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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This article is taken from PN Review 160, Volume 31 Number 2, November - December 2004.

Two Noble Kinsmen George Steiner

The most indecipherable of Dadaist or futurist lyrics and the most stringent of philosophic texts are both acts of language. However extreme, the purely semiotic and the strictly semantic are located along an horizontal axis. At either end, the limits are indeterminate. The nonsensepoem, the wholly phonetic utterance can dissolve into music. The immaculate philosophic discourse can become symbolic logic untouched by the infirmities of natural language. Among representative figures, Mallarmé might stand for the one `transit', Spinoza or Frege for the other. Ultimately, language is lord over both.

At the outset in the western tradition the poetic and the philosophic statement can be identical. Parmenides and Empedocles argue their cosmologies and theories of cognition in verse. The use of verse, of the performative means of metrics for scientific purposes, for what De Quincey called `the literature of knowledge', for the exposition and imparting of pure and applied sciences, persists for centuries. We find it in the agronomy of Hesiod and Virgil, in the astronomy of Manilius, in numerous renaissance and eighteenth-century presentations of medicine or botany. Formally, there is no reason why Euclidean geometry or Aristotelian zoology could not have been set out in rhymed stanzas. For their part, the rhetorical, hortative and dramatic devices of the poetic will be ubiquitous in philosophic speech. Philosophers such as Plato, Hobbes, Hume, Nietzsche or, in his adverse vein, Wittgenstein, belong eminently to the history of prose. They are literary masters.

Despite a prodigal secondary literature, the polemic between poetry (belles lettres) and philosophy associated with Plato remains both decisive and enigmatic. Certain explanations lie to hand. Himself a sometime tragedian and supremely gifted writer, Plato may at some level have been jealous of the claims of literature (cf. the near-sarcasm of the Ion). Acutely sensitive to the irrational, hypnotic, rhapsodic effects of poetry and of music, these being in Greek theory and practice inseparable, Plato believed (like Lenin after him) that in the virtuous polis such explosive forces must be closely circumscribed and controlled. Hence the ostracism of non-didactic, non-civic poetry. Fundamentally, what is at issue in Plato is the pursuit and dissemination of truth, of what modern logic calls `truth-functions'. There is for Plato - himself a virtuoso of myth - something monstrous about the capacity of language, about the capacity of its dynamic instrumentalities, to generate fictions. To emit and adorn falsehood, mendacities about even the loftiest themes, as do many passages in Homer. Fictions, fables, lies of every shade, are an anarchic waste. They threaten not only the internal coherence of the state, but the potential of the human psyche and intellect to acquire truths. This acquisition is the enabling condition of virtue. Geometry, not poetry, is the therapy of the soul.

Yet even when we muster these charged negations and critiques, Plato's censorious dictates, his identification of `tragedy' with the constitution of the polity in the Laws, remain difficult to interpret. To what degree are they ironic? To what extent do they enact the aim of a literary practitioner of genius to create in the Dialogues a pre-eminent dramatic genre which would, at the same time and ipso facto be truthful, be didactic in the loftiest sense?

Whatever its motives, Plato's dichotomy has, in the west, underlain the relations, reciprocal or polemic, between poets, dramatists, novelists on the one hand and philosophers, metaphysicians or logicians on the other. Plato demands that we acknowledge the hierarchies of language, of thought and sensibility which divide the philosophic from the poetic, which make the philosophic almost infinitely preferable. We, in turn, can ask: is this categorisation valid? Where does Lucretius belong, or Dante, or Nietzsche's Zarathustra?


Famously, Lucretius defined his verse and poetic narrative as the dash of honey which makes palatable the harsh asperities of Epicurus' moral and scientific teachings. The atomist materialism, the eudemonism of the Epicurean doxa can be rendered both accessible and persuasive via the spell of epic poetry. In fact, Lucretius is, at significant points in the De Rerum Natura, far more than a medium for his master's teachings. There is poetry of the first rank in his invocation of Eros, in his creation-narrative and even in more technical passages. The very roughness, the `prosaic' energy of Lucretius' art give to his haute vulgarisation of ethical, psychological and cosmological arguments a commanding personal voice. It is the tension between a derived teaching and a formidable literary gift which activates the text. Here, as elsewhere, the poetic proved to have more staying power than the philosophic. Later Epicureans and materialists tended to adopt their seminal metaphors and ironies from Lucretius.

