Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Eds.): Philosophers and Their Poets

Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant Book Cover Philosophers and Their Poets: Reflections on the Poetic Turn in Philosophy since Kant
SUNY series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy
Charles Bambach, Theodore George (Eds.)
SUNY Press
Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Sarah Fayad (Emory University)

It is somewhat easy to forget that philosophy has not always, or in every case, been conducted through the medium of writing. For the most part, we expect philosophy to be written.  But the written-ness of philosophy is contingent, and so too is its suspension in the written: in literature, media, interview, and of course poetry. Socrates and Plato, or instance, did not make much use of citation and Plato especially elevated philosophy at the expense of poetry and drama. And, indeed, this contingency is all the more difficult for philosophers to fathom, because the written word is usually the trade-mechanism by which we philosophize, and through which we think. The experienced phenomena of reading and writing are the basic instruments of philosophy, as we practice it. Writing is not merely the way we convey and transmit ideas, born and nurtured in the mind. Rather, when we look at the phenomena of reading and writing, we see the ebb and flow of epiphany, of doubt, of enlightenment and invention. Writing is quite often how we philosophize at all.

The primordial disciplinary decision to move the vague shapes and shadows of our ideas from their mental and social obscurity (and incompletion) to the written word—a decision which none of us living had any hand in making— itself has philosophical ramifications. That is to say that the presupposition of philosophy’s written-ness, is shot through with questions: questions about the truth, as well as metaphilosophical questions about the place of philosophy within the universal/Borgesian “Library of Babel” it has chosen for itself, about the necessity of writing philosophy and the necessity of philosophy regarding other kinds of written works, about the relationship between philosophical, literary, journalistic, and poetical styles to reality, truth, clarity, and that part of the human spirit to which philosophy wants to appeal.

Charles Bambach’s and Theodore George’s anthology, Philosophers and Their Poets lights upon these fundamental questions of philosophy-as-word, as speech, and as our connection to one another and to the real through a series of serious, considered, and illuminating papers examining the relationship of philosophers to art, style, and of course poetry. I see these papers as being divided into four more-or-less distinguishable subject-categories: 1) papers dealing with German idealist discourse around the role and status of art, poetry, and beauty in what they regard as a burgeoning philosophical and rational world, 2) analyses of Nietzsche’s philosophy of art as it serves as a kind of hinge—indeed serves as itself a revealing poem—between idealism and more phenomenological and existential traditions, 3) those dealing with Heidegger’s encounters with poetry as a revolutionary force in meaning-making, and 4) those which proceed from the poems themselves to philosophical analyses.

The first three chapters of this collection take us through the foundations of these questions of style and artistry in the German idealist tradition. The first essay by Maria de Rosario Acosta Lopez analyses a historical controversy between Schiller and Fichte over philosophical style and the part of the human being to which philosophy must speak. This is followed by Chapter 2, which presents us with a very clear and compelling translation of the very letters exchanged between Schiller and Fichte, regarding philosophical style. These first chapters elucidate a possible ambiguity between reason and feeling, which gives way to a possible ambiguity between philosophy and poetry. This ambiguity leads Hegel’s intuitions, both conceptually and historically. Theodore George argues in Chapter 3 that philosophy and art have a similar purpose in the creation of world-historical meaning, for Hegel. We see a transition from any concern about the purity of philosophy in Fichte to an embrace of its meaning-founding affinities with religion and art in the later work of Hegel.

Chapters 4 and 5 deal with Nietzsche, whose philosophy marks a kind of transition between German idealism and the phenomenological and existential (represented by thinkers like Heidegger and Gadamer), which will occupy the four of the volume’s remaining chapters. In Chapter 4, Babette Babich analyses Nietzsche’s relationship to ancient Greek tragic poetry, to its lost poets, and to their time-silenced songs in the interest of revealing what are indisputable contributions to philosophy itself, contra an extant tradition in the literature which more or less excludes him from the field. The fifth Chapter by Kalliopi Nikolopoulou investigates Nietzsche’s attachment to the heroic in Greek tragedy. Nietzsche saw ancient heroes and the poets who sung their tales as perhaps doubly heroic, she argues, since they might remedy Modern nihilism.

