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  • Introduction to the Symposium on Using Poetry to Teach Philosophy
  • Michael Boylan

The following essays were originally presented at the Eastern Meeting of the American Society of Aesthetics, April 28, 2017, in Philadelphia. I convened the session, which was well-received. There were two other members of the panel: Felicia Nimue Ackerman (who writes about how she uses short poetry in her teaching of bioethics) and Kelly Jolley (who writes about the theoretical connections between poetry and the pedagogy of philosophy). Each of us is a published poet.

The focus of the session was the way we have used poetry in our teaching of philosophy. It has been my experience that most in the mainstream of philosophy do not use poetry to help engage students with the subject matter of their courses. This is a mistake. Poetry possesses an emotive value that is absent in standard direct-discourse philosophy (that concentrates on structured deductive argument). The problem with this standard approach is that many philosophical problems within ethics, logic, metaphysics, and epistemology are not amenable to such precise, structured "solutions." This is because the subject matter of many philosophical problems is rather more complex so that attempts to simplify it into a "cold pastoral" (à la Keats) misses something important about some messy problems that confront real people living in the world. Another medium is necessary to achieve the "negative capability" that art can aspire after.1 With this extra communicative device, philosophy has another constructive element that can lead to richer discussions of problems.

The three essays presented here create this added constructive device in different fashions. Ackerman uses poetry—often in bioethics courses—as a counterpoint to get students to re-examine some of their foundational worldviews. For her, poetry can act as the Socratic stingray to shake-up her students. Jolley contemplates why philosophers seem so resistant to using poetry and suggests that, rather than a real disagreement as to method or effectiveness, their resistance stems from their not familiarizing themselves with the way poetry communicates. Thus, their reluctance is based on ignorance and incompetence. Citing other philosophers who are comfortable [End Page 1] with poetry, Jolley sets out the manner in which poetry can effectively communicate philosophical positions. In my essay, I try to re-create the teaching experience of using poems to discuss issues in social/political philosophy. Here, the use poetry amounts to various narrative accounts that situate crucial situations in a real-life context. This will grab students more forcefully than more abstract, purely logical presentations.

In the main, these three essays provide a broad justification for using poetry in teaching philosophy. It is our hope that readers of this journal will do just that and communicate back to us their experiences.


1. By "negative capability," I am following Keats's understanding of the audience members being able to project themselves into the worldview of the artifact and so achieve a different perspective on things. For further discussion on this, see Michael Boylan, Fictive Narrative Philosophy: How Literature Can Act as Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2018), 69.



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