Centuries of study and commentary have far from exhausted the manifold interactions between philosophy and poetry in the Commedia. Between the Pilgrim's journey and the teachings of Aristotle (with possible Islamic interpositions), Boethius and Aquinas. It is a commonplace to consider Dante's intellect as an instrument for order unsurpassed in western civilisation, and to experience the pressure of that intellect on language, its immediate focus on thought and the music of thought, as virtually incomparable. The breadth of that focus extends from technicalities of logic in Scholastic disciplines to the utmost, visionary reaches of Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic ethics and of Patristic and Aquinian philosophic theology. Indeed, Dante keeps purposefully unstable any formal dissociation of the metaphysical from the theological. If theology, in the final and blinding light of revelation, is primary, it is to be energised and sustained by philosophic inquiry and argument. Prophets, theologians, thinkers (possibly heretical) are conjoined in the truth, at once evident and unfathomable, of God's presence. Like no other mind and poetic craft, Dante's are capable, to borrow Heraclitus' desideratum, of making of abstract and speculative cognition a living fire. They transmute doctrine into image, this being the wellspring of allegory. In ways inaccessible to paraphrase and defiant of translation the Commedia houses presence in representation, substance in shadow. It bestows on argument, be it syllogistic or dialectical, the felt pressure of life itself.

How did Dante conceive of the interactions between poetic form and its theological-philosophic content? There can be no confident answer. Medieval taxonomies of rhetoric and cognition are remote from us; Dante's own theoretical idiom was both intricate and constantly evolving (moto spirituale). More significant is the question of the orders of truth which he ascribed to his central fiction, to the saga of intellectual and sensory disclosures in the world after death. The certitude of sacred, divinely authorised revelations in Scripture, the Augustinian and Thomist exposition of articles of faith, the `doctorate' of the ecclesia, underwrote in Dante's narrative license and idiosyncrasies of invention. The poetic could be deployed freely, even in unorthodox conjectures, within the radiant constraints of dogmatic guarantors. A good many of Dante's most arresting and unnerving scenarios - e.g. the placement of Siger in the upper spheres of the Paradiso - probe the very limits of canonic permissibility. In turn, the semantic and imagistic resources of lyricism and poetic eloquence are put at the service of abstruse theological-philosophical disputation and exegesis (notably in those cantos of the Paradiso which later generations have sometimes found rebarbative). These passages are, however, of the essence. They exemplify, as perhaps does no other literary construct, the unison of the semiotic and the semantic, of metaphysical substance and executive poetic form. They are what Wallace Stevens might have entitled `supreme fictions of truth'. After Dante, this symbiosis will not be achieved in any comparable scope in the western legacy.

It blazes, fitfully, in Doctor Faustus. Marlowe is among the very few in English literature (George Eliot is another) to place a thinker, an intellectual in the forefront. In this respect antithetical to Shakespeare's, Marlowe's temper was scholarly, even academic. It delighted in philosophic controversy, in erudite allusions, in the lightning-play of metaphysical and theological speculations. Faustus is charged with the ardour and solitude, with the ostentations and sorrows of the life of the mind. The issues raised and dramatised - equivocations between knowledge and sin, the hypnotic powers and self-delusions of the human imagination, the eros and irony of relations between master and disciple - are hammered out with an abstract sensuality almost unique to Marlowe (we find comparable instances in Donne and in Browning). The risks taken, theologically, are as grave and as consequential as any in western thought. Implicit in the play is the challenge whether God has the right to pardon Faustus, whether such pardon ought not to discredit Him in the eyes of a free intellect (one thinks of Péguy's rage at Christ's incapacity to pardon Judas). Marlowe's perceptions of the hell within us rival Dante's.


