Saturday 1 September 2001

Philosophical Poems as Caricatures of Thought (2001)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXVIIII No. 1 Spring 2001


By Chengde Chen  

I have changed my way of doing philosophy since the mid-nineties, from writing papers to writing philosophical poems, with the conviction that philosophy can be made more interesting and accessible. It is reality that the academic style of writing scares off many who would otherwise be interested in reading philosophy. Can literature help? (There are at least twenty times more people who read poetry than those who read philosophical papers.) The answer may be inferred from the fact that in the 20th Century there were two, but only two, philosophers who won the Nobel Prize for Literature - Russell and Sartre.

Understandably, writing philosophy in the form of poetry is unlikely to be recognised as either philosophy or poetry. However, whether this is something that can be done is not a matter that can be concluded by debating, but should be judged by the works that have been written - to see if they are philosophically valuable as well as poetically worthy.

The Editor of The Philosopher, has asked me to write an introduction to explain briefly how philosophical poems can have a place in philosophy as 'caricatures of thought'. Hegel once said 'architecture is frozen music'. How would this poetic expression be compared with a usual academic statement like 'architecture entails similar aesthetic features as art'? Is it like a concise caricature compared with a realistic painting, being more imaginative, more vigourous, more profound, and therefore, more accurate?

Beyond analysis

Philosophy, as intellectual inquiry, pursues the truths beyond common sense through rigourous logical analysis, appearing as an abstract reasoning process. Poetry, as a literary form, is used for describing feelings or stories, presented through images and imaginative language. It is generally held that the two cannot go together because poetic language does not have the logical rigour that is vital to philosophical inquiry, whilst the abstraction of reasoning will cost poetry its vividness.

Does this inevitably abstract nature of philosophy mean that images should therefore be excluded - or the opposite: that images are hence a more valuable supplement? The answer, I believe, is the latter.

Many philosophical theories are remembered through their vivid images. For Plato's theory of the truth of ideas, we remember the image of the 'cavemen' watching shadows on the wall, while for his theory of motivation and the reason/ will/ desire trinity we remember the image of a 'carriage' with two horses and a driver. From Zeno's Paradoxes, we recall how Achilles failed to catch up with the tortoise, as well as the 'flying arrow' being at rest; for the paradox of set-theory, we remember how Russell's 'barber' became puzzled; for Popper's falsificationism, we recall the one black swan contrasted with the many white ones; and finally, for Rawl's theory of justice, we remember how people in 'the original position' were covered by 'the veil of ignorance'.

And so on. The importance of an appropriate image to an abstract theory cannot be overestimated. Like images, imaginative language is also not only acceptable but indispensable to philosophical thinking. It is those well-refined and imaginative expressions that are most memorable in philosophy, such as Pythagoras 'All things are numbers', Protagoras 'Man is the measure of all things', Descartes 'I think, therefore I am', Kant's 'Man is an end', and Nietzsche's 'God is dead'. Do such powerful expressions give the impression that philosophers should also be poets?

If poetic language is not an enemy but an ally of philosophy, can poetry be used for writing philosophy? Poetry is a powerful literary form that can do many things, from expressing love, declaring war, to advertising toothpaste (some say that the best of modern poetry is in advertisement, and this is not entirely a joke). The tradition that poetry does not engage in reasoning is based on the understanding that logical rigour and poetic vividness are undermining each other. But, does poetry have to be image after image, all the time, so as to exclude reasoning? There is no such a literary rule, and what is required is that the reasoning involved should be so interesting that it can be appreciated poetically. In fact, the shared interest of pursuing profoundness does provide the potential for poetry to marry philosophical reasoning, so as to make poetry deeper and philosophy more lively.

There were philosophers who wrote philosophy through poetry successfully. Xenophanes and Parmenides were two famous ones in ancient philosophy, and the latter's On Nature is a very serious philosophical inquiry written as a long poem. So Aristotle, the man who started the scholastic style of writing philosophy, reckons that 'poetry is more philosophical and more worthy of serious attention than history', because 'poetry is concerned with universal truths' (Poetics).

In the modern age, if Goethe was counted as a great poet with philosophical thinking, then Nietzsche was a great 'poet-philosopher' - his poems form an important part of his main contribution Thus Spoke Zarathustra. In the 20th Century, T. S. Eliot, as a philosophical poet (who was a student of Russell), discussed metaphysics through his very imaginative poems (The Four Quartets). As for why imagination can help in understanding the world, Sartre explained that imagination is an alternative mode of consciousness, and is addressed to the same objects as perceptual consciousness but to these objects 'as they are not' (L'Imaginaire). Architecture is indeed not music, but the imaginative expression 'frozen music' does tell us a lot about it. This 'unreal perception' is more profound than many real ones, because it is revealed through an 'inner link' , which so-called philosophy is about.

My experience of writing philosophical poems has made me believe that poetry can deliver philosophical ideas and make them more powerful. Compared with a philosophical paper, a philosophical poem is simpler, but more striking, somehow like 'a caricature of thought'. A caricature seems not as lifelike as a realistic painting, but it is its simplification and exaggeration that highlights features, and so guides viewers to appreciate the essence more 'accurately'. Here are few examples to illustrate such efforts:

´ To argue that religion is a man-made institution: 'We like to be praised so we praise God. We like big houses so we build churches. What runs through God's veins, is the blood of human beings'.
´ To explain the market and technology through human nature: 'Human beings are intelligent, human beings are competitive. The intelligence of competition is the market, the competition of intelligence is technology'. 
´ To reveal psychological similarities between love and religion: 'Love needs longing, just as a deity must be distant. Marriage deletes space, just as there is no religion in Heaven'. 
´ To state the precision of thoughts: 'Writing can be precise because thoughts can be. When reaching the level of no explanation, it is the water that can't be washed by water'.
Why should such writing be taken as philosophy?

Firstly, the issues are philosophical, in the sense that some hidden conceptual links which are generally significant can be revealed through reasoning. If a poem has achieved this, it has accomplished a task of philosophical inquiry.

Secondly, the tension between logic and literary needs requires that logic comes first. It may sacrifice certain literary attraction to maintain logical clarity and consistency (including using the means of definition, proposition, and inference), but never sacrifices logic for literary gains, nor takes advantage of language ambiguity to achieve false reason.

Thirdly, although reasoning in poetry may not be as rigourous as in philosophical papers, sensible use of poetic language can make it logically sufficient for delivering philosophical ideas. Logical precision is something acceptable within a range, just as most philosophical writings are not as rigourous as those written in formal language, as some logical formalists insist.

Finally, I would add that because it is philosophy, it makes poetry. When a poem is arguing philosophy, its literary loss, caused by abstraction, is compensated by the beauty of reason: the forcefulness of logic and the attraction of exploration. With the help of powerful images, metaphors, associations, humour, antithesis, and other rhetorical or structural means of poetry, a reasoning process can be presented beautifully as well as powerfully. But this is hardly a mission for those who lack imagination.

There can be many kinds of philosophical poems, from long pieces of serious investigations on big themes to short pieces of enlightening discussions. One of the advantages of short or medium pieces is that they can be welcomed not only by journals, but also at poetry readings, as I have experienced at various such events. This is most encouraging, because communicability is part of the philosophical process.

To the poems... 

Address for correspondence: 


In recent years, Chengde Chen's works have been accepted by publications in both philosophical and poetic fields, including: Five Themes of Today (Open Gate Press, London).

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