On the origin of the distinction between the philosopher and the poet

1 The distinction between philosophy and poetry as commonly expressed

We might view the order Plato imposes on the Socratic dialogues leading up to Socrates’ trial as a way of defining philosophy itself in the person of Socrates, in contradistinction to the pursuits of the interlocutors after whom the dialogues are named: in the Euthyphro, against poetry and religion; in the Sophist, against rhetoric; in the Statesman, against politics. Philosophy is rational rather than mythological, based on reason rather than authority or faith; convicted rather than contrived; theoretical rather than practical.

If we focus on the first of these dialogues, we should make a distinction between the style and substance of what is called poetry at this time. Stylistically, we can focus on the presence of such attributes as rhyme and meter, or even perhaps on the absence of the defining characteristics of prose writing. The substantial distinction between philosophy and poetry in Plato’s time, however, appears to be one between logos and mythos. This allows Aristotle to number Parmenides among the philosophers, and his teacher to number Homer among the poets. In contradistinction to philosophers as truth-tellers, poets are storytellers.

Against this backdrop, the value attributed to poetry divides into two types: first, there is its instrumental value for facilitating the grasping of propositional content; second its intrinsic value, commonly identified with its aesthetic value. The former attribution assimilates the value of poetry to that of a noble lie; while the identification of the intrinsic value of poetry with its aesthetic value serves to locate the value of poetry in the realm of feeling, as opposed to that of understanding.

In short, poetry is nice.

2 Inverting and collapsing the poetry/philosophy distinction

Philosophical reevaluations of poetry along alternative lines nevertheless tend to begin with this image of the philosophy/poetry dichotomy as a microcosm of the reason/emotion dichotomy, if only to undermine it. Such attempts typically tend in one of two directions: on the one hand, there are those who would collapse the distinction; on the other, those who would invert it. Reason becomes either, with Leibniz, a mode of appetition; or with Hume, the slave of the passions.

Attempts in the first direction are parasitic in nature, and so philosophically fruitless: they merely absorb one member of a dichotomy into its opposite with minimal change of meaning, the performance of which structurally presupposes the dichotomy targeted for suppression.

Attempts in the second direction operate on two levels: one of dependency, the other of worth. In accordance with the first, they highlight the manner in which the higher element depends on the lower, though confusing this mode of dependency with that in which the lower depends on the higher; in accordance with the second, they single out for valorization precisely what was denigrated in the received model. These attempts are philosophically unproductive for much the same reason as the first kind of attempt: the preconditions for their being posited undermine the plausibility of the positing itself; such positing only makes sense as a reactionary gesture that the obtaining of the posit would render senseless.

3 The genesis of the distinction between philosophy and poetry

To ground this distinction between philosophy and poetry, one should enter into a space where the difference between them does not yet have its sense. Doing this, one can see the divisions that must become real for the distinction between the two to become intelligible.

Consider the following passage from the Book of Wisdom (6: 12-20):

12 Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. 13 She hastens to make herself known to those who desire her. 14 He who rises early to seek her will have no difficulty, for he will find her sitting at his gates. 15 To fix one’s thought on her is perfect understanding, and he who is vigilant on her account will soon be free from care, 16 because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought. 17 The beginning of her is the most sincere desire for instruction, and concern for instruction is love of her, 18 and love of her is the keeping of her laws, and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality, 19 and immortality brings one near to God; 20 so the desire for wisdom leads to a kingdom.

One could hardly find a subject matter more befitting philosophy than wisdom itself. But if one leaves aside the self-consciously revisionist approaches to the philosophical canon that have become fashionable of late, the above text remains a non-philosophical one. Certain aspects jump out as especially unbefitting philosophical discourse: the personification of wisdom as a woman; the use of figurative language; the wholly lacking concern to meet the reader where he is in the discourse’s point of departure; the generally lacking argumentation; the lacunas to be found where, as in verses 17-19, the semblance of an argument appears. If the works of John of Damascus, Al-Ghazali, Moses Maimonides or Thomas Aquinas occasionally appear unphilosophical on account of their commitments, they remain philosophical in their style. The above text, however, like others from the Tao Te Ching and elsewhere, seem altogether unphilosophical in their form. These teach as one having authority, and not as our philosophers.[1]

In many early religious/poetic texts, parallelism and chiasm, the use of synonymous or connected terms in a repeated or reversed pattern, figure prominently. Hence verse 16, for instance, highlights a close relationship between appearing and meeting, on the one hand, and the paths and thoughts of those seeking wisdom, on the other. Those thoughts are called paths, what the seeker traverses and meanders upon in his seeking. But the author does not highlight the connection between appearing and meeting by drawing out the one from a description of the other, or vice versa. Nor does he qualify as merely figurative the description of thoughts as paths. Rather, all of the poet’s skill goes toward gathering together these pieces into a unity.

The poet manifests as he gathers.

Because of this, coordinating terms like ‘and’ are permitted to play an important role in this gathering, one present in the poet’s use of parallelism. In these parallels, diverse descriptions are brought side by side with each other as belonging to a common space. Likewise with sustained allegory, where gender and figures are impressed on wisdom and her surroundings as a way of unifying them. Lastly, the poet’s use of the verb ‘to be’ differs from both common and philosophical usage, representing neither the inherence of a property in a subject nor the identity of the referents of subject and predicate terms, but rather, the belonging together of beings in a unified manifold. Thus, if the poet had been more inclined to our modes of speech, he might have said ‘where there is giving heed to wisdom’s laws, there is assurance of immortality’, rather than ‘and giving heed to her laws is assurance of immortality.’

