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  • The Romance of Realism
  • John Koethe (bio)

In the Crito, Socrates, his death imminent, asks of a piece of rea-soning “whether this argument will appear in any way different to me in my present circumstances, or whether it remains the same,” and the clear implication of the question is that if a piece of reasoning is valid its force must remain unaffected by alterations in mood or out-look occasioned by changing circumstances. 1 The pretension of philosophy to a passion for truth is traditionally taken to bar the influence of the passions on the way in which truth is pursued: a rational person’s assessment of a philosophical argument or thesis must, so the tradition holds, be a disinterested one, in which considerations of temperament, inclination, and intuition have no proper role. On the whole, the effect of this tradition is salutary, bequeathing to philosophy a kind of integrity increasingly absent in other humanistic disciplines, an integrity perhaps purchased at the cost of a certain intellectual marginality.

Yet for a long time it has struck me that in practice philosophers depart considerably from this ideal, in that their attractions and aversions to particular views, problems, and arguments often seem inexplicable on rational (in some narrow sense of that term) grounds alone. When Wittgenstein spoke of a philosopher’s suffering from a “loss of problems” he seemed to suggest an affective dimension to one’s relation to philosophical issues, a suggestion which is certainly true to my experience of the discipline. Some issues which I find profoundly problematic and engaging—skepticism and the mind/body problem, for instance—others regard as quaint academic curiosities; and nowhere, it seems to me, do considerations of temperament play a greater role than in philosophers’ attitudes toward the host of issues involved in the problem of philosophical realism. To some (including myself), some view that deserves the name “realism” seems obviously correct and beyond serious argument; to others, the very word provokes something akin to an allergic reaction. This is all the more striking because the question of what realism and its denial actually involve is a rather subtle one, and it is often not at all clear, when someone passionately defends or denies it, just what is being passionately defended or denied.

Plato’s opposition of philosophy to poetry was rooted in the conviction that poetry, whose persuasiveness derives from the vagaries of the [End Page 723] passions rather than the force of impersonal argument, was an unfit vehicle for knowledge. I think the popular idea that poetry ought to remain untainted by the discursive and the conceptual is an insidious one, which has had a deleterious effect on the recent development of American poetry. Poetry can and should, I believe, approach experience and the world in full generality, and embody stances or attitudes toward them which can only be called theoretical. Yet it is true that conceptualization in poetry does not call for impersonal rational justification; rather, it derives its force from the brute fact that the poet has found a particular way of situating himself and his experience in relation to the world compelling.

I want to suggest that something like this occurs in philosophy, too, and that there are deep affinities between certain positions or views that are properly thought of as philosophical, and certain attitudes or outlooks that inform poetry at its most ambitious and powerful. What I want to suggest is a relation between realism and romanticism.

I. A. Richards, in Coleridge on Imagination, raised something like this issue but, because of a certain philosophical view about meaning that he held, declined to pursue it. Richards identified two doctrines and then raised the question of which of them Coleridge held, and which was Wordsworth’s: “In the first doctrine Man, through Nature, is linked with something other than himself which he perceives through her. In the second, he makes of her, as with a mirror, a transformed image of his own being.” 2 What Richards meant by the first doctrine is a form of realism (as I shall characterize it in a moment), in that it insists on a discontinuity between the world (what he calls “Nature...

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