Truth and the Social Base of Poetry

Introduction: Overview of Argument

Does poetry tell the truth, and what sort of truth could that be? Sceptics have long spoken of ‘poetic license’, and matters are even more contested today. The most prominent school of literary criticism, still called The New Criticism, viewed truth as irrelevant. Poetry was fiction, and at best could only give the emotional equivalent of facts. Poems were complex, moreover, and many operated by deploying meanings at different levels. Behind lines and phrases lurked many ambiguities and paradoxes, which held the poem together in creative tensions. The New Criticism looked for three characteristics. First was self-sufficiency: the poem should be independent of biography, historical content or effect on the reader, which were called the intentional, historical and affective fallacies. Second was unity: the poem should be a coherent whole: a very traditional view. Third was complexity: which was sometimes held to be the central element of poetry. {1}

Other schools disagreed. The Marxist critics felt that literary criticism ought to be a history of man's ideas and imaginings in the (economic) setting which shaped them. {2} The Christian apologists felt that the arts had a civilizing mission, and deprecated the subversive attitudes of many Modernist writers. {3} And the historicists sought a continuity between western industrial societies and the medieval past. {4}

By contrast, contemporary poetry seems to have given up on truth altogether. Post-modernists come in many embodiments, but share a preoccupation with language. Reality is not mediated by what we read or write, but is entirely constituted by those actions. We don't therefore look at the world through a poem, and ask how whether the representation is true or adequate or appropriate, but focus on the devices and strategies within the text itself. Postmodernist poetry discounts The New Criticism‘s stress on unity, moreover, and urges us to accept a looser view of art, one that accords more with everyday realities and shows how language suppresses alternative views, particularly those of the socially or politically disadvantaged. Postmodernist poems have moved on from their Modernist forebears. They are wholly immersed in language, and make no reference to a world beyond. What does concern them is estrangement, or the defamiliarisation of the everyday, the arbitrary choice of words, teased out by deconstructive techniques, the absence of a final interpretation, i.e. avoidance of closure and artistic autonomy, the repressions implicit in language, whether sexist, social or political, and a wide subject matter, beyond the ennobling virtues championed by humanism. {5}

So why the interest in poetic truth? Why investigate something that poetry has long renounced? In this long article, I shall try to show that:

1. Whatever problems language suffers from, the problems are just as acute in other areas of life — in philosophy, mathematics and science  — where they are accepted and worked with.

2. Poetry’s current shadow-boxing with language is therefore misplaced, and rather than create conundrums in Postmodernist poems, poetry would do better to make the intellectual journey in other disciplines. Poetry is not equipped for such enterprises, and should return to its more traditional role, responding to the world as it is broadly seen and understood.

3. Truth may not be embodied in logic and abstractions, but in the ways communities operate and live together in common understandings. If that is the case, poetry will not recapture a wider public until it embodies more of those common understandings.

Readers wanting a more detailed and referenced account may wish to consult chapters in Ocaso Press’s free Literary Theory, from which most of this page is quarried.

Truth in Philosophy and its Difficulties

What do we mean by calling something true? Most obviously we mean according with or corresponding to ‘the facts’, but this correspondence theory of truth has few followers among philosophers because of a naive acceptance of ‘the facts.’ Even at its basic level, things in the world are not directly given to us: we make interpretations and intelligent integrations of our sensory experience, as Kant claimed and extensive studies of the physiology of perception show all too plainly. {6} Scientists make observations in ways guided by contemporary practice and the nature of the task in hand.

What does this mean? That truth and meaning are mere words, brief stopping places on an endless web of references? No. If we want a truth and meaning underwritten entirely by logic —  completely, each step of the way, with no possible exceptions —  then that goal has not been reached. The match is close enough to refute the extravagant claims of Postmodernism, but not complete.

But perhaps the enterprise was always over-ambitious. After all, Russell and Whitehead's {7} monumental attempt to base mathematics on logic also failed, and even mathematics can have gaps in its own procedures, as Gödel {8} indicated.