Chapters 5, 7, and 8 all deal with Heidegger’s encounters with poetry—as both the truth and the promise of philosophy. Like Schiller, Hegel, and Nietzsche Heidegger sees poetry as revealing a fuller truth than that accessible by reason alone. But it is only with Hegel that Heidegger shares this concept of the promise of poetry; both Heidegger and Hegel think art has (or once had) the power to inaugurate worlds and imbue them with meaning. Charles Bambach’s sixth Chapter for this volume begins at the interstices of aesthetics and ethics, mired in this Heideggerian meaning-making power/promise of the poem. He finds that the poem—in granting us access to our humanity in full—promises an originary ethics of our place, and (I’ll say) perfection, which is utterly opaque to us without the poetic disclosure. In the seventh Chapter, “Remains,” William McNeill addresses the futurity any concept of a promise must take for granted. He argues that Heidegger’s confrontations with Hölderlin’s poetry open up novel relations and meanings for us by altering the medium of time. Hölderlin’s works according to McNeill demonstrate a substratum of ambiguity in time wherein the greeting and remembrance are indistinct. Thus, the poem’s novel horizonality inaugurates a new world by possibilizing new projects, new relations to one another, and even new relations to the dead. Chapter 8 is likewise about the time of the poem, but it looks to its momentum, to the cadence of thought. Such poietic momentum, Krystof Ziarek argues, is experienced as rhythm and even texture. When philosophy takes on this cadence, it transcends the mere transmission of information and exceeds the possibilities of the argument: demonstrating in this excess new possibilities for thought itself.

Chapters 9, 10, and 11 emerge from analyses of poets and poetic works, rather than from within the philosophical theories which have taken them up. This provides what I think is a novel opportunity for philosophers who might not themselves read much poetry. It is a strange admission to make here, I suppose, that I have likely read more philosophical works which abstract from and selectively cite poems than I have poems themselves. To the question, “Is poetry true?” Chapter nine of Philosophers and Their Poets poses a kind of phenomenological/experimental response; “In order to answer this question maybe no extensive conceptual discussion of truth is needed…just attention to a particular poem led by the question how such a poem can be read and understood.”[1] To this end, Gunther Figal looks to Burnt Norton” by T.S. Eliot. Chapter 10, by Gert-Jan van der Heiden, which I discuss in some greater detail below, looks to the somewhat revolutionary poetry of Célan, which render in poetic verse that promise of a different world, or of new meanings, of new homes—out of the silence, the nothingness, that must follow the decay of status-quo intelligibility, in the rests, and breaths that keep familiar meaning from crossing living lips. In Chapter 11, Max Kommerell (who has been translated here by Christopher D. Merwin and Margot Wielgus) provides an analysis of Hölderlin’s Empedocles poem, which demonstrates his distinctiveness. In particular, this analysis lays bare Hölderlin’s perhaps utterly unique poetic “ear,” which attunes him to cosmic harmonies and truths, and places what is revealed in his writing always-already outside the grasp of our concepts; “…in accord with his talent, Hölderlin could experience what, for us, lies at an ungraspable distance and is a hardly thinkable event as the real history of his soul.”[2]

Because of its historical breadth, this anthology might serve as a kind of introduction to the specific questions that arise from continental philosophy’s various encounters with poetry. But the book would only be an appropriate introduction for somewhat advanced students of philosophy, familiar with continental thought, and its historical movements. It is therefore I think primarily suited to philosophers already researching some of the questions outlined in my introduction. These would also be invaluable secondary sources for interdisciplinary researchers. I would readily recommend the volume, for example, to anyone writing at the interstices of philosophy or art and aesthetics with ethics, political philosophy, epistemology, and metaphysics. This recommendation is in no small part because the authors in this volume have done an excellent job bringing the stakes of philosophy of art to the surface.

