Bradley’s Earthy Absolute Idealism

Thus, for the absolutists, the Absolute is not far removed from us; on the contrary, it is everywhere present to us, the all-encompassing totality with which we are constantly in touch in all our intellectual activities and which, as Bosanquet says, persistently drives us from pillar to post.  It is not, as William James mistakenly supposed, “a marble temple shining on a hill”; it is, rather, as James would have it, inextricably involved in the dust and dirt of things.  And, it may be added, the argument to which the absolutists all alike in the end appeal is designed to show precisely this. –G. Watts Cunningham

One of the chief ironies of Bradley’s work is the upside-down way it is typically understood.  Cunningham’s complaint about James certainly captures the irony.  Whatever may be true of the other ‘absolutists’, there is no doubt that Bradley took the Absolute to be dusty and dirty, all up in our face, brawny and inescapable, our goodly fere.  It is no weirdly irradiated glop, alien, distant, and vaguely threatening. Bradley understood himself as panning philosophy’s ballet of bloodless categories, as stomping through the Palace Theater in muddy boots, tracking the Absolute all over the place.  Bradley deplores the reduction of reality to thought, even if it sometimes seems as if he is engaged in just such a reduction.  He is not.  Bradley is the most doggedly anti-reductionist philosopher I can think of, other than Wittgenstein.  (That Wittgenstein is himself often taken to be an idealist, albeit of the linguistic and not the Absolute ilk, is worth considering, but I will simply note that it is, and move on.)  Bradley insistently forces his reader toward the real; he will not relent.  He does not browbeat the reader.  He does not beleaguer.  But he does not stop.  Bradley works to redintegrate thought and feeling, but in a way that puts the accent mark darkly and unmistakably above feeling, feeling dusty and dirty.

 

Whitman on Language

“Language-using controls the rest;
Wonderful is language!
Wondrous the English language, language of live men,
Language of ensemble, powerful language of resistance,
Language of a proud and melancholy stock, and of all who aspire,
Language of growth, faith, self-esteem, rudeness, justice, friendliness, prudence, decision, exactitude, courage,
Language to well-nigh express the unexpressible,
Language for the modern, language for America.”

Wittgenstein’s Three Living Principles

More of the fruits of cleaning–an old essay I forgot that I wrote.  I gave it at a Pacific APA, I think; anyway, I likely forgot it because it got anaphora’d (carried up) into my Concept ‘Horse’ Book.  But it now strikes me as usefully revealing the topographical anatomy of that book.

 

Lewis White Beck Memorial Remarks

I happened across this while doing a little cleaning up.  I wrote it to honor my teacher, Lewis White Beck, at a memorial conference held for him at the University of Rochester (September, 1998).  He was a wonderful teacher, a wonderful man.

Beck Panel Memorial Remarks

On a Certain Use of ‘Democratic’ in Whitman

I have come to Whitman slowly, zigzag, reluctant.  I do not know why.  I do not know fully why.  I do know that my youthful exposure to him left me in flinty indifference.  (I must have pulled Leaves off the shelves in, say, 10th grade.  I worked in a library and stood and read what I shelved or read what caught my eye near what I shelved.  I was not–and was–an ideal library employee.)  I reckon that part of my (lack of) reaction was tied up to the ceaseless singing of ‘democracy’.  I have always had a hard time with art that slummed with politics.  My thought must have been somesuch:  “Yeah, right, democracry.  It’s great and all.  But come on.  Canting for democracy?  Not just any democracy, but an earlier version of the one I inhabit?  No, no, not for me.  Go your own way, Walt.  I will go mine.”

I am not here to apologize for my 10th grade self.  He was my 10th grade self–sophomoric by definition.  I have not, at any rate, put that child away entirely.  He is still along for my ride.  I still shrink from the appearance of politics in poetry.  That’s a reaction of mine not yet completely owned.  I hope one day to own it completely or to shrug it off.

Whitman with butterfly

But a couple of days ago, caught up now in a much different general reaction to Whitman, I came across this, from the “Preface Note to Second Annex”:

I have probably not been enough afraid of careless touches, from the first–and am not now–nor of parrot-like repetitions–nor platitudes and the commonplace.  Perhaps I am too democratic for such avoidances.

That use of ‘democratic’ stopped me.  (It is, I admit, in the half-hug of ‘perhaps’.  But I rate that staginess and not an expression of actual half-heartedness.)  I had made a very similar use of it myself earlier in the day.  But my use of it was not meant to be political, but rather ur-political, a recognition of a fact about human relations that underwrites any political use of ‘democratic’ I could vote for.  So too,  realized, was Whitman’s.

Each of us inevitable,
Each of us limitless–each of us with his or her rights upon the earth,
Each of us allow’d the eternal purports of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here. (Salut Au Monde!)

His, my, our use of ‘democratic’ is a use as a greeting-word, as a profound acknowledgement of others, not en masse, not as a political body, but as an each-in-all, as individuals too distinguished to be the same and too similar to be entirely distinguished.  Such an acknowledgement makes demands, demands even on art, on poetry.  (And on philosophy.) It demands writing poetry to such individuals and for such individuals.  It demands an unclamping, letting the poetic machinery run free, acquiring a careless, carefree touch.  It demands liberation from an over-active poetic conscience, from concern about repetition, about platitude, about commonplaces, about saying something too trivial and obvious, something insincere, something unworthy of reader or occasion.  The poet must overcome scruples and take the breaks off his heart, and let his tongue wag unleashed, garrulous to the very last.

This feature of Transcendentalism-of Emerson and Thoreau, and, yes, I now admit, Whitman–is one that makes it honorable, and that ties it to writers and philosophers I care about, each of them a Transcendentalist in his or her way:  Socrates, Plato, Kierkegaard, James, Wittgenstein, Lawrence, Frost, Murdoch, Anscombe, Robinson.  It demands that we lift up our ordinary lives into our philosophical imagination, making them receptive to intense reflection, without making them fodder for scholarship or museum preservation, never forgetting that the point is to know those lives better so as to live them better.

(I am not claiming to have made a discovery for anyone else here, only for myself.  I now suppose that this use of ‘democratic’ is all over Whitman, and that everyone but me has known it.)

 

 

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