So what other approaches are there? Two: the theory of coherence and that of pragmatism. The first calls something true when it fits neatly into a well-integrated body of beliefs. The second is judged by its results, the practical ‘cash value’ of its contribution. Theories of coherence were embraced by very different philosophies, and pragmatism is currently enjoying a modest revival in the States.
Stated more formally, {10} the coherence theory holds that truth consists in a relation of coherence between beliefs or propositions in a set, such that a belief is false when it fails to fit with other mutually coherent members of a set. Though this concept of truth may seem more applicable to aesthetics or sociology, even a scientific theory is commonly preferred on the grounds of simplicity, experimental accessibility, utility, theoretical elegance and strength, fertility and association with models rendering such processes intelligible. {11}

But if the set of beliefs needs to be as comprehensive as possible, what is to stop us inflating the system with beliefs whose only merit is that they fit the system, to make a larger but still consistent fairy-tale? Appeal to the outside world —  that these new beliefs are indeed ‘facts’ —  is invalid, as our measure of truth is coherence within the set of beliefs, not correspondence with matters outside.{12}
Given that there will be more than one way of choosing a set of beliefs from the available data, and no external criteria help us decide, Rescher {13} suggested using plausibility filters. We select those beliefs that seem in themselves most plausible, reducing the short-list by further selection if necessary. But how is this plausibility to be decided? If beliefs resembles Euclid's geometry, we might indeed accept some of them —  that parallel lines never meet, for example —  by an appeal to sturdy common sense, but most beliefs are not of this nature, and even Euclidean geometry has its limits. How can we be sure —  a further problem —  that our set of beliefs is the most comprehensive possible if new investigations may yet turn up data that is better incorporated in another set of beliefs?

Idealists like Bradley {14} argued that reality was a unified and coherent whole, which he called the Absolute. Parts of the whole could only be partly true, and even those parts were doubtfully true given the uncertain nature of our sense perceptions. Better base truth in our rational faculties, he thought, and look for consistency and interdependence in what our thoughts tell us. But again there are difficulties. How much interdependence? If everything in a set of beliefs is entirely interdependent, then each one belief is entailed by each other belief, which leads to absurdities. If the interdependence is loosened, then the requirements for inclusion become less clear.{15}

Some Logical Positivists tried to get the best of both worlds. Incorrigible reports on experience, which they called protocol sentences, were based on correspondence of knowledge and reality, but the assemblage of protocol sentences as a whole depended on their consistency and interdependence, i.e. on coherence theory. But even this happy compromise was dashed by Neurath who pointed out that protocol sentences were not then the product of unbiased observation as required, but of investigations controlled by the need for coherence in the set of protocol sentences. What controls what? We are like sailors, he said, who must completely rebuild their boat on the open sea. {16}


What then of the third theory of truth: pragmatism? In its crudest form, that something is true simply because it yields good works or congenial beliefs, the theory has few adherents. But its proponents —  Pierce, James, Dewey and latterly Quine —  put matters more subtly. Reality, said C.S. Pierce, constrains us to the truth: we find by enquiry and experiment what the world is really like. Truth is the consensus of beliefs surviving that investigation, a view that includes some correspondence theory and foreshadows Quine's web of beliefs. William James was not so committed a realist, and saw truth as sometimes manufactured by the verification process itself, a view that links him to relativists like Feyerband. John Dewey stressed the context of application, that we need to judge ideas by how they work in specific practices. But that makes truth into a property acquired in the individual circumstances of verification, perhaps even individual-dependent, which has obvious drawbacks. {17}

But ‘The truth of an idea is not a stagnant property inherent in it’, wrote James.{18} ‘Truth happens to an idea. It becomes true, is made true by events. Its verity is in fact an event, a process, the process namely of its verifying itself, its verification... Any idea that helps us to deal, whether practically or intellectually, with reality, that doesn't entangle our progress in frustrations, that fits, in fact, and adapts our life to the reality's whole setting, will agree sufficiently to meet the requirement. The true, to put it briefly, is only the expedient in our way of thinking, just as the right is only the expedient in our way of behaving.’ Expedient in almost any fashion, and expedient in the long run and on the whole, of course. But what of inexpedient truths, don't they exist? And what of truths as yet unverified, but nonetheless truths for all that? Truth as something active, that helps us deal with life, is an important consideration, but pragmatism ultimately affords no more complete a theory of truth than those of correspondence or coherence.

Truth in Mathematics

Though mathematics might seem the clearest and most certain kind of knowledge we possess, there are problems just as serious as those in any other branch of philosophy. What is the nature of mathematics? In what sense do its propositions have meaning? {19}


Plato believed in Forms or Ideas that were eternal, capable of precise definition and independent of perception. Among such entities he included numbers and the objects of geometry — lines, points, circles — which were therefore apprehended not with the senses but with reason. ‘Mathematicals’ — the objects mathematics deals with — were specific instances of ideal Forms. Since the true propositions of mathematics were true of the unchangeable relations between unchangeable objects, they were inevitably true, which means that mathematics discovers pre-existing truths ‘out there’ rather than creates something from our mental predispositions. And as for the objects perceived by our senses, one apple, two pears, etc. they are only poor and evanescent copies of the Forms one, two, etc., and something the philosopher need not overmuch concern himself with. Mathematics dealt with truth and ultimate reality. {20}