The role of subordinating terms like ‘for,’ ‘because,’ and ‘so,’ however, is greatly diminished compared to their use in philosophical discourse. Each of these appears only once in the above text. And though these terms retain their subordinating role, the ‘consequences’ they help form would be regarded as philosophically defective for other reasons: they are not immediate; their conclusions are not drawn directly from what is given in their premises; and they lead not to scientific knowledge, but only back to ‘metaphorical’ modes of speech.

4 What is philosophy?

The philosopher, while concerned with making manifest, is concerned with a more restricted way of doing so than the poet. If the poet operates by gathering beings together in being, the philosopher begins with a focus on beings themselves, setting as his task the naming of their being. This difference of focus is itself represented in the philosopher’s more object-oriented analyses of the copula ‘is’: whether with Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, as the inherence of what the predicate signifies in a subject; with William of Ockham and John Buridan, as the identity of the referents of subject and predicate terms; with Bertrand Russell, as an existentially [universally] quantified conjunction [conditional] of properties in a common object; or with W. V. O. Quine, as the membership of an object in a set.

The object, then, is in one sense what the philosopher begins from. But more than this ‘objective’ focus, the philosopher takes his bearing from the object as familiar. In this decision, the figurative, seen as such because distant from the figures in common usage, because far from the way familiar things usually appear, is banished. Philosophy begins from what is immediate.[2] That what is immediate is understood as belonging to the inquirer then gives rise to different notions of the philosophical given, in accordance with whether this inquirer is understood individually or collectively: philosophy as recollection; philosophy as the practice of giving and sharing of reasons.

Not only does philosophy begin with the immediate: it also proceeds from the immediate to what is near to it. The philosopher does not make ‘leaps’. Philosophical reasoning proceeds from the immediate given, and draws what is given implicitly from out of this, thereby bringing it, too, into the sphere of the familiar.[3]

Philosophy is the securing manifestation of what is at-hand from the familiar and immediate as its ground.

The distinctions between the ancient/early medieval, later medieval, modern, and postmodern philosophical periods arise on account of how this immediate given is understood: as the external, informed object received in understanding; as divinely-inspired external authority; as immanent thought of a thinking thing; as others qua immanent authorities in the intersubjective whole of which the individual is a mere part.

5 What is poetry?

Once philosophy is understood in the above way, we can achieve a better grasp of its relation to the poetic both before and after philosophy’s arrival on the scene. From here on, I call that poetry existing prior to philosophy, out of which both philosophy and poetry are generated as specifications, the arch-poetic. I reserve ‘poetry’ to refer to what poetry appears as in the light of philosophy.

Philosophy, as securing manifestation of what is at-hand from the familiar as ground, is a restriction of arch-poetry as gathering manifestation of beings in being. Philosophy is initiated in understanding’s turn toward the object as ground, reflected in both an object-oriented analysis of the verb ‘to be’ and the greater prominence accorded to subordinating terms like ‘therefore’. In modernity, the familiar is further restricted to the immanent ownness of one’s thinking; and today this sphere of ownness expands to include others as authoritative and constitutive parts of the intersubjective community of knowers, where each subject reflects all the others from its own point of view, albeit without the violence of external influence: where everyone belongs to everyone else.

From this, we can see the ancient religious-poetic writings of diverse wisdom traditions speak a wisdom the philosopher does not begin to fathom, one his own study only exists as an attenuation of. There is thus something correct in the tendency to describe these, and particularly ‘eastern’ writings, as ‘holistic’ rather than analytic. This holism, however, is not so much unique to eastern writings as characteristic of a broader array of ancient pre-philosophical texts, both eastern and western.

Philosophy is thus a restriction of the arch-poetic. But when this arch-poetry recedes from view, the poetry that arises in its place becomes philosophy’s inferior, and is defined in contrast with it. Today, poetry shares with philosophy its concern with manifestation as well as its immanence, represented in the usual understanding of it as a form of self-expression. Taken together, these ‘opposites’ witness the extent of the growth of a nihilism in which the external and unfamiliar have been deprived of their power and activity, these being accorded instead to the immanent (collective) subject. But by being allocated to the realm of affection rather than understanding, it is indicated that the poetic is the groundless and ephemeral, rather than securely grounded; what it calls forth is distant, rather than at hand; and it proceeds not from the familiar, but from the immanent unfamiliar, having its root in the unconscious and its fruit in imagination. Both reason and imagination may produce, but rational activity is collective construction. Both reason and imagination may be the activity of dreamers, but the former dream is well-ordered, sustained and shared: constant collective self-deception.

Perhaps it is time we awoke from our dogmatic slumber.

Awake harp and lyre. I will awake the dawn.

[1] This is also why the place of certain figures in the philosophical canon, such as Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, is ambiguous, and hence contested by philosophers with a more restricted view of philosophy. Whether they are right or wrong to do so, these reactions must be understood as reactions to an ambiguity in the relation these figures held to philosophy itself.

[2] Cf. Aristotle, Posterior Analytics Bk. 1, ch. 2, 72a8-b4; Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Posterior Analytics of Aristotle, Bk. 1, lec. 5-6.

[3] Cf. Aristotle, Posterior Analytics Bk. 1, 75a18-37; 75b37-76a25; Aquinas, Commentary Bk. 1, lec. 14, 17.


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