The Naming of *Thats* Is a Difficult Matter

T.S. Eliot on Knowledge and Experience

Raymond Barfield

"Out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name." (Genesis 2:19)
"Try to think of what anything would be if you refrained from naming it altogether, and it will dissolve into sensations which are not objects; and it will not be that particular object which it is, until you have found the right name for it." (TSE, Knowledge and Experience, p .134)

In 1916 T.S. Eliot submitted his dissertation, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley, to the philosophy faculty at Harvard, but he did not return to complete the remainder of the requirements for his doctorate. His wife urged him to publish the book, and in 1964 he did so as a 'biographical curiosity', claiming, "I do not pretend to understand it" (10).[1] For the sake of this essay I will at least pretend. Though Bradley's philosophy is ostensibly the topic of the dissertation, his presence is in the background more that one might anticipate. The reason seems to be that Eliot was feeling his way toward something that went well beyond the details of his various arguments, despite the occasional and unsurprising side-show erudition and granular references to a handful of mostly-forgotten contemporaries—it is a dissertation, after all. If the details of the arguments are important for reasons beyond the goal of satisfying his dissertation director, they are important in the way that X's on map are important: they point past themselves to something that Eliot hunted down his entire life. His book is less like exegesis and more like a riff on Bradley. That is why I say that Eliot was 'feeling his way toward something'. Feeling is at the center of what he was doing, and the 'felt thought' was, so to speak, the still point around which everything else moved as he explored what we are to do with the world as it shows up to us, the world as it appears. "There is no greater mistake," he wrote, "than to think that feeling and thought are exclusive—that those beings which think most and best are not also those capable of the most feeling" (18). But saying what these feelings are and what they mean is difficult. "The naming of feelings, while it may give a very imperfect clue to their nature, is nevertheless of greatest importance" (23). Throughout the book Eliot periodically points out how hard it is to say what he wants to say: "The account I offer is, I know, anything but lucid! I can only plead in excuse that the point is one of the most difficult in the theory of knowledge" (100). This difficulty never left him, and he tried over and over, and in different ways, to elucidate this central reality that began to take shape in the dissertation:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion.

         (Four Quartets, 'East Coker', V)

But once a reader begins to sense the contours of what Eliot was trying to get at, his fundamental framing idea quickly brings to mind echoes from others who have tried to say the same in their own way. In this essay I will begin with Eliot's Knowledge and Experience, and will then try to say as clearly as I can why the emergence of a similar idea in other writers has illuminated Eliot's quest for me. His large, framing idea addressed the possibility of experiencing the world as a unity, a genuine experience of wholeness that goes beyond the incremental approach of the fact-gatherer and the discursive laborer.

The resonance between Eliot and other thinkers first struck me when I was in the Bodleian Library going through Owen Barfield's archives, and I came across a letter from Barfield's publisher:

25 March 1960

Dear Mr. Barfield,
        Thank you for your letter of the 10th February, which had to await my return from a winter holiday, imposed by reasons of health, in Morocco. My trouble is called emphysema.
        Incidentally I must take this opportunity of telling you my very high opinion of your last book that we published, Saving the Appearances. It is one of those books which make me proud to be a director of the firm which publishes them. It seemed to me too profound for our feeble generation of critics nowadays. I seem to remember that at the time when some of our critics ought to have been tackling it, they were exciting themselves about Colin Wilson's 'Outsider'. Such is the decay of literary journalism in this generation.

                                            Yours Sincerely,

                                            T.S. Eliot

I had no idea Eliot had published that book, but I thought, "Of course he had a high opinion of it." There are few books that can be read more profitably alongside Knowledge and Experience than Barfield's remarkable Saving the Appearances. Barfield had a willingness to say things that he knew his contemporaries might find strange. I would not be surprised if Eliot admired this a bit. Owen Barfield, Giambattista Vico, and Wallace Stevens all, in their own ways, illuminate Eliot's central idea. Before considering how, there are a few housekeeping details drawn from Bradley's own philosophy that need to be mentioned.

Much of Eliot's poetry and prose (including his prose style, he claims) was deeply influenced by Bradley and his unique form of idealism. Bradley resisted the idealism of Berkley (for whom a knower creates an object by knowing it), the dualistic idealism of Kant (for whom the knower transforms an object by knowing, leaving the knower and the thing-in-itself separated by an unbridgeable chasm), and, to a lesser extent, the idealism of Hegel (for whom the knower and the known belong to a 'whole' that is an all-inclusive actualization of 'Geist'). For Bradley the subject and the object come into existence at the same time within an event he identifies by his technical term, 'experience'. There is a kind of 'whole' within his idealism in which there is no separation of a subject from an object because, at the point that this whole experience comes into existence, there is no distinction between subject and object.

