Saturday, July 16, 2005

Paraphrase III

Jonathan Mayhew got us started on this question of what Kasey has been calling "the meaning of poetry". Mayhew asked us to consider "the idea that poetry is a distinctive kind of thinking, that cannot be replaced by paraphrase." That's his emphasis, but I would have added it if he hadn't. Regulars will know what I'm about to say. No it's not. Poetry is a distinctive kind of writing, and in so far as it involves a spiritual operation, it is not thinking but feeling.

Poems are 'about' feelings, but the problem is that nothing can be about feelings properly speaking. You can represent a body as a person (as lawyers do) or as things (as doctors do) but you can't represent their feelings. The closest we come is to notice an emotion and poetry is the distinctive form of writing that helps us to do this. It is emotional notation.

Philosophy is conceptual notation in the same sense, i.e., thoughts cannot be represented. They can be given presence, and this will always involve noticing a concept or set of concepts. Philosophy is the form of writing that occasions such awareness.

It is because paraphrase represents the text that is being paraphrased that it is incapable of doing philosophy, though it may have something to say "about" a philosopher.

Consider Wittgenstein's "private language argument". These three words name a whole series of famous paraphrases of (normally) §244-271 of the Philosophical Investigations. But none of these accomplish what Wittgenstein did, and all make the mistake of supposing that Wittgenstein was simply "dressing up" some of his philosophical opinions.

But Wittgenstein is really (just?) giving us an occasion to do "a distinctive kind of thinking", namely, philosophizing, and this activity is never represented in a paraphrase of his theses (which he explicitly said he didn't have, cf. §128). The urge to think otherwise depends on believing that we know what Wittgenstein "means", or that the relevant struggle is to "get his meaning". Like poetry, I think philosophy makes different demands of us when reading.

This is one way of understanding what Wittgenstein meant when he said, "I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking. But, if possible, to stimulate someone to thoughts of his own" (PI, preface). One can almost imagine T. S. Eliot saying "I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of feeling." This is actually debatable, but he certainly would not want to do so by having readers replace their feelings with his.

Philosophy provides us with texts that occasion conceptual awareness and therefore not only stimulate thought, but makes our thinking more effective. Poetry makes us aware of our emotions, stimulating feeling . . . and making us "feel better" (i.e., more effectively, more efficiently). Both mean nada.

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