Aristotle disagreed. Forms were not entities remote from appearance but something which entered into objects of the world. That we can abstract oneness or circularity does not mean that these abstractions represent something remote and eternal. Mathematics was simply reasoning about idealizations. Aristotle looked closely at the structure of mathematics, distinguishing logic, principles used to demonstrate theorems, definitions (which do not suppose the defined actually exist), and hypotheses (which do suppose they actually exist). He also reflected on infinity, perceiving the difference between a potential infinity (e.g. adding one to a number ad infinitum) and a complete infinity (e.g. number of points into which a line is divisible). {20}

Leibniz brought together logic and mathematics. But whereas Aristotle used propositions of the subject-predicate form, Leibniz argued that the subject ‘contains’ the predicate: a view that brought in infinity and God. Mathematical propositions are not true because they deal in eternal or idealized entities, but because their denial is logically impossible. They are true not only of this world, or the world of eternal Forms, but of all possible worlds. Unlike Plato, for whom constructions were adventitious aids, Leibniz saw the importance of notation, a symbolism of calculation, and so began what became very important in the twentieth century: a method of forming and arranging characters and signs to represent the relationships between mathematical thoughts. {20}

Mathematical entities for Kant were a-priori synthetic propositions, which of course provide the necessary conditions for objective experience. Time and space were matrices, the containers holding the changing material of perception. Mathematics was the description of space and time. If restricted to thought, mathematical concepts required only self-consistency, but the construction of such concepts involves space having a certain structure, which in Kant's day was described by Euclidean geometry. As for applied mathematics — the distinction between the abstract ‘two’ and ‘two pears’ — this is construction plus empirical matter. {20}

Principia Mathematica

Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) and their followers developed Leibniz's idea that mathematics was something logically undeniable. Frege used general laws of logic plus definitions, formulating a symbolic notation for the reasoning required. Inevitably, through the long chains of reasoning, these symbols became less intuitively obvious, the transition being mediated by definitions. What were these definitions? Russell saw them as notational conveniences, mere steps in the argument. Frege saw them as implying something worthy of careful thought, often presenting key mathematical concepts from new angles. If in Russell's case the definitions had no objective existence, in Frege's case the matter was not so clear: the definitions were logical objects which claim an existence equal to other mathematical entities. Nonetheless, Russell carried on, resolving and side-stepping many logical paradoxes, to create with Whitehead the monumental system of description and notation of the Principia Mathematica (1910-13). {21}

Many were impressed but not won over. If natural numbers were defined through classes — one of the system's more notable achievements — weren't these classes in turn defined through similarities, which left open how the similarities were themselves defined if the argument was not to be merely circular? The logical concept of number had also to be defined through the non-logical hypothesis of infinity, every natural number n requiring a unique successor n+1. And since such a requirement hardly applies to the real world, the concept of natural numbers differs in its two incarnations, in pure and applied mathematics. Does this matter? Yes indeed, as number is not continuous in atomic  processes, a fact acknowledged in the term quantum mechanics. Worse still, the Principia incorporated almost all of Cantor's transfinite mathematics, which gave rise to contradictions when matching class and subclass, difficulties that undermined the completeness with which numbers may be defined. {22}

Logic in geometry may be developed in two ways. The first is to use one-to-one correspondences. Geometric entities —  lines, points, circle, etc. — are matched with numbers or sets of numbers, and geometric relationships are matched with relationships between numbers. The second is to avoid numbers altogether and define geometric entities partially but directly by their relationships to other geometric entities. Such definitions are logically disconnected from perceptual statements, so that the dichotomy between pure and applied mathematics continues, somewhat paralleling Plato's distinction between pure Forms and their earthly copies. Alternative self-consistent geometries can be developed, therefore, and one cannot say beforehand whether actuality (say the wider spaces of the cosmos) is or is not Euclidean. Moreover, the shortcomings of the logistic procedures remain, in geometry and in number theory. {23}

Even Russell saw the difficulty with set theory. We can distinguish sets that belong to themselves from sets that do not. But what happens when we consider the set of all sets that do not belong to themselves? Mathematics had been shaken to its core in the nineteenth century by the realization that the infallible mathematical intuition that underlay geometry was not infallible at all. There were space-filling curves. There were continuous curves that could be nowhere differentiated. There were geometries other than Euclid's that gave perfectly intelligible results. Now there was the logical paradox of a set both belonging and not belonging to itself. Ad-hoc solutions could be found, but something more substantial was wanted. David Hilbert (1862-1943) and his school tried to reach the same ends as Russell, but abandoned some of the larger claims of mathematics. Mathematics was simply the manipulation of symbols according to specified rules. The focus of interest was the entities themselves and the rules governing their manipulation, not the references they might or might not have to logic or to the physical world.

