Shaffer: Poetry: Philosophy’s daddy

On Truth and Lies

I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort studying and debating philosophy at Yale. But these endeavors have left me only with a belief in the inadequacy of philosophy and its subordination to poetry. Four years here have been a lived confirmation of Paul de Man’s claim that “Philosophy turns out to be an endless reflection on its own destruction at the hands of literature.” My education has ended in its own critique.

Philosophy is ultimately motivated by a will to domination. It is an attempt to subdue the world with a strong grip, to stop experience and reality from wiggling away. Richard Rorty spoke in the spirit of confession in an interview late in his life. His interest in philosophy began on a middle school playground; teased by the other children, he went off by himself, and read. If he could just get a handle on the world, know how to put everything in its place, he would get back at those bullies. When we were in middle school together, Jacob Abolafia ’10 and I weren’t bullied, but we didn’t exactly get the girls. Our attitude was, at least we’d win the debates. That is, at heart, philosophy. It is a turn away from real life to imaginary columbaria of concepts, justifications and refutations. The desire to find the right answer is the desire to prove the whole world wrong.

Philosophers may aim for truth, but they think and write strictly within the limits of our imagination and language. These limits are coincident with the boundaries of philosophy. Poetry alone can expand them, and that is why we can call poetry philosophy’s daddy (or mommy). Without poetic imagination there is no need for philosophic explication. Philosophers, particularly the academics, spend their days clarifying old ways of talking about things, whereas poets experiment with new forms of expression, new metaphors for perceiving and saying. But philosophy’s advantage, Abolafia and others might reply, is truth.

What nonsense. Reality is chaos, inaccessible to a mind and language so far removed from it. Thought never reflects and words never express the essence of the world because minds and words are spheres too far from any reality that might lurk behind experience. Thought and speech are always allusive recreations of experience, never reflections of reality. The order, regularity and sense we find in the world is almost always our own imputation. Constructive philosophy is usually the transformation of the world into the self — the modern equivalent of the astrologers’ desires to see humanoid forms in the chaos of the starry sky. When it is critical, philosophy disrobes its own metaphors and unveils its own inner-workings as not discoveries of reality, but inventions thereof. The impossibility of thought and speech without imputation and metaphor means that philosophy always contains the seeds of its own destruction.

But the death of philosophy is not to be lamented. Sure, we will never see behind the veils, tear away the illusions or disrobe reality. But we can enjoy, experiment with and artistically employ the shadows on the walls of our cave. We will never find an absolute morality in the nature of things, but we can become more human if we learn what it is like to be other people through the exchange of selves that is literary conversation. We will never establish one perspective on the world as The Perspective, but we can find some wisdom if we multiply our metaphors to inhabit several perspectives simultaneously.

In short, the death of philosophy constitutes a beginning for poetry. We are all fond of unveiling the etymology of philosophy — that it is the love of wisdom. But I find more joyful wisdom in the multiple simultaneous perspectives, the inhabitation of several personae, the embrace of ambiguity and irony, the wearing of many masks that is the characteristic of the poet, so far divorced from the philosopher and his systems. There is more wholeness and maturity, in the poet’s preference for conversation to argument, his desire for exchange rather than victory, his multiplicity of metaphors about reality.

Poetry is wisdom. Philosophy is adolescence.

The irony is, to learn this all, you need to study philosophy, which at it’s best, is critical, not constructive. And after that, I hope, like me, you’ll spend the summer of your senior year putting away the books you used for your thesis, and picking up Shakespeare’s sonnets and seeing how many you can memorize in a month. And not, like Jacob, going to graduate school in philosophy.

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