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Text and Process in Poetry and Philosophy

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 9, Number 1, April 1985
pp. 1-20 | 10.1353/phl.1985.0121

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Francis Sparshott TEXT AND PROCESS IN POETRY AND PHILOSOPHY Ir. H. Bradley in an optimistic moment described philosophy as an • unusually intense and sustained attempt to think clearly.1 If that is what it is, it is clearly a process; and, if it is a process, one does not see what a philosophical text could be. A text is surely not a process, though it may be the product of one. A text that purported to be philosophy would deceive, as many of us complain that textbooks deceive, by substituting for the living endeavors of thought a series of slogans and purported conclusions the parroting of which demonstrates that thought has been evaded, not clarified. But there are such things as philosophical texts, and we could not easily do without them. They are, indeed, central to our experience ofwhat philosophy is. They must be doing some work, and it is up to us to establish what that work could be. 2. If philosophy is indeed a process of clarifying thought, it must in each of us be a self-critical monologue, and it must in the world be a manyvoiced conversation among Thaïes and his contemporaries and successors through history. (Similar traditions in other parts of the world constitute different conversations, in other corners of the room, and sometimes we eavesdrop on each other's conversations; but we will not be concerning ourselves witii them here.) A philosophical text should be a record of parts ofthat conversation, a minute ofthe long meeting ofminds. Without such a record the conversation could be no better than a bull session; we would be forever returning to the beginning, not to recover our origins but because memory had stretched to snapping. After all, what use would the clarification of thought be unless die progress won could be preserved? Philosophy begets philosophy as humanity begets humanity; there must be an Aristotelian efficient cause, a form-bearer. 2 Philosophy and Literature 3.As minute of the clarifying conversation, the text might serve the purpose of an interim conclusion, a tentative result. But not necessarily, and not if the clarity sought is indeed clarity in thinking. Minutes of decision-making bodies may record only the motions passed; but deliberating bodies often prefer to include in the minutes the arguments on either side, so that when they come to reconsider a matter on which a motion has been passed they may do so with renewed insight. A progress report may report only where one has progressed to, but it may also retrace the progression whereby die progress was made. So perhaps die best sort of text in philosophy is die sort I shall call a philosophoumenon, a text that recreates in and for the reader the experience ofclarification itself. But if this is to be done the reader must be sucked in: before clarification can be done, unclarity must be re-enacted. Confusion must be induced and its recognition must be enforced: the reader must be enticed not only to recognize but to undergo in person the Socratic elenchus, which for two millennia has ensured that the best philosophers shall be the best hated philosophers. To do its elenctic work, a philosophoumenal text must be deeply ambiguous, internally divided, blatantly self-contradictory. The Platonic dialogues are exemplary in this as in most ways: dramatic denunciations of drama, written disparagements of writing, conclusive proofs of the impotence of reason. But the other masters did the same: Descartes guides the reader of his Meditations step by step through the argument that is to lead the reader to doubt Descartes's existence; Aristotle invents and deploys a highly technical vocabulary which he never uses in the same way twice, and establishes a classification of intellectual methods into which none ofhis own work can be fitted; Wittgenstein obsessively philosophizes to show the folly of philosophizing, and carefully ensures diat his students circulate die content of the texts that he ostentatiously refuses to publish; Kierkegaard stridently claims authorship of his pseudonymous works so that he can repudiate them audioritatively; G. E. Moore accurately defines goodness so as to make it clear exactly what he is saying when he says that goodness is...