In fact Hilbert was not giving up Cantor's world of transfinite mathematics, but accommodating it to a mathematics concerned with concrete objects. Just as Kant had employed reason to categories beyond sense perceptions — moral freedoms and religious faith — so Hilbert applied the real notions of finite mathematics to the ideal notions of transfinite mathematics.


And the programme fared very well at first. It employed finite methods — i.e. concepts that could be insubstantiated in perception, statements in which the statements are correctly applied, and inferences from these statements to other statements. Most clearly this was seen in classical arithmetic. Transfinite mathematics, which is used in projective geometry and algebra, for example, gives rise to contradictions, which makes it all the more important to see arithmetic as fundamental. Volume I of Hilbert and Bernays's classic work had been published, and II was being prepared when, in 1931, Gödel's second incompleteness theorem brought the programme to an end. Gödel showed, fairly simply and quite conclusively, that such formalisms could not formalize arithmetic completely.

Morris Kline {24} remarked that relativity reminds us that nature presents herself as an organic whole, with space, matter and time commingled. Humans have in the past analysed nature, selected certain properties as the most important, forgotten that they were abstracted aspects of a whole, and regarded them thereafter as distinct entities. They were then surprised to find that they must reunite these supposed separate concepts to obtain a consistent, satisfactory synthesis of knowledge. Almost from the beginning, men have carried out algebraic reasoning independent of sense experience. Who can visualize a non-Euclidean world of four or more dimensions? Or the Shrödinger wave equations, or antimatter? Or electromagnetic radiation that moves without a supporting ether? Modern science has dispelled angels and mysticism, but it has also removed intuitive and physical content that appeals to experience. ‘We have seen the truth,’ said G.K. Chesterton, ‘and it makes no sense.’ Nonetheless, mathematics remains useful, indeed vital, and no one despairs because its conceptions do not entirely square with the world.

Most mathematicians do not fish these difficult waters. The theoretical basis of mathematics is one aspect of the subject, but not the most interesting, nor the most important. Like their scientist colleagues, they assert simply that their discipline ‘works’. They accept that mathematics cannot entirely know or describe itself, that it may not be a seamless activity, and that contradictions may arise from unexpected quarters. {25} Mathematics is an intellectual adventure, and it would be disappointing if its insights could be explained away in concepts or procedures we could fully circumscribe.

What is the relevance to poetry? Only that both mathematics and poetry seem partly creations and partly discoveries of something fundamental about ourselves and the world around. Elegance, fertility and depth are important qualities in both disciplines, and behind them both lurks incompleteness and unfathomable strangeness.

Truth in Science

To the ancients, scientia meant knowledge and experience: wisdom, in short. But science today implies something else: knowledge collected by following certain rules, and presented in a certain way. Scientists are realists: they believe in the existence of an external reality which philosophers have never been able to prove. The point is worth stressing. Science attempts to make a sharp distinction between the world out there, which is real and independent of us, and the individual's thoughts and feelings, which are internal and inconstant and to be explained eventually in terms of outside realities. {26}
Must science rest on strong logical foundations? Probably not. Much in quantum theory is contra-intuitive. {27} Randomness enters into relatively simple systems. {28} We deduce consequences from theories so as to check them. And we induce theories from observations, which Aristotle called generalizing. Scientific laws are often best expressed in mathematical form — giving them precise formulation and prediction — but mathematics does not rest on logic: the attempts last century by Russell and Whitehead ended in paradoxes, and the formalist approach of Hilbert was overthrown by Gödel's incompleteness theorem.

The Problem of Induction

Many problems were noted long ago. How much evidence needs to be assembled before a generalization becomes overwhelmingly certain? It is never certain. David Hume (1711-76) pointed out that no scientific law is ever conclusively verified. That the sun has risen every morning so far will not logically entail the sun rising in future. Effect is simply what follows cause: laws of function are only habit. {29}

There are further difficulties with induction. Scientists make a large number of observations from which to generalize. But these observations are made with a purpose, not randomly: they are selected according to the theory to be tested, or what the discipline prescribes as relevant. Then the eye (or any other organ) does not record like a camera, but interprets according to experience and expectation. Theory is to some extent threaded into observation. Finally, there is the reporting of observations, which must be assembled and regimented in accordance with the theory being advanced or refuted.

