstances, their survival depends not on their immutability but on their adaptability.
The belief that ideas should never become ideologies -- either justifying the status quo, or dictating some transcendent imperative for renouncing it -- was the essence of what they taught. They taught a kind of skepticism that helped people cope with life in a heterogeneous, industrialized, mass-marketed society, a society in which older human bonds of custom and community seemed to have become attenuated, and to have been replaced by more impersonal networks of obligation and authority. But skepticism is also one of the qualities that make societies like that work. It is what permits the continual state of upheaval that capitalism thrives on.
This book is not a work of philosophical argument; it is a work of historical interpretation. It describes a change in American life by looking at a change in its intellectual assumptions. Those assumptions changed because the country became a different place. As with every change, there was gain and there was loss. This story, if it has been told in the right way, should help make possible a better measure of both.