Why the Poetic Leap?


What follows is a nice juxtaposition of excerpts from two books I am currently tuned to. Take that mainstream logic!


“Einstein also recognized that science could not advance without free invention. As he stated, ‘We now know that science cannot grow out of empiricism alone, that in the constructions of science we need to use free invention which only a posteriori can be confronted with experience as to its usefulness. This fact could elude earlier generations, to whom theoretical creation seemed to grow inductively out of empiricism without the creative influence of a free construction of concepts.’ Because of this, Einstein concluded that the more a culture recognizes that its current picture of the universe is an invention, the more advanced the status of its science.

… As he stated, ‘The fictitious character of the principles is made quite obvious by the fact that it is possible to exhibit two essentially different bases, each of which in its consequences leads to a large measure of agreement with experience.’ For example, Newton’s view that the planets move around the Sun in neat elliptical orbits is borne out accurately in experiments, as is Einstein’s theory of relativity, in spite of the fact that both are based on completely different geometrical understandings of space.”



[Wittgenstein] is concerned with a technique that by its very nature makes language open to new signifying chains, chains that are connected with old uses but that vary away from them. The new uses may be strikingly different from the old ones; the only question is whether we can find the intermediate links, the continuous transition along contiguous terms, that will connect the new use with the old ones. There is no formal criterion that constitutes continuousness; this is where the nose for small differences comes in. And when he can find the connecting links, Wittgenstein is willing to allow meanings other people might not. For example, he ponders these sentences:

A new-born child has no teeth.
A goose has no teeth.
A rose has no teeth.

The last example, he says, ‘one would like to say,’ is ‘obviously true.’ ‘It is even surer than that a goose has none. –And yet none so clear. For where should a rose’s teeth have been? The goose has none in its jaw. And neither, of course, has it any in its wings; but no one means that when he says it has no teeth.’ But Wittgenstein does not reject the last sentence as nonsense; what he wants is the connective tissue that will weave it into the language. For one could say that a rose has teeth: ‘Why, suppose one were to say: the cow chews its food and then dungs the rose with it, so the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast. This would not be absurd, because one has no notion in advance where to look for teeth in a rose.’

The ability to feel the intertwining of the threads of language is sharpened by a tactical yielding to temptation or inclination. Stanley Cavell, noting the frequency with which Wittgenstein uses phrases like ‘I want to say’ and ‘Here the urge is strong’ (and also, though Cavell, oddly does not mention them, ‘We are tempted [versucht] to say’ or ‘I am inclined [geneigt] to say’), concludes that ‘the voice of temptation and the voice of correctness are the antagonists in Wittgenstein’s dialogues.’ In fact, though, it is only by continually exposing ourselves to the temptations of language that we can make our own way in these investigations. That is, we do not know in advance what the accidence of a word’s applications will be. ‘Let the use of words teach you there meaning’, Wittgenstein writes: we must use a word first, and then see where it has led us. Frequently, the temptations of language will, as Cavell notes, lead to the unities of philosophy which Wittgenstein wants to fracture and scatter, but even these are an essential part of the investigations. The investigations are oriented to these unities; their tactics are guided by the aim of undoing them. But the analogies and fictions and suggestive new forms of expression which open up the possibilities of syntax Wittgenstein is after also come from yielding to inclination …”

And later:

“I have tried to show how such weaving is done, how one must feel for the material of the fibers and threads. When doing philosophy, Wittgenstein writes, we feel as though we are pursuing the most extreme subtleties, as though we were trying to repair a torn spider’s web with our fingers. The web of language is not subtle beyond experience, but it is as subtle as experience. And we are not called upon to repair it, but only to continue to weave it–which always means to reweave it. We cannot do this with our fingers; we must learn the spider’s touch. There is a certain automatism or mechanism (we could call it instinct, though this word too needs to be rewritten), but also play in the joints of this mechanism (PI 194), and endless games with its instruments and pieces.



“I really do think with my pen, because my head often knows nothing about what my hand is writing.” — Ludwig Wittgenstein


5 Responses to “Why the Poetic Leap?”

  1. Ana Says:
    June 4th, 2007 at 9:54 pm eGeese HAVE teeth.
  2. Ana Says:
    June 4th, 2007 at 9:55 pm eKinda.
  3. Amy King Says:
    June 4th, 2007 at 11:39 pm eYou have felt them. Ana.
  4. sq Says:
    June 9th, 2007 at 3:58 pm enice post. great shot.
  5. Gary Says:
    June 13th, 2007 at 4:22 am eTwo things.

    1. Geese don’t have teeth (they’re birds, right?) but that doesn’t make any difference to W’s argument, because, in the relevant sense of “have”, roses don’t have teeth either. Of course, there may be a sense of “have” in which roses can be said to have teeth (I take it that this is the point of the claim that “the rose has teeth in the mouth of a beast”) but was that ever the issue? The question, it seems to me, is whether a rose can be said to have (lack) teeth in the way that a person can be said to have (lack) teeth. The example simply doesn’t speak to that.

    2. On Derrida. Here’s a fun game for anyone who still thinks that Derrida is worth taking seriously:


Philosophy Poetry

AMY KING View All →

Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She co-edited with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edits the anthology series, Bettering American Poetry, and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.

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