September 20, 2008

Philosophical Poetry

Filed under: Poetics, Aesthetics, Spiritual, History, Theory, Visual Poetry — Graham Coulter-Smith

The romantic literary theorist Friedrich Schlegel (1772–1829) was, as Michael Weston explains, inspired by Kantian philosophy to the extent that he exclaimed “poetry and philosophy should be made one” (Schlegel 1971: 115; in Weston 2001: 8). And the basis of this modern philosophical poetry lies the fundamental unknowableness of the Kantian thing-in-itself, unknowable because according to Kant’s philosophy the synthesising genius of imagination effectively creates reality.

Weston explains that fundamental to Schlegel’s concept of philosophical poetry is the idea of Socratic irony and its relationship to paradox. The paradox hinges on the fact that, according to Kant, knowledge is always founded on the unknowable, hence it is always incomplete, unresolved. Schlegel notes: ‘The romantic kind of poetry is still in the state of becoming [and] … should … never be perfected … It alone is infinite, just as it alone is free.’ (in Weston 2001: 10; Schlegel 1971: 116).

Weston explains that the fundamental purpose of Schlegel’s poetic-philosophic irony is to evoke an awareness of the contingency of knowledge. For Schlegel “All the greatest truths of every sort are completely trivial and hence nothing is more important than to express them forever in a new way and … ever more paradoxically, so that we won’t forget … that they can never be expressed in their entirety.” (Schlegel 1971: 263). Poetry is beyond rules, it isn’t possible to impose “restrictive laws as the theory of poetics would like to” (Schlegel 1968: 54). And, Weston points out, for Schlegel the ultimate ambition of philosophical poetry is to “precipitate a relation to… creativity in the reader” (Weston 2001: 13). Schlegel explains: “You’re not really supposed to understand me, but I want very much for you to listen to me.” (Weston 2001: 13; Schlegel 1971: 129a).

In Schlegel the thing-in-itself becomes poeticised, romantically portrayed as a sublime chaos: “isn’t this entire, unending world constructed by the understanding out of incomprehensibility or chaos?” (Schlegel 1971: 268). And the genius of synthesising imagination that creates understanding out of this chaos becomes placed in a dialectical relationship with incomprehension. Schlegel comments: “it’s equally fatal for the mind to have a system and to have none. It will simply have to decide to combine the two.” (Schlegel 1971: 53) To have a system, like Kant’s intricate philosophical architecture, is fundamentally a fabrication. On the other hand to have no system is to confront the sublime incomprehensibility of nature.  Schlegel also provides a romantic evocation of genius and its relationship with the forces of nature when he exclaims: “poetry bursts forth spontaneously from the invisible primordial power of mankind” (Weston 2001: 10; Schlegel 1968: 54). Which is to say Kant’s sober projection of rationalistic categories into the deepest recesses of the mind becomes reconfigured in terms of primordial forces of nature.

Human beings are part of this sublime, unknowable nature; in terms of our inner nature: the unconscious aspect of their mental processes. Human beings then, like nature, harbour the unknowable: “nobody has ever understood himself yet” (Schlegel 1971: 132); and:

Other things cannot go back into themselves … [But man] can concern himself forever with himself and forever find new matter to occupy him … Just as every animal is attracted to its own native element as soon as it reaches maturity, so man’s instinct leads him to his own depths; there he must be destroyed, perhaps by plunging headlong downwards, perhaps by sinking down calmly and beautifully … For a human being who is a human being, there is no other death than his own self-induced death, his suicide. (in Weston 2001: 11; Schlegel 1971: 138)

The unknown nature of nature, and the sublime chaos that the Romantics conceived as the heart of nature, become poetically intertwined with death. There is a link here, as will be shown later, with Georges Bataille for whom death was also a fundamental of human existence; indeed we can also mention Heidegger in this respect.

Schlegel, Friedrich von. 1968. Dialogue on poetry and literary aphorisms. Translated by R. Struc and E. Behler. University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Schlegel, Friedrich, and Peter Firchow. 1971. Friedrich Schlegel’s Lucinde; and, The fragments. Translated by P. Firchow. Minneapolis: London, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press ; Oxford University Press.

