Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Way of Poetry

Philosophically speaking, I am a nominalist. That is, as John Stuart Mill said, "there is nothing general except names", hence the prefix "nom". What that means, and I have to quickly add that I’m in no way a philosopher, merely a weekend-warrior when it comes to philosophy, is that I don’t believe abstractions exist except in the human mind.

I don’t believe there’s a quantity called “justice,” only individual happenings that we can say are just or unjust based on past experience, cultural norms, theory based on human experience, and a certain inner core of value developed through evolution.

I don’t believe there is an entity called Death, black robe and scythe or not. All we have is a long history of individual cases. And the prediction that there will be more.

There was a first death, a first murder, a first injustice. And those have kept coming, always individual, specific. The ability to abstract those individual cases into theory is what makes us human. The ability to think abstractly about individual instances is a wonderful gift; it is also inherently deceptive.

The ability to institutionalize murder and injustice is also human.

As an example of what can happen when we take wisdom too literally as an abstract entity, here is a passage from the book of Job:

Where then does wisdom come from?
And where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of all living,
and concealed from the birds of the air.
Abaddon and Death say,
“We have heard a rumour of it with our ears.”
God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.

Now, this is good poetry but dangerous philosophy, I think. Though the poet of Job goes on to give concrete instances of YHWH expertly making the earth, the poet concludes,
Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;
and to depart from evil is understanding

But wait: hocus pocus has occurred: we have gone from the beautiful poetry of YHWH making the earth to a command to follow the rules of a particular religious practice. “Fear of the Lord is wisdom.” The act of performing a particular abstraction leads to another abstraction.

And then what is “evil,” and what is departing from it? Is sticking to a path constructed by this particular religious practice REALLY the way to the abstraction called “understanding”?
Or is this a particular way merely a particular way to a particular understanding?
Ah, I think that’s it.

I am a poet myself. I understand the beauty of images and the beauty of abstraction (I’m a big fan of Wallace Stevens). I understand the human need to suss abstraction out of image. I also know it’s an inherently dangerous practice.