Against the backdrop of Bradley's idealism, Eliot set out to investigate the question whether or not it is possible for the self to know anything outside itself, and the short answer is 'yes'. What we actually can know falls short of what we wish to know, but Eliot yearned for wholeness in his experience of the world, and much of his life and art was an attempt to achieve it. And yet all around him and within him the world fell into unconnected pieces. It is a fallen world indeed, but the hope for a return to the experience of the world as whole shows up in various ways throughout his life. He had no interest in the kind of knowledge desired by those who find Cartesian certainty seductive—for Eliot that seduction was brought to an end by the crisis of epistemology that occurred at the turn of the 20th century. His book, finally, is a book about faith. It is about the inescapability of faith and good-will in constructing a view of the world as a whole. He used some strange language, but the language he used was not nearly as strange as the thing he tried to say.

A play-by-play account of the book would be tedious—better to just read the book. But there are some ideas from Bradley that are worth clarifying so that Eliot's conclusions make sense, and these ideas are important for understanding Eliot's poetry as well. Misunderstanding of these ideas have led some readers to conclude that Eliot was a solipsist—he was not, and he argued vigorously against solipsism.

At the heart of Bradley's thought was the concept of 'experience'. He used the word in several unique ways, and the easiest way to misunderstand Bradley (and Eliot) is to misunderstand what he meant by these different versions of 'experience'. The distinctions are so important that a separate essay could be written addressing nothing but the word 'experience' in the poems. There are three kinds of experience. Immediate experience precedes any distinction between the knower and the known, between the subject and the object. "It is only in immediate experience that knowledge and its object are one" (19). It is a direct experience of knowing and feeling, but it cannot be called 'mine' because this kind of experience is prior to any category called my 'self'. Immediate experience does not belong to a self. It is identified with what Bradley, and Eliot following him, called 'finite centers'. Defining a 'finite center' is daunting, and so I will avoid trying to do so other than to quote Eliot's enigmatic, and humble attempt: "The finite center, so far as I can pretend to understand, is immediate experience" (205). It is the unified whole prior to the distinction of self from non-self, a whole that will, alas, break up into relational consciousness. But prior to this dissolving, it just is immediate experience, the only thing that can be called 'reality'. Insofar as this is true, perhaps saying more about immediate experience will give a hint about what Bradley and Eliot mean by 'finite center'.

Immediate experience is the root from which grows the desire for 'wholeness' and the overcoming of dualism, Kantian or otherwise. It is direct apprehension of reality as a unity. As a unity, it encompasses the whole, and so it does not reside in individual consciousness because that would already be to introduce dualism of the mind/matter or knower/known type. Immediate experience is doomed to fall apart because our conscious, self-aware intellects are compelled to organize immediate experience, beginning with the distinction between the conscious intellect and those parts of experience that are not conscious intellect, and continuing the process of parsing up experience spatially (here/there), temporally (now/then), ontologically (mind/matter), and epistemologically (knower/known). Unity is lost and the mind is trapped on one side of 'reality'—a 'reality' that is actually an abstraction from the unified reality of the whole, and so a 'reality' that is unreal. This is the second kind of experience. "By the failure of any experience to be merely immediate, by its lack of harmony and cohesion, we find ourselves as conscious souls in a world of objects" (31).

How do we find our way from the fall back to unity? How do we find the way when it is precisely our intelligence that breaks up the unity of immediate experience in the first place? We cure cancer with intelligence. We get to the moon with intelligence. We create nuclear bombs with intelligence. Why would intellect be the source of disharmony and unreality? Is there any way back to wholeness for intelligent creatures such as ourselves?

The answer is that there is reason for hope, but achieving the way is difficult for one rich in intellect—it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. If there is a way, it lies in the third kind of experience Bradley and Eliot describe, transcendent experience. After immediate experience falls apart, the discursive intellect does the work of cataloguing fragments and divisions, and then it draws lines between the dots in a laborious effort to recover some approximation of wholeness through 'relations'. But the discursive intellect can never achieve unity. In immediate experience, knowing and feeling are joined. After the discursive intellect comes on the scene, the only way back to unity is through transcendent experience in which thinking (rather than 'knowing') and feeling are one. For Eliot, Donne was the poet who exemplified the ways that thought can modify experience, so that, in a manner of speaking, thinking is felt, we experience a 'felt thought':

Donne, I suppose, was such another
Who found no substitute for sense,
To seize and clutch and penetrate;
Expert beyond experience...

         ('Whispers of Immortality')

This stanza is one of many examples in which attention to the category of 'experience' that is being referred to is important. Discursive intellect lives in a kind experiential purgatory, always approximating, but never reaching beatitude. Transcendent experience converts the discursive intellect, and gives it a new purpose and end. The wholeness that was simply present in immediate experience is achieved in transcendent experience as the intellect is made to serve the aim of wholeness, learning to feel thought. Thinking dissolved immediate experience into objects and relations that are unreal. Thinking by itself filters reality so that reality never shows up as reality, but as abstractions that are unreal and bound only by strings of relations that always fall short of unity and so always keep us from reality. We try to get closer. "That at which we aim is the real as such; and the real as such is not an object …. You start, or pretend to start, from experience—from any experience—and build your theory. You begin with truths which everyone will accept, perhaps, and you find connections which no one else has discovered" (167). Whether or not we can actually achieve transcendent experience is unclear, and the youthful hope Eliot places in transcendent experience seems to diminish over the course of his life, though it is replaced by a different hope that I will mention further on.