Weston, Michael. 2001. Philosophy, literature, and the human good. London ; New York: Routledge.


  1. I am someone who extends himself into (i) analytic philosophy and (ii) poetry. Analytic philosophy is characterized as the attempt to dissolve natural language into its logical structure, so as to ascertain immediate clarity, though this view has probably been contested. For our present purposes, this initial rendering shall suffice and, we apprehend the first distinction between these two activities.

    Analytic philosophy, due in no small part to its direct philosophical lineage, is primarily composed of arguments. Poetry, at least in most cases, does not contain an argument - at least not in the sense of the word as it is performed under analysis. For example: {A -> B, A |- B} is one of the more familiar deductive inferences utilized. Poetry, has no internal structure of this sort. It is not possible to render an equivalent to modus ponens in contemporary poetry. Furthermore, many poems rely on the string of words alone, denying syntax or correct sentence formation.

    My goal is not to demonstrate a fallacy in your position, but rather, to further extropolate on what you have written. It seems, on the face of it, that poetry and philosophy are mutually disjoint. As a point of clarification - I do not think that your treatment of Kant’s thing-in-of-itself or the thing-in-noumena, was entirely accurate. This important Kantian notion suggests that the human mind passively constructs the world that we experience. We can see a glass, and say the glass has properties A, B, C, D, etc. but we cannot whether or not those properties necessarily inhere in the glass itself. Extended, this means that we cannot have knowledge of things as they really are, only as how we perceive them. Perception, in this sense, is to be narrowly construed as that which pertains to our sense-capacities (the apparatus for seeing, feeling, tasting, etc). For Kant, poetry was an expression of the sublime (see his aesthetic system) - what was not at issue was whether a poet could discuss, imagine or create anything that would actually resemble the thing-in-of-itself.

    Philosophy is usually considered, by most philosphers, to be an activity that at least attempts to address the a priori - or those things which are knowable without experience. “1+1=2″ is not something that we have to experience or order to confirm, and no amount of empirical observation can confirm or deny that statement. It is abstract, meaning, its truth is not dependent on anything in space or time (at least by the usual distinction). Philosophers also concern themselves, at least in most cases, with the attempt to discover necessary truths. Poetry, on the other hand, is usually very concerned with individual, historical-cultural, or contingent experience. Thus, we find again that poetry and philosophy are disjoint.

    Regarding the notion of the subconscious self - this is an area heavily debated in contemporary philosophy. And I should clarify that a little bit more: the idea of “consciousness” is itself heavily contested as being a remnant or conceptual product of Descarte’s failed “ghost in the machine.” This has immediate implications for poetry. Following the work of Wittgenstein, we see that no private language is possible (private language meaning that no language can be constructed which is knowable by one person alone). This suggests that poetry and philosophy may be able to find a point of common ground in ordinary language.

    Just a few thoughts.

    Comment by aig — April 17, 2009 @ 8:51 am

  2. kant –> hegel schoupenhour

    Comment by Erik — June 25, 2009 @ 12:21 am

  3. Just adding to what “aig” put!
    quote “Kant’s philosophy the synthesizing genius of imagination effectively creates reality.” I believe Kant’s philosophy was that the objective world was but beyond the limit of our understand or phenomena. Kant’s view of Transcendental Idealism is different from the typical Idealist because in transcending beyond our limit we are using pure speculation “sensible” not “intelligible”. The world beyond what our understanding is not of concern to Kant’s metaphysical argument. Kant doesn’t believe that our mind creates reality, rather our mind conforms to the object. We cannot know the thing in-itself because we must not concern ourselves with speculation. If we are to make intelligible sense of the object then the observer must only concern himself with what we can understand from experience. Kant argues we must not attempt to reach beyond the limits of possible experience but must discuss only those limits, thus furthering the understanding of ourselves as thinking beings.
    Great read guys! true inspiration!

    Comment by anThONY — January 17, 2012 @ 5:07 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress

Bad Behavior has blocked 10205 access attempts in the last 7 days.