September 10, 2014
The Northampton, Massachusetts-born philosopher of science and mathematician CHAUNCEY WRIGHT (1830–75) was a pivotal figure in Harvard’s conversational Metaphysical Club, which Wright co-founded with C.S. Peirce, William James, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in 1872. Because he was a staunch empiricist, even when it came to Darwin’s theory of evolution, of which he was an early American advocate, Wright didn’t buy into the optimistic notion that evolution represents a betterment for our species or any other. Relying heavily on weather metaphors (in addition to teaching, he was employed as a tabulator of ephemerides: tables of the positions of stars and moon phases for navigational purposes), Wright argued persuasively that evolution is a story whose outcome can’t be foretold. Evolution, he insisted, is a process in play — a process of physical causes and effects — about which we may know a great deal, about which we may have collected a mountain of data… yet which we can’t predict with accuracy of any note. In fact, he said, it’s a “broken and fragmentary form of ruin.” Known as “the Cambridge Socrates,” Wright spoke better than he wrote, and thus inspired others through discourse more than through pedantic lecturing. Long live the cosmic weatherman.
READ MORE about members of the Post-Romantic Generation (1825–33).