Monday, March 30, 2009

Philosophy and Poetry

This blog is really about the likeness of philosophy to poetry. And unlikeness (even dislikeness). I just thought of an important difference.

Philosophy tends toward genaralities, using specific as mere examples. Poetry tends toward specifics, using generalities mainly as a kind of scaffolding.

Philosophy asks, "What is real?" Poetry asks, "Is this ideal?" That probably goes a long way toward explaining why there are so many indivdiual poems and very little in the way of identifiable philosophical "exercises" to match them.

Descartes's piece of wax. Heidegger's hammer. Moore's hands.

(Actually, I take all this back. It's something I'm thinking about, but I'm already uneasy about it. Something wrong here.)


vathek said...

"Philosophy is akin to poetry, and both of them seek to express that ultimate good sense which we term civilization. In each case there is reference to form beyond the direct meanings of words. Poetry allies itself to metre, philosophy to mathematic pattern." Alfred North Whitehead

Thomas Basbøll said...

Thanks for this. It's nice to be in that company.

I think I was trying to say something like (a) in poetry these is a reference to form beyond the direct meaning of the words and (b) philosophy is like that, but there is a direct meaning beneath the formal reference of the words.

That's still not quite it. But it seems to me that philosophy gives primacy to formal reference, poetry to direct meaning. (To use Whitehead's terminology.)

The part about mathematic pattern reminds me of something Pound says in The Spirit of Romance. "Poetry is a sort of inspired mathematics, which gives us equations, not for abstract figures, triangles, spheres, and the like, but equations for the human emotions." (14)

Kirby Olson said...

I like the Pound quote here.

I wonder about Hume, who is all about specifics, and denies the very existence of generalities (which is kind of a generality about generalities).

Then you have poets who are all about specifics -- WCW comes to mind -- no ideas but in THINGS --

It's fun to think about how they are different. I like to see poets have a kind of philosophy, or at least in some sense have something bigger to say, even if they couch it in daily details.

I haven't been able to read more than one poem by Larry Eigner so far (I'm so busy), but I got the sense from that one poem that he is all about particulars, and may not have a larger viewpoint to disclose.

Gary Snyder is writing a thesis-driven poetry (nature is good).

Aristotle argues that poetry is about universals, and that history is about particulars, but I guess that's not really true either.

I like universals. I think we ought to all like the same things.

Nice post.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Then there's Blake:

"He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars; General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer."

It's not clear, of course, that making a good poem is like doing a good deed. (Though Pound did say that poetry provides the "data of ethics".)

Also, philosophers are, properly (pangrammatically) speaking, oriented toward the true, not the good.

Specific goods and general truths.

Presskorn said...

Surely, the general is, in fact, the ideal for philosophy, but is the general really ideal for philsophy?

In any case, I couldn't help thinking about this remark:

”Refrain from writing down any hypothesis & any vague general statement & you have made a philosophical investigation.”

- Wittgenstein, MS155 [1931], p.40v, Orig. in English, grammar slightly modified [The orignal reads: ”Refrain to write down...”, which strikes me as an ungrammatical choice of preposition.]

Thomas Basbøll said...

Ideality is to poetry what reality is to philosophy. So maybe it's like this:

The general is the real for philosophy.

"His passions would be general," says Hamlet. (Meaning that they would "rule".)

What Wittgenstein describes is, of course, also way to write a poem (man muss eigentlich dichten, ja?). More thought on this.