Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Tag

Corpus Sample: the poetic Wittgenstein

A friend recently got a hold of the first and only book published during philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s lifetime, the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. I don’t know what prompted my friend to order in a copy, but he was understandably perplexed; even Bertrand Russell famously failed to understand his student’s work. Philosophically, despite its immediate fame among the Logical Positivists, the Tractatus is, today, a “dead dog”, repudiated most famously by the author’s own reflections, published posthumously as the Philosophical Investigations. Nevertheless, a friend of my friend sought to console him, assuring him “the Tractatus is pure poetry.” Creative writers have tended to agree:  Jerome Rothenberg and John Bloomberg-Rissman included sections from Philosophical Investigations in their assemblage of outsider poetry, Barbaric Vast & Wild, dramatist and novelist Thomas Bernhard published Wittgenstein’s Nephew in 1982, and Canadian poet-philosopher Jan Zwicky’s first book Wittgenstein Elegies appeared in 1986.

I don’t remember when I first encountered Wittgenstein, but it was surely before beginning my undergraduate studies. Those (eventually) were devoted to philosophy, and I wrote my honours paper on the private language argument in the Philosophical Investigations. To pass the time (four days) driving from Regina to Montreal, where we were going to study, a friend and I read through the Tractatus, doing our damnedest to make what sense of it we could. And my graduate studies resulted in a number of poetic texts, all engaging in various ways with the early and late Wittgenstein. Even more recently, a compositional method shared here takes an ironic inspiration from his remark that “meaning is use”.

I post below, then, two poems now included in my first trade edition Grand Gnostic Central. The first is a prose poem, borrowing liberally from Norman Malcolm’s memoir; the second is a poem that tries to come to terms with the Tractatus.




[from “Grand Gnostic Central”]


The walls are bare and the floor scrupulously clean.  In the living-room, two canvas chairs and a plain wooden one around an iron heating-stove.  In the other room, a cot and card-table, books, papers and pen.  A man sits at the card table.  His face is lean and tanned.  He wears a flannel shirt and light grey flannel trousers.  His shoes are highly polished.  He looks concentrated and severe, striking out as if arguing.  He stops, sits still.  He remembers swimming—a small boy, the ease of floating, the sun and water in his eyes, closing them tight.  He remembers how hard it was forcing himself down, down deep to the mud at the bottom, the water always pushing him back to the surface, his needing air pushing him back to the surface.  He has written a treatise on logic.  He knows those who do not know him think him an old man, irritable and obscure.  He remembers writing his thoughts for the book in small notebooks he carried around.  He remembers writing “If `the watch is shiny’ has sense…”  He remembers the flash on the watch-face that gave him the example.  It had rained and only now the sun cut through red clouds.  The field’s mud is soupy and slick.  He crouches down in the water at trench-bottom, once almost standing to keep his balance in the muck.  He hears the sharp tiny ticking at his wrist.  He dates the entry 16.6.15.


Holy Crow Channels LW


We know no sensations

give these propositions sense.  Questions

that exact innocence free from naivete

demand a rigorous ignorance of the evident

apparent given as the one condition

for their initial

stuttered utterance.

The long tautology that bends say

the blade of a jet engine

to just the angle of most force

turns on this

when the need for further thrust

draws inertia from the potential

for doubt, unbinding concepts and arguments

and baffling mathematicians

just this side of mathematics.

We need our end to be

the final determination

of the rule that keeps stasis

appearing repeatedly, that blesses with some semblance

of regularity frequently enough

to let us see this

and hear that

completely unsurprised.  These things we know

are hardly thought, for the common

is the category entered most

easily.  We can count, yet,

to ask what numbers are

reveals the path that eases

the passage everywhere but where

the answer you expect to desire lies

and leads you to question

again the writings that made you

conclude the first proposition

that defined one doubtfully.  For them

a mere analysis, for you

something more that flails you

to what is truly necessary.  The clear thought

expressed as clearly as the fabric of language

will strain it

fascinates you with its immaculate muteness

that finally becomes a song so mythic

you are bound from it, fast,

and your hearing is filled

with what is spoken

in innocence, naively.



