Thursday, June 2, 2016

Scruton on poetry, truth, Heidegger and everyday aesthetics

Roger Scruton's "Poetry and Truth," in The Philosophy of Poetry (Oxford, 2015) ed. John Gibson (149-161) is one of the more interesting discussions of the topic, especially given that Scruton begins with a discussion of Heidegger's concept of poetry as "the founding of truth" which Scruton takes to be true! Scruton rightly takes "truth" to refer here not to evaluation of sentences in terms of truth value, so loved by Frege and friends, but in the sense of revelation, or as Heidegger would put it, unconcealment.  Poetry, according to Heidegger, is a bringing forth which is also a bestowing.  Scruton says that Heidegger is "attempting to gives a secular version of [a religious idea of revelation].  And by attributing the process of revelation to poetry - in other words, to a human product, in which meaning is both created by human beings and also 'bestowed' by them  he can be understood as advocating revelation without God."  (150)   In relation to my posts on aesthetic atheism, I like Scruton's idea, taken from Wagner's essay "Religion and Art," that "religions have all misunderstood their mission, wishing to propose as true stories what are in fact myths...that cannot be spelled out in literal language."  (150) and that "the meanings of the myths must be grasped through art, which shows us the concealed deep truth of our conditions, in dramatized and symbolic form."  He also mentions (as a more bleak view) Nietzsche's similar idea that we need art "so that we will not perish of the truth" i.e. that God is dead.  

For Scruton, "the heart of poetry is the poetic use of language" i.e. as distinct from everyday and scientific uses, a use that involves figures of speech that do not describe connections but make them in the mind of the reader.  He makes a strong distinction between the poetic and the prosaic use of language, the later being instrumental, having the property of aboutness, having an interest in truth as correspondence, and having substitutivity of equivalent terms. 

Scruton says that Keats in his "Ode to the Nightingale" "does not describe the bird and its song only:  he endows it with value. The nightingale shares in the beauty of its description, and is lifted out of the ordinary run of events, to appear as a small part of the meaning of the world."  I have argued elsewhere that Scruton originated the idea of the aesthetics of everyday life back in the 1970s, although, of course, the true grandfather of the movement was John Dewey.  Scruton has continued to make major contributions to the field, most notably in his book Beauty.  I have also argued that everyday aesthetics happens when the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and that that often happens when everyday phenomena are seen with the eyes of the artist.  Scruton shows, through the Keats example, how poetry can make this happen.  As he puts it "poetry transfigures what it touches, so that it is revealed in another way" and the test is "truth" in something like Heidegger's sense.  Scruton understands the idea of poetry bestowing truth partly in this way: Eliot in Four Quartets "is looking for the sincere expression of a new experience, one that will remain true to its inner dynamic, and how what it is to live that experience in the self-awareness of a modern person.  He is looking for words that both capture the experience and lend themselves to sincere and committed use." (159)  Yet Eliot's idea may seem overly subjective. By contrast, Heidegger insists on an objective dimension in the grounding that poetry bestows. 

Scruton finds in Rilke's "Ninth Elegy" the source of Heidegger's thought, where the truth of the thing, e.g. the house, "is a truth bestowed in the experience." Further "Its measure is the depth with which these things can be taken into consciousness and made part of a life fully lived."  (160) So Scruton concludes that there is an inner truth to things, one bestowed by poetry, and that this inwardness is of our experience: "the fusing of a thing with its associations and life-significances in the poetic moment" (161) i.e. achievements that are "fruit of a life lived in full awareness."  

Over time, I have become a bigger and bigger fan of Scruton (don't like his politics):  he has the broad vision one might call wisdom and stands far above the usual in the realm of analytic aesthetics. Here is one final quote:   we question what is the meaning of a world that has come to this:  "The right answer is that answer that enables us to incorporate the things of this world into a fulfilled life.  For each individual object, each house, bridge, fountain, gate, or jug, there is such an answer.  And the poet is the one who provides it....His answer is true when it shows how just such a thing might be part of a fulfilled human life..."   

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