Strange bedfellows

Samuel Filby

June 21, 2017

Ever since Socrates asked that Homer be censored and the poets be exiled from his beloved republic, philosophy and poetry have been on less than civil terms. Hegel, for example, thought that poetry was no longer up to the task of representing the Absolute, and therefore must give way to philosophy. On the side of the poets, Keats, in his lengthy poem “Lamia,” condemns “cold philosophy” for her removal of beauty from the world.

In his posthumously published Philosophy as Poetry, Richard Rorty suggests that the conflict between philosophy and poetry is rooted in philosophy’s reluctance to admit that it is the imagination, not reason, that sets the bounds for human thought. “At the heart of philosophy’s quarrel with poetry,” he writes, “is the fear that the imagination goes all the way down.”

But Rorty, good disciple of Shelley’s “Defense of Poetry” that he was, uses the words “poetry” and “poet” broadly. For example, he contends that Nietzsche, Parmenides, and Plato are properly seen as “all-too-strong poets,” and in Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, Rorty extended Harold Bloom’s notion of a “strong poet” to cover the likes of Plato, Newton, Marx, Heidegger, and Donald Davidson. Rorty’s “poets” include both poets and philosophers, together forming a group he likes to call the Romantics. Against the Romantics are the philosophers Rorty baptizes the Platonists, the thinkers who fret at the notion that reason may be subsumed under the imagination.

In Philosophy as Poetry, the Romantics play the role of the good guys, and the Platonists play the role of the bad guys — in conflict about whether “human beings can transcend their finitude by searching for truth.” For the Platonists, such a transcendence is possible: there is an ultimate Reality (God, atoms and the void, or whatever), human minds can access this reality, and they can have knowledge of it with the help of reason.

Against the Platonists, the Romantics hold that the notion of ultimate reality is nonsense and that we would do better to ignore it. “To take the side of the poets in this quarrel,” Rorty writes, “is to say that there are many descriptions of the same things and events, and that there is no neutral standpoint from which to judge the superiority of one description over another.” To the Romantics, the Platonists are (as Berkeley described) kicking up dust and then complaining that they can’t see: they raise unneeded problems and spend all their time solving them.

For the Romantics, there is nothing that is currently described that won’t eventually be described in a better way. And that is exactly the poet’s job — to create a more useful way of describing the world and the self.

To anyone who knows Rorty’s work, all this will sound awfully familiar. Since his groundbreaking debut monograph Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty’s overall philosophical project has been to change the way philosophers do philosophy. For Rorty, traditional philosophical questions, such as “what is truth?”, “what can I know?” and “what is reality?”, are unhelpful. Rather than thinking of philosophy as a search for knowledge, truth, or reality, Rorty instead thinks that philosophers should dedicate themselves to constructing interpretations of the world that lead to human advancement.

To make human progress, Rorty maintains that philosophy must learn either to serve the politics or the arts — more specifically, literature. Contingency, Irony, Solidarity, his mid-career magnum opus, is an exemplar of philosophical engagements with literature, while much of Rorty’s later work — Achieving Our Country, as well as Philosophy and Social Hope — was dedicated to politics. Philosophy as Poetry returns to literary themes in a more condensed form, offering readers new to Rorty an excellent introduction to his work and veteran readers a lens to interpret his corpus as a whole.

Following the lead of Nietzsche and Heidegger, Rorty has continually encouraged philosophers to drop the epistemological and metaphysical problems of modern philosophy and instead pick up hermeneutics. In Philosophy as Poetry, he hopes to turn hermeneutics into a kind of poetry, a word that better captures the creative nature of his philosophical project. Pace the Platonists, Rorty maintains that there is not a world to discover with reason, but worlds to create with the imagination.

Rorty’s key insight in Philosophy as Poetry is that “self-image” — what philosophers take themselves to be doing when they do philosophy — is central to philosophical enterprises. Self-image is what divides Rorty’s Romantic poet-philosophers from mainstream Platonist philosophers: The latter group sees philosophy as a means of “making things clearer” and “spelling out exactly what questions it is currently trying to answer.” Given this, mainstream Platonist philosophers will proceed to do philosophy in a particular manner, often called “analytic” philosophy. While the clarity and precision of analytic philosophy is admirable, it’s often — dare I say it? — cripplingly boring.

In contrast, Rorty wants us to embrace the self-image of the Romantic poets, which can also be found in philosophers like Hegel and Heidegger. Rorty’s Romantic poet-philosophers want to change “your sense of who you are, and your notion of what it is most important to think about.” When philosophy takes on this “transformative” self-image, it becomes poetry, and that allows the imagination to guide reason. For Rorty, this is the best that philosophy and poetry can ask for: no knowledge, no truth, no transcendence, but rather transformation.

But Rorty’s Romanticism is never pure: it is always diluted by his pragmatism. While it is his pragmatism that leads him to abandon the traditional questions about reality and knowledge that plague modern philosophy — an abandonment I can almost endorse — it also jettisons his prospects of maintaining more plausible views about poetry, as traditionally conceived. One of Derrida’s great images is of philosophical hermeneutics as a dredging machine, plunging its mouth into the text, clearing the stones and algae to form a coherent meaning, all the while letting water slip through its teeth. This image suggests that no matter what theory or method one applies to a given set of texts, elements of those texts will remain unaccounted for.

