I'm glad the Ricks (Seddon and Parker), and others on the list, are
finding the Perl excerpts stimulating.
Up to this point, the material I've posted has focused on the distinction
between what Perl sees as the two branches of Modernism, Paleo-Modernism and
Neo-Modernism. But a part of the lectures that may be of even more interest
to this list is a discussion Perl has that focuses specifically on Eliot's
What I found so interesting and unusual about Perl's Eliot discussion is
that Perl approaches Eliot's philosophy via a discussion of Eliot's Ph.D.
thesis. I have not come across much discussion of Eliot thesis on this list
or in my outside reading (and, yes Pat, I do have a copy of Eliot's thesis,
published in 1965, but it is not easy reading).
There's some rather arcane philosophical points that Perl makes in
discussing Eliot's thesis which some on the list may find too detailed. But
Perl's discussion builds to very interesting conclusions about Eliot's
Relativism and about why Eliot left the 'language of philosophy' to turn to
the 'language of poetry'.
To me, the most striking of Perl's conclusions comes at the end of his
discussions of Eliot thesis. Using Eliot thesis as an example of the origins
of Paleo-Modernism, Perl says,
"Our knowledge of Classic Modernism, our knowledge of Paleo-Modern literature
is incomplete. Post-Modernism has depended on a premature consensus about the
past. Post-Modernism, I said a while ago, is the fulfillment of a Neo-Modern
dream. Its fulfillment has required both mis-reading and under-reading.
Mis-reading that cannot, I think, survive the materials that are emerging now
from attics, and trunks, and university archives."
It will take me a while to transcribe the relevant sections so we can
discuss this on-list, but let me get started.
-- Steve --
P.S. For Rick Parker and others: After you read this post, try typing
"Frege King France" into the Google search engine and see what you get.
Now since the victory of Neo-Modernism, and that victory is now complete,
the terms in which we understand the opposition between Paleos and Neos have
been gotten backwards. The possibility that I would like you to entertain is
that classic Modernist politics and aesthetics are one logical endpoint of a
radical, uncompromising Relativism. And on the other hand, what William
Carlos Williams called 'unbound thinking', what is more commonly called
'free-thinking', may derive from a variety of philosophical Absolutism. The
terms have been gotten backwards.
In an attack on classical Modernist poetics Williams asserted, "one must
draw a discriminating line between true and false values. The true value is
that peculiarity which gives an object a character by itself. The
associational or sentimental value is the false." Let me put a gloss on that.
First of all, Williams believes there are truths. He believes that those
truths are absolute. A truth is, for Williams, independent of its
relationship with other truths. A truth is independent of any associations is
has, any connotations it has, any emotional baggage it has, any emotional
valence it carries. Williams, moreover, dislikes what he terms "gross natural
array" and prefers what he calls "the imaginative category" that can be
abstracted from gross natural array. He dislikes similes because they make
reality dependant on the relationships among things. In Williams own
language, "similes prevent our discerning the unique property of each
imaginative category, all manner of things are thrown out of key by simile so
that it approaches the impossible to arrive at an understanding of anything."
What does 'understand' mean to Williams? 'Understand' means to perceive the
particular perfections (by which he means 'characteristics') of something's
imaginative category. Everything belongs to an imaginative category.
What I'm trying to demonstrate is that Williams' vocabulary and to some
degree also his meaning are Platonic, that is to say, objectivist and
absolutist, philosophically. He believes that real things exist. They exist
objectively, not as they are perceived by some perceiver. They exist
independently, not relative to other things that exist. . .
A Paleo-Modernist like Eliot dissents from this type of absolutism or
objectivity. Eliot dissents from every type of absolutism or objectivity. . .
The relevant evidence that I'm talking about exists in sealed collections
in Harvard and at King's College, Cambridge. With Mrs. Eliot's permission I
have quoted in a recent book and in recent articles from material in the
Eliot archives, but I am required by the terms of my use of the material to
summarize, and not quote, for this taping. . .
Eliot had commenced work in philosophy at a time when the discipline was
demoralized. Philosophy was no longer perceived to be, as Kant said that it
was, the "science of science". It was now just the name of an academic
department. The diminution of philosophy to the status of a mere academic
department was due in large part to the work of professors in Eliot's own
department at Harvard. Therefore, it is not surprising, although people were
surprised at the time, that Eliot, on submitting his dissertation in 1916 to
the department, withdrew from candidacy for the Ph.D. The philosophical
papers of his graduate years (there are three crates of them under lock and
key at Harvard) form a strenuous critique of the whole enterprise that is
called philosophy. . .
For Eliot, as for the current Post-Philosophers, the chief problem with
philosophy is a problem with its language. Eliot did not like the way that
philosophers write sentences. The focus of Eliot's critique, both in his
unpublished notebooks and in his dissertation (which was published in 1964
and so I can quote from that because it's in print), the focus of Eliot's
critique was the vocabulary of explanation, definition, distinction, and
theory, and on the mentality implied by the use of that vocabulary.