Concerning the Muses and Sophia

diotimaThe irony of my posting on Jerome Rothenberg, Ezra Pound, Louis Dudek, and myself—all men—on International Women’s Day yesterday was hardly lost on me, but then the inspiration for what appears here has always been serendipitous. Today, then, it seems only all the more à propos my daily mail from Harriet should draw my attention to Carla Harryman’s engagement with German philosopher Ernst Bloch.

I’ve always been caught up in that dizzying, fateful relation between poetry and philosophy. I wrote my first poems at the same time I was devouring, if hardly digesting, Camus, Sartre, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein.

Because I sat on a bench in Victoria Park one spring Saturday morning reading Kiekegaard and Pound’s ABC of Reading and Selected Poems understanding nothing

Because lying out on the sunny lawn fifteen I read “Not how the world is is the mystical but that it is” and understood

Because John Newlove the Regina Public Library’s writer-in-residence gave me his Fatman and reading it in the shade on the white picnic table on the patio in our backyard thought “I can do that!” and wrote my first three poems

My undergraduate years were devoted to philosophy, and my graduate, to poetry; my MA creative thesis (In the Way of Knowledge) was an exploration of various ways thought inspired song and language incarnated thought, a field of writing I was to later find out has been central to a vital strain of German thought since the days of the Athenaeum (1798-1800).

Between then and now, my attention couldn’t help but be caught by what I came to call Canada’s Philosophische Quartett (a German television philosophical talk show hosted by Peter Sloterdijk first broadcast in 2002), a loose group of poets who took up the relation between thinking and singing as an explicit theme:  Robert Bringhurst, Tim Lilburn, Don McKay, (sometimes) Dennis Cooley, and Jan Zwicky, herself a professional philosopher, whose Wittgenstein Elegies (1986) I read as I prepared my MA thesis.

In recent years, all the overt poetic engagements with philosophy that have come to my attention have been by women. Mina Pam Dick (aka Hildebrand Pam Dick, Nico Pam Dick, et al.) holds, among other degrees, an MA in Philosophy; her first book, Delinquent (2009), engages Kierkegaard, Benjamin, and Wittgenstein through various personae and rhetorics, imitation, parody, and dialogue. Chantal Neveu’s A Spectacular Influence (trans. 2015) draws on the preSocratics, Nietzsche, and Spinoza to compose sparse meditations on incarnation, while Katy Bohinc‘s Dear Alain (2014) “demonstrates how Love, Math, Politics and Poetry are conditions on Philosophy, sexual metaphors intended, and poetry is everything.”

All these, and, doubtless, Harryman’s latest, and all those others I have been unaware of hitherto, surely call for more detailed consideration and appreciation than the mere passing mention I give here. Given world and enough and time, each shall receive due consideration, here!



Get Real: a poem

I recently got caught up in a brief on-line debate as to whether emotions, sensations, and other mental phenomena were “really only” neurological states or not, which, later, reminded me of the poem below that had come to me a little like a joke concerning the same topic-ish.


Get Real


A neurobiologist, a theoretical and a computational physicist, an anaesthesiologist, and Deepak Chopra walk into a lecture hall to discuss The Nature of Reality.

Better to have staged a dramatic recitation of Plato’s Sophist, the Tao te Ching, or The Divine Comedy; even better if nobody knew Greek, Chinese, or Italian.

Better to’ve performed Schubert’s last sonata in B flat or had Ahad Master improvise, had everyone enter an anechoic chamber to hear their blood circulate and nerves hum,

Gone to The National Gallery of Canada and gazed on Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire,

Had everyone guided through a sequence of novice yoga moves or instructed how just to sit and fix the wandering mind on the breath swelling their bellies,

Fast forty days and forty nights, take a heroic dose of Psilocybe Cubensis (with due care to set and setting), cry for a vision, or participate in a potlatch,

Consider the view of the proverbial fly on the wall, the air in the room.

