Wednesday, October 17, 2012


"The arts," said Ezra Pound, "provide data for ethics" ("The Serious Artist", LE, p. 46). He also says they are sciences "just as chemistry is a science" (p. 42). At a time when science was more likely to be taken seriously than poetry, and scientists had not yet lost their minds ("The scientists are in terror/ and the European mind stops," Canto CXV, ca. 1962), one can understand his rhetoric. As the foundation of aesthetics today, it is inadequate, imprecise.

The sciences are grounded in the procedures by which they generate "data"; this is called method. Method determines what is "given" to a particular field of study, and this material is then studied so as to represent the "facts" and subsume them under a theory of the regularities that obtain among them.

Philosophy is an art. Its task is to move backward from the general regularities (theory) to the represented facts (results) to the objects as they are given (data) and bring to presence, i.e., present, "the thing" before it has become an object. The thing, that is, to whatever extent it is possible, as it is "in itself".

Of course, this is philosophy understood as essentially an epistemological and ontological affair. My argument is that philosophy should not concern itself with ethics. That should be left to poetry.

Politics is grounded in the procedures that generate "capta"; this is called mandate. Mandate determines what is "taken" in a particular policy domain, and this society is then ordered [in a sense suggesting both "commanded" and "organized"] so as to represent acts, subtended by a practice of regulation.

Poetry is the art that brings to presence the "people" (whether as "a person" or "a people", i.e., lyrically or epically) that political mandates capture, i.e., represent. This is poetry understood as the basis of ethics (not, as Pound says, also being imprecise, the basis of psychology and metaphysics, though what he means, I'm sure I believe).

The arts, when they are poetic, provide the capta of ethics. They show us how we are "taken" with experience. They do not merely enthrall. They show us how we are enthralled. In a profound sense, this is what it means when a poet tells us "how he feels". Not, you will notice, what he feels, or even who he is, but how the feeling gets done. How it feels to be governed. What Wyndham Lewis called "the art of being ruled".

Philosophy is an art in the sense that it also does not tell us what there is, but how it is. "How it stands with being," as Heidegger put it. How things can be objects. Philosophy does not, however, provide data for ethics. Poetry does that. That's the sense in which it makes us feel better. I.e., it teaches us to have more precise emotions.

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