Oakeshott on the Importance of Teaching Differences

Here is Michael Oakeshott in Experience and Its Modes, channeling Bradley:

To bother about a confusion de genres is the sign of decadent thought.  –But this is not the view of the matter I have come to take.  For…it became increasingly clear that unless these forms of experience were separated and kept separate, our experience would be unprotected against the most insidious and crippling of all forms of error–irrelevance.  And when we consider further the errors and confusion, the irrelevance and cross-purposes, which follow from a failure to determine the exact character and significance of (for example) scientific or historical experience, it becomes possible to suppose that those who offer us their opinions upon these topics may have something to say of which we should take notice.  To dismiss the whole affair as a matter of mere words is the first impulse only of those who are ignorant of the chaos into which experience degenerates when this kind of question is answered perfunctorily or is left altogether without an answer.  “Truth”, says Bacon, “comes more easily out of error than out of confusion”:  but the view I have to recommend is that confusion, ignoratio elenchi, is itself the most fatal of all errors, and that it occurs whenever argument or inference passes from one world of experience to another, from what is abstracted on one principle from what is abstracted upon another, from what is abstract to what is concrete, and from what is concrete to what is abstract…So far, then, as this part of my subject is concerned, it may be considered as an investigation of the character of irrelevance or ignoratio elenchi.

(Oakeshott names Bradley’s Appearance and Reality as one of the two books, along with Hegel’s Phenomenology, from which he has learnt the most.)

Bradley’s Critique















That logic has already, from the earliest times, proceeded upon this sure path is evidenced by the fact that since Aristotle it has not required to retrace a single step, unless, indeed, we care to count as improvements the removal of certain needless subtleties or the clearer exposition of its recognized teaching, features which concern the elegance rather than the certainty of the science. It is remarkable also that to the present day this logic has not been able to advance a single step, and is thus to all appearance a closed and completed body of doctrine. If some of the moderns have thought to enlarge it by introducing psychological chapters on the different faculties of knowledge (imagination, wit, etc.), metaphysical chapters on the origin of knowledge or on the different kinds of certainty according to difference in the objects (idealism, skepticism, etc.), or anthropological chapters on prejudices, their causes and remedies, this could only arise from their ignorance of the peculiar nature of logical science. We do not enlarge but disfigure sciences, if we allow them to trespass upon one another’s territory.  [emphasis mine]  The sphere of logic is quite precisely delimited; its sole concern is to give an exhaustive exposition and a strict proof of the formal rules of all thought, whether it be a priori or empirical, whatever be its origin or its object, and whatever hindrances, accidental or natural, it may encounter in our minds.

I have been reading and teaching F. H. Bradley.  I have also been reading about him–reading T. S. Eliot, Geoffrey Hill, Alan Donagan and others.  Bradley wrote wonderfully (and I have remarked on his prose previously on the blog).  But Bradley was a genuinely gifted thinker as well as stylist.  At the heart of his work is stationed the acknowledgment that Kant expresses above (“We do not enlarge but disfigure…”) and Bradley observes it dutifully throughout all his work.

Consider one important, wholly characteristic passage:

The supposed gulf between sheer errors and utter truths is, again, created by the same vice of abstractionism.  A truth so true that it has no other side, and an error so false that it contains no truth, I have condemned as idols.  They are to me no better than the truths which are never at all born in time, or again the truths whose life does not pass beyond that which is made and unmade by chance and change…

On the one hand it is the entire Reality alone which matters.  On the other hand, every single thing, so far as it matters, is so far real, real in its own place and degree, and according as more or less it contains and carries out the in-dwelling character of the concrete Whole.  But there is nothing anywhere in the world which, taken barely in its own right and unconditionally, has importance and is real.  And one main work of philosophy is to show that, where there is isolation and abstraction, there is everywhere, so far as this abstraction forgets itself, unreality and error.

This:  Bradley’s peculiar anti-reductionism.  Bradley’s (Absolute) idealism largely resolves into this anti-reductionism.  It is easy to miss it, in part because Bradley’s talk of abstractionism makes you think up not down as reductionism usually does.  The anti-reductionism yeilds an ideal-ized version of Butler:  Everything is what it is and not another thing, and in the place that it is and not another place, and to the degree that it is and not to another.