The contract with reason and education which informs the Enlightenment produced a corpus of literature - poetic, expository, fictive - which aimed to convey to the literate laity the new worlds of the sciences and of post-Cartesian philosophy. The talismanic reference was that to Newton and to the rubric, precisely apposite, of `natural philosophy'. Deliberately conceived as a `philosophical poem', Pope's Essay on Man of 1733-4 achieved international celebrity. It was prized by Kant. Founded on the rationalist optimism of Leibniz and the harmonic wonder of a Newtonian cosmos, Pope's argument led to an empiricist morality independent of, though in no way adverse to, the presumptions of deism. It has survived in sparkling patches.

Only some twenty years later, in an intellectual climate traumatised by natural catastrophe, Voltaire published his Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne. Its anti-Leibnizian ironies, also set out in Candide, remain mordant. Voltaire's polemic brio, however, depends almost symmetrically on the weakness of the verse, on an idiom in essence prosaic. Lucretius' mutation of philosophic-scientific matter into great poetry eludes the eighteenth century. There are impressive moments in Erasmus Darwin's posthumously issued Temple of Nature, but overall the philosophic-didactic poetry of the Enlightenment conceded implicitly the preeminence of expository prose. The pessimistic critique offered by Swift or Voltaire excels in their narrative prose rather than in their poetry. Thus the `Parnassus of reason' is that of the Encyclopédie or of Hume's dialogues.

Virtually every element in the coexistence of the poetic and the philosophic is compacted within the polymorphic genius and frustrations of Coleridge. He was possessed by the dream of composing a supreme metaphysical poem, possibly on an epic scale. At times, he ascribed to Wordsworth's Prelude and Excursion the fulfilment of that dream. For Coleridge himself it modulated into the design of a prose summa, the Opus Maximum which would incorporate and systematise a lifetime of theological-philosophical meditation and political findings. It is only with the publication, over the past decades, of Coleridge's collected writings, of the iceberg-mass of his labours, that the continuity and compass of that purpose have become accessible. Coleridge's speculative sources come close to being a history of western theology, metaphysics, logic, psychology and political theory. They range from Patristic commentaries to the seventeenth-century divines; from Neo-Platonism and Plotinus to Hobbes and Hartley. The indebtedness to German idealism, to Kant, Fichte, Schelling and their tribe is, as we now know, often too literal. Coleridge translates. But even here the turbulent depth and singularity of his own reflections, of his stylistic virtuosity, shine through. The roll-call of British philosophical theology is sparse: Coleridge belongs in the company of Duns Scotus and of Newman.

The interpenetration of poetry and of philosophy, of abstruse discourse and lyric imagination was, to Coleridge, a theme of boundless fascination. The texts which address this topic are pervasive. The Biographia Literaria, with reference to Pope, would discriminate between `poetic thoughts' and `thoughts translated into the language of poetry'. Like a good number of his contemporaries, Coleridge found in Scripture the ultimate symbiosis of theological-moral teachings and matchless poetry. In Isaiah, `wherever passion was, the language became a sort of metre'. But also Plato gives proof that `poetry of the highest kind may exist without metre, and even without the contradistinguishing objects of a poem'. The Table Talk for 1833 affirms this judgement: `Plato's imagination is as clear as it is deep; you see every particle of gold at the bottom.' When Plato banishes the poets from his ideal city, `he must have begun by banishing himself'. Elsewhere, however, Coleridge's mercurial investigations conclude otherwise: `it is impossible to reconcile the exact truth with poetry. Lucretius did all that was possible; yet his illustrations are the only valuable parts of his poem.'

The paradox is that the striving toward unison between philosophic content and poetic form which so profoundly enlists Coleridge's sensibility plays scarcely any role in the best of his own verse. It was in Wordsworth that he heard `of Truth profound a sweet continuous lay'. It is in scattered epigrams, in distichs and occasional verse, mainly of the later years, that Coleridge turns directly to metaphysical concerns. Even here, as in the metrical definition of reason of 1830, the model, cited openly, is that of the first Canto of the Paradiso. The fissures in Coleridge's spirit do not heal.

