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“The validity of artificial distinctions” is the last of six surviving essays that Eliot wrote in the 1914 Michaelmas term for his tutorial with Joachim.

I should like to offer a few remarks upon the validity of the artificial distinctions used in philosophy. I shall defend these distinctions, for I hold that artificial distinctions are necessary; believing that in metaphysics all distinctions are in a sense equally artificial, but that some are truer than others.

Any name I take to be an example of identity in diversity: the meaning of a name always goes beyond and binds together the contexts in which it has been used. While on the one hand, it finds meaning only in use, and while its meaning in use is never complete, but is always being enriched by new application, yet there is always present an element in the meaning which is something different from any sum of uses. On the one hand, it appears to be this identity which holds together the differences, and on the other, the different experiences seem to be all that is. These remarks, I know, are the merest commonplace. But it is easily forgotten that the meaning of a name is not simply present or absent. Rather, it disappears like a gas-balloon into the sky: the person who let the toy escape, and who continues to fix his eye upon it, can still see it long after it has become impossible for a random eye to find. To the philosopher who has been manipulating names in common use, the meaning remains the same, while the critic exclaims that it has been completely and unscrupulously altered. And I conceive that any philosophic explanation which involves the taking over of a term or terms from daily use and disposing the rest of reality according to them–and this is a procedure which enters inevitably into every philosophic progress–is an explanation which is lamentably deficient. You not only cannot prove your result; you cannot within the rights of your own conscience impose it upon your neighbour. It can only be maintained by faith, a faith which, like all faith, should be seasoned with a skilful sauce of scepticism. And scepticism too is a faith, a high and difficult one.

What I have illustrated as occurring to the name is really a feature of all experience: there is something given, and there is always an ideal construction. Experience is through and through practical, and experience is through and through theoretical. It is surely dangerous exaggeration to suppose that there ever was a stage in the history of human or of animal activity when that activity was purely practical, or even “immersed in practice”; and I do not think that the error is turned into truth by adding the qualification “mainly” or “preponderatingly” practical. Every ideal construction is in a sense unwarranted. In every experience there isan ideal element which looks forward to use for its verification, and whose looking forward isits meaning. And a theory which pretended to rest in the present would be without meaning whatever.

There is one very obvious sense in which philosophic theories have their use, a sense to which pragmatism has called more than sufficient attention. Every theory exercises the influence which art and religion exercise. Aesthetically, they present an expression of personality, an artistic whole, which influences by being contemplated; and to every philosophy is allied a more or less intended, more or less legitimate moral tendency–if not several tendencies. But a little inspection will show, I think, that this sort of “use” is here irrelevant, and is not the proper continuation of the looking-forward tendency which is present in any act or judgment. When we speak of the use of so-and-so’s system, we are not thinking of it as true. For if we believe a theory of reality, it is meaningless to assign it a use. Why? Because when or so far as we believe in a system, we are inside it: there is no “theory,” for...

Published By:   Johns Hopkins University Press