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 --
Now the philosopher's childlike innocence is maintained by three basic
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
He denies that.
3) Knowledge HAS objects.
Eliot denies that there are any objects of knowledge; there's nothing to
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.