Philosophy as Rigorous Poetry (1)

For three years, out of key with his time,
He strove to resuscitate the dead art
Of poetry; to maintain "the sublime"
In the old sense.  Wrong from the start--

--Ezra Pound, Hugh Selwyn Mauberly

In the summer 2001, as a young doctoral student, I visited Steve Fuller at the University of Warwick for a few weeks. I clearly remember one of our meetings, probably near the end of the visit, to discuss something I had written. “When you first got here,” he said dryly, “you were writing prose.” That was true. I had been writing the sort of referential prose that was (and still is) familiar fare in Science and Technology Studies, and which Steve is something of a master of. One presents one’s thoughts as the natural continuation of one or another rationally reconstructed history of ideas in which one presumes to be a participant. But my “true Penelope” was Wittgenstein and this urbane pose was starting to cause a strain. I wanted to “provide a clear view of the language” to produce a “perspicous presentation”; indeed, I was trying to “get off the dead and desensitized surface of the reader’s mind and on to a part that will register,” as Pound had put it somewhere. “Philosophy must really only be composed in the manner of poetry,” said Wittgenstein. So I had stopped writing paragraphs and had begun making “remarks”. Wrong from the start?

2 thoughts on “Philosophy as Rigorous Poetry (1)

  1. Thomas, if I had read this post two years ago, I might have agreed that you were “wrong from the start”. But I have spent the last month immersed in Robert Brandom’s philosophy and I have a higher regard for both the rigor and the poetic of philosophy. Brandom is a Wittgensteiner (by way of Sellars, Dummett, Forty, and Davidson) and also a serious scholar of Kant. He has a massive tome, Making It Explicit (1994), and a shorter and more accessible version, Articulating Reasons (2000). In these texts, he describes a form of linguistic pragmatism about inferentialism that resonates with me in part because I have been learning from you. Here is a short quote from the 2000 book.

    “Thinking clearly is on this inferential rendering a matter of knowing what one is committing oneself to by a certain claim, and what would entitle one to that commitment. Writing clearly is providing enough clues for a reader to infer what one intends to be committed to by each claim, and what one takes it would entitle one to that commitment.” (p.64)

    The quote sounds to me much like some of the commitments that you have, Thomas, and I believe you will finds Brandom’s rigor and poetic allusions to be reinforcement.


    1. Hi, Randy! It’s good to hear from you. Yes, I completely agree with you about Brandom. A couple of years ago, I had a chance to get into him a little again and I quickly convinced myself that he underwrites, if you will, my writing advice. The meaning of a paragraph is, precisely, “inferential”.

      I get some of the same support from reading Quine (Davidson’s teacher): “Where elegance doesn’t matter, we may and shall, as poets, pursue elegance for elegance’s sake.”

      “Sometimes it is raining,” he said, “sometimes not.” So much depends upon that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *