Literary Insights, Philosophical Development and Ethical Reflections: An Exploration Into their Connectedness

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Despite the famous wish of Plato to banish poets from the Republic and the ancient quarrel between poets and philosophers, there has always been a close, if at times tense, relationship between the art of poetry and the act of philosophizing. Western philosophical tradition, at least in its dominant form, may not be as keen, compared to the Asian philosophical heritage for instance, on regarding literature in general and poetry in particular as a rich source of philosophical insight. In fact, many would maintain a certain distinction, with clearly described features, between what is literary and what is philosophical. There is in certain quarters of European philosophy, which insists on criticism, depth and comprehensiveness, a rather negative attitude towards poetry. Heidegger in his essay “What are Poets For?” bemoans the fact that philosophers consider a dialogue with poetry as “a helpless aberration into fantasy”. This rather negative attitude can be traced back to Plato, the great European philosopher. As Whitehead puts it, the emergence of the critical discontent with the poets is exemplified by Plato.

Nonetheless, there has also been an acknowledgement by some European philosophers that Plato's understanding of poetry vis-à-vis philosophical thinking was too restricted. Much poetry contains a great deal of philosophical insights; and some philosophical writings, in so far as these are the works of well-respected philosophers, are in genres which are more literary. (One can readily recall the writings of many of the existentialist thinkers.) Romanticism, which upholds spontaneity, emotion and individuality, arose in reaction to the perceived inadequacy of the kind of theoretical reason upheld by the Hegelian system. The Romantics felt that poetry provides the most adequate path to truth. In the essay cited above, Heidegger maintains that the course of the history of Being will lead thinking into a dialogue with poetry. Gadamer's recent book, Literature and Philosophy in Dialogue, promotes that exchange of views between literary writers and philosophers.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2010

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