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“Report on the Relation of Kant’s Criticism to Agnosticism,” dated 24 Apr 1913, is the second of three essays that Eliot submitted to Professor Bakewell for Philosophy 15.

In distinction from any dogmatic point of view, there are three others possible. 1

the sceptical (Hume, Bradley, Joachim, Balfour) 2

the agnostic (Spencer, Huxley) 3

the critical (Kant) 4

Now it is true that from the critical one may pass (abruptly or insensibly) to the sceptical or agnostic, but that such a transition is illegitimate and is in point of fact not latent in the criticism of Kant, it is the purpose of this paper to maintain.

We may find profit in first distinguishing the sceptical from the agnostic attitude. They spring I believe from very different antecedents. Neither appears to follow directly (in history) upon the critical; the natural movement of the human mind is from the critical to the dogmatic. And agnosticism, in the nineteenth century, has been consequent not upon metaphysical dogma so much as upon scientific dogma. Both Spencer and Huxley, that is to say, were scientists, and remained scientists. Agnosticism, I take this to imply, contains a residuum of scientific dogma, enough, at least, so that our attitude toward our ignorance is in relation with our attitude toward what we use as knowledge. Absoluteagnosticism is practically unknown. Which statement discovers to us a radical difference between agnosticism and scepticism: the one may be universal, the other cannot. Scepticism questions our arguments, agnosticism makes definite assertionsin regard to our ignorance and knowledge. In other words, agnosticism is itself a dogma; for in order to make these positive assertions in regard to the limits of our knowledge, we must place absolute credence in a certain limited body of truth and “matter-of-fact.” 5*

One may well object, here, that (mutatis mutandis) the Absolute of Mr. Bradley presents very striking analogies to the Unknowable of Spencer; but it is equally true that prima facie this Absolute is a dogma rather than a scepsis. 6 Closer study, however, reveals I believe the fact that the two are arrived at by very different disciplines. Spencer’s theory of knowledge (in spite of passages in the best tradition of English doubt) is after all a pretty crude one. True, both Spencer and Huxley reject a crudematerialism (as does everyone else!–in metaphysics), but insofar as they insist that any science or total group of sciences can adequately explain life (even “ for our purposes”), they hardly escape the most fatal (though not indeed the most obvious) affliction of this point of view. 7 For although Spencer’s critical examination of the elementary conceptions of the scientific explanation of the world appears to leave them in a most equivocal situation, yet inasmuch as they are assumed to be adequate, not only for certain purposes, but for all our purposes, thus far they become dogma. The confusion between practical truth-value and fixed realistic truth-relation betrays Spencer into the assignment of greater inclusiveness to his symbols than they actually denote.

That our knowledge is, in its relation, real, though limited, is the upshot of Spencer’s argument. A naifrealism (for, as Mr. Balfour has shown, so far as Spencer’s realism comes to anything, this is what it comes to) which tacitly asserts and implicitly denies a correspondence theory of truth is arrested at just the point at which any theory becomes completely transmogrified. 8 To accept this sort of alteration (where we alteration find), 9 and to account for it, is just the task of metaphysics. But Spencer stops short of metaphysics. He forgets that any knowledge, upon his own provisional basis, is self-contradictory. Only by such an oversight, by positing this knowledge downright, are we able to conclude with a confession of positive ignorance. For ignorance and knowledge are relative, and unless we indeed possess some certain knowledge we have no right to assert any certain ignorance. Spencer’s Unknowable is...

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