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TSE  August 2001

TSE August 2001

Subject:

Eliot's Relativism

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Date:

Sat, 11 Aug 2001 09:05:31 EDT

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8/11/01

    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 
philosophy. 

    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.


================================================

[Perl]:

   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 
it. 

  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 
the dissertation.  

   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 
explanation."  

.. . .

   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. 

========================================================

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