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  • The Alleged Pragmatism of T. S. Eliot
  • Gregory Brazeal

When T. S. Eliot returned to Harvard in 1911 to begin his graduate work in philosophy, it had been nearly four years since William James resigned from the department that he had helped to form. James's legacy remained strong through his influence both on the work of George Santayana, one of Eliot's professors during his M.A. year, and on that of Josiah Royce, who supervised Eliot's doctoral research and christened his own idealist philosophy "absolute pragmatism" in a gesture to James. Eliot himself was strongly dismissive of pragmatism, James's anti-essentialist philosophy of truth, not only during his years of graduate study but throughout his life. In a paper of 1914, we find Eliot claiming that pragmatism strikes him not "as a great emancipation," but "as a tedious truism." He presents pragmatism as a philosophy of whimsy that says things such as, "You choose a point of view because you like it. You form certain plans because they express your character. Certain things are true because they are what you need; others, because they are what you want." Pragmatism consists of "making fictions and swallowing them alive & whole," an unacceptably crude theory of truth in which things are true simply because you want them to be. "The error of pragmatism," the young Eliot finally suggests, is its sophistical insistence that "man is the measure of all things."1 In a 1917 New Statesman article, he associates pragmatism with the very absolutism it claims to reject, arguing (in a familiar phrase) that the "error of Pragmatism" has been to treat concepts like "usefulness" and "success" "as [End Page 248] if they had the absoluteness denied to truth."2 Still later, in an essay on F. H. Bradley appearing in For Lancelot Andrewes, Eliot alters his usual formula to lament that, "the great weakness of Pragmatism is that it ends by being of no use to anybody."3 In other words, while seeming to judge a philosophical doctrine on the basis of its utility, a gesture which might be read as "pragmatic" (practical), the judgment Eliot renders is a denunciation of philosophical pragmatism.

In spite of these repeated dismissals of James's philosophy of truth, pragmatic readings of Eliot's writings have accumulated in step with the resurgence of pragmatism since the end of the Cold War. Eliot has been characterized, to one degree or another, as a philosophical pragmatist by critics from Walter Benn Michaels and Donald Childs to Richard Shusterman.4 Louis Menand, both an Eliot critic and a historian of pragmatism, writes that Eliot has, "if this matters, a much firmer claim to the pragmatist philosophical tradition than Frost or Stein or Stevens ever did."5 Today, the most influential and widely accepted interpretation of Eliot's doctoral dissertation, the longest and most developed work of philosophy the poet ever produced, remains Michaels's "Philosophy in Kinkanja: Eliot's Pragmatism," in which Eliot's thesis is presented as a work of nihilistic, anti-foundational pragmatism.

The dissertation's fundamental philosophical stance is so ambiguous that critics have been divided even on the question of whether Eliot is offering a defense of his primary subject, F. H. Bradley, or a critique of Bradley's most central claims. Hugh Kenner, whose 1959 study The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot helped bring widespread critical attention to the dissertation, never seems to have considered the possibility that a strain of pragmatism might lurk beneath its surface. For him, Eliot's practical-sounding skepticism, attention to holistic relations and qualified resistance to grandiose metaphysical claims are all simply reflections of the same elements in Bradley's philosophy. Eliot's frequent invocations of "practice" in the dissolution of epistemological problems passes unremarked, just as neither Michaels nor Kenner argues for the striking similarities that other critics have found between the dissertation and Heidegger's philosophy. The problem in identifying the basic point of view of Eliot's dissertation seems to result less from its resistance to categorization than from the ease with which it can be molded to fit any number of philosophical positions. In the introduction to his From Philosophy...


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