Does this worry scientists? Not at all. Whatever the philosophic difficulties, science works, and its successes are augmented every day. Besides, the problem can be circumvented by employing statistical relevance. We assemble the factors that might be relevant and see how probability changes as a result. For example: if the probability of Event E given Cause C is changed by Factor A, then A is relevant — matters which can be set out in probability theory. {30}

Karl Popper: The Falsifiability Thesis

But if induction is the weak link in science, why not remove it altogether? Science, claimed Karl Popper (1902-94), proceeds by guesses that are continually tested, i.e. by conjectures and refutations. {31} That is the real essence of science, not that its conclusions may be verified, but that they can be refuted. Metaphysics, art and psychoanalysis cannot be so falsified, and they are therefore not science. {32}

Are scientists objective, carefully considering theories on the basis of evidence, and that alone? Only to some extent. Scientists are human, and their work is fuelled by their interests, career needs and animosities like everyone else's. {33} But independence is claimed for the end product. The scientific paper may not represent the twists and turns of thought and experiment, but aren't the final results objectively presented, earlier workers acknowledged, and arguments for acceptance soberly marshalled? Not really. Papers do not let the facts speak for themselves. The evidence is persuasively presented: there is a rhetoric of science. {34} Papers are refereed, and maverick views excluded. Vetting by peer-groups discounts or expunges work that starts from different assumptions or comes to fundamentally unsettling conclusions.

Kuhn's View: The Scientific Paradigm

Science, postulated Thomas Kuhn, employed conceptual frameworks, ways of looking at the world that excluded rival conceptions. These paradigms, as he called them, were traditions of thinking and acting in a certain field. They represented the totality of background information, of laws and theories which are taught to aspiring scientist as true, and which in turn the scientist has to accept if he is to be accepted into the scientific community. Scientific enterprise is conservative. The paradigm legislates. What lies outside its traditions is non-science. And for long periods science proceeds quietly and cumulatively, extending and perfecting the traditions. Anomalies, even quite large anomalies, are accepted for the sake of overall coherence. But when the anomalies become too large, and (crucially) make better sense in a new paradigm, there occurs a scientific revolution. The old laws, the terminology and the evidence all suddenly shift to accommodate the new paradigm. {35}

Imre Lakatos

The second challenge to Popper came from Imre Lakatos, who grouped theories into ‘research programmes’ and made these the deciding mechanism. Each such programme possessed a hard core of sacrosanct information established over a long period of trial and error. Round the core was a protective belt of auxiliary hypotheses and observations that were being constantly tested and modified. Programmes guided scientists in their choice of problems to pursue, and were attractive (‘progressive’, Lakatos called them) to the extent that they accumulated empirical support and made novel predictions. Above all, programmes protected scientists from inconvenient facts and confusing observations — necessarily, or many eventually successful theories would have been strangled at birth.

Though the auxiliary belt served to protect the research programme core, and was constantly being modified, these modifications could not be made ad hoc, devised simply to get round a particular problem. They had to be falsifiable: Lakatos agreed with Popper that sociology and psychoanalysis were unscientific on this basis. But how is the progressive research programme to be distinguished from the degenerating one, except by hindsight? Kuhn accepted a leap of faith, an intuitive feel for where the future lay, but Lakatos did not. {36}

Paul Feyerabend

Paul Feyerabend initially {37} won a considerable reputation as an historian of science prepared to get down to precise scientific detail. He was a realist in the Popper sense, and argued that science progressed through proliferating theories, rather than coalescing into a prevailing Kuhnian paradigm. Subsequently, to the horror of colleagues and friends, he took a sociological and anarchistic line, arguing that true science was being stifled by the scientific establishment, an institution as self-serving and undemocratic as the medieval Church. {38}


Kuhn's views, and more particularly Feyabend's, were seized upon as evidence that the scientific world-view was simply one paradigm amongst many. Despite its prestige and practical triumphs, science was as much a myth as art or literature or psychoanalysis. Kuhn hotly denied this, and backtracked very much from his earlier position. Both he and Popper were dismayed to see their views hijacked by the relativists, as support for the view that each person makes his own reality or concept of truth. {39}  Relativism is disliked by philosophers, and the refutation is straightforward. If something is true only within a confined system — one world-view, one person's consciousness — how are we to know whether this has any currency in time or space? Even to record our observations needs a language, and languages cannot be wholly private. {40}

Those who attack science for its remote and reductive nature, its cold-blooded efficiency and elitist decision-making should not forget how well science actually works. Scientific observations may be theory-laden, but those theories are tested in a communality of practice. If once depicted as mechanical and predetermined, science appears less so now that quantum and chaotic processes have been more widely recognized. Science does bring great operational efficiency, and its findings cannot be called myths in the sense understood in anthropology or literary criticism.  Science attempts not only to understand nature, but to control nature, and there is hardly an aspect of life today that could be conducted without its help. In short, science does seem essentially different from the arts, and its successes would be miraculous if there was not some correspondence between its theories and ‘reality’, whatever that ‘reality’ may be.

