Poetry, Philosophy, Truth
Guest Contributor

03 October 2007

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.


Comments (10)

Guest's picture


Wednesday, October 3, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

glad to finally have something in this perpetually

glad to finally have something in this perpetually empty space.
very introspective and inspiring to me.

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Friday, October 5, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

The generalization that poets tend not to think in

The generalization that poets tend not to think in concrete propositional terms is a bit overstated here. This sounds like a lot of postmodern nonsense. Good poetry, at least edifying, will be based on some form of propositional truth statement or concept, at least if it is to make any sense. It takes a perceived truth, a presupposition, and writes in poetic form. The Biblical Hebrew writers were quite adept at this.
One only needs to read Psalm 119, a Hebraic song/poem which is entirely based on propositional truth statements about the one true God. It is assumed throughout the psalm that God has spoken infallibly throughout the History of God's people and that His revelation is always true and never fails. However, this is done through poetic language, at least in the Hebrew originals.
For anyone reading this, there are poets who believe that truth is objective and can be known with confidence. They are in the Bible. The metaphors, the pictures, the analogies; they all point to God, whom all know, since we are created in His image.
I posit, again, the following: If a poem is to have any relevancy, it must be based on truth claims, on one's presuppositions of what the turh is. The only truth claim which can make sense out of our reality and out of any type of literary style, is Christianity.

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Tuesday, October 9, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Directed toward Wayne: Does "truth" exist in yo

Directed toward Wayne:
Does "truth" exist in your mind? Or in our collective minds? The latter is my opinion. It is relevant in this case, because when one chooses not to trust the "truth" of your organized religions, your presumptions are no longer the accepted truth. You sneakily spry past the argument here with your assertion that the acceptance of one true god is propositional in the first place. You then attempt to confirm your assertion by utilizing an ideology found in one particular religion.
I'm not saying that the ancient writers weren't great at what they did, but I am saying that I see many flaws in your argument.
Therefore, I tend to agree with Mr. Jollimore on this one. I think the assertion that poetry (especially good poetry) often utilizes non-propositional truths is quite accurate.
Of course, all this, coming from an agnostic :P

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Saturday, October 13, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Nietzsche had a different "perspectivism-ideas"; T

Nietzsche had a different "perspectivism-ideas"; The most significant one, though, is likely that of the evolution of morals vs. the damnation of self-awareness.
some thoughts on Nietzsche - aphorisms, truths, et c.- : http://www.theodora.com/books/polymorphosis/

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Friday, October 26, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

as it ever is with poets, pointing out what is pas

as it ever is with poets, pointing out what is passionate in humanity is the drive of the intent.
most times, the mindedness and self aware completeness refutes, as an individual, any consistant pattern of behavior that may be expressed as a philosophy.
as close as those so bent, can't, and whouldn't, apply a hickory dickory doc, as it were, ad hoc.

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Saturday, November 17, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

I like you "doc"/"hoc" bit, Troy. Say, speakin'

I like you "doc"/"hoc" bit, Troy.
Say, speakin' of philosophy and poetry, howz 'bout this lill' parody of George Harrison's "Awaiting On You All" (a.k.a. "Chanting The Name Of The Lord And You'll Be Free") that moi done did write, something....ain't it?
"Chantin' The Name Of The Turd"
(aka "Chantin' The Name Of Old Tor")
You may have a smooth grin
Your lies come out deadpan
great communicator, mental masturbator
spent decade vegetatin'
If you open up your heart
blood will gush right out
your emotions are in your brain
not in replaceable chest spout
By chantin' the name of old Tor and you will see
it's worthless as chanting the name of any ole deity
when earthquakes or giant storms come from the sea
it's as helpful as if you spent your whole life chantin' Gumby
You need to cut-a-fart
all life needs to make gas
if you're an instigator or alligator
you're gonna get recycled
If you open up your heart
blood will gush right out
charge gnomes in you chest rent
'cause they'll never help you out
By chantin' the name of old Tor and you will see
it's worthless as chanting the name of any ole deity
"god speed" or Lennon songs in space shuttles ain't worth a pee
when they go BOOM you're toast regardless of your theology
You do need some shelter
reporters love helter skelter
Invest in Mardi Gras' beads, not flood wall needs
and churches go a floatin'
If you open up your heart
there'll be a blood stream
don't let the creeps con you
with their minds so freakin' mean
George sang, "...Pope owns 51% of General Motors."
Harrison was pissed, he only owned 49% of GM stores.
Chant Jehovah, Krishna, Allah, Satan or Tor
they're equally worthless to help you, that's for sure
Stay on Groovin' Safari,