Art, especially as poetry, has had an inescapable influence on philosophical thinking throughout its 2000+ years of development. If the bare written-ness of philosophy opens up as many questions as it does, then what does its ready and intimate relationship to poetry mean for us? What does it say about philosophy itself: its veracity, its trustworthiness? And, perhaps more promisingly: What does it say about poetry, about its kind of truth? Bambach and George introduce the works in this anthology by way of a kind of conclusion:

What we find in poetry is the unfolding of the very momentum of language as an originary opening up and emergence that does not fit into the metaphysical encasements of presence and representation… Against the propositional language of statements, poetic language invites us to heed the pauses, the interruptions, and the caesurae that call us to attend to what is not said or can never be said in language.[3]

They find that poetry invites that part of the human spirit which can attend to the immutable mysteries of our existence and of Being, in general, to attend to these mysteries, in spite of their inherent obscurity. Poetry, in short, invites us to philosophize. We come up against this indistinction between the philosophical and the poetic, as we read the essays collected in Philosophers and Their Poets, again and again. The philosophical—which has, in many of its iterations attempted to void itself of the poetic, to let beauty die of neglect—is shot through with the poetic. The poetic is unavoidably philosophical: so much so that we might call any promise of truth philosophy might make, at all, the “poetic.”

We cannot help but ask here, where ordinary categories fail; Who are the philosophers and who the poets of Philosophers and Their Poets? Some thinkers examined within the volume trouble themselves with the differences, while others embrace, and even invest fully in the similarities. (Although, the indistinction between the poetic and the philosophical may, in the end, be why we feel compelled to draw such a distinction in the first place, rendering both derivative).

Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez’s analysis of a confrontation between Schiller and Fichte begins the essays in the collection and does so as an inauguration of the very questions with which we have been tarrying. Most importantly, the argument between these Modern titans lays bare a very basic metaphilosophical point I had not ever before considered: that all writing, all discourse, and all philosophy must speak either to the whole of the human being or to some part of her. Philosophy might, therefore, have a different audience than does poetry, news, or fiction even within the same enfleshed and living reader. Fichte presupposes that philosophy must solicit only some part of the subject. He argues that philosophical writing must be as logical as possible, using examples in such a way that they shore up arguments rather than evoke the sensible and imaginative capacities. This is because, on his view, philosophy takes aim at the Understanding alone. Other capacities of the subject are not relevant, on this view, to the philosophical pursuit of truth. Such a pursuit can, therefore, only be successful if it is confined to this valence of subjectivity.

But, is such a well-fortified compartmentalization of subjective parts, regions, and capacities even possible for more contemporary thinkers? Doesn’t Continental Philosophy’s “phenomenological turn” render anathema the very idea that philosophy might reach something like the tower-bound understanding—especially without dirtying itself in the more immanent ground of evoking and implicating imagination, sensation, and body? Indeed I think many of us would agree that philosophy might not be able to find and transmit truth if it does not consider and speak to the whole human being. Rosario Acosta Lopez shows that Schiller’s evocations of imagination insert “…in the heart of human action the elements of contingency, finitude and a permanent and necessary dialog with a world that is never entirely in our power to control.” Contra Fichte, Schiller’s more poetical and evocative style is veridical: showing us the world in its more awe-inspiring and challenging true-light.[4]

My continual tendency, aside from the inquiry itself, is to employ the ensemble of emotional forces and to the extent that it is possible to affect all of them. I thus do not wish merely to make my thoughts clear to others, but at the same time to transmit my entire soul to them, and to influence bother their sensuous and intellectual powers.[5]

Schiller makes an epistemological, existential, and ontological point with his imaginative and sensuous writing style. He also makes a metaphilosophical one, which proceeds naturally from undermining the understanding’s epistemic monopoly; “[T]he discussion reflects on philosophy itself, inviting us to understand the boundaries of thought, and the very rich possibilities that come along [sic] the recognition of these boundaries.”[6] The understanding has boundaries precisely with regard to the philosophical and cannot philosophize without pooling resources with something like the integrated-and-whole embodied subject.

This more phenomenologically salient, existential understanding of the poetic nature of philosophical writing (and of the philosophical nature of poetic writing, as well) seems to prevail in the context of the anthology as it deals with authors like Heidegger and Gadamer. Poetic writing, as it reaches the whole human being and casts its creeping, seeking, tendrils even into the most obscure and mysterious depths of the soil of our Being, and our Becoming.