The New Science

Paradoxically, now that literary criticism is adopting many of the previous methods and outlooks of science, science itself is moving on. The newer sciences recognize the role of scientists in their experiments, the pervasiveness of chaotic systems, and the complex nature of brain functioning. Science is an abstraction, and for all its astonishing success, can only make models that leave out much that is important to human beings.


But even in the hard sciences, the methodology has its problems. What exactly are electrons? They behave both as particles and a wave action. Perplexingly, they disappear when they meet their opposite number, the positron. Worse still, they obey statistical laws, the Shrödinger wave equations only indicating the percentage likelihood of an electron being in a certain position with a certain speed. Of course we can rationalize the situation, say that an electron is like nothing else but an electron, and that the very act of observing upsets its speed and position. But that is not the orthodox view, or very comforting. The electron is a lepton, one of the fundamental building blocks of matter, and if these blocks do not have solid objective existence, what does? {41} The building blocks seem inter-linked in a way they should not be, moreover, seeming to communicate instantaneously — faster than the speed of light, which the General Theory of Relativity declares impossible. {42}

And matters at the other end of the scale, in astrophysics, are equally baffling. The universe may have originated out of nothing, a false vacuum collapse, which co-created other universes that will always remain outside our detection. And the fabric of the universe may be constituted by superstrings, loops of incredibly small size. Originally these superstrings had 26 dimensions, but 6 have compacted to invisibility and 16 have internal dimensions to account for fundamental forces. {43} Is this credible? The theory is contested, and may indeed turn out to be pure mathematics — which is shaky in places, not only in superstrings, but generally. {44}

But if the world is stranger than we can conceive it, it is no longer in areas we cannot enter anyway, the very small or the very large. Science has traditionally dealt with reversible, linear situations: small causes that have small effects, and are totally predictable. But most of the world is not that way at all. The cup slips from our grasp at breakfast, we have a row with our partner for spoiling the new carpet, go late to the office in a foul temper, fall out with the boss, are fired, lose the home and partner and indeed everything from the most insignificant incident. And that is by no means an exceptional, one-off situation. Non-linear situations are common enough in scientific investigations but were blithely ignored. Scientists only reported the experiments that worked, that provided the simple relationships they were looking for. {45}

Complex Systems

A new science accepts this web-like view of the world. Called by a variety of names — study of dissipative structures, complex systems, life systems {46} — it has grown from the unexpected fusion of two very different fields. One is computer simulation of complex systems that hover on the border between chaos and regularity. The other is the behaviour of living organisms.

Complex systems are now an immense field of study, difficult to summarize briefly, but their essential feature is non-linearity. The future behaviour of the system depends on its prior behaviour and through feed-backs has an inbuilt element of randomness. Such behaviour is seen in very simple systems (e.g. one represented by X' = k x(1 - x) where x is the value initially, and X the value at a later time) but real-life examples are usually much more complicated, often resulting from the interaction of several such systems. The system will exhibit areas of simple behaviour: movement towards a single point, or oscillation between two or more points, but there will also be areas of chaotic behaviour where the smallest change in prior conditions causes wild fluctuations later on. But even more characteristic of these systems are strange attractors. The system revolves round certain points, continually tracing trajectories that are very similar but never exactly identical. {47}

Life Systems

What has this to do with life? Certain chemical reactions behave in a similar way, and their behaviour mimics those of living systems, even though the reactions involve non-organic compounds that would individually behave quite straightforwardly. Given feedback mechanisms — and many chemical reactions are reversible — there arise areas or islands of order on the very edge of chaos. Most importantly, the systems organize themselves, automatically, out of the web of interacting reactions. They have emergent properties where behaviour is different and not to be predicted from the behaviour at a lower level.

