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What Poetry Brings to the Table of Science and Religion

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Ever since Plato's famous attack on artists and poets in Book 10 of The Republic, lovers of literature have felt pressed to defend poetry, and indeed from ancient times down to the present, literature and art have had to fight various battles against philosophy, religion, and science. After providing a brief overview of this conflict and then arguing that between poetry and science there are some noteworthy similarities—that is, that some of the basic mental structures with which the scientist studies the “text” of nature (facts, laws, theories) find their counterparts in ways an informed reader studies the poetic text, I develop what I see as the most important differences between poetry, on the one hand, and science, philosophy, and theology, on the other. These differences lie chiefly in two areas: (1) in the stance that each takes toward language itself and (2) in the stance each takes toward that ancient polarity between the one and the many. The aim of my argument is neither to privilege poetry over the other modes of knowing the world nor to grant, particularly to science in its reductive “objectivity,” a higher epistemological status than that accorded to poetry and the arts. Instead, I wish to argue that science, by pushing the boundaries of knowledge about the material world, shows the poet, as well as the theologian, some of the more important work to be done and that poetry, with its emphasis on the particular over the abstract and on the ambiguities and paradoxes of language as inherently metaphorical, serves science and religion by providing a caution against the naive acceptance of language as literal and the consequent enthrallment to the power of absolutes and totalizing abstractions.
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Keywords: A. R. Ammons; Plato and poets; William Wordsworth; epistemology; facts; laws; metaphor; one/many conundrum; science and literature; the two cultures; theories

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1Professor of Arts and Humanities at Lewiston-Auburn College of the University of Southern Maine and the current occupant of the Walter E. Russell Chair in Philosophy and Education.   [email protected]

Publication date: 2003-06-01

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