Howdy folks; Troy Jollimore here. Ken and John were kind enough to invite me to be their guest for the “Love, Poetry, Philosophy” show they taped at Powell’s City of Books in June. And now that the show is being broadcast, they were kind enough to invite me to blog for the show as well. I’m happy to take them up on it—keeping in mind that blogging is a very informal medium, and that what I have to offer may turn out to be no more than a few fairly random thoughts.
One of the relations between poetry and philosophy that we didn’t really get to discuss on the show, as I recall it at least, has to do with their respective conceptions of truth. I’m really generalizing here, but I’m going to make the claim that analytic philosophy, at least as traditionally practiced, is dominated by a conception of truth that has (at least) two significant features. First, it is propositional: it takes the proposition to be the primary entity that truth attaches to. And second, it is unitary: it tends to take it that there is one truth about any given subject matter. Thus philosophers are always looking for THE truth about something—THE proper analysis, THE correct understanding.
Poets tend not to think like that, partly because their understanding of truth tends to have more to do with metaphor, and poets tend naturally to be pluralists. If I have a philosophical analysis of x, and you come along with a philosophical analysis of x that isn’t the same as mine, then it seems like, as philosophers, we’re obliged to try to figure out which one is right; but again, they can’t both be right. But if I have a metaphor for y, and you come along and offer another metaphor for y, I can accept that your metaphor is a good one without feeling obliged either to (i) reject the validity of the metaphor I had already offered, or (ii) showing that at a deep level, the metaphors are really the same. So philosophers tend to view truths the way most people view spouses: you only get one at a time, so accepting them is a matter of replacement. Whereas poets tend to view truths, a lot of the time at least, more as friends: you can accumulate them, and you don’t need to get rid of the earlier ones.
In a related way, poets put more emphasis on the role of pictures than on the role of propositions. After all, a set of true propositions about z need not constitute an adequate picture of z. The propositions may all be trivial and uninteresting and leave out what is truly interesting or distinctive about z. So poets, on the whole (again, I am generalizing terribly) are more interested in truth as it attaches to pictures, than truth as it attaches to propositions. Thinking about truth in terms of propositions makes us more inclined to believe in the ONE truth since, after all, any proposition must either be true or false, and so there can only be one complete set of true propositions about the world. But thinking in terms of pictures reminds us that any human grasp of this one complete truth is partial, and that in human terms, the idea of multiple distinct but not necessarily incompatible truths may in fact be one that makes a certain sense.
Admittedly there is, among many poets, the idea of a ‘more complete’ understanding; as we add more metaphors to our mental stock, we form a deeper, richer, more adequate picture of the world, and so understand it better. We learn to see things from different angles, to appreciate them in a different light; to come to understand how something that doesn’t attract you can nonetheless appear attractive to someone else; and so forth. On the other hand, I think many poets think that there is no such thing as a complete or total understanding—there is always the possibility of coming to understand something better, of adding another metaphor.
Some philosophers have held views something like this. Nietzsche, for instance, may seem to have had something very much like this in mind with his “perspectivism.” And like Nietzsche (at least in some of his moods), some poets may want to take this sort of thing too far, and give up talking about truth at all. This, I think, is an overreaction to the valid recognition that it is always perilous, and very often misleading, to talk about the ONE truth about anything. But on the whole, it seems to me that poets—even those who tend to feel nervous when the word ‘truth’ is bandied about—do believe in truth; it’s precisely what they are striving for when they search for good metaphors.