Living creatures may owe their structures to such self-organization of their constituent chemicals: in the metabolism of cells, brain functioning, even the way the DNA code is interpreted to produce the right sequence of cells in the growing animal. On a broader field, that of ecosystems and natural selection, it may be that species themselves represent strange attractors, with parallel evolution in the likes of whales and marsupial wolves. {48} Indeed the theory of networks can be very generally extended. Life, according to the Santiago school of Maturana and Varela, {49} is characterized by two features: cognition and the ability to reproduce. Cognition means making distinctions and is shown by all forms of life, even the lowliest. But only man, and possibly the higher primates to some extent, know that they know, i.e. have self-awareness and an inner world. Self awareness is closely tied to language, which is not a mental representation or a transfer of information, but a coordination of behaviour. Language is a communication about communication, by which we bring forth a world, weaving the linguistic network in which we live.

At a stroke, a good deal of philosophy's aims are thrown away. Mental states embody certain sensations. Cognitive experience involves resonance — technically phase-locking — between specific cell assembles in the brain: e.g. those dealing with perception, emotion, memory, bodily movement, and also involves the whole body's nervous systems. Attempts to define, or even to illuminate, such concepts as consciousness, being, truth and ethical value are no more than knottings in the web of understanding. Words lead back to physiology and bodily functioning, not to any abstract notions based on irrefutable logic. {50}

Metaphor Theory

That is the view of metaphor theory, which suggests conventional views of science, philosophy, society and even abstract disciplines like mathematics have a basis in innate human dispositions. If we cannot find an objective meaning for something as homely as money except as something reflecting and facilitating transactions in human societies, when those societies themselves evade full capture by rational processes, the reason may lie in outmoded concepts of certainty. The world is inherently ambiguous, and what seems but plain facts to one generation may be arrant nonsense to the next. Always there is a need for evidence, and close argumentation, but nothing in the humanities or sciences is ever permanently settled, any more than widely differing political views can be finally reconciled, or a definitive account be written of some period in history. We select and abstract the evidence in ways that seems important. We assemble that material in the patterns and pictures we are comfortable with. We find comfortable largely what our backgrounds, experience and personalities dictate. Those individual aspects must conform in many ways to the societies in which we live, and those societies in their turn are influenced by us. In such complex and interlocking situations, all that we can make of viewpoints are partial and transitory models that correspond to innate bodily processes — models are what metaphor theory calls schemas.

Metaphor commonly means saying one thing while intending another, making implicit comparisons between things linked by a common feature. Scientists, logicians and lawyers prefer to stress the literal meaning of words, regarding metaphor as picturesque ornament. But there is the obvious fact that language is built of dead metaphors. Metaphors are therefore active in understanding. We use metaphors to group areas of experience (life is a journey), to orientate ourselves (my consciousness was raised), to convey expression through the senses (his eyes were glued to the screen), to describe learning (it had a germ of truth in it), etc. Even ideas are commonly pictured as objects (the idea had been around for a while), as containers (I didn't get anything out of that ) or as things to be transferred (he got the idea across). Metaphor is a commonplace in literature, and generally regarded as a rhetorical device, simply a means of persuasion. {51} Metaphor has only a supporting role in meaning, and certainly not seen as something actually constituting meaning. Yet such is the suggestion of Lakoff and Johnson. {52-53}

Metaphors reflect schemas, which are constructions of reality using the assimilation and association of sensorimotor processes to anticipate actions in the world. Schemas are plural, interconnecting in our minds to represent how we perceive, act, react and consider. Far from being mere matters of style, metaphors organize our experience, creating realities that guide our futures and reinforce interpretations. Truth is therefore truth relative to some understanding, and that understanding involves categories that emerge from our interaction with experience. Schemas are neither fixed nor uniform, but cognitive models of bodily activities prior to producing language. The cognitive models proposed by the later work of Lakoff and Johnson are tentative but very varied, the most complex being radial with multiple schema linked to a common centre. Language is characterized by symbolic models (with generative grammar an overlying, subsequent addition) and operates through propositional, image schematic, metaphoric and metonymic models. Properties are matters of relationships and prototypes. Meaning arises through embodiment in schemas. Schemas can also be regarded as containers-part-whole, link, centre-periphery, source-path-goal, up-down, front-back.

The approach is clearly technical and controversial. It contests the claims of philosophy or mathematics to pre-eminence, and places knowledge in a wider context. Meaning lies in body physiology and social activity as well as cerebral functioning. Our temperaments and experiences colour our thoughts, and the philosopher's search for abstract and indisputable truth is an impossible dream. How human beings act in practice is the crucial test, and in practice humans paraphrase according to context and need. Comprehension can never be complete, and specializations that would base truth on logic, mathematics, invariant relationships in the physical world or in social generalities make that comprehension even less attainable. Indeed the approach is entirely misconceived. Multiplicity is what makes us human, and we live variously in conceptions that arise from the totality of our experiences — physiological and mental, private and social. Science and the arts are slowly, very slowly, converging to give us a fuller and more comprehensive view of the world, and that view is anticipated by schema that draw no sharp line between rationality and irrationality, between thought and emotion, between the world out there and our private universes, between our mental and our bodily activities. Yes, the distinctions can be made — and indeed have to be made for practical purposes — but the distinctions represent a narrowing of conception and possibility.