My main contention with Rorty is that his view allows far too much water to slip through its teeth, more than a good theory should. He rejects philosophy’s emphasis on transcendence and is stubbornly reluctant to admit that some poets might care about transcendence as well. This results in implausible readings of the likes of Blake and Rilke, who Rorty regards as being concerned with the “merely human” alone. This is not the case for either poet, and to suggest otherwise is to do violence to their works. You can hold a Rortian skepticism toward the notion that reason goes “all the way down,” while simultaneously upholding the idea that poetry can transcend human finitude and access deep truth. Descartes, in his Cogitationes Privatae, wrote:

It might seem strange that the opinions of weight are found in the works of poets rather than philosophers. The reason is that poets wrote enough through enthusiasm and imagination; there are in us seeds of knowledge, as of fire in a flint; philosophers extract them by way of reason, but poets strike them out by imagination, and then they shine more bright.

For Descartes, it is the imagination that allows poets to access truth. Moreover, Descartes affirms that poets achieve knowledge better than philosophers can. This does not mean that philosophy is not worthwhile — Descartes, as far as I know, never rebuked philosophy — but that poetry and philosophy occasionally hope to attain the same things: truth, transcendence, self-discovery, and wisdom.

I think Rorty is right that one goal of poetry is to transform the reader’s notion of self, and that it accomplishes this with imaginative uses of language. I agree that the most interesting philosophy has taken the same attitude, and that it should continue to do so. At the same time, Rorty’s notion of poetry is far too narrow, as his conception of philosophy. If we treat philosophy as poetry, and acknowledge that poetry seeks the likes of truth and self-discovery, I see no reason why we need discard our hope for achieving knowledge and truth.

In turning to Descartes, I am reminded of a remark by the poet Maged Zaher — “philosophy and poetry are more or less different sides of the same coin.” Let’s assume that philosophy and poetry are different sides of the same coin, and that this means they use different methods to get at the same kind of things: truth, wisdom, and what have you. With this in mind, we can move to some poems from Zaher’s recent Opting Out: Collected Poems 2000–2015 (previously reviewed here) in hopes of discovering the plausibility of Rorty’s poetics.

In an untitled poem from Thank You for the Window Office, writing in the broadly conversational style of Tony Hoagland and Matthew Dickman, Zaher tells us:

There are different kinds of pills to take in hotels
Line up all the candles
No more superheroes
Love might cover up bad logistics
But your arms are getting older than you are
Only few stories remain
Of men who are the pride of their towns
And the women who loved them
Line up all the candles
One nation under the sea

This poem would satisfy Rorty — Zaher seems content to write in an entirely nominalist fashion, the poem revolving around unremarkable objects like pills and candles. Zaher’s poems sometimes feel like Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, a collection of ordinary objects and semi-related feelings. Throughout Opting Out, Zaher speaks in those terms, in one poem describing “A world of coupons / In the dangerous part of the city,” in another telling us that “we all need soft drinks,” in yet another talking about “touching all the fire hydrants in the city” with “a bicyclist’s sense of entitlement.” There’s no transcendence here, just immanence and the ordinary, albeit penned in a singular fashion.

If this sense of the commonplace were all there is to Zaher’s poems, they might prove Rorty right in his assertion that poets no longer attempt to transcend finitude and reach universal truths, and they would still serve as exemplars of the best poetry written in the 21st century — as I think the above poem does. Part of the excellence of the poem comes from Zaher’s eclectic use of images, but also how he unexpectedly weaves them together: bad logistics follow superheroes by the path of love, women and men as candles exist in a nation under the sea. Indeed, the move from superheroes to logistics might even suggest a shift from a romantic view of the world to a more cynical one that embraces the mundane.

But even though this awareness of the mundane recurs throughout Zaher’s poems, they are equally saturated by contact with the transcendental. Zaher acknowledge that life involves staring at a computer screen at two in the morning in hope for some kind of intimacy, but he is equally aware that it is human to want to escape the humdrum of humanity altogether. In another poem from Thank You for the Window Office, Zaher writes:

And I feel my cell phone’s vibrations

Asking the big questions of the universe

One more poet stepping into nihilism

Sitting at the Cosmopolitan — downtown Cairo

All big questions have one good answer —

Here — downtown Cairo — poets take alcohol seriously

I am more concerned about my desires

And how to articulate them often

Here, we find Zaher — perhaps drunkenly — attempting to walk the line between the ordinary and the transcendental: cell phones and big questions, nihilism and city life. Such moments are frequent through the 400 pages that make up Opting Out, where angels who DJ, Dante giving investment advice, and having Marx over for breakfast are as common as text messages, sex, and critiques of capitalism.

While Zaher’s poems are cluttered with the humdrum of life (I mean that as a compliment), it is not a humdrum stripped of divinity. Rather, Opting Out achieves the merging of the tedious and the sacramental, of sharing beers at the site of the resurrection. This is true particularly of the later poems, where we find thighs and the Lord’s prayer appearing in same poem. In this way, Zaher provides his readers with something like what Joyce does in Ulysses and Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow: a concurrent awareness of the utter ordinariness and transcendental profundity of daily life.

But if my reading of Zaher is remotely plausible, Rorty’s view cannot make sense of it. Zaher is undoubtedly attentive to the human situation, but acknowledges the element of that nature which cannot be reduced to the merely human. This means searching for something outside of oneself, a task Zaher chooses to pursue by using the imagination instead of reason. Rorty may succeed in showing us that philosophy no longer provides us with truth or knowledge, and consequently we may be better off finding other uses for it. But he does not prove to us that poetry cannot achieve what philosophy fails to accomplish. Reading Opting Out is a good way to begin thinking it can.

Books in this review:
  • Philosophy as Poetry
    by Richard Rorty
    University of Virginia Press
    December 02, 2016
    96 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
  • Opting Out
    by Maged Zaher
    Chatwin Books
    February 15, 2017
    431 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Graduate student in philosophy and religion at the University of Oxford.

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