Prophecy in Reverse: a notice of The Relevance of Romanticism: Essays on German Romantic Philosophy

The Relevance of Romanticism

Anyone who studied Philosophy or Literary Theory at a certain point will be all too familiar with the bitter and apparently insurmountable divisions between Anglo-Saxon and Continental developments in these disciplines, a conflict that extends to the literary world, where, in English-language Canadian poetry, the schools of latter-day Johnsonians and that of the Theory-inflected avant-garde eye each other warily and dismissively, when they bother to regard each other at all. Of late, some attempts at a synthesis have been attempted, under the rubrics “hybrid” or “steampunk” poetics, or the “post-Language” or “Conceptual lyric.” However, all these attempts suffer a lack of depth and conceptual resources prey as they are to the prejudices of their precursors.

Most immediately, a straw man Wordsworth has been the whipping-boy of the grad schooled avant-garde, while our latter-day practitioners of Nobelese owe their complacent modernity ultimately to the struggles of early Modernism to define itself over against its late British Romantic forerunners. Ironically, in both cases, though it seems generally unacknowledged, Romanticism was roundly defended by the Yale School, in both the Deconstructions of Geoffrey Hartman and Paul de Man and the Aesthetic Criticism of Harold Bloom. The former showed English Romantic poetry to be as linguistically self-aware as any L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poem, while, for the latter, a Romantic stance became synonymous with poetry-as-such. Nevertheless, the sentiment of trenchant materialist critiques, such as Jerome McGann’s The Romantic Ideology, that Romanticism is firmly a thing of the past, seems the norm. Romantic poetry and poetics, in various guises, however, has given some small signs of resurgence, first, in Rothenberg’s and Robinson’s 2009 assemblage of Romantic and Postromantic Poetry (Poems for the Millennium, Volume III), a welcome dilation and extension of Robert Duncan’s unapologetic if idiosyncratic High Romanticism, and in the exploration and development of kitsch carried out in the criticism and poetry of, for example, Daniel Tiffany.

In any case, past divisions or present attempts at synthesis have carried on ignorant of the groundbreaking research and thinking going in Germany. Patient scholars laboured at producing the first or new critical editions of Hölderlin and Novalis. Meanwhile, Dieter Henrich and his students pursued diligent and painstaking research in an attempt to reconstruct the post-Kantian maelstrom of literary, critical, and philosophical activity centred around Jena and the short-lived journal The Athenaeum. Henrich’s student Manfred Frank built on these studies, exploiting the conceptual and argumentative resources they provided to come to grips in new ways with questions around language and meaning, history, the subject, politics, society, and the environment. In France, Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy brought the heritage of The Athenaeum to bear on contemporary thought in The Literary Absolute, published in France in 1978 and in English translation in 1988. Finally, 1990s England produced analogous work from Richard Eldridge and Andrew Bowie, whose 1997 From Romanticism to Critical Theory:  the Philosophy of German Literary Theory along with Frank’s now out-of-print What is Neostructuralism? (1989) are required reading for anyone eager to think apart from and beyond the staid, false dilemmas of present-day philosophical, literary culture. Not to be outdone, even Slavoj Žižek has contributed to the revival,development and exploitation of Schelling’s philosophical work.

It is within this horizon of preliminary scholarly and critical accomplishment that a strikingly welcome collection appears, The Relevance of Romanticism (ed. Dalia Nassar, Oxford University Press, 2014). The volume collects sixteen essays addressing history, language, sociability, poetry, painting, mythology, mathematics, and the environment within the context of the philosophy of early German Romanticism. Contributors include scholars well-known to anyone familiar with this field—Manfred Frank, Frederick Beiser, Karl Ameriks, Michael N Forster, and Richard Eldridge—as well as eleven others, all of whose work is informative, eye-opening and thought-provoking.