Hölderlin's and Shelley's Platonism, Baudelaire's debt to de Maistre, Tennyson's endeavours to articulate what he took to be the social and moral consequences of Darwinism, Mallarmé's readings of Hegel are instances of the multiple convergence between philosophy and nineteenth-century poetry. Such contacts will persist in modern literature. Bergson is present in Proust and Bradley in T.S. Eliot. No chapter in our story is more fascinating than that which relates Heidegger to two of the principal poets of the age, to Paul Celan on the one hand, to René Char on the other. Heidegger and Wittgenstein engage the fiction of Ingeborg Bachmann. Nor would it be easy to situate Thomas Mann's novels without the tutelary presence of both Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

An intriguing aspect is that of the representations in fiction, either direct or transparently masked, of philosophers. The device is characteristic in French: in Bourget's Disciple, in Valéry's marmoreal miniature, Monsieur Teste, in the romans-à-cléf of Kristeva. It is richly exemplified in Musil's portrayal of Meinong in The Man Without Qualities or in Thomas Bernhardt's unsettling uses of the persona and aura of Wittgenstein. A clutch of Iris Murdoch novels turns on the figures of philosophers and philosophic gurus hived off, as it were, from an initial obsession with Canetti. Saul Bellow has dramatised more than once the uncertain charisma of eminent thinkers. This motif extends to poetry. Hölderlin and Matthew Arnold produce poetic dramas on Empedocles. Robert Lowell calls on Santayana. Descartes and Spinoza, indeed in propria persona, take the stage in the poetry of Durs Grünbein. Ezra Pound looks to Confucius.

But the question is not one of inventory.


Where it is not formal or symbolic logic, philosophy belongs to the totality of natural language. Often, as we know, it can be read as literature. The performative instruments of philosophy, even where it aspires to impersonal, anonymous severity, as in Spinoza's Ethics, its aids to demonstrative persuasion, its `grammars of assent' are those of rhetoric. Even, in Zarathustra, of epic and lyric musicality. From Heraclitus to Bergson, numerous philosophers, moralists, expositors of political or aesthetic systems, have been master-stylists. Wittgenstein reiterates his conviction that the appropriate medium for philosophical investigations is Dichtung, i.e. language concentrated to the point of poetry. Where, then, lie the differences, the perennial sources of reciprocal tension? Why banish the poets or, as does Blake, round on the philosophers?

Literature exploits and enriches the fall of language from Edenic grace. It springs from the abrogation of Adamic tautology, of any guaranteed and definitively soluble equation between word and world, between nomination and real presence. It is in the polyphonic fluidities and imprecisions, in the prodigal vagueness and incessant self-transformations of human speech, it is in the interstices between provisional affirmations that literature is at home. Its strengths are, as Keats taught, those of a `negative capability'. Even where it is prolix and rhetorical, philosophy seeks, or should seek, an ideal of minimalist sufficiency, of consistency pared down to defined essentials. It sets out its terms as rigorously as possible (again, Spinoza is paradigmatic). It aspires to the elimination of ambiguity, of the `soft-edged'. Also where it is not declared, the algebraic equation, the geometric proof are the final criterion of the philosophic. In a sense, therefore, philosophy as it was practised from Heraclitus and Aristotle to Wittgenstein's Investigations is the natural enemy of language, its would-be cleanser. Hence the commendation of silence at the close of the Tractatus or the compendious utopia of Russell and Whitehead's Principia.

At the same time, there is acute rivalry. Aristotle stated provocatively that poiesis, fiction, yields a more truthful account of human motives and behaviour than does history. Freud allowed that the discoveries made by psychoanalysis had been anticipated and possibly surpassed by Sophocles, Shakespeare and Dostoevski. Both philosophy and literature tell what has, somewhat modishly, been called `the great stories'. This is to say that they present to human consciousness and understanding more or less coherent, more or less inclusive mappings of our existence. They purpose to be the atlas and geology of human life. But the licence of literature in respect of the irrational, of the counter-factual, as in fairy tales or science fiction, the welcome it can extend to selfcontradiction (so proudly voiced by Walt Whitman) cover ground essentially extraneous and adverse to philosophy. Even nonsense-poetry can elicit splinters of experience. It is not easy, or has not been until very recently, to conceive of a `nonsense-metaphysics'. Literature can dwell on `the holiness of the minute particular' (Blake) while inferring its universality in ways alien to the generalisations and abstractions, of which Plato's `Ideas' are emblematic, pursued by philosophy. No systematic world-view or ethics or aesthetics offered by philosophy, as in Kant's threefold critiques, ask questions which solicit an unending effort and joy of response surpassing Shakespeare's or put forward answers as moving as Dante's. Thus censorship of literature has been latent or pronounced in philosophy, most notably where it borders on the theological.