Hegel might seem an odd-man-out in terms of this generalization since he does not affirm the indistinct boundaries between philosophy and art. His infamous and oft-misunderstood argument for the “end of art” and the primacy of philosophy is a testament to this. Yet, Theodore George shows Hegel nonetheless sees art as serving a similar function to philosophy in the founding and transmission of meaning, even in the Modern world. This function unsurprisingly has to do with truth. Art, religion, and philosophy allow “a society…to take a good look at itself, to make explicit its deepest context of meaning, the context that otherwise remains merely tacit even as it shapes, orients and grants legitimacy to all further meanings within that society.”

On George’s account in this volume, Hegel should be read as saying that between art and philosophy as well as between Classical and Romantic art, there are no differences in kind. Rather there are differences in context, which yield differences in the magnitude of their respective world-founding forces. Hegel thinks that Classical artworks originarily founded, grounded, and justified Greek culture. Everything in this period—including the first works of philosophy— derives from and makes sense in reference to this founding. Within the modern period, however, art bears no such promise and philosophy must provide our social foundations. The ancient context gave art a greater share of the inauguration, transmission, and preservation of its truth. The modern era by necessity gives it less.

On this view, the nascent philosophy of the ancient world could not but be derivative of its more originary sculptural founding, and thus will be supplanted by modern philosophy: the first philosophy to successfully found and ground a world-historical epoch. Hegel argues that modernity is, in essence, a revaluation, whereby philosophy accrues a greater degree of veridical force. This changing of worlds, the promise of new meanings and truths—the world-historical dawn in which Hegel feels himself bathed—this is the promise of philosophy as poetic and of poetry as philosophical, which comes to dominate Philosophers and Their Poets. Inchoate in language are new worlds.

Babette Babich’s search for Nietzsche’s all-but-lost poet, Archilochus, lays bare the tension with which humanity is suspended upon the Earth. The truth of tragedy is a musical truth, she concludes. But what is music within the Nietzschean paradigm other than “the becoming human of dissonance?”[7] In music, we take up into the body our irresolute difference from the world and its entities: a tension that cannot be resolved so long as we are of this world. Such a tension as that between the world and its dominant species is perfectly thought as musical dissonance; dissonance heard arises from the proximity of one note with the other, the greatest dissonance from the greatest similarity, proximity, intimacy.

This is what distinguishes us as the exception among beings, that we both inhabit and are inhabited by an inescapable uncanniness that pervades our ethos.[8]

This tension between the “possible nearness and necessary remoteness of all things” to us is the foundation of Heidegger’s philosophy, especially his philosophy of poetry and art. That strangeness and disquiet that emerges most strongly, most sustained, from the smallest margins of difference, from the tightest chasms of intimacy. We seek the resolution, like any listener, any composer. But the resolution cannot happen here, within our fraught intimacy with a world that cannot harmonize with us; a world that—through Modernity, mechanization, and technologization—we have mistakenly set to sing a different song from us, altogether. Philosophers and Their Poets allows us to tarry with the major philosophical insight that there are however possible—that is, horizonal, not-yet-actual/arrived—worlds, with which we could harmonize.

Such worlds, on Heidegger’s and Gadamer’s accounts, seem to exist just beyond the concepts that make up our reality:  possibilities invisible to us because we have a faith in the world, which could perhaps shatter upon rocks of the right philosophical or poetic work. William McNeill argues that Heidegger’s encounters with poetry reveal the limits of phenomenology, and therefore of the truth-telling capacity of our very experience. Poetry reveals those limits of our world which serve as its conditions of possibility (time), and thus what is real beyond our comprehension, or our apprehension, through the structures of meaning in which we are presently enmeshed.[9] Bambach argues that the poet sings the philosopher his longing for his “own home amid the experience of expulsion,” in an uncanny home, in an intelligibility which fails to make sense of the philosopher and indeed each of us, an intelligibility that thus desacralizes us, flattens and debases us. But the poet’s hymn is a heralding hymn, which points “ahead to the futural coming of the gods.” Gods, of course, found worlds. And perhaps the poet can sing the eventual creation of a home that protects our dignity, sanctifies us, and sets us forever free of the old intelligibility.[10]

The anthology presents oscillations and refinements of this insight throughout the history of Western thought—from Nietzsche’s conception of world-revolutionary “revaluation,” to Heidegger’s alethic revelation of (extant and real) values, the existential progressivism of so-called ontological and ethical “ambiguity,” and Gadamer’s “subdued hope…” The notes that harmonize with our being, hum imperceptibly all around us; we just need philosophy and art to amplify them, and finally to change the song of the world.

