Philosophy as poetic composition? Wittgenstein and the veil of mystification

“I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: philosophy ought really to be written only as a poetic composition.” – Wittgenstein

Why did Wittgenstein say this?  For a man whose primary obsession in philosophy was the bewitchment of language, it seems odd that he thought philosophy should only be written as a poetic composition.  In a way, this can seem like obscurantist move, or to say that philosophy itself was nothing but the same kind of mystification that Plato would have kicked the poets out of the republic for.  It is implied in that statement even in my reading, but I don’t think Wittgenstein was being solely ironic or dismissive here also it is that poetic analogy allows types of experience in language with do not rely on basic proposition statements: the topic of a poem is bracketed out, not said, because saying it would not render the matter justice.

Now one can take a mystical approach to this, and perhaps that is the essential tension that let Wittgenstein to reject his conclusions in the Tractus and turn to natural language philosophy, but the implications are in the ways poets, more explicitly than other word artists or logicians, acknowledge family resemblances of arbitrary games.  The danger of the mystification of poetry is there, and, as Zizek is fond of reminding us, most of the nationalist butchers of the last two centuries have been poets or inspired by poets, but the same could be said of philosopher-kings. For example, how many bodies have been made in the name of Lockean property distinctions or Fascist readings of Hegel?  It, however, is also those who understand the dangerous mystification of poetry who can see through nationalistic dreams and romantic bewitching of language.  So the same with philosophy.


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About El Mono Liso

Por una civilización de la pobreza.

Posted on August 4, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. My sense is that Wittgenstein had a strong sense of the mystical. The famous closing aphorism of Tractatus is as much a comment on the ineffable mysteries of the universe and of the human condition, I think, and so that sense was present even in early days.

    But I read his quote here in a different way than you do. Rather, I think he’s referring to the way poetry makes use of grammatical or syntactical structures and devices as a mechanism for producing an affect in the reader/listener. The meaning of poetry is – particularly in W’s time – quite explicitly consisting largely in its structure, and poetry is in this sense more ‘honest’ than free prose. So philosophy is a way to provoke an aesthetic experience that lays bare the primacy of grammar.

    But I am no old hand with Wittgenstein, and I am sure I would be demolished by a more familiar reader of his.

  2. Well, Simon, that is another possible reading, and one that did occur to me given the primacy of form on Wittgenstein, but the context I got from some Wittgenstein journals which Ray Monk quotes pretty extensively about allusion and metaphor seem to indicate that he had that in mind too. It’s very hard to say with Wittgenstein because he is clearer than most philosophers, but also his arguments can play out in multiple ways.

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