So what is it that is 'felt'? Oddly enough, what we feel is immediate experience. Immediate experience is always present in the background. We can feel it there, and our hope for achieving wholeness requires that we learn to feel this background, and to make it an object of thought, without refracting it into parts. Because this activity is not itself immediate experience, we still experience objects in the world as distinct from ourselves, and ourselves as distinct from objects. There is a sense in which the discipline of transcendent experience seems to require that we live among dichotomies such as the knower and the known, but that we hold in abeyance the dichotomous nature of the world as it is experienced. In order to do this, we must understand the constructed nature of an object and of the world encountered between immediate experience and transcendent experience, the purgatory of the intellect. In this middle world, naming is of upmost importance. "It is not true that language is simply a development of our ideas; it is a development of reality as well" (44).

In the Eliot quote that opens this essay he tells us that without naming an object, we would experience only unbundled sensation, not objects. For an object to be an object rather than an unstrung series of particular perceptions, it has to retain a kind identity in difference over time. Particular perceptions occur in time, moment by moment, tied to the moment and unrelated to other moments. The perception, the content of one moment, is related to the content of another moment only via the object that endures. But if the object is not the moment-bound particular perceptions, what constitutes the difference between a perception and an object? The answer is, its name. "Without words, no objects" (132). Like Wallace Stevens' jar in Tennessee that 'made the slovenly wilderness surround that hill', for Eliot, "we arrive at objects … by meaning objects; sensations organize themselves around a (logical) point of attention and the world of feeling is transmogrified into a world of self and object" (137). Between the extremes of immediate and transcendent experience, we can have a world only if we have objects and relations among those objects, and within this world the reality of an object will depend upon both the boundary given by the name, and the relations the object has to other things in the world. "Every perception has an object, and whether that object is 'real' or not depends simply on the number and kind of relations which, in a particular context, we may for practical purposes demand: reality is a convention" (98). If we want to know what an object is, we must know its name. If we want to know whether or not an object is 'real' or 'imaginary' we must know its relations. Nor is the distinction between the 'real' and the 'imaginary' absolute: it is always relative to the conventions that are constitutive of my reality, and even within my constituted reality there is room for degrees of reality depending upon the number and kind of relations that exist. "Some of our sharpest agonies are those in which the object of desire is regarded as both possible and imaginary, in which in fact the aspro martiro is due to the irony of the contrast: the mistress exists as possessed in the real world of anticipation of the disappointed lover, while present reality is forcing itself in upon him with the conviction that this possession is imaginary" (54).

This means that in the middle world between immediate and transcendent experience, there is no one 'convention' to which 'reality' conforms. "The false assumption of epistemology [is] that there is one world of external reality which is consistent and complete: an assumption which not only ungrounded but in some sense certainly false. Reality contains irreducible contradictions and irreconcilable points of view" (112).

It is not at all clear that we can actually achieve transcendent experience. Nor is it is clear that 'felt thought' is possible. Owen Barfield created a related image of the contemporary poetic mind oscillating ever faster between the poles of thought and feeling, but this is still oscillation, and the poetic thinker is always approaching unity asymptotically. Wallace Steven's created the more pessimistic image of 'the palm at the end of the mind', and suggested that the palm might always remain at the end of the mind: to reach it, first the mind must end. For Eliot, even if transcendent experience is not possible, we are compelled to pursue it. As people with intellects, we might say that our true 'end', in the sense of purpose, is to achieve transcendent experience, and even if the end cannot be reached, the life of mind and feeling depend on trying. We live in a fallen world as exiles from the garden. We have eaten from the tree of knowledge, and that is our fall from reality, from unity, from wholeness. Stevens reconciled himself to the approximation he called Supreme Fiction, but the sadness of Stevens is that Supreme Fiction is fiction. Eliot could not bear this. He agreed that we make our fictions in philosophy and poetry, and they are never complete. They are never complete in part because we cannot achieve reality, and in part because we cannot accept that we cannot achieve reality. But he also thought that "it is the business of philosophy to keep the frontiers open. If I have insisted on the practical (pragmatic?) in the constitution and meaning of objects, it is because the practical is a practical metaphysics. And this emphasis upon practice—upon the relativity and the instrumentality of knowledge—is what impels us toward the Absolute" (169). That is the sentence with which he ended his dissertation. Later I believe he came to see that we can never reach the Absolute unless the Absolute reaches towards us. He did not want a Supreme Fiction. He wanted a True Myth. And the only True Myth that sufficed for Eliot was Christianity, the story not of humanity reaching the Absolute, but of God reaching us.

