- The Perfect Critic. To the Editor of The Athenaeum
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[ 273 The Perfect Critic To the Editor of The Athenaeum The Athenaeum, 4710 (6 Aug 1920) 190 Sir, – Mr. Hannay doubts whether I have justified my distinction between the critic and the philosopher, and suspects that I am making a distinction between a kind of philosophical criticism of which I approve and another kind of which I disapprove.1 If I have made this distinction between kinds to Mr. Hannay’s satisfaction, and not merely shown that I like some critical writings and not others, then I ought to be content. The frontier cannot be clearly defined; at all events I trust that Mr. Hannay would agree that Hegel’s Philosophy of Art adds very little to our enjoyment or understanding of art, though it fills a gap in Hegel’s philosophy.2 I have in mind a rather celebrated passage towards the end of Taine’s History of English Literature (I have not the book by me) in which he compares Tennyson and Musset.3 Taine is a person for whom I have considerable respect, but this passage does not seem to me to be good as criticism; the comparative vision of French and English life does not seem to me to issue quite ingenuously out of an appreciation of the two poets; I should say that Taine was here philosophizing rather than “developing his sensibility into a generalized structure.” I do not understand Mr. Hannay’s request that I should quote an instance of “this generalization which is neither itself poetry nor discursive reasoning.” I find in Chambers (the only dictionary within reach) that “discursive ” means “desultory,” “rational,” or “proceeding regularly from premises to conclusion.”4 Surely I have not pretended that criticism should avoid “discursive reasoning” in this last sense? As to the question whether my article on “The Perfect Critic” was itself philosophy or perfect criticism, I need only refer Mr. Hannay to the Principia Mathematica Chap. II., especially page 65 (The Theory of Types and the Cretan Liar: “Hence the statement of Epimenides does not fall within its own scope, and therefore no contradiction emerges”).5 I am, Sir, Your obliged obedient servant, T. S. Eliot 1920 274 ] Notes 1. A. H. Hannay (1889-1955), art critic for the London Mercury since Feb 1920, wrote to the editor of the Athenaeum on 30 July: “Mr. T. S. Eliot’s article ‘The Perfect Critic’ contains many interesting points, and I think that he is doing valuable work in investigating closely the interconnection between criticism and the work criticized; but his final conclusion is still to me rather obscure, and I doubt whether he has really justified his distinction between the critic who develops his sensibility into a generalized structure and the philosophic critic. . . . I suspect that Mr. Eliot is really making a distinction between a kind of philosophical criticism of which he approves and another kind of which he disapproves” (156). 2. A review of the new translation of Hegel’s Vorlesungen über die Aesthetik (1835), The Philosophy of Fine Art, trans. F. P. B. Osmaston, 4 vols (London: Bell, 1916-20), had appeared in the Athenaeum in Apr 1920. 3. Taine concludes book 5 of his Histoire de la littérature anglaise [History of English Literature] with a comparison of Tennyson’s England and Alfred de Musset’s France, arguing in favor of understanding writers in their social context: “we shall better understand the flowers if we see them in the garden.” Trans. H. Van Laun (London: Chatto & Windus, 1897), 454. 4. Chambers’s Twentieth Century Dictionary of the English Language, ed. Thomas Davidson (London: W. & R. Chambers, 1901). 5. Chapter 2 of the introduction to vol 1 of the Whitehead-Russell Principia Mathematica demonstrates how the theory of hierarchically organized “types” helps to solve contradictions in logic – like the paradox involving the sixth-century Cretan philosopher Epimenides and his claim that all Cretans are liars – by excluding certain sentences from their own scope of reference. TSE quotes from the Cambridge UP edition (1910). ...