Everything is justified as being real in its own sphere and degree, but not so as to entitle it to invade other spheres, and, whether positively or negatively, to usurp other powers…And it is the true Absolute alone that gives its due to every interest just because it refuses to everything more than its own due.  Justice in the name of the Whole to each aspect of the world according to its special place and proper rank–Reality everywhere through self-restriction and in denial…

For Bradley, philosophy enforces justice in the name of the Whole.  Isolation discounts the Whole for the sake of a part; abstraction discounts the part for the sake of the Whole. We may, if we need, knowingly isolate or knowingly abstract–knowingly discount Whole or part for the sake of the other.  But we must not allow ourselves to forget what we are doing, and so lose either the Whole or the part.  Bradley knew that to take thought is almost always to isolate or to abstract, and so he knew that taking thought renders the thinker liable to unreality or error.  The only way to resist the unreality or error is to remain constantly aware not only of the product of isolation or abstraction, but also of the process of isolation or abstraction that produced it, and so not lose sight of the product’s limited value and reality.  Philosophy itself matters, remains real, only through self-restriction and in denial.  Bradley would have appreciated J. L. Austin’s metaphilosophical reminder–neither a be-all nor and end-all be.

Bradley’s work is a remarkable conceptual successor of Kant’s; it is thoroughly Critical, and so thoroughly critical.  It builds nothing but character.



Dorothy Parker, Coda (Poem)

There’s little in taking or giving,
There’s little in water or wine;
This living, this living, this living
Was never a project of mine.
Oh, hard is the struggle, and sparse is
The grain of the one at the top,
For art is a form of catharsis,
And love is a permanent flop,
And work is the province of cattle,
And rest’s for a clam in a shell,
So I’m thinking of throwing the battle–
Would you kindly direct me to hell?

Adventure the Great, Old Fashion (Music Review)


Susan Sontag once observed that she was only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation. Me too. What interests me is aiming to attain the unattained but attainable self. What interests me is clambering from glory to glory. –We cannot remain what we are. In the realm of what Kierkegaard would have called ‘the spirit’, we are either moving forward or we are backsliding: there is no standing still.

Chandler Jones’ EP, Old Fashion, details self-transformation. Each song is an action–an active attempt at becoming something else, something better. The final line of “Phantom in Black” underscores this effort:

My final declaration is to be a better man.

Although the word is not one often used in connection with popular music, these are all ultimately songs that edify, that build up. The lyrics are thick with images, awash in color. They often use the conceptual resources of Christianity but without ever becoming ‘Christian rock’ or ‘praise music’. (Shudder.) Instead, the songs employ the concepts to sensitize, deepen and intensify the efforts of self-transformation. Consider the confrontation with a tempter, figured first as Judas, then as the devil, in “Devil, Please”. The singer is tempted to deny the reality of himself and his life, to see it all as illusion.  Few blues songs have ever found their way into this metaphysical register, and yet the song remains recognizably a blues song.

I took a walk to Potter’s field
And I met a man with blood on his hands
who told me nothing’s real

The claim that nothing is real is refused not by epistemological hijinks, by refuting skepticism, by exhuming the foundations of knowledge, but by empathizing with, by forgiving the claimant–even if neither is easy.  No one promised that membership in the priesthood of believers would be simple.

My lips are red
I kissed the blood off your hands
If I anoint you with oil
And start to recoil
I’m not used to this

Jones’ lyrics are aphoristic–almost any of group of lines is an individually quotable unit–and yet they cohere, held together by his unique sensibility.  They are occasionally opaque, but never defensive, presenting puzzles (when they do) because they are voicing what is genuinely puzzling, mysterious.  And the lyrics are tactful, pulling back at the right moment, careful of the trap of chattering nonsense that ensnares those who try to explain mysteries instead of presenting them.  Mysteries are not darkness in which we cannot see, but blinding light into which we cannot peer:  but by their light we see the light we see.

The melodies are well-paired with the lyrics, delicate and memorable.  Jones has a warm voice, instinct with life.  The guitar work–the guitar is the lone instrument on the album–has an “in the moment” feel that compliments the vocals.  Nothing seems studied, overworked.

The hardest thing to say about Jones’ songs is how beautiful they are, and in the particular way that they are.  I am tempted to call each a different construction out of nearly transparent colored panes of glass, fragile and lovely.  But that shortchanges the pliant responsiveness of each.  Maybe the best thing to say is that each reduplicates the earnest striving of a human soul, a striving after beautiful-goodness (what the Greeks termed καλός καγαθός) that–in its own mysterious way–colors the striving itself beautiful-good.

Jones is a young songwriter of real promise.  Give him a careful hearing.


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