The philosophical life begins in imagination, it reaches past the stories about the world that are handed to us as children, and it proceeds in light of who we are—fallible creatures who hunger for reality, but whose lives last only a few decades. This imaginative journey into reality does not have to go far before we realize that, whatever the truth may be, our grasp of it is never certain, and the time we have to explore and to commit is short. Given these conditions, we quickly realize that if we are going to flourish in this life we must have at least a few basic starting points upon which to build. Every account must start somewhere. Wherever we start building our theories, we must always ask, "Is this the reality of my world of appearance?" (168). If we do not recognize it, we say no. But accepting any metaphysics as my own requires a kind of good-will. We must assume that truth is one, Eliot insists, and that reality is one. "But dissension rises when we ask the question: what one?" (168). To begin the journey toward this reality we simply must have faith that reality is one, even if our theory gets it wrong. Metaphysics is a form of play. "A metaphysical doctrine pretends to be 'true' simply, and none of our pragmatic tests will apply" (168). But it is only by playing that we feel the contours of reality emerge.

Dante describes something similar in the final Canto of the Divine Comedy. After his vision of Supreme Light that overwhelms him—"Our human speech is dark before the vision"—he describes a rapturous form of contemplation that pushes poets, philosophers, and lovers to press on in hope, risking wild error rather than settling on a timid version of what is possible in the universe, and what is true:

And so it was, as I recall, I could
The better bear to look, until at last
My vision made one with the Eternal Good.

Oh grace abounding that had made me fit
To fix my eyes on the eternal light
Until my vision was consumed in it:

I saw within Its depths how it conceives
All things in a single volume bound by love,
Of which the universe is the scattered leaves;

Substance, accident, and their relation
So fused that all I say could do no more
than yield a glimpse of that bright revelation.

I think I saw the universal form
That binds these things, for as I speak these words
I feel my joy swell and my spirits warm.

         (Canto XXXIII, 79-93, trans. John Ciardi)

A 'single volume bound by love, of which the universe is the scattered leaves,' is the Christian version of that whole encountered in immediate experience that falls into the dichotomies we meet with our intellects. When Eliot converted to Christianity, he may have found a more satisfying way of saying what drew him toward Bradley's idealism and the possibility of transcendent experience: the adventure of discovering that 'single volume bound by love' is an adventure worthy of a whole life as we try, through poetic, philosophical, religious, or scientific acts, to glimpse the light, and to test the veracity of our discoveries by feeling and thought.

The worlds of Bradley's Absolute and that of Eliot's later Christianity are very different worlds indeed. Within those worlds, the meanings of thought, feeling, and the act of naming are very different. It matters what kind of universe we live in, and in between immediate experience and transcendent experience, the meaning of that central act of naming what we meet in the world depends crucially on the kind of universe in which we dwell. My favorite example of someone who understood this is Wallace Stevens. Stevens wrote, "After one has abandoned belief in God, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption." He had a potent account of the power of the poetic imagination to mediate, conceal, or distort reality, to give meaning to the world as we experience it, to give to life "the supreme fictions without which we are unable to conceive of it." When he found the universe empty of God, and teetering on being empty of meaning, he pressed poetry into service as the instrument of the poet allowing meaning to arise from himself. For him, the made thing gives meaning to the world of nature in a way that things rising up in nature—a bird or a bush—cannot do:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Stevens' supreme fiction, made possible in and through poetry, is his version of poetic wisdom in a universe that does not itself have any meaning, and it resides only in the mind of the poet and the reader of the poem. Stevens' compulsion toward meaning in a meaningless universe was urgent, and he pressed unusually hard on poetry in the service of making meaning, having few other resources at his disposal. In his poem 'Notes toward a Supreme Fiction' each of the three sections was given a guiding title:

It must be abstract.
It must change.
It must give pleasure.

In poetry he found something powerful that might well have only been discovered under the weight of potential universal meaninglessness, and his discovery also pointed him toward certain philosophical ideas drawn from the meaningless universe that are nonetheless poetic, ideas such as the infinity of the world. This is a poetic idea, he says, because it gives the imagination sudden life.[2]Another poetic idea is the idea that we see the world only after the completion of the process we call 'seeing' (involving the eye, neural pathways, the brain), so that we never see the world as it is in the moment, but rather as it is a moment after. This turns the material world into an immaterial world, an image in the mind. This idea transforms the world. And he thought that the idea of God is the ultimate poetic idea, with the idea of ascent into heaven only a little below it. The act of thinking ideas that are inherently poetic, is not thinking in a poetic way, thinking in figures like a poet. Nor is it writing philosophical poems. Stevens is pointing us towards ideas of philosophy that are poetic concepts. The fundamental act and desire of philosophy, knowing the truth of the whole, is grounded in its poetic origin.

The poets and the philosophers are unified in their habit of forming concepts, but they differ in the use they have for the things in the world and the ends towards which they incline. It is a difficult and never-ending task to say exactly what poetry and philosophy are. Stevens tries to trace the distinction through several formulations, but he does not find a way out of the shadows that blur the line. He says, for example, "If the philosopher's world is this present world plus thought, then the poet's world is this present world plus imagination."[3] Philosophical thought carries us to the point beyond which there is only imagination. But when imagination carries us beyond this point—he mentions the idea of God as precisely such an act—the power of the imagination is supreme.[4]

The imagination feels past what is accessible through experiment in the material world, and it feels past the analysis of philosophical reasoning. This is why imagination is both lauded for reaching towards new kinds of truth, and considered untrustworthy since it is not governed by the limits that mark the world of clear, reasoned thought that remains skeptical until the evidence is sufficient, whatever 'sufficient' means. That said, there is a criterion of 'truth' in poetry that allows us to speak meaningfully of a 'true metaphor', one that illuminates the world by naming things as much as any mathematical formula or scientific generalization—as when Stevens names 'the palm at the end of the mind'.