Guest's picture


Saturday, November 17, 2007 -- 4:00 PM

while i was reading this little discussion on the

while i was reading this little discussion on the intent and perspectives of poets and poetry, i was wondering if any of you were poets? I am a poet, and I believe that the essence of poetry is something that no one knows how to categorize or define. As for the intentions of poets, there are as many as there are poets. In my case, the intent of poetry is to move into the various shades and experiences within the concept of being, testing and questioning what "it" is, through the doorway or window of language...
We are working with much more than words and cognitive processes in poetry. There is sound, rhythm, pictch, reverberation, sustain...most of the elements of music are found in poetry. The human psyche is an element of being that transcends intention and perspective, if you ask me. Where poetry fits in is a matter of how much risk you are willing to allow into your own, personal experience of the world.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008 -- 4:00 PM

I have never understood the find the one truth

I have never understood the find the one truth aim of
Anglo-Saxon philosophy, though it is the tradition
I was trained in. It seems rather an assumption to me-
this one truth idea. How could it be proved?
And to what end?
It seems patent to me that there are different points
of view as to what truth is and what is true. How likely is it that one set of statements about what is truth and what is true will end up being indubitable by everyone? Is there such a thing as universal indubitability?
I hold that the chance for such is nil. If indubitability marks truth--then there is no such truth and an expectation of finding it is silly.
But I am not a relativist. I think the state of things is a certain way--is the way it is-- to individuals or groups of folk.
That is, though the form of truth, the particular view of the state of things, may vary between folk---each form is the truth in that it compels belief or admits of no doubt or arises as the case. And this compulsion characterizes all truth. There are ways things are but no one way things are.
Except of course, that in saying this I am assuming that my statements describe exactly the way things are.
And this points out, I think, that the essence of making a statement is its assertion that what it states is the case.
But from this I cannot see how it must be concluded that there must be only one thing the case-- one statement or statements that may be forever enshrined and unchangeable--that may compel all for eternity.
Conclude from compelling ideas that there must be only one supreme set of compelling ideas? Doesn't follow to me.
Seems ridiculous to me, especially as
it goes contrary to any idea of progress--of ever greater understanding over time. All theories it seems to me, philosophical or scientific, must be tentative.
Einstein must replace Newton.
Newton is still valid---not because it is the one truth--but because valid from its point of view.
Thus, I hold that the notion of points of view is more relevant and valid and central as regards the state of things, than is the notion of a monolithic truth--which seems to me a misleading and inhibiting notion.
An assumption of one truth seems to me obviously belied by history.
Further, It seems to me the notion of truth does not exclude degrees of truth and points of view which may not be compatible.
I am with Feyerabend in saying let
there be a multiplication of points of view--- and let there be analysis and criticism of each and every.
In other words, let philosophy be what it is at heart: a creative enterprise, the art of thought and compelling and reasoned--visions of the state of things.
That it can all come down to all being either an X or a Y--but not both or either----seems entirely unconvincing to me. And even if I was convinced, my imagination would not tolerate such a limit.
Multifarious is more interesting!

stevepet's picture


Monday, May 30, 2016 -- 5:00 PM

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Bevisflyn's picture


Tuesday, June 11, 2024 -- 1:24 AM

papa's scooperia Sometimes

papa's scooperia Sometimes the most insightful ideas can come from a more casual, free-flowing exploration of a topic.

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