current poetry: outside aid

Totalitarian states — e.g. North Korea, Burma or Equatorial Guinea today — seal their borders to outside help, insisting that theirs alone is the true path to socialism. Analogies should not be overdone, since it has always been possible to bring out private collections of poetry, and the Internet has increased opportunities for self-expression, but it is nonetheless striking that the larger poetry institutions are still dominated by views that never commanded widespread support in the parent disciplines, and that are today something of an embarrassment: Freudian psychiatry, structuralism, deconstruction and so on. The poetry they promote is not very satisfying, but the fault is placed at the door of a public unwilling to move on from nineteenth-century concepts.

In fact, the public does try to move on, but is confronted by seemingly trivial pieces encased in difficult theory. Both may well be the result of reductionism, of approaches that lag half a century behind those in other disciplines. Philosophy, science and mathematics have moved away from expecting neat answers to complex issues, but not so literary theory.

Reductionism in Philosophy

First came the Logical Positivists who supposed that language had simple structures and that the facts they held were largely independent of that language. The last was clearly not the case, and the later Wittgenstein argued that the purpose of philosophy was to clarify issues, to see through the bewitchment of language and show that many conundrums of meaning arose through words being used beyond their proper remit. Rather than immerse ourselves in abstruse theory, we should study language as it is actually used, by everyday people in everyday situations. Philosophy would not be the final arbiter, but more the humble investigator. Much had to be given up, but the gain was the roles words could now be seen to play: subtle, not to be pinned down or rigidly elaborated. Games, for example, do not possess one common feature, but only a plexus of overlapping similarities.

What happened to such a modest programme? It was not modest at all, but proved on investigation to ramify into further difficulties, which only increased with greater depth of investigation. Gilbert Ryle and J. L. Austin extended the approach, but clarification did not come, only a gradual realization that the problems of philosophy, meaning included, remained on the far side of analysis.

Why not build sentences out of simple propositions connected by logical constants like not and or, and and and if - then. More complex sentences arose when there exist, some, supposing, all are employed. But the meaning was brought out by the logic of the connectives and the truth values of the propositions — i.e. what was needed for the proposition to be true. There were many advantages in this approach — clarity, certainty, universality — and when expressions were reduced to propositions with truth values, it became harder to dally with relativism. Truth and falsity were universals, and applied across the different worlds of individuals, cultures and times.

But matters were a good deal less clear-cut when metalanguages and different logics became involved. And, even without such complications, there was Quine's objection that translation is underdetermined, that we inevitably make assumptions in translating from one language to another which undermine any claim that truth is universal.

Perhaps we should start from another direction altogether and ask why human beings use speech. What are their purposes and intentions? J. L. Austin's How to Do Things with Words was the seminal work, and it laid out the ground rules. Meaning is real and includes both what the speaker intended and what he actually said — i.e. the function of a sentence and its internal structure. Speech, moreover, is rule-governed, and we should be able to spell out these rules. Paul Grice concerned himself with differences in intention between the said and the meant, and in analyzing conversational situations. Peter Strawson and John Searle established name and reference by a cluster of descriptions. Gareth Evans studied change of reference.

But what about the the cultural aspects of reference? Language is not neutral, but needs to be understood through certain filters — the continuance of the historical past for Gadamer, through labour and shared expression for Habemas, and through cultural artifacts and shared ways of understanding for Ricouer. We live on our historical inheritance, said Gadamer, in a dialogue between the old traditions and present needs. And there is no simple way to assess that inheritance except by trial and error: praxis, living out its precepts and their possible reshapings. Rationality of the scientific or propositional kind is something we should be wary of, since it evades any direct apperception of reality, the "truth that finds us". Validity comes from a communality of practice and purposes, not by reference to abstract theory.

Reductionism in Science

Scientists are the world's realists, making a sharp distinction between the world out there, which is real and independent of us, and the individual's thoughts and feelings, which are internal and inconstant and to be explained eventually in terms of outside realities. They therefore study those aspects of knowledge where there can be overwhelming agreement, and group observations by laws, theories and hypotheses. Laws are invariable relationships universally accepted in the relevant scientific community. Theories are more open to doubt and refutation. Hypotheses are tentative theories. But laws do not provide explanations: they simple state the relationship between the relevant variables. Theories give more of a picture, some insight into how it is that a law holds. Yes, but what are these theories? Two views. One is that they are convenient fictions, compact reformulations of laws. The other is that they refer to real things — quarks, electrons, the gravitational force — that exist independently of us and our sensory equipment. Scientists themselves tend not to worry about these problems and if pressed might regard theories as compelling understandings of the world, which correspond with observations, fit in broadly with other theories, and are useful.

Must science rest on strong logical foundations? Probably not. Much in quantum theory is contra-intuitive. Randomness enters into relatively simple systems. Scientific laws are often best expressed in mathematical form, but mathematics does not rest on logic. Worse still are problems with induction, which Karl Popper tried to evade, and Kuhn, Feyabend and Lakatos brought back to centre stage. Kuhn's views, and more particularly Feyabend's, were seized upon as evidence that the scientific world-view was simply one paradigm amongst many. Despite its prestige and practical triumphs, science was as much a myth as art or literature or psychoanalysis.