Naming was once part of how we participated in the act of creation. In the myth of Genesis, after God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air out of the ground, something wonderful happened: God "brought them to man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name" (Gen 2:19). In the myth of creation the universe was full of meaning, and poetry was the naming of things, a naming that was watched and delighted in by the creator. It was a means of discovery. Without a creator, language cannot show us true things about the world in the same way, and the mind encounteres the specter of meaninglessness. Young Eliot filled the void by arguing that naming is constitutive of objects as we experience them. Stevens had a different approach to recovering the power of naming. Steven's recapitulation of Genesis in the absence of a God presses the limits of what poetry is and does. His poetry is pleasurable, enlivening, and puzzling. It often reaches towards something colorful and concrete, if not so easily intelligible, like the utterances of mystics telling about their encounters with God in nature, in prayer, or in contemplation. His poems stand against meaninglessness. They are driven by the endless fuel of darkness from beyond the last palm threatening our minds that long for meaning. The darkness is seeping into the boat, and because we are in the middle of this dark ocean, we fill our buckets over and over, trying to keep the boat dry and habitable, afloat above the endless darkness. This is the work of Steven's poetry. There is an excitement of the mind in his response to the empty universe. He creates a strange sense of limit, and the adventure of a mind stretching toward that limit. Here is the whole poem:

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

The fork in the road is this: if the wind turned out to be the same wind that swept over the face of the waters just before God said, "Let there be light," things would be rather different than Stevens had room for in his metaphysics. This is a doubt that gnawed at Eliot more than Stevens. Even if it still holds that "it is not the reason that makes us happy or unhappy", everything depends upon the character of that wind.

To my mind Eliot and Stevens are mutually illuminating when we try to think about the odd congruence between our minds and the meaning in the world, achieved through naming. There is yet another account of this relationship. In his Inaugural Address, Giambatista Vico argued that the entire 'universe of learning' should be the aim of the human mind, and that the key to all accumulated knowledge is that we rightly know ourselves.[5] Vico offers his own myth in The New Science that resonates deeply with Eliot's account of immediate experience, the fall, and the yearning for unity in transcendent experience. The master key to his system, which he claims cost him twenty years of labor, is the principle that the "origins both of the languages and letters lies in the fact that the first Gentile peoples, by a demonstrated necessity of nature, were poets who spoke in poetic characters" (NS, 34).[6] The discoveries of the first poets, and the poetic and philosophical developments that followed, occurred in the metaphysical world of human minds in which divine providence was at work.

According to Vico's myth human thinking began in the crude and stupid minds of the founders of the Gentile nations, people who were "all robust sense and vast imagination" (NS, 6). These were the theological poets, and this poetry was the first wisdom. Through the poetic wisdom of the theological poets, divine reason was shown to these Gentiles who descended from Ham, Japheth and Shem. The history proceeded under the influence of divine providence through three ages that were the age of gods, in which the Gentiles lived under divine government and were commanded by oracles, the age of heroes, in which an aristocratic commonwealth was established, and the age of men, in which equality in human nature was recognized, and monarchies and popular commonwealths arose (NS, 31). Language likewise moved from that of the theological poets who spoke a language of signs with a natural relation to the ideas expressed, through Homer and Hesiod who advanced to the language of image and metaphor, to the free self-awareness of Socrates whose language was ruled by his own consciousness.

This pseudo-mythical progression under providence was Vico's answer to Eliot's question about what we know outside the self. Vico described a movement of consciousness that was rooted in the language from which it first erupted, that grew free of the first language, and that eventually became capable of moving among languages, finally yielding a new capacity of abstraction in philosophical consciousness. From the beginning, minds shaped by the mythic wholeness of their worlds tended to ask what the meaning of a thing is. This was even the disposition of the filthy giganti uttering their poetic grunts in response to celestial events. "Curiosity," Vico writes in Axiom 39, "when wonder awakens our minds, has the habit, wherever it sees some extraordinary phenomenon of nature, a comet for example, a sundog, or a midday star, of asking straight away what it means" (NS, 189). The question of meaning first arose in the poetic wisdom of the theological poets because we are creatures who seek the meanings of things and our place in the fabric of the whole. In the beginning meaning was firmly bound up with the name of a thing, the true name, and every named thing had its place in the mythic whole.

