The Alleged Pragmatism of T.S. Eliot
Philosophy & Literature, Vol. 30, pp. 248-264, 2006
Before gaining recognition as a poet, T.S. Eliot pursued a doctoral degree in philosophy. His dissertation on the philosophy of F.H. Bradley has been a source of longstanding critical dispute. Some read the dissertation as a defense of Bradley’s views, while others read it as a repudiation of Bradley in favor of a kind of American philosophical pragmatism. This essay considers whether the dissertation can be properly characterized as pragmatist, despite Eliot’s enthusiastic and repeated dismissals of William James’ philosophy of truth. Eliot comes closest to a Jamesian view of belief when he writes of the endless ways we can carve up a goose without bones, a metaphor for our ability to take any side in an argument when there are no criteria for determining the single correct position. But he refuses to adopt a pragmatic account of truth that would conclude from the practical equivalence of various epistemological theories that none gets “closer to the truth” than any other. Instead, he suggests that a correct answer to our epistemological questions exists in the “nature of reality,” and that this nature can be discovered through logical inference. In maintaining this assumption, Eliot parts ways with James’ pragmatism. He would later part ways with academic philosophy as a whole, less for its impracticality than for its pervasive lack of skepticism toward itself: “almost every philosophy seems to begin as a revolt of common sense against some other theory, and ends – as it becomes itself more developed and approaches completeness – by itself becoming equally preposterous – to everyone but its author.”
Number of Pages in PDF File: 12
Keywords: T.S. Eliot, William James, dissertation, pragmatism, skepticism
Date posted: January 12, 2011
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