Philosophy has always been concerned with language. Witness Plato's Cratylus and what we know of Aristotle's hermeneutics. But even in the most radical modes of epistemological scepticism, even in those schools of thought which deny any possibility of certitude or verifiable knowledge, language itself is not put in doubt. The most disenchanted of sceptics does not impugn the lexical and grammatical means whereby he expresses his negations. Montaigne revels in the articulation of doubt. Scepticism, in the western tradition, does not press home the conundrum of linguistic self-referentiality, the notorious paradox of the Cretan liar. Those who strove to refute scepticism identified this weakness from the outset.

When language became the central issue in philosophy and logic, when philosophy itself became, more and more pervasively, `linguistic philosophy' - a `language turn' which can be dated from the early decades of the twentieth century - investigations into semantics, into the meaning of meaning, took on analytic stringency. They brought mainstream philosophic issues, in Frege, in Quine, in Austin and Davidson, closer and closer to the criteria and conventions of formal logic. Nevertheless, even where analytic diagnosis was at its most uncompromising, the capacity of words and syntax to signify, to relate, however complexly, to the world and its facticity, was not denied. Natural-language inuitions continued to be, in Quine's comforting terms, `blameless'. The relations of word to world, of the semantic to the existential, might well be blurred and in need of constant adjustment and vigilance, but they did exist. This axiomatic supposition entailed the hope, the claims of good sense, however incomplete and problematic, that there were truths to be discovered. In even the most abstruse, `purified' of analytic and linguistic philosophy, there is a talisman, almost contraband as it were, of empirical innocence.

It is the nihilistic challenge of desconstruction and post-structural modernism to have subverted this millennial concord between the Logos and the world, between finally ascertainable sense and language. They have broken the canonic contract between propositions and the eventual verifiability, consensually, pragmatically arrived at, of their content. Discourse, oral or written, is an ever-changing, self-displacing and fundamentally arbitrary vertigo of potentialities, of fragments in motion with neither a transcendent beginning nor end. The pun, the acrostic, the play on words - all utterance is a play on words - are the outward manifestations, the self-erasing traces, of an irretrievable, albeit creative, instability and immanence. They mirror in an interminable gallery of mirrors the kaleidoscopic, ludic choreography of chaos. (In mathematics and cosmology, `chaos theory' is the destined counterpart to deconstruction.) The vortex of utterance is the product of historical crisis. (It is, I believe, an almost absurd blindness on the part of deconstruction and `post-modernism' not to recognise their own evident and seminal origins and context within the larger catastrophe of western values. What more revealing source of derridean play, of the ontology of `anything goes' can there be than the riposte of the concentration-camp butcher to his dying victim: `there is no why here'?) It is the core of indeterminacy, of undecidability, again a mathematical crux, which, according to these theories, allows language to function freely. In that sense - itself an illicit move - the deconstructive game is the direct epilogue to the erosion and `erasure' of western theological stabilities. That it is indeed that which `comes after the Logos'. But this is not essentially to the point. When the Cretan tells us that `all Cretans are liars', leaving rationality helpless, he is exemplifying the veritable genius of human speech. This genius is not that of `truth'. Descarte's malign demon, systematically deceiving reason and barring doubt from any constructive exit, was a deconstructionist avant la lettre, itself a suggestive turn of phrase.