The Gentile giganti were incapable of abstraction. Their metaphysics derived from a corporeal imagination responding to the world as it appeared in lightning and thunder, for example. Because their minds were so utterly buried inside their bodies, they tended to attribute sense and passion to the sky, earth, and sea, and they heard in thunder the voice of Jove whose name marked the start of poetry. The minds of these crude corporeal poets responded to thunder by uttering the name 'Jove' because all nations, developing under the influence of providence, have a hidden sense of the divine as the ground of all that appears in the world (NS, 383). Poetry emerges when things are not separable from their names. It grows within a nation's language. But eventually nations meet and languages collide. When this happens, minds are pried off the particulars of language as poetic names inextricably linked to things. Divine reality is at first inseparable from a nation's particular name for it—Jove, for example. But in the collision of nations and languages, humanity learns that every nation has its Jove. The collision makes abstraction possible, and this in turn changes our ideas about names, language, and poetry. We move from the imaginative universal to the intelligible universal—to intellect. The original unity of myth falls apart—it is the fall. As we become capable of thinking about the divine as such, 'Jove' is relegated to the category of myth. But this is not the end of the story.

Imagination and memory were the means by which the Gentile people understood the world and the divine until the power of abstraction (and irony) produced understanding that proceeds incrementally and through the discursive intelligence of the philosophers (NS, 662). The move from the theological poets to the philosophers, from the imaginative universal to the intelligible universal, allowed the human mind to ask new questions, and to experience the world in a new way. The world now appears in a new way. What is gained by this change, and what is lost? Of those things that are lost, is there way they might be recovered in a different form, and would that be desirable? This was Vico's question, and it was Eliot's.

What is surely gained in the movement from poetic wisdom to the abstractions and ideas of discursive intellect is an ability to analyze the nature of universals such as beauty, justice, love, truth, and the stuff of the world—matter, forces that attract, forces that repel. The world fragments into pieces, and finding relations among the pieces is the labor of intellect once the mythic whole fractures. Jove is run out of the domain of sky, Poseidon from the sea, and finally all divinities from every corner until the faint final flickers of the theological poets are fully extinguished, leaving only a world amenable to scientific exploration. Over the course of his life Eliot was drawn by a question that I will pose in Vichian terms: Jove may be gone, but what if the attribution of the voice of Jove to thunderstorms, though it was a poor explanation of the thunderbolt's origins, was nonetheless an important clue to something deeply true about the universe? The sky may no longer be revelatory now that we have become conscious discursive thinkers capable of abstraction. But we are nonetheless provoked to ask whether there are other discoveries that await us now that our minds have become what they are.

No single nation's account, no one metaphysics, is complete. But we need not worry over certainty, nor about getting it right, for even when we are mistaken, the tumble itself can carry us closer to the truth of the whole. When the first poets mistakenly attributed divinity to the thunderbolts, there was still something true about the ground of unity that shined through the act (NS, 948). When human consciousness made the poetic leap from thunder to the myth of Jove, this was a step toward grasping reality as one, even if Eliot's question remained after the clash of nations: "What one?" The poets' compulsion to illuminate and unite through language was animated by those unearthly thresholds that make the forest, the night sky, and the girl's face seem to point toward more. Their compulsion was tethered to something real, even if at first it was only felt. Imagination has purposes that are revealed only in its actual exercise, and there are some things that will be said in poetry, or they will not be said at all. As we learn to abstract, this sense of things revealing more than themselves takes a different form, the form Eliot expresses when he says, "To mean an object means to mean it as more than an object, as something ultimately real. And in this way every object leads us far beyond itself to an ultimate reality: this is the justification for our metaphysics" (140). When the ground and history and functions of poetry are forgotten, later forms of thinking risk losing any understanding of their own place and origin, and as the poetic atrophies, abstractions seem to grow in size and importance. This importance is illusory, and if Vico is right, it is also unsustainable.

Why? In his book Poetic Diction, written in 1928, Owen Barfield hit upon an answer similar to Eliot's own. Poetry erupts in this world as an artifact of our awakening and our growth in consciousness. Things are full of meaning for consciousness. Poetry is made up of meaning, and poems are made of words that mean. But even within a single poem, the poet is not the creator of all the meaning in the poem because the meanings of the words themselves depend upon the uses of the words by generations of earlier people. Barfield suggests that all meaning depends upon the ability to recognize "significant resemblances and analogies" that are imparted or else acquired through active work (read here 'establishing relations').[7] As these connections grow, our consciousness expands and wisdom grows. Poetry, in metaphor and simile, reveals relations "between separate external objects, and between objects and feelings or ideas."[8] The mysterious relations are independent of individual thinkers, though not, Barfield suggests, independent of thought. His language is strikingly similar to Eliot's. This assertion requires a strange universe indeed. The first poets in the language of metaphor report these connections as direct experience, which for them is not a relation but a unity. Our developed experience of consciousness allows the anti-poetic experience of analyzing and splitting up concepts, but it also hinders our ability to perceive the original unity, and if we are ever going to restore unity conceptually we will need to relearn the power of metaphor.[9] Our minds now move between two principles, two forces in consciousness, one of which leads to the work of tearing the world down into its parts, and the other to the work of recovering these relationships. "The old, instinctive consciousness of single meanings [roughly, Vico's imaginative universals], which comes down to us as the Greek myths, is already fighting for its life by Plato's time as the doctrine of Platonic Ideas."[01] Following Plato, Aristotle's followers went on to interpret his logic and categories exclusively in terms of abstract universals, and finally, nominalism, with its legacy of modern empirical philosophy and science, obscuring our vision of all but the abstract universals.