No one who has worked in a scientific discipline will accept that. Scientific observations may be theory-laden, but those theories are tested in a communality of practice. Science attempts not only to understand nature, but to control nature, and there is hardly an aspect of life today that could be conducted without its help. Less than mathematics, but more than analytical philosophy, science is an abstraction from nature, but its successes would be miraculous if there was not some correspondence between its theories and the outside world. The correspondence is not simple, however, and varies with discipline and what we look for.

Reductionism in Mathematics

Morris Kline remarked that relativity reminds us that nature presents herself as an organic whole, with space, matter and time commingled. Humans have in the past analyzed nature, selected certain properties as the most important, forgotten that they were abstracted aspects of a whole, and regarded them thereafter as distinct entities. They were then surprised to find that they must reunite these supposed separate concepts to obtain a consistent, satisfactory synthesis of knowledge. Almost from the beginning, men have carried out algebraic reasoning independent of sense experience. Who can visualize a non-Euclidean world of four or more dimensions? Or the Shrödinger wave equations, or antimatter? Or electromagnetic radiation that moves without a supporting ether? Modern science has dispelled angels and mysticism, but it has also removed intuitive and physical content that appeals to experience.

In fact, of the four great approaches of mathematics — Platonism, formalism, intuitionism and social constructivism — it was the first two that promised most in the early twentieth century. Yet mathematics as logic, which was developed so brilliantly by Frege and Russell, came to grief over logical inconsistencies. And Hilbert's formalism, which incorporated Cantor's world of transfinite mathematics, was halted in its tracks by Gödel's second incompleteness theorem. Since then the foundations have been much more difficult to discern, and many mathematicians simply accept that their subject matter cannot entirely know or describe itself, that mathematics may not be a seamless activity, and that contradictions may arise from unexpected quarters. Indeed both mathematics and poetry seem partly creations and partly discoveries of something fundamental about ourselves. Elegance, fertility and depth are important qualities in both disciplines, and behind them both lurks an unfathomable wonder at life.


Gradually, and often by retreating from abstraction, have come different ways of viewing the outside world: through metaphor, hermeneutics, brain functioning and complex systems. What is possible in mathematics, Anglo-American philosophy and science is astonishing, and should not be overlooked by the layman, but increasing power has also brought narrowness of application. In contrast, language is a broad church of understandings, and poetry in particular often seems closest to how human beings actually operate.

So where is the poetry revival that should follow these liberating views? Nowhere. Bound to their Romantic origins, poets are still locked into an extreme form of reductionism. They believe that Derrida, Lacan and others have shown that language both constitutes our reality and undermines it by deceptions, hidden coercions and lacunae. Brief courses in linguistics, aesthetics or psychology would demonstrate the difficulties in such views, but serious poets continue to read the sounder disciplines through the narrow eyepiece of the speculative. Evidence and close argument is played with in the best deconstructive manner, and wholly forgotten is the need for prolonged study to establish what can and what cannot be argued. In short, rather than strenuous confront ideas and reality, poets and theorists have taken refuge in inward-musings and flights of abstruse word-spinning — though still expecting to be served by a world that wouldn't last a month if their beliefs were true.

Help exists, and has always existed, but has been ignored. Sounder systems of aesthetics were available to the High Modernists, but these seemed to support the older conceptions of poetry, which were to be supplanted. The Popular Modernists' stress on everyday language was an inverted snobbery, but they enjoyed posing as revolutionaries from the safety of suburbia or teaching establishments. The colourful creations of the Surrealists and Dadaist were only play — though none the poorer for that — yet were made into the profound truths of an Unconscious that does not exist. Word choice is currently a war between opposing poetry movements, though hermeneutics demonstrates how pointless is the battle, with language always a dialogue between present needs and past contexts. Even the sciences of chaos and complexity display the interdependence of small and large, and how the smallest change can have enormous and unexpected consequences. Our brains function through complex linkages: everywhere there are ramifications and complicated feedback systems. Our thinking sinks into unconscious bodily behaviour, from which it follows a wide circuit through society before returning to us, coloured with larger considerations. The brain is larger and more elusive than any conception we can form of it, and its interactions with the world are not to be contained in brief abstractions.

Language, for example, though we pretend otherwise, is largely metaphorical at base. We do not think entirely by logic, but also by analogy, vague association, by unconscious responses, learned or innate. If Wittgenstein thought the task of philosophy was to see through the bewitchment of words, we also need to see through the imposing specializations of the modern world. Science works unexpectedly well, but its practice is very far from the logical and objective activity of the popular imagination. The deep strangeness of its conceptions are no longer restricted to the very large or the very small. Theories of complexity apply to all our lives, and have put an end to determinism. Computers and their codes will play an increasingly role, and no one should underestimate their power, but the language that most closely reflects our essential natures, with all their reflections, responses and quiddities, is poetry, which makes sense of the world and gives us a place in it.


C. John Holcombe   |  About the Author    | ©     2007 2012 2013 2015.   Material can be freely used for non-commercial purposes if cited in the usual way.