This invites the conjecture that the most in vogue of current philosophic strategies are not `philosophy' at all. Their provenance is not in Pyrrho or Montaigne but in Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. More distinctly, the wordgames and phonic associations of deconstruction are heir to the ludic irrationalities of Dada and Surrealism, both of which were so active in France between the wars. Numerous post-derridean tracts are not meant to signify in any ordinary guise. They spurn paraphrase and explicative interpretation precisely as does so much of poetry after Mallarmé. They are acrobatics answerable solely to themselves and to fellow-players in the game. Here Hesse's Magister Ludi may be symptomatic, though its initiates did aspire to verities of a transcendent order. This aspiration is repudiated by post-modernism. Much of Lacan is (arrogantly) incomprehensible or, more exactly, `countercomprehensible'. The seduction aimed at is that of hypnosis, of the chants and vocalises practised by certain forms of music. At their best, if such qualification has any relevance, deconstructive juggleries can, precisely like their Dada begetters, have both wit and an unsettling rebelliousness. They make landscapes `other' as do de Chirico or Dali. They unhinge our sclerotic laziness and officious routine. They elicit levels of textuality, of semantic resources which go, suggestively, `against the grain'. Sensibility is left heuristically off-balance.

But more often, these anarchic, frequently facile exercises trivialise. They privilege commentary over creation - a distinction which lies at the heart of sane judgement but which deconstruction would deny. Wordsworth conceived of the imagination as an `awful power', with the stress on `awe'. In an oddly pre-Heideggerian locution, he identified it as `being's heart and home'. This habitation depended on literature's realisation of `something evermore about to be'. Having become so `literary', in a dubious manner, having elevated the phonetic over the semantic, an elevation which makes of Finnegans Wake the deconstructive monument, these mutinies against meaning, these Satyr-plays after the tragic débacle of our established literacies, may end in limbo. They possess the empowering seriousness and dangers of neither the poetic nor the philosophic.

Whether the sovereignties of the philosophic can be recaptured is an open question. Adrift from their theological moorings and the presumptive re-insurance of the transcendent, it is unlikely that philosophical proposals will generate embracing systems such as those we associate with Kant or Hegel, but also with Bergson and Dewey. Adorno's injunction `totality is a lie' cuts deep. If Heidegger's and Sartre's prolixity concludes a magisterial past, the laconicism and fragmentations of Wittgenstein's idiom may stand for present and future constraints.

I have, throughout my work, tried to clarify `the retreat from the word' which characterises modernity. Language in the west has receded from much of its traditional dominion. It can no longer convey the ever-expanding and mathematically-encoded worlds of the sciences and of technology. Graphic means, notably film, have outstripped language's representational resources and sometime monopolies. So many words and sentences are now captions, and even these are mocked in conceptual art. Eloquence and rhetoric are now suspect. The very notion of a full-scale metaphysical construct or organon, of a comprehensive critique of the human condition, is somewhat embarrassing. The Hegelian- Marxist edifice may well have been its doomed finale. Psychoanalysis and deconstruction are more or less persuasive grave-diggers of the Logos as it was once postulated and understood. Where it is still articulate, moral argument tends to be descriptive and sociological. It is the paradox of the mass-media, of global electronic communication, that our words, billionfold, seem to say less and less. They are, indeed, `sound-bytes'.

Because `literatures', fictions are more apt than philosophy to flow with the tide, they can make an ironic virtue of reduction, as they do in Borges and Beckett. It is no idle supposition that many of the masters of drama and the novel in the past would today be virtuoso script-writers. As it is by nature a fragment, an image of immediacy, the lyric poem can be at home in the photo-flash aesthetics of our time. Hence the representative stature of Celan. The verse epic, which is the analogue to the metaphysical summa, has long been dead. `These fragments', said T.S. Eliot famously, when cataloguing the building materials to hand. `This Heraclitean fire'. But what literature will achieve in the absence of a philosophical counterpoint, of philosophical claims to parities of insight, is at best uncertain. Already an ominous hollowness impairs much of what passes for serious drama and prose fiction. Already there is a monitory chime to the French cliché: ce n'est que de la littérature. The old rivalry may have been vital. Shadow-boxing is a barren pleasure.

This article is taken from PN Review 160, Volume 31 Number 2, November - December 2004.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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