Poetry, Polyvocal, Philosophy: A Thought Experiment

By Washington, Gene | Mosaic (Winnipeg), September 2012 | Go to article overview

Poetry, Polyvocal, Philosophy: A Thought Experiment


Washington, Gene, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


What, today, is happening in the space of this between poetry (muthos) and philosophy (logos)?" I ask the reader's permission to re-phrase this question as, "What can be happening?" With this substitution we shift the nature of the answer away from verifiable facts to probabilities. The subject is far too complex, too subject to change, to yield, like a mathematical problem, to a convincing (eternal) demonstration. As Aristotle has it, speaking about similar subjects: "It is the mark of a trained mind never to expect more precision in the treatment of any subject than the nature of that subject permits" (Nicomachean 1094b23-28).

Additionally, it is precisely this apparent clarity of the phrase "happening between" that can be fuzzy. Usually, when we are told that X is happening between Y and Z, we know how it is supposed to be true, but that depends on a conceptual or theoretical background and is not conveyed by the "happening between" alone. We may know how both Y and Z refer, and the kinds of things to which they refer, and we have a rough idea how the two referential paths might converge on a single thing, be it an object, a person, a process, an event, or whatever. But when the two terms of the identification are very disparate it may not be so clear how it could be true. We may not even have a rough idea of how the two referential paths could converge, or what kind of things they might converge on, and a theoretical framework may have to be supplied to enable us to understand this. Without the framework, an air of mysticism surrounds the identification. So let us, in the following pages, search for an appropriate "space" for what may be between poetry and philosophy. And let us speak with imprecision of "can be," of becoming, not being or been. If nothing else, it will save us time and energy.

As a statement about probabilities, the question of "between" presupposes two other questions. One is how we interpret the implications of "between." The word usually presupposes a dyadic relationship: A is between B, "between you and me." But it can represent a pluralistic one: A, B, and C, "just between you, me, and the fence post," or "between them the parties agreed on a treaty." It is this latter sense of "between" (the pluralistic relationship) that gives me warrant to speak here, in the interest of imprecision and approximate reasoning, not only about the "between" of poetry and philosophy, but also that of poetry, philosophy, the "actual," and the "virtual." Then there is the question of the ontological status of "between": What kind of stuff, if any, occupies the space and time between A, B, and so on? Is it a gap, a vacuum? Or is it a connection, a bridge, a reciprocal exit of information from one to an entrance in the other? From remarks in The Republic (III: 390a10-b2), we gather that Plato would claim that poetry is a threat to philosophy; for that reason poetry should not be allowed in the school curriculum of children or allowed to "contaminate" the teaching of philosophy. Heidegger, calling on his Dasein (Being), might answer the question of "between" something like this: what is happening is the emergence of Dasein from nothing. Nothing, using a botanical image, is the "soil" from which the tree of beings springs, the ultimate source, Ursprung. But what is this "nothing?" Many critics take it as an object to ridicule. Nihil ex nihilo. But a translator of Heidegger, Thomas Sheehan, connects the "nothing" with Heidegger's Das Wesen des Sein and with the emergence of being, not, as most commentators have claimed, as "the Being of beings." (1) In doing so, Sheehan points to the root meaning of wesen (like its past participle, gewesen) as indicating the coming and going of everything, as emergence and evanescence--this view of Being, we might add, is highly reminiscent of Aristotle's musings on different conceptions of emergence as it affects the potentiality of the emergent to be both something and "nothing": "emergence necessarily implies the pre-existence of something which potentially is but actually is not; and this something is spoken of both as being and as not being" (Generation 317b17-20). …

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