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TSE  August 2001

TSE August 2001

Subject:

More on Eliot's Relativism

From:

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Date:

Sun, 12 Aug 2001 07:30:11 EDT

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8/12/01

In my last post from the tapes, Perl had just made the point that Eliot 
thought that "the philosopher 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." Here is the next section.

-- Steve --

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

[Perl]:

   Now the philosopher's childlike innocence is maintained by three basic 
assumptions: 

1) Truth and reality have stable, objective existence.
Eliot denies this.
2) Truth and reality are the ultimate objects of knowledge, that is to say, 
ultimately what anybody who wants knowledge wants to know is what's true and 
what's real.
He denies that.
3) Knowledge HAS objects.
Eliot denies that there are any objects of knowledge; there's nothing to 
know. 

In other words, for Eliot, as for post-Philosophers today, naivety consists 
in supposing that knowledge is knowledge of something, that knowledge has an 
object. The belief that there are real and stable objects to know is at the 
opposite pole to Eliot's belief, which is, that existence and reality are 
terms, existence and reality are qualities, attributed to certain terms 
within a shared context of discourse, a shared language. And that in relation 
to that context, the word 'knowledge' is also and only a term. Outside of 
this agreed context there is no object to know and there is no subject to 
know it. There is only, to quote F. H. Bradley, Eliot's favorite philosopher, 
"the total situation".  It hasn't got parts. The theorist, who depends by 
definition on this distinction, the distinction of subject and object, or to 
put it another way, the distinction between 'knower' and what he knows, the 
theorist is incapable of knowing the truth. he has left the context in which 
true knowledge is possible. He has walked outside of it to ask his question. 
.. .

  The distinction between theory and reality has been central to philosophy, 
though there is no distinction for Eliot, because philosophers are not poets, 
and philosophers ought to be poets. Philosophers, unlike poets, get confused 
by their own language (A good poet is NEVER confused by his metaphor). 
Philosophers, however, don't understand metaphor. They don't understand 
simile. They don't understand figures of speech. They treat, Eliot said, 
verbal abstractions and figures of speech, figures like 'mind and body' or 
'form and content' or 'meaning and reference', they treat them as though they 
refer to phenomena; they treat then as though they objectively exist. Eliot 
believed that this was a misstep, that this was a misuse of language and he 
said that it had led philosophy away from its original and proper role, the 
role that it had in early Greece: That role, he says in the Harvard notebook, 
was the study of 'fictions at work'. Fictions like 'mind and body'. Fictions 
like 'form and content'. Instead, philosophy, or at any rate, metaphysics, 
became a quest to find ultimate reality. This is the mistake. 

   Eliot's favorite ancient philosopher is Aristotle. He admires Aristotle 
because Aristotle was so careful with language. And yet he says even 
Aristotle was implicated in the fall of philosophy. He says that if Aristotle 
had not been seduced, philosophy might have become an enterprise to esteem. 
He says that if Aristotle had not been seduced by Plato, philosophy would 
have become an analysis of words, not an analysis of things. 

   The theorist, in other words, both overestimates the power of language and 
underestimates the power of language to invent reality. The theorist makes an 
untenable distinction between words on the one hand and the ideas or things 
on the other hand that language is called upon to name and define. This is 
another amazing sentence from his dissertation: "A word IS that which it 
denotes: without words, no objects". Therefore "language is not simply a 
development of our ideas, it is a development of reality as well". The 
philosopher does not recognize that. In proposing, for instance, a 
theoretical distinction, say, between mind and body, the theorist may alter 
the real world in proposing  a distinction like that. He may create a 
situation in which even those who hold that the distinction is not valid will 
need to make use of the distinction . . . In missing this, the theorist 
undervalues the role of language in the conduct of philosophy. The theorist 
does not understand that he is inventing reality. 

   On the other hand, the theorist overrates the strength of language when he 
insists that definitions and distinctions possess precise and stable 
meanings.  Precision, Eliot says, is not possible in language. It is not 
possible because there is nothing, once subjected to analysis, that is not 
self-contradictory. . .  But even were this possible, even if it were 
possible to have precision in language, it would not be desirable, Eliot 
said. It would enforce an arbitrary choice among the various resonances and 
references of the words used. Moreover, the theorist ignores the dimension of 
time. Eliot said in a Harvard seminar that every explanation presupposes the 
explanation will remain forever valid -- otherwise, why explain it? And in 
class notes, he added that the theorist's claim to say what is true for all 
time is absurd. Why? Because philosophy is nothing but the philosopher's 
abstraction from actual experience. The philosopher is abstracting, in other 
words, from history . . .  

   Therefore, his conclusion is that human language is a poor medium in which 
to do philosophy. Human language is not a good medium in which to work the 
precisions of philosophy and logic. Since the theorist's project is, 
according to Eliot, "simplification", philosophy entails a reduction of the 
knots and the echoes and the vagaries that constitute any language. He wrote 
in his dissertation,  "An idea is not a thing, and our difficulties arise 
from trying to treat it as a thing." For Eliot, ideas are comprised by 
sentences. They are comprised by sentences and so he regarded philosophy as 
properly a genre of prose composition, like the short story. However, in 
practice, theorists, philosophers, treat ideas as the building blocks of 
their systems, and as a consequence, philosophers, Eliot said, are less 
essayists than they are engineers. He likes to depict philosophers as bridge 
builders and pyramid builders . . . He said  [theorists] are drone bees who 
labor oblivious of one another unless provoked by insects carrying 
obnoxiously different theories. . . What does he mean by this little 
metaphor? He means that the quest for scientific certainty can lead in two 
directions:  the quest for scientific certainty can lead to obliviousness, 
the quest for scientific certainty can lead to collision. Either the bees 
will ignore each other or they will collide with one another. What's left? 
Cooperation. THAT'S not possible. Cooperation will not be possible. The 
belief in objective truth (and this is one of Eliot's favorite ironies), the 
belief in objective truth has the effect of dividing believers. If the truth 
is one, if it is unitary, if it is absolute, if it is exclusive, there is no 
room for compromise, there is no room for comparison, there is no room for 
mutual admiration among beliefs. There is room for obliviousness or there is 
room for conflict. 

   Eliot thought that the divisions between believers were always overstated. 
Between any two opposing schools he always sought the common ground on which 
a conversation might be arranged. He was suggesting, then, a change in the 
terms that are used to depict philosophy. The order of things is not 
discovered; the order of things is not revealed; the order of things, for 
Eliot, is constructed, it is made, slowly, in conversation among antagonists. 
Since Plato's time, the charge of  'fiction writing' has been the one that 
philosophers feared most (You'll remember it is the charge that Plato made 
against Homer and other liars). And Eliot's shift in the metaphor used to 
depict philosophy from 'science' (which is what Kant said philosophy was) to 
'conversation' (which is what Eliot says that philosophy was), this reflects 
a revolution in purpose. 

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

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