The ability of the mind to abstract is usually considered a kind of 'progress' beyond the concrete 'mythic' mind. Our question is, 'Progress toward what?' Why do we want to progress in that direction? What has been lost in the course of this 'progress'? Whatever the experience of these mythical first poets was, their poetic meanings are experienced by us as less and less 'given'. Instead of feeling the givenness of meaning, poets such as Stevens who struggle with abstraction and irony create metaphors, make meaning, and wonder whether a 'made' meaning is really 'made-up' meaning. Barfield acknowledges the insecurity of modern poets, but he insists that the making of metaphor can be true in such a way that it "is only re-creating, registering as thought, one of those eternal facts which may already have been experienced in perception."[11] This is very close to the move toward 'felt thought' that was so important to Bradley and Eliot.

The power that produces the poetry most radiant in our conscious experience is still at work, but in a different way. "The same creative activity, once operative in meaning without man's knowledge or control, and only recognized long afterwards, when he awoke to contemplate, as it were, what he had written in his sleep, this is now to be found within his own consciousness. And it calls him to become the true creator, the maker of meaning itself."[12] Barfield continues the recurrent myth of what poetry was, is and ought to be. The power of naming brings words into new service, and so brings into consciousness the radiance of a thing. When an image draws us toward a felt meaning we did not know was there, we are on a new adventure. The way we hear such a strange view of the world depends on the metaphysics toward which we have good-will, and in which we have faith. Listen again to the first two stanzas of Stevens' poem:

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze decor,

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

For the reader with a metaphysics that views the universe as purposeless, whatever longing the poem might evoke, the bird singing in the palm without human meaning actually sings without any meaning at all, simply because aside from the human meaning instilled in the supreme fiction we concoct, there is no meaning 'out there'. On the other hand, the reader whose metaphysics has room for more than this can agree that the bird sings in the palm without human meaning, while rejoicing in the meaning of the bird singing beyond the last thought, because universe is suffused both with meaning that is human, and meaning that is beyond human. Stretching towards meaning that is not yet ours expands our horizons, and our minds evolve as they respond to unanticipated experiences of felt-thought. Imagination is the power that enables us to make these forays into the as-yet unknown.

Metaphor is the strange capacity 'to see in this, that', and this leads to new names. It looks for ways into the parts of reality that we are not yet capable of grasping directly. Here is a primal example: if there is a God, presumably God is not a bush. But when God appeared to Moses as a burning bush that did not burn up, and when this presence named itself 'I am' or 'I am who I am' or 'I will be what I will be', when it said 'my name is, "he who causes to be"', Moses encountered the reality of the divine in the only way he was capable of grasping it, given his own finitude: through an appearance that was not God, but that revealed God. When the poetic imagination ventures into the world and sees through metaphor, this is distinct from that: otherwise this could not be a metaphor for that. Once we see why this reveals something about that, we are simultaneously holding this and that as distinct, while apprehending a new unity. This experience in poetry strikes me as one important form of the transcendent experience Eliot yearned for, expressed in different terms.

It would be silly to say that great poetry cannot be written in a perfectly drab universe—Wallace Stevens has been my example of choice. But motivated by the yearning Eliot expressed in his dissertation, and in his evolving life as a poet, we can still ask what would happen to poetry in a universe that is not drab, one enlivened by the possibility of real wholeness? A poet can certainly marshal the gifts of poetic imagination and the resources of all language to create a poetic kind of experience that brackets and exalts the trivial. The question is whether poetry can do more. Some poetry will showcase the trivial in delightful ways. Other poetry will shine the beam on tragedy, love's yearning, or nature. But are there other ways poetry might function? The answer does not have to affirm an ability of the poetic imagination to produce oracular utterances revealing the divine mind. But what if poetry opens up things simply because our eyes, minds, and language come from the same origin as the forms that exist in the universe? This question is similar to questions about the mathematical language of the physical universe, and the capacity of our minds to grasp that language.

In the act of naming, poetry uses words that are strange to us, or words that are familiar but put to strange uses, to awaken our minds, reminding us of a strangeness in the world to which we have grown dull. Strangeness can be overwhelming. Eliot saw this in Coleridge: "For a few years he had been visited by the Muse (I know of no poet to whom this hackneyed metaphor is better applicable) and thenceforth was a haunted man; for anyone who has ever been visited by the Muse is thenceforth haunted. He had no vocation for the religious life, for there again somebody like a Muse, or a much higher being, is to be invoked; he was condemned to know that the little poetry he had written was worth more than all he could do with the rest of his life."[13] When poets are haunted, and when they leave the flavor of the haunting in the poems they make, we wonder whether the haunting is present in the world, or only in the poet. Does the poem reveal the haunting, or merely create it? Like poems, telescopes are made things, but the mountains we see on the moon are actually there, and we could not have seen them without the telescope. When a poet sees the strangeness of something and creates a poem, the goal is not for us merely to hear a description of what the poet saw, but rather to participate in the poetry so that our own ability to see can grow.

