Eliot And Bradley

Eliot's critique of Bergson in his Harvard essay shows the early influence of the philosopher who would become the topic of Eliot's doctoral dissertation: the English idealist, F.H. Bradley (1846-1924). In 1914 Eliot was awarded a fellowship to work on his dissertation in Oxford under the tuition of Harold Joachim, one of Bradley's disciples. The dissertation, which focussed on Bradley's 1893 book, Appearance and Reality, was completed under the title 'Experience and the Objects of Knowledge in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley' and sent to Harvard in 1916, by which time Eliot had moved to London and begun to publish his poetry with the help of Pound. Harvard approved the dissertation: Eliot's dissertation supervisor called it 'the work of an expert' (Jain 1992: 30). However, Eliot did not return to Harvard for the necessary oral examination of his dissertation (it was, after all, the middle of the First World War), and the degree of PhD was not awarded. When the dissertation was published in 1964, it was argued that Eliot's philosophical work illuminated his poetry and criticism. More recently, critics have warned against transferring the arguments of Eliot's dissertation to his literary work, pointing out that to do so belies the dissertation's scepticism about philosophical truth itself (Menand 1987: 43). Such a transferral also, of course, fails to acknowledge any substantial development in Eliot's thought after 1916. Keeping these warnings in mind, the rest of this chapter will set out the chief elements of Bradley's philosophy, and of Eliot's response to it in his dissertation, and finally suggest how we might make careful use of it in thinking about one aspect of his literary criticism.

Like Bergson's, Bradley's philosophy concerns the relationship between the mind and reality. Also like Bergson's, its approach is directed against positivism. For Bradley, the starting point of all knowledge is 'immediate experience', a term he used technically to denote the 'general condition before distinctions and relations have been developed' (1897: 459). In its unified, unordered state, 'immediate experience' is reminiscent of Bergson's 'real duration'. Similarly, his characterization of the world of 'appearance' as that where experience

Idealism. Philosophical idealists believe that reality is fundamentally mental rather than physical: the only reality we can know is the reality presented to us by our minds. Among the varieties of philosophical idealism are subjective idealism (for example, in the philosophy of George Berkeley (1685-1753)), in which reality is constructed by the perceptions of the individual mind; transcendental idealism (for example, in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)), in which what we can know of reality is limited to that which our minds are equipped to categorize; and absolute idealism (for example, in the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831)), in which reality is the construction of a universal mind or interpersonal consciousness, rather than the individual consciousness of the subjective idealist.

is broken up into thoughts and concepts has much in common with Bergson's portrayal of the work of the intellect: for both, our everyday world of common sense thought is a construction that conceals reality. But Bradley's work is fundamentally different from Bergson's in that it does not understand the self as the foundation of reality. Where Bergson holds the view that reality resides in the real duration of our individual consciousness (in this aspect of his philosophy he is a subjective idealist), Bradley argues that there is a reality that transcends the individual (making him an absolute idealist). He locates this transcendent reality in a third stage of experience, which he calls 'the Absolute'. In the experience of the Absolute, 'immediate experience' and the conceptual ordering of immediate experience are synthesized into a harmonious, unified whole. It was this last stage of Bradley's argument that drew most criticism from his contemporaries: Bradley himself admitted that the Absolute is unknowable, but argued that it is intellectually necessary that it exists.

While Eliot's dissertation accepted certain aspects of Bradley's philosophy, it was also critical of some of its most important concepts. Eliot accepts Bradley's relativist perspective on reality: it is not possible to find a fundamental separation between the real and the ideal (and the ideal, Eliot notes, includes the unreal) (1964a: 36). When we say that these concepts are separate, we do so because it is practically useful to do so, rather than because it is so. Eliot gives the example of 'the round square', which is imaginary, but which is also a real idea: 'It is not unreal, for there is no reality to which it should correspond and does not' (1964a: 55). Any separation we claim between reality and unreality is relative, that is, it depends on our point of view.

Eliot is much more critical of Bradley's categories of immediate experience and the Absolute, and for the same reasons that he had criticized Bergson's philosophy. According to Eliot, the distinction between the two strata of experience that both philosophers posit, the unordered strata of immediate experience (Bradley) or real duration (Bergson) and the ordered world of appearance (Bradley) and the intellect (Bergson), is false: 'the line between the experienced, or the given, and the constructed can nowhere be clearly drawn' (1964a: 18). Eliot argues that feeling never occurs without thought, indeed he writes that 'there is no greater mistake than to think that feeling and thought are exclusive — that those beings which think most and best are not also those capable of the most feeling' (1964a: 18). He therefore refuses the starting point of both Bergson's and Bradley's philosophies, that rational thought can be peeled away from the feelings and sensations on which it works. According to Eliot, we cannot know that there is a pre-rational realm.

Furthermore, he argues that since we cannot know the pre-rational realm Bergson and Bradley describe, it should not be taken as a foundation for a theory of knowledge. Immediate experience is only a hypothesis, argues Eliot, and therefore inadequate grounding for the edifice Bradley builds upon it. The same is true for the concept of the Absolute. Once again, this is a hypothesis, argues Eliot, not reality. In an essay published six months after he completed his dissertation, Eliot highlights this limitation of Bradley's philosophy: 'Bradley's universe [. . .] is only by an act of faith unified. Upon inspection it falls away into the isolated finite experiences out of which it is put together [. . .]. Pretending to be something which makes finite centres cohere, it turns out to be merely the assertion that they do' (1964a: 202). Metaphysical systems such as those constructed by Bradley and Bergson, he decides, cannot describe reality, because as soon as one defines an experience, one substitutes the definition for the experience. All theories, then, are a movement away from experience, and involve interpretations and judgements that make the theory more and more personal to the theorist. So the process of building connections between experiences the theorist must enact to build a theory of reality is not, as the theorist thinks, the process of reality, 'the process is perhaps only the process of the builder's thought' (1964a: 167).

This does not amount to a wholesale rejection of Bradley's philosophy, and in fact Eliot concludes his thesis by remarking that 'I believe that all the conclusions that I have reached are in substantial agreement with Appearance and Reality' (1964a: 153). But his argument has led him to be highly sceptical about whether a philosophy of reality can be verified through its correspondence to experienced reality, the only reality we can know, in Eliot's view. Hence his belief that a philosophy can be founded on nothing but faith, and hence — despite his scepticism of the Absolute's reality — his agreement with Bradley that we are impelled towards such a unifying concept (1964a: 169).

0 0

Post a comment