The first two essays by Manfred Frank and Frederick Beiser frame the debate concerning the relative Realism or Idealism of early German (or Jena) Romanticism. Offhand, the debate certainly seems esoteric, but it has its finger on the pulse not only of the most current philosophical concerns, namely those that have inspired the various “new materalisms,” object oriented ontology or speculative realism, but also the controversies about how exactly the human being (or Subject) is to be conceived. As Bruce Mathews remarks in the course of his contribution, this problematic is one whose

consequences are far from academic. As Manfred Frank has repeatedly warned, to surrender our subjectivity and free will to the deterministic vocabulary of the natural sciences will not only undermine the personal accountability that supports moral action, but it will also lead to a “political fatalism” that will destroy the legitimacy of society’s defining institutions. (202)

The next four essays explore, as their section title declares, History, Hermeneutics, and Sociability. Karl Ameriks constructs a typology for philosophies of history—circular, linear, and chaotic—in order to illuminate Friedrich Schlegel’s famous definition of Romantic poetry as “progressive” and “universal.” Michael N Forster condenses his two studies of German philosophy of language (After Herder:  Philosophy of Language in the German Tradition (2010) and German Philosophy of Language:  from Schlegel to Hegel and Beyond (2013)) in a dense but less pointed chapter that, though informative, passes over the equally valuable if more obscure work of Novalis and more importantly fails to make as clear as need be how much de Saussure, structuralist linguistics, semiotics, and post-structuralist philosophy stem from and twist the more thorough-going and coherent contributions of Herder, Friedrich Schlegel, Schleiermacher, and von Humboldt (a point well-made in detail by Frank in his What is Neostructuralism? and Boris Gasparov’s Beyond Pure Reason (2013)). The pair of essays by Kristin Gjesdal and Jane Kneller address an aspect of Jena Romanticism not widely enough surveyed (to my limited knowledge), namely the social dimension and pertinence of the movement. The Jena circle was infamously cosmopolitan and egalitarian, not only in terms of class and religion but of gender, too, values absolutely essential to the Berlin salon society within which its members moved and to Schleiermacher’s idea of sociability in his Essay on a Theory of Social Behaviour.

The five contributions of the volume’s third part address literature, art, and mythology. Richard Eldridge reads Hölderlin’s fragment “Rousseau” with attention to what it says about subjectivity and finitude. Brady Bowman and Keren Gorodeisky explore the lively pertinence of Jena Romantic thinking to reflections on the truth of art in analytic philosophy and the fragmentary form and pragmatic content of Wittgenstein’s philosophy in relation to Friedrich Schlegel’s. A real eye-opener for me is Laure Cahen-Maurel’s study of the painting and art theory of David Caspar Friedrich and its influence on Abstract Expressionism and the art of Anish Kapoor. Surely the most gripping read, however, is Bruce Mathews’ “The New Mythology:  Romanticism Between Religion and Humanism” that takes up Schelling’s speculations concerning a mythology that would harmonize art and science, humankind and nature, a discourse that holds the promise of helping us avoid what Schelling already in 1804 foresaw as “the annihilation of nature.” No remark by Žižek on the environment or environmentalism or any tract on ecopoetics or ecopoetical work I can think of open such compelling vistas or place a higher or more urgent demand on the imaginative artist or thinker than these fifteen or so pages.

The book’s final section, Science and Nature, is no less surprisingly informative or pertinent to the present day. Anyone who believes the Romantic thinker is a wooly-brained dilettante will find that prejudice shattered here. One learns in the contributions from Paul Redding, John H Smith, and David W Wood that Novalis (a mining engineer by trade), Friedrich Schlegel, and Salomon Maimon (surely one of Kant’s most idiosyncratic interpreters and critics) were absolutely contemporary in their knowledge of the most advanced mathematics of the day, particularly that having to do with controversies over the then relatively new infinitesimal calculus and the nature of the infinite, notions that informed Schlegel’s definition of Romantic Poesie as “progressive.” Redding shows how Novalis’ fragmentary notes on computation remain relevant to contemporary philosophy of mind, artificial intelligence, and procedural, cyber- or Conceptual poetries. Regarding this aspect of Novalis’ thinking, Redding observes

We can see how the interests of the poet and the computationalist might converge…and a point of convergence can indeed be found in the strange case of the combinatorial poetics of Erycius Puteanus, a seventeenth-century humanist whose generation of multiple verses to the Virgin Mary from a single eight-word poem came to the attention of Liebniz…An eight-word, one-line Latin hexameter…formed the base from which Puteanus generated 1,022 verse permutations… (228)

