Thursday, June 26, 2008

Poets, Philosophy, Pyrrhonism, Pragmatism

Poets have a bit of a checkered history with regard to philosophy, among other things. Aristotle used dramatic poets, the playwrights of his time, or at least their work, as the basis for his Poetics--after Plato had suggested that in the perfect Kingdom, poets probably shouldn't be included, apparently because they make things up, unlike philosopher-kings, who always speak the truth, unless of course they're inventing dialogues between Socrates and opponents who always seem to fall for his tricks.

One of many problems may be that poets treat philosophy as they treat other items, as raw material for poetry. So literary critics can argue about how much German philosophers influenced Coleridge or how much Kant and Hartley influenced Wordsworth, but the by-product of such influence is always going to be idiosyncratic and quirky, especially in the poetry itself but also in the nonfiction prose the poets might write. One might also posit that the more purely philosophical a poet becomes, the less interesting his or her work may become, and one might go on to cite Alexander Pope and Matthew Arnold. Pope was a superb versifier, master of the heroic couplet and great manager of extended conceits, but oh my goodness, sometimes his poetry just wears you out with its "ideas." Ideas seemed, in a way, to paralyze or enervate Arnold, whom I don't think was a very good poet. Arguably, Yeats and Pound get downright loony in their philosophical and political turns.

A hopelessly broad generalization is that poets tend to be Aristotelian--grounded--as opposed to Platonic, tempted to look past or through what is here. "No ideas but in things," as Williams wrote--in a poem. Two schools of philosophy that might well be appealing to poets, then, are Pyrrhonism, a form of skepticism, and Pragmatism, as practiced, so to speak, by William James, bro of Henry "Hank" James, but not, apparently, a member of the James Gang, although a movie in which William and Henry rode with Jesse, or one in which Jesse lectured at Harvard and Yale, might be moderately amusing.

My understanding of Pyrrhonism is that it assumes for every good argument, a very good counter-argument can be found, and whether we can know anything for sure is not only doubtful but actively doubted. So I think you're just supposed to go with the flow, live according to the way things seem. Of course, extreme skepticism can lead to what they call "quietism," in which you accept all manner of things without squawking, including things that appear to you, in spite of your skepticism, obviously wrong. Unjust. Undoubtedly bad. I guess one appeal of Pyrrhonism is that in does focus on "appearances," on the concrete aspects of life, or at least on the sensory reports about same. Poets do seem inordinately fascinated by really specific, ordinary stuff. I mean, Hopkins wrote a great ecstatic sonnet about "dappled things," for Heaven's sake (literally for Heaven's sake).

Pragmatism, as advanced by Charles Pearce and William James, doesn't doubt everything; it just doubts philosophy, unless and until one or more persons can see how any philosophical idea will play out with Charles Pearce, William James, or whoever, literally, happens to be living at the time, breathing air, thinking, talking, trading, laughing, gardening, and blogging. Pragmatism in this sense is not anti-intellectual; the question is not, for example, "How will philosophy help put food on my table?" The question is more like "As I'm eating at the table, how will this or that philosophical idea alter my experience of eating at the table, along with everything else I'm doing at that moment, and everything else everyone else is doing?" My reading of James is that he constantly tries to remind philosophers and anyone else who will listen about how messy, voluminous, and shifting reality is. (At one point, he suggest that reality often "boils over" and overwhelms a fixed philosophy.) James isn't flatly opposed to idealism, or to a skepticism that suggests we can't really know anything, but he counters with the idea that, well, we apparently do know things, in the sense that we go around knowing and acting on knowledge all the time.

He actually pays philosophers (and scientists and anyone with bright ideas) a compliment, though, by arguing that what this or that age sees as "common sense" may be the result of a long, evolutionary process influenced by a person who had a great new idea. For instance, "common sense" now tells us that the Earth is round, but only because leap-ahead work by Copernicus and friends finally, slowly, got absorbed into everyday knowing. James thinks knowing is under constant revision, even when it may not seem to be, so he embraces the view that we simultaneously go around knowing things for sure and knowing that things for sure may not be for sure for long. This is sort of thinking is mightily bothersome to those craving absolutes, of course. At the same time, James by no means shies away from establishing an ethics.

James's work is highly poetic--full of imagery, anecdote, warm irony, and some jokes. He's far more accessible--and in a way, less abstract--than some of the prose from his brother Henry (I really mustn't call him Hank). Of course, people who "do" philosophy, will point immediately to the imagery, anecdote, and familiar rhetoric and assert "not philosophy!" People who "do" poetry, as readers or writers or both, are likely a) not to read William James's work at all and b) if they do read it, like all the arguments in favor of the contingent, ongoing, frustrating, but specific messiness of life as we, as you, live it.

In any messy case, here's a shout out to the four P's: Philosophy, Pyrrhonism, Pragmatism, and Poetry. What a mess they make.
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