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  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: August 2012

32 - Social science


The last three decades of the nineteenth century and the first two of the twentieth were golden for the social sciences, due in part to the restructuring of knowledge precipitated by the publication in 1859 of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. With men such as William Robertson Smith in comparative religion, James G. Frazer in anthropology, Émile Durkheim in sociology and Sigmund Freud in psychology at the height of their achievements, the first decade of the new century was a rousing time in European intellectual circles. Eliot grew up during this flowering and from 1906 to 1916 he studied the social sciences at three prestigious universities – Harvard, the Sorbonne and Oxford – which were in the vanguard of the best new work. As an undergraduate, he focused on comparative language and literature, and as a graduate student on philosophy and comparative religion. As indicated by his graduate essays and early book reviews, Eliot absorbed the philosophy which is an indispensable element of the social sciences – historicism. He explained his version of historicism in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919) and explored the meaning of the past in his major poems, beginning with ‘Gerontion’ (1920) and culminating in Four Quartets (1943). He also internalised the social scientists' methodology: namely, the comparative analysis of fragments. In The Waste Land (1922), begun soon after completing his graduate work, he adapted the method for his poetry, and in reviewing James Joyce's Ulysses in 1923, he outlined this adaptation and christened it the ‘mythical method’ (SP, 178).

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T. S. Eliot in Context
  • Online ISBN: 9780511973673
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