With new worlds, of course, come new ethics, new values, new ways of being with one another, and even new entities. The works collected in Philosophers and Their Poets confront the abyss of the as-of-yet inchoate possibilities of this new world—hidden in the bare written-ness of philosophy—and they do so with an eye to what’s at stake in such questions for denizens of the present world. We should, I think, desire new answers to the question, “Who are we?”[11] While I am reticent to add much of anything extra-textual to such a rich volume, I will say I feel we cannot but look at our current world in mourning, in longing. The coming of another means the terrifying demise of the world. But it might finally mean the embrace of the Other, of one another, no matter how strange we’ve been to each other:

Language gives us shelter… by deconstructing word and language the poem sets free another horizon, namely the horizon of the unfamiliar… the horizon of heaven.[12]

The stranger, in her approach through the medium of the poem; The strange in its approach through the medium of the poem; Both approach with their arms outstretched, and paradise in their hands, according to Célan.

I do not believe a poem alone can save us (unless our definition of “poetry” becomes so diffuse as to lose all meaning). After all, the horrors of this world have easily survived any beauty in it. I therefore even have to regard the destructive power Célan grants poetry with some skepticism. Nonetheless, I do think that (poetic) beauty has its place, as we attempt to turn the world over and reveal its other side. Alongside Schiller, I feel poetic language might help to engage the entire human being in the work of making a way for new meanings. As social and political creatures we are, of course, embodied and intercorporeal, only partially rational. If poetry is world-transitional in the ways Heidegger and Célan argue, it is in part because we cannot migrate to a new world by virtue of our rationality alone. Beauty as justice, as long-awaited relief, as burgeoning post-revolutionary responsibilities to one another, even as forgiveness, as absolution: this is the medium of revolutionary beauty, which might both carry us to a new world as well as compose this world in its meter, its tone, and its colors (as the paint carries us to the world of the painting, by the very act of creating that world). Such a medium perhaps makes possible—even beckons—the revolutionary poem. And thus we might be called to the selfless, futural, heartache of revolutionary beauty by the poets of our current, decaying, world as well. A poem alone may not be able to save us, but I am inclined to take what help there is.

[1] Günter Figal, “Learning from Poetry: On Philosophy, Poetry, and T.S. Eliot’s Burnt Norton,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 204.

[2] Max Kommerell, “An ‘Almost Imperceptible Breathturn’: Gadamer on Célan,” Translated by C. Merwin and M. Wielgus, in Philosophers and Their Poets, 260.

[3] Charles Bambach and Theodore George. 2019. Philosophers and Their Poets. Albany: State University of New York Press, 5-6.

[4]  Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez, “On the Poetical Nature of Philosophical Writing: A Controversy over Style Between Schiller and Fichte,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 37.

[5] “Fichte and Schiller Correspondence, from Fichte’s Werke, Vol. 8 (De Gruyter).”  Translated by Christopher Turner, in Philosophers and Their Poets, 56.

[6]  Maria del Rosario Acosta Lopez, “On the Poetical Nature of Philosophical Writing: A Controversy over Style Between Schiller and Fichte,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 37.

[7] Babette Babich, “Who is Nietzsche’s Archilochus? Rhythm and the Problem of the Subject,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 103.

[8] Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’ Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 146.

[9] William McNeill, “Remains: Heidegger and Hölderlin amid the Ruins of Time,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 179.

[10] Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’s Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 152.

[11] Charles Bambach, “Heidegger’s Ister Lectures: Ethical Dwelling in the (Foreign),” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 145.

[12] Gert-Jan van der Heiden, “An ‘Almost Imperceptible Breathturn’: Gadamer on Célan,” in Philosophers and Their Poets, 226.