The typical explainer, according to Eliot, assumes that his explanation is
unaffected by his point of view, assumes that his explanation is unaffected
by the time and occasion of his explanation, and he must assume, of course,
there is something that requires his explaining. Eliot looked at all of these
assumptions and he ridiculed all of them. His main objection was that every
explanation (and this is what I mean by his relativism -- it's absolute!) can
be shown to be correct from some point of view. There are no false
statements. In some context any statement can be shown to be correct (The
context may be very small indeed). . .
His point was there is available no absolute perspective from which to
establish what is true and what is in error . . . In a talk for Josiah
Royce's Harvard seminar on methodology in 1914, Eliot said that it cannot be
true that any theory is false. He said we live in a relative world, and he
defined that as a world in which fact depends upon perspective. Someone
states a fact and you have ask, "From what point of view are you stating that
fact?" In such a world, in a relative world, while every theory is an
illusion, Eliot said, every theory is also true. From some point of view an
illusion, from some point of view the case. The language of explanation,
Eliot continued, is always inadequate. It is not possible, according to
Eliot, to produce an adequate explanation. An explanation, he said, moves
towards adequacy as it takes into account more points of view on its subject
and includes more of the context and web of relations. Only in its relations
to other objects, Eliot added, can any object be said to exist. You see how
this is opposite of Williams' position. Hence Eliot's preference for similes
and Williams' dislike of them.
But as an explanation approaches this condition of adequacy, this condition
of comprehensiveness and complexity, it will cease to be an explanation. The
more adequate it gets the more, he says, it turns into a description. Unlike
an explanation, a description does not presuppose a single point of view. The
best describers, Eliot said, walk around the object they describe and they
ask other people what they see from where they are standing and include that
in their descriptions. In the end, Eliot concludes that explanation is not
simply 'undesirable', he concludes that explanation is not possible. The
maintenance of a single perspective in viewing any object, however miniscule
the object, is not possible in a world that is constantly in flux, in a world
that is constantly under construction. No sooner have you explained the
object than the object has altered. Moreover, your explanation has altered
Eliot's misgivings about explanation were a consequence of his doubts about
a philosophical branch called epistemology. He held that the central
question of epistemology, that is, "How do I know what I think I know?", he
held that that question was na´ve. Eliot presented his doubts most thoroughly
in his dissertation, from which I can quote. The epistemologists major
error, Eliot argued in the thesis, is the assumption "that there is one
consistent real world, and that it is our business to find it". In other
words, he is saying that there is not one consistent real world. . . The real
world, Eliot held, is infinitely complex, complex because it is always under
construction. The world is of necessity "swarming with insoluble
contradictions". Now where do these contradictions come from?, Eliot asks in
His answer is that the contradictions come from epistemology -- They
weren't there before. He says the contradictions arise because the
epistemologist wants to take the stance of an outsider when the
contradictions that he wants to understand "have their meaning only from the
internal point of view which the explainer has abandoned in seeking an
.. . .
In other words, while reality is infinity complex, it presents no
problems. Where do the problems come from then? In setting the terms of an
explanation, the explainer occasions, the explainer virtually invents that
which he is laboring to explain. He invents it by asking the question. Eliot
thought that philosophers had added, simply by naming them, a vast number of
realities to the world. Let me cite one choice example -- this is my favorite
from his dissertation: He's talking about, in this passage that I'm going to
read you, a celebrated debate between two great philosophers, Gottlob Frege
and Bertrand Russell. They argued for untold years, they and their students
and their disciples, over a simple single sentence that was said PROVED in
order to mean something a bit of language doesn't have to refer to anything
(this is the famous 'meaning / reference distinction'; you can 'mean' without
'referring'). The famous sentence is: "The present King of France is bald".
It means something, it's got a syntax, it refers to nobody -- there is no
present King of France and how can he be bald? Eliot took NO side in this
controversy although during his time in gradate school everyone was supposed
to take a side in this controversy. He considered the debate stupid. Both
sides supposed, in their foolishness, that a hard and fast distinction could
be made between reality and words. Eliot NEVER accepted that distinction.
Let me quote from Eliot's dissertation. He makes quick work of this major
debate: "It is a mistake to treat the word as something which barely points
to the object. The word is the beginning of the reality and is absolutely
continuous with it. The present King of France is already partially real".
The present King of France is real because for ten years students in seminars
have been talking about him. he exists, and, my God, he's bald!
Eliot followed this peculiar passage in his dissertation with a warning.
The warning is against theoretical language "forcing untenable theories on
us". Things like the 'meaning / reference' distinction. And he argued there
that many theoretical schools originate in "the attempted solution of some
artificial problem". He said that philosophers prefer to ask questions that
should not be raised. They are moved to this behavior, not, as Plato would
say, from superior wisdom. They are moved to this behavior, not, as Nietzsche
would say, from resentment of normal people. According to Eliot, philosophers
ask their obnoxious questions out of simple naivety. Eliot described again as
'pathetic' the philosophers attachment to dialectic, the philosophers'
attachment to the question and answer format. The word he used to describe
the philosophers' corresponding belief in reality is 'infantile'. The
philosopher, he said, believes in a reality so stable and so objective that
asking questions about it would cause no alterations in it. And Eliot thinks
that that is infantile.