Saturday, December 10, 2011

Should philosophers be more poetic?

The liberation theologian and poet Ernesto Cardenal writes poetry that explores the relationship between science and our spiritual world. For example, in his poetic opus Canticula Cosmico (Cosmic Canticles) he writes:
Y el gas se condensó más y más
cada vez con más y más masa
y la masa se hizo estrella y empezó a brillar.
Condensándose se hacían calientes y luminosas.
La gravitación producía energía térmica: luz y calor.
Como decir amor.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION (by Jonathan Cohen):

And the gas condensed more and more
gaining increasingly more mass
and mass became star and began to shine.
As they condensed they grew hot and bright.
Gravitation produced thermal energy: light and heat.
That is to say love.

Luz y calor, como decir amor. With a few simple words we are joined in communion before a combusting campfire. Or transported to an imagined afternoon nap under the radiating fusion of an early autumn sun. The observable, and empirically confirmable, is connected to our inner meaningful lifeworld.

Science exposes how amazing the Universe truly is. But the predominantly prosaic language used in a scientific context often fails to conjure the beautiful connectivity illustrated, time and again, by probative empirical means. Ernesto Cardenal remedies this short coming by exploring scientific inquiries through poetry. Though he does not substantiate his implications scientifically, he definitely participates in meaningful conjecture built atop scientific inquiry. In this sense, he is no different than a philosopher. He creates connections between that which at first glance seems distant and orthogonal. Cardenal is a theologian who uses language not just effectively, but evocatively as well.

Language is our fundamental toolset for illustrating what is not obvious prima facie, at the moment of sensual apprehension. It is a symbolic juxtaposition of experiences that have passed out of immediacy. It is apple juice, the liquid of a long gone fruit. Or amorous longing, the desire for an absent predicate of love. And beyond such neighborly concepts as fruit and juice, longing and loving, are juxtapositions that tie together what seems infinitely separate. In death is life. At the end is a beginning. We are all stardust.

Contrast Cardenal's theological poetry to Judith Butler's infamous and price winning philosophical prose:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Whereas Cardenal draws powerful analogies through simple but evocative subject-predicate relationships, Butler obscures her meaning in long dense run-on sentences. As we venture into Butler's world, we get further and further away from the familiar. Our lifeworld recedes in the distance until all we are left with are unfamiliar references, juxtaposed in yet meaningless contexts. Butler defends her prose by pointing out that everyday common-sence can place a veil over the truth. What seems like the case may not be so. And philosophy's job is, so to say, to explore the familiar in unfamiliar ways. And therefore calls for a new and unfamiliar language. We cannot break common fallacies except through uncommon means.

To some extent, Butler has a point. But that does not defend her initially incomprehensible prose. If anything is wrong with her prose, it is at the very least inefficient. Since it relies heavily on largely unexplained contextual reference (such as "Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects"), she requires the reader to be well versed in her own lifeworld. We must study Butler to understand Butler. This may seem to be the case with many of the great philosophers. Not so. Plato can be understood without extensive knowledge of his life or of Ancient Greece. Having a degree in the Antiquities and philosophy certainly helps. But it is by no means required. For example, Platos' work The Republic contains mostly passages along the following lines:
Now the first and greatest of necessities is food, which is the condition of life and existence.


The second is a dwelling, and the third clothing and the like.


And now let us see how our city will be able to supply this great demand. We may suppose that one man is a husbandman, another a builder, some one else a weaver—shall we add to them a shoemaker, or perhaps some other purveyor to our bodily wants?

Quite right.

The barest notion of a State must include four or five men.


The intentionality of the words echo across two and a half millennia. I suspect that Butler's will fade into the fog of forgotten contexts. Unless, of course, she has discovered something that in time will seem as natural as it was once unfamiliar. Plato may be more comprehensible because his investigations have had roughly 150 generations to transition from the uncommon into one of the bedrocks of philosophy. As alien as quantum mechanics once seemed and as hard a time we may still have to access its world, new visualizations, and analogies like electron clouds, are slowly making its invisible realms part of our extended perceptions. Perhaps Judith Butler is so astute a genius that her contemporaries are bound to ridicule her novel insights. We chortle as she sheds the old and once obvious and battles her way through a dense unfamiliar jungle "toward the politically new". I doubt it. But nonetheless, since my crystal ball is as foggy as a polluted 19'th century London, my doubt is ultimately but conjecture.

One could say that the role of science, philosophy, and even theology is not to be evocatively beautiful, but brutally expository. And one might claim that poetry adds no value to the form of discourse these fields are engaged in. It is of little import to their actual relationship that amor and calor rhyme in Spanish. Their english counterparts, love and heat, do not rhyme. And yet it would seem strange to claim that their relationship is any different depending on the cultural context. The sun and fire making has been similarly important to Inuits and Bedouins through the ages. Anyone who has experienced a cold Saharan night will not be surprised.

Science favored language is in fact math, a concise and precise set of international formalities that minimize misunderstandings. ∏ does not mean 2.71828183 in Canada and 3.14159265 in Japan. But not all science can effectively be communicated using math. Though I'm not a biologist, I suspect that expressing the cell underwent meiosis would be quite cumbersome using vector fields! Math is in some sense poetic, but not in the phonetic sense. Since the relationship between the intended is irrelevant of the symbols and sounds used to express them, using these relationships may, unlike in tonally unpoetic mathematical languages, fool us to see connections where there are none. But Almost anything is fraught with dangers. Knowledge of logical fallacies can be used both to fool and as a powerful safeguard against bamboozlement.

Poetry is a powerful way of efficiently highlighting connections. Though the emphasize may be phonetically language dependent and divorced from the "actual" conceptual links, they condense the amount of information necessary to transfer understanding and make their impression far more powerful. Of course, if we loose knowledge of the articulated phonemes, all such advantage is lost. The efficiency is dependent on a high degree of cultural fluency. But imagine you were parsing the text of an ancient civilization. You slowly figured out the meaning of some words but knew only a fraction of the phonemes. However, it seemed evident to you that this is poetry that works not only on a conceptual but a tonal level. Would it not make it more likely that the texts meaning would suddenly leap on you like a saber toothed tiger?

Should philosophers be more poetic? Or would poetics be a distraction from the central mision of the philosophical endeavor?

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