Equally startling is the relation of geometry and algebra and calculus to the concepts of philosophy of Fichte and Novalis and the relevance of the former’s Wissenschaftslehre to such mathematical luminaries as Herman Weyl. Amanda Jo Goldstein’s contribution on Herder’s “irritable empiricism” complements Forster’s on Herder’s language philosophy, laying out as it does Herder’s peculiar theories concerning sensation, culture, and language and their unknottable intertwining that weaves poetic tropes into our very nerve fibres and their “irritations” two centuries in advance of similar proposals made by Canguilhem, Jacob, or Foucault and in a much more compelling way for poets and poetics. Likewise, the volume’s final piece, Dalia Nassar’s “Romantic Empiricism after the ‘End of Nature'” complements Mathews’ on Schelling’s New Mythology, setting out to clarify and legitimate Goethe’s concept of science and nature in the context of the contestations over the very idea of Nature itself.

Nassar’s collection should disturb the prejudice that Romanticism is dustily antique and that our absolute modernity is a quantum advance upon its quaint notions. As the philosophies of Kant and Hegel come to be seen to possess potentials to illuminate the present moment, so the thinking between theirs comes to the fore. Not only do we share the more general horizon with the Jena Romantics—developments in technoscience and its worldview and the attendant social and environmental predations of industrialism—but their terms define our own in advance. Indeed, the essays in this volume propose that it is our thinking that is a pale shadow of theirs and that the promise of their speculations resides in our future.

A Review of Two New Philosophical Works

This past April has proven a politically tumultuous and illuminating month. In Quebec many college and university students have been on strike, protesting raises in tuition fees that will end a twenty-year freeze on said fees and that will bring the individual student’s cost of higher education more-or-less up to that of Canada’s other provinces. The students have been joined by labour and other groups, and the protests have broadened their target to include the neoliberal agenda of the current regime. (Information concerning the strike can be found here  and here). These protests have been going on for some weeks, with more than  200,000 students and their supporters marching through downtown Montreal on one occasion.

Thursday 19 April I attended a book launch for two philosophical works that probed the political implications of Spinoza and Hamann, respectively. The event was held at a bookstore whose show-windows look out on a major intersection in downtown Montreal. As the authors and audience arrived and settled in for the launch, outside could be seen police and a large group of students gathering for what turned out to be a sit-down protest in front of a bank across the street from the bookstore. The launch was introduced by the Chair of McGill University’s Political Science Department, a member of  the Research Group on Constitutional Studies (well-represented in the audience) spoke before each author, and another scholar of political theory introduced the work on Spinoza. Not one speaker, including the authors, expended so much as a syllable  on  the concrete, sociopolitical phenomenon unfolding outside the window.

Get Real

Tim Morton recently posted the proceedings of a conference on the nature of reality. In response to the make-up of the panel, Morton remarks the absence of, for example, a humanist perspective, which got me thinking along the following lines….(And I mean lines! Damn WordPress, HTML, or my own lazy ignorance for the lack of hanging indents that would indicate that each of the seven statements that follow are each a poetic line!)

A neurobiologist, a theoretical and a computational physicist, an anaesthesiologist, and Deepak Chopra walk into a lecture hall to discuss The Nature of Reality.

Better to have staged a dramatic recitation of Plato’s Sophist, the Tao te Ching, or The Divine Comedy; even better if nobody knew Greek, Chinese, or Italian.

Better to’ve performed Schubert’s last sonata in B flat or had Ahad Master improvise, had everyone enter an anechoic chamber to hear their blood circulate and nerves hum,

Gone to The National Gallery of Canada and gazed on Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire,

Had everyone guided through a sequence of novice yoga moves or instructed how just to sit and fix the wandering mind on the breath swelling their bellies,

Fast forty days and forty nights, take a heroic dose of Psilocybe Cubensis (with due care to set and setting), cry for a vision, or participate in a potlatch,

Consider the view of the proverbial fly on the wall, the air in the room.