The strangeness expressed by poetry does not follow merely from unexpectedness, oddness, or curiosity. It arises from the sense that there is something behind, within, beneath, and above the universe as it appears. We can meet this strangeness in our contemplation of daily things without thinking about its source, and we can find words to say what we experience. Here is an example of this by Joanna Field (pseudonym for Marion Milner) that emerged as she asked herself what she wanted from life, what makes a person happy: "Then I chose a small tin mug. It was an ugly object. Nevertheless I tried to keep my thoughts fixed upon it for fifteen minutes. This time I . . . simply let its form imprint itself upon my mind. Slowly I became aware of a quite new knowledge. I seemed to sense what I can only call 'the physics' of that mug. Instead of merely seeing its shape and color I felt what I described to myself as its 'stresses and strains', the pressure of its roundness and solidity and the table holding it up. This sense did not come at once and I suppose it might never have come if I had not sat still and waited. But from this few minutes exercise on a tin mug I found a clue which eventually led me to understand what was the significance of many pictures, buildings, statues, which had before been meaningless."[14] This is the movement of a mind that stops taking common things for granted. It is a kind of aesthetic strangeness. A living poetic imagination lights up things in this way. This 'light' can feels like discovery. The kind of seeing that Field describes might be the first hint of treasure beyond anything we can conceive, a hint about that for which our hearts ultimately yearn.

More than merely creating beautiful artifacts, passing the time, or pleasing a hearer, poetry, even in its role as play, has a purpose, pushing the mind toward the act of becoming conscious of significance in ever new ways, and in the smallest thing. "It is the momentary apprehension of the poetic by the rational into which the former is forever transmuting itself—which is itself forever in the process of becoming. This," Barfield writes, "is what I would call pure poetry. This is the very moonlight of our experience, true and ever-recurring begetter of strangeness; it is the pure idea of strangeness, to which all the others are but imperfect approximations, tainted with personal accidents."[15]

When the imagination is exercised within a metaphysics open to wholeness, the Absolute, or God, its function is transformed, and it becomes a way in. It becomes a way in simply because there is an 'in' to hope for, to pursue, and to prepare for in our poems, stories, music, sculpture, painting, and gardening. When the imagination is baptized in this way, the act of contemplation has both a new partner and new task. It has a new partner because the poetic imagination and the philosophical imagination are bound up with each other in a way that allows both to grow in new ways. It has new tasks because the poets might be saying more than they know, and if so, the philosophers might have adventures ahead of them they could never have imagined otherwise. That is the best we can do. In the last couple of pages, Eliot writes, "So long as our descriptions and explanations can vary so greatly and yet make so little practical difference, how can we say that our theories have that intended identical reference which is the objective criterion for truth and error? And on the other hand our theories make all the difference in the world, because the truth has to be my truth before it can be true at all" (168-169). Fair enough. To this the only thing I would say is what George MacDonald said in his strange little book, A Dish of Orts: "To every person I say, 'Do the truth you know, and you shall learn the truth you need to know'."


  1. T.S. Eliot, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F.H. Bradley. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964).  // back
  2. Wallace Stevens. "A collect of philosophy". Collected Poetry and Prose. (Library of America, 1997) p 851.  // back
  3. Ibid, 864.  // back
  4. Ibid, 865.  // back
  5. Giambattista Vico, On Humanistic Education: Six Inaugural Orations, 1699-1707. Trans. Giorgio A. Pinton. (New York: Cornell UP, 1993) p 50.  // back
  6. Giambattista Vico, The New Science. Trans. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984)—NS in text.  // back
  7. Owen Barfield. Poetic Diction. (Wesleyan Press, 1984) p55.  // back
  8. Ibid, 86.  // back
  9. Ibid, 87.  // back
  10. Ibid, 95.  // back
  11. Ibid, 103.  // back
  12. Ibid, 107.  // back
  13. T.S. Eliot. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism. (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1961) p 59-60.  // back
  14. Joanna Field, "A Life of One's Own," quoted in G. Rostrevor Hamilton, Poetry and Contemplation, (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1937) p71-72.  // back
  15. Poetic Diction, 178.  // back

RAY BARFIELD is Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Christian Philosophy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He received his MD and his PhD (in philosophy) from Emory University. He is a pediatric oncologist with an interest in the intersection of medicine, philosophy, theology and literature. His medical research has focused on immune therapies for childhood cancer (including bone marrow transplantation and antibody therapy) and improvement of the quality of life for children with severe or fatal diseases. His work in philosophy focuses on the imagination, narrative approaches to philosophical issues, and the history of the impact of literature on philosophical thought. He has over 80 publications in medicine, philosophy, and literature. His book The Ancient Quarrel Between Poetry and Philosophy was published by Cambridge University Press, and he has a book of poetry forthcoming called Life In the Blind Spot. Ray directs the Pediatric Quality of Life and Palliative Care Program, and a new Duke initiative called Theology, Medicine and Culture.