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Sunday, June 09, 2013

Chauncey Wright: The Man, The Myth... The Sad and Troubled Paradox

Chauncey Wright, one of the main characters of Louis Menand's "The Metaphysical Club," was considered by many the quiet driving force behind the group.  The reason for this claim is that Wright lived for conversation and therefore served as the intellectual "fuel" of the group.  Officially, he was a "computer," meaning a mathematician paid to do calculations all day.  When not calculating, Wright lived the life of the bachelor scholar.  He was an alcoholic and suffered from massive bouts of depression.  He was able to offset his mood in public because people loved his interlocution.  Back in the mid to late 1800s, the "life of the party" wasn't the drunk uncle wearing a lamp shade on his head, or the suave operator with the funniest jokes and quickest lines; the life of the party back then was the guy who could sustain an intellectual conversation without monopolizing the affair.  Chauncey Wright was just that perfect in conversation.  He was, however, troubled in many, many painful ways.


Chauncey Wright was not an antagonist or a contrarian.  He was an intellectual powerhouse that swam with the biggest minds of the epoch.  The mid to late 1800s were also a time of social decorum, or propriety and extremely conservative protocol.  Unfortunately for Wright, he didn't meet several of the categorical standards.  For as much a social talent when it came to conversation, he was a life-long bachelor and his interest in the opposite sex seems to have remained either a secret or uncatalogued to this day.  Wright boarded in homes while working out his ideas and attending meetings of The Metaphysical Club.  He also had an extremely soft heart and did an incredible amount of good in quiet and anonymous ways.  He helped locate and free the children of Mary Walker, a fugitive slave who ran a boarding house where Wright lived for some time.

His ideas were a mixture of his contemporaries and good old fashion European cutting edge.  Menand sums it up this way: "What Wright meant by positivism was, at bottom, an absolute distinction between facts and values.  Fact was the province of science and value was the province of what he called, always a little deprecatingly, metaphysics.  Wright thought that metaphysical speculation--ideas about the origin, end and meaning of life--came naturally to human beings.  He didn't condemn such ideas out of hand.  He just thought they should never be confused with science.  For what science teaches is that the phenomenal world--the world we can see and touch--is characterized, through and through, by change, and that our knowledge of it is characterized, through and through, by uncertainty."  There's enough in this passage to understand that Wright was focused on bringing in the opposition to some very lofty ideas being held at the time.  I can imagine how The Metaphysical Club (people like Charles Pierce, William James, Benjamin Pierce, Oliver Wendell Holmes and the rest, all of whom corresponded heavily with each other) reacted to some of Wright's hard questions.  James was particularly influenced--perhaps not by Wright's writing which he found obfuscated and difficult--in conversation and by Wright's mere commanding presence.  Holmes was particularly full of praise for Wright: "Chauncey Wright, a nearly forgotten philosopher of real merit, taught me when young that I must not say necessarily about the universe, that we don't know whether anything is necessary or not."

I look back on the days when I was teaching full-time at ______, and those long weekend when, as a bachelor scholar, I used to close the door of my apartment behind me on Friday afternoon after work, and not open it again until Monday morning when I headed out to the classroom.  I wonder if the changes that came to my life in 2005 had not taken place if I wouldn't have ended life Chauncey Wright.  That's not to say I would have drank myself to oblivion in a sea of depression, for I was very happy to live as I did.  But Chauncey Wright died at the age of 45, after two strokes which left him unable to care for himself, and as I said, I was happy living quietly among books, writing and my teaching.  Life has changed too much to make a comparison.  I am very happy to have learned about Wright... a true TITAN for evidence and the balance between the empirical and the metaphysical.

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