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On 24 Feb 1914, Eliot presented the second of four short papers for Professor Royce’s seminar. Costello records the title as “Description and Explanation,” briefly summarizes the argument, and paraphrases the exchange that ensued between Royce and Eliot ( JRS118-21).

Explicationby reference of a case to a law           by reference of an illusion to a reality           by reference of an effect to a cause           by metaphysical interpretation _________________________

Description, unless otiose, is always more than description, for it involves a change of point of view; and explanation never really explains, because it involves the maintenance of one point of view (an act of will, so to speak) and this maintenance is impossible.


There can be in the end no merely particular existences. Yet existence as presented is always, in theory, merely particular. With given facts, we can do one of two things; we can either interpret them by reference to a ground or cause, or we can endeavour to hold them before the attention and describe them as given. This distinction I believe valid, though relative, and not to be pressed too closely. Now the conscious attempt to describe is a more sophisticated operation than the attempt to explain; and in the primitive consciousness the fact(phenomenon), which we treat, is not given. For the primitive, it may be said with a certain degree of truth, there are no facts. There is appearance, but not observation; and the ground or cause which has the least affinity to the appearance has often perhaps for this reason the most cogency to the primitive mind; it is not sought to relate the two as one type of reality to another, but to find a reality with an empathetic potency, so to speak, of producing an appearance of the sort; the kinship of cause and effect, and ground and consequence, is thus not external, mechanistic, but internal and volitional, a kinship of references, not of common character. The cause is most likely an agent which would be apt to will such an effect. The assertion that such and such phenomena are due to will is in one way or another perhaps the most primitive and perhaps as well the most ultimate form of explanation that we know and use.

The progress of science is to some extent an advance through progressive dissatisfaction, and the difference is one of degree. Any stage of explanation, I believe, depends upon the maintenance of a particular point of view; and an animistic explanation is possible so long as we can maintain (by what is in a sense an act of will) this internality which makes the subjective and volitional more real to us than anything else. I am, accordingly, saying nothing blasphemously heterodox if I assert that it cannot be wholly true that any explanation is wholly wrong.

The explanation by reference of case to law or of consequence to ground is of course the perception of relation of particulars to a universal. The explanation by volition easily passes over into this, because the will tends to become a universal; a cause which is the cause only of this one particular effect is recognised to be no explanation, and becomes part of a total nexus to be explained. If the will, on the one hand, is the particular volition, it does not explain: if it tends to be universalised, it is more and more set over against and contrasted with the indefinite possibilities of effect. The particular reverts to the particular, and ceases to be adequately subsumed by the will.

Ordinarily, we have explanation in time through cause and effect, and of course, I make the explanation reciprocal, of cause by effect as well as of effect by cause, and so arriving at the conception of a self-contained nexus in which cause and effect are replaced by ground and consequence, and ground and consequence tend to melt into each other. We also have explanation by subsumption, which prima facie involves a different point of view from that of cause and effect. Yet so far as cause...

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