Poetry and Philosophical Thinking

I still hold that there is an important and significant role for traditional forms of philosophy but the question remains, is there something more to philosophical thinking that we can access through engagement with poetry which is filled with rich images, emotional sensitivity and attention to language?

That’s a question that Karen Simecek (Warwick) raises in a recent interview about poetry and philosophy at 3:AM Magazine. She notes what I take is a common skeptical view about whether poetry can be a kind of philosophy, expressed by Peter Lamarque, who “thinks that poetry cannot be philosophical because the poem itself does not offer philosophical propositions which it establishes and defends through principles of logical reasoning.”

Simecek says “it’s clear that the poem does not rely on argumentative structures and logical reasoning in order to establish its themes” but doesn’t take that as decisive because it takes for granted a certain conception of what philosophy is. She says:

A key barrier to making the case for the potential for philosophical poetry is that there isn’t much agreement on what philosophy is. However, there does seem to be agreement that minimally there are at least three virtues of philosophical thinking—it is of a certain generality, rational and reasoned. This is not just an issue for poetry but an issue for metaphilosophy; before we can evaluate poetry’s philosophical potential, we had better work out what it is for something to count as philosophy. If we don’t address these metaphilosophical questions, then we either end up including all sorts of things as philosophy or it becomes arbitrarily narrow.

Though “not all poetry will count as philosophical,” some of it will, she argues. How?

Poetry can make a significant and valuable contribution to philosophical inquiry by facilitating active, self-critically aware and rational thinking about the concepts we use to capture aspects of human life. Poetry allows us to consider the structure and meaning of our everyday concepts with reference to the human subject in play. The experience of reading is able to achieve this philosophical thinking because the reader is encouraged to adopt a human perspective, in other words, ‘the standpoint from which we are best able to bring to light the range of values, desires, frustrations, experiences, and practices that define the human situation’ (Gibson 2009, p. 1). The experience of reading poetry is unique in the way it implicates the reader, revealing the values we have embedded in such concepts through our use of them, which could not have been established using valid arguments. We come to think of human life in this way through poetry because of the images we are presented with and as readers we are required to do more than merely make these connections, we also evaluate and appraise them.

She makes use of a couple of poems to make her point, including “The Drift of Things” by Robert Gray and “The Execution” by Alden Nowlan to make her point. Here’s an excerpt of Gray’s poem:

Things, Berkeley says, are the language of God,
this world that we know is really His thoughts—
which Hume remarked brings us no conviction,
but to me is almost justified,
for things are worthy of such existence,
of ultimate stature. It often seems
I am listening to them. What could it mean,
that intuition? I think the appeal
is their candour, it’s the lack of concern
at being so vulnerable. So we sense
they are present entire. One feels these things
that step through the days with us have the fullness,
in each occasion, of reality.

The clouds on water; in reeds, a boardwalk;
a bus that rides the dust like a surfboard;
the lizard, tail hung from a mailbox drum,
inert, all a long-shadowed afternoon;
the planks through mud, from where chickens’ pollard
is thrown; the skirmishing of cherry trees
in bloom, with sabres of wind; the warped length
of a boat on the beach, as if replete,
that’s warmed by morning; the cobwebs of foam
on the shore; or an avenue of trees
to exalted snow—these are each itself
and no other thing. It’s plurality
we experience, it is differences,
not the smear of Oneness—the haecceity
we knew as children. (This is mysticism
for materialists.) Glad animals,
for us phenomena were then enough;
we took variety and relations
as literally, we’d find out later,
as William James had enjoined us to do.
We were so awed, so entranced, in childhood
by objects’ insistence, to us they’ve seemed
sufficient. That ‘concrete particulars’
are basic existence was something that we’d
have agreed with Aristotle about.

Check out the interview for her take on the philosophical work this poem does, and much more.

Justin Weinberg, “Clouds from Underwater”

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