That meanings lie in the social purposes of words rather than any fiat of logicians was the view of the later Wittgenstein, a proposal that has wide acceptance. {54-55} If language is not a self-sufficient system of signs without outside reference, nor a set of logical structures, what else could it be? Social expression. Rather than pluck theories from the air, or demand of language an impossibly logical consistency, we should study language as it is actually used. Much that is dear to the philosopher's heart has to be given up — exact definitions of meaning and truth, for example, and large parts of metaphysics altogether. And far from analysing thought and its consequences, philosophy must now merely describe it. But the gain is the roles words are observed to play: subtle, not to be pinned down or rigidly elaborated. Games, for example, do not possess one common feature, but only a plexus of overlapping similarities. To see through the bewitchment of language is the task of philosophy.
Science itself recognizes the shortcomings in the old attitudes. The descriptive sciences never fitted the formula well, and the social sciences failed altogether. Many complex situations defy mathematically modelling, and are best approached through successive approximation or neural nets. Chaos theory destroys determinism in many areas, emphasizing the importance of the contingent and unforeseen.

Knowledge Systems as Myths

So, to return to poetry, does art give us knowledge of the world? Most would emphatically say yes. Not intellectual knowledge, exactly, not knowledge as a construal of relations between abstract entities representing human experience, but something more authentic, immediate and sensory. Art is surely the great peacemaker, moreover, bridging ideological differences and making real our common humanity. When we remember how bitter and bloodstained have been the wars between religions, each claiming knowledge of unknowables, should we not be wary of the whole process of abstraction from experience, of what really constitutes knowledge? Could we not say that logic and argument were human propensities, something essential to us, but not wholly so transcendent that we must follow them regardless of other perceptions and inclinations? And if we look at what arguments must derive from, intellectual foundations, we find, even in the most abstract of disciplines — mathematics, philosophy, mathematics, science — eventually only lacunae, paradoxes, matters resolved in working agreements between practitioners? In short, rather than dress up knowledge in high-minded principle and rarefied abstraction, should we not look closely at how the communities creating knowledge do in fact go about their business? Possibly knowledge is not ultimately decided on argument and abstraction, but on the varied operation of many human needs and desires.

Knowledge therefore involves myths, in the best sense of that word, thought Ernst Cassirer (1874-1945) {56} and Susanne Langer (1895-1985) {57}. Cassirer extended Kant's a priori categories so as to represent language, myth, art, religion and science as systems of symbolic forms. These forms are mental shaping of experience. They are culturally determined and are created by us. But they also and wholly constitute our world: all ‘reality’ is a reality seen and understood through them. Outside lies Kant's noumenal world, about which there is nothing we can really say.

But most importantly, religion, science and art give meaning to life. They are the emotion-laden, unmediated ‘language’ of experience, which can’t be interrogated for a more primary intellectual meaning. And as to where they came from, the ultimate ground of their representation, we cannot ask: that’s extending everyday attitudes into areas where they didn't belong.  These systems of symbolic form are not arbitrary creations, moreover, but have grown up to answer human needs. Each system carries its own particular enlightenment. Langer ranged over the whole field of artistic expression, though is best known for her theories of music. Art had its own meaning or meanings. Even in our simplest observations we transform a manifold of sensations into a virtual world of general symbols: a world with a grammar of its own, guiding our ear and eyes, highly articulated in art. In music we have a symbolic expression about feelings. Music had a logic of its own, expressing the forms of human feeling, and creating an inner lives. Certainly music did not denote as propositional language must, but it conveyed knowledge directly, ‘by acquaintance’ rather than ‘knowledge about’. Feelings are therefore symbolically objectified in certain forms, with a detail and truth that language cannot approach. But that’s to be expected. Literature and music are different categories of art, each with their own approaches and accomplishments, as are the different disciplines noted above. Poetry should concentrate on what it does best, and give up its current games with language until it has mastered the relevant literature on truth (this article), meaning (Duplicities of Meaning: The Poetry of Geoffrey Hill) and aesthetics (Aesthetics of Modernist Poetry).

References and Resources

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