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On the relationship between poetry and philosophy

The Poetics of Reason – Introducing Rational Poetic Experimentalism
PHILOSOPHY / In the book The Poetics of Reason, Stefán Snævarr goes against a too strict concept of rationality: To live rationally is not only to find the best means to realize one's goals, but also to make life meaningful and coherent. Parts of this work should enter all disciplines concerned with models, metaphors and narratives.


The similarities between poetry and philosophy are many, and it is particularly important that both operate with possible worlds and make us see human life and existence in a new way. Opportunities have existential importance.

Kierkegaard understood anxiety as "the reality of freedom as the possibility of possibility". But even without existential pathos, a life without opportunities is unthinkable in a prosperous society that is more liberated from the necessities of life than before. Nevertheless: Are we good enough to handle the opportunities?

Thought experiments

Snævarr, for his part, uses 'thought experiments' as a philosophical method in his study of the relationship between poetry and philosophy. He calls it "Rational Poetic Experimentalism" (RPE) in his new philosophical work The Poetic of Reason on over 450 densely written pages.

Some narratives cover the facts better than others.

Although Snævarr doesn't mention it, studying the overlap between philosophy and poetry can actually make us more realistic and counteract today's extensive mixing of fact and fiction – a postmodern tendency we see everywhere, from real-life literature to war propaganda. This weakens our realityorientering and makes us more manipulable. Therefore, Snævarr's book has relevance far beyond the ranks of professional philosophers.

Thought experiments, which much poetry and philosophy stimulate and often depict, can be labor-saving. If you set out to do something, from a simple practical action to writing philosophy, you can save time by thinking through what needs to be done in advance. Many possibilities can be discarded through thought experiments. Practicing thinking in terms of possibilities is therefore not just philosophical play with thoughts. Training in thought experiments trains one to distinguish between the possible and the real. This forces at its best precisely the difference between fiction and reality: Many possibilities are unrealistic and can be discarded. To reject possibilities, to 'annihilate' them, as Heidegger and Sartre called it, strengthens our agency.

Stefan Snævarr

The possibilities of metaphor

Snævarr compares metaphors to thought experiments, they create possible worlds where we can imagine different alternatives. This is the main idea behind his idea of ​​rational poetic experimentalism. metaphora "man is a wolf" can form the starting point for a political theory à la Hobbes: The state of nature is a war of all against all where men are like wolves against each other. Therefore, an order must be created where the wolves relinquish power to the sovereign. This is how metaphors create guides that shape reality.

It is not easy to analyze what happens when we see something as something else, especially if it is an innovative metaphor. A tension arises between the two areas that the metaphor binds together. This involves the relationship between meaning, truth, reference, language and reality, i.e. problems no philosopher can fail to reflect on.

Few would regard the metaphor as true in the ordinary sense. Regardless, it can have great influence: Senator John McCain described Russia as "a gas station masquerading as a country". This metaphor may have led to a misjudgment of Putin and Russia on the American side. This has been fatal in the war Ukraine.

Most people believe that we can understand something with the help of metaphors, that they have 'cognitive value'. But they are not true in the usual sense, since they do not have clear truth conditions. Then the metaphor had to be translated into something literal. If 'man is a wolf' means that 'man is greedy', you can start talking about true or false, but then the metaphor is gone! Snævarr solves the problem by saying that metaphors have "truth-like values". Few people think that metaphors have no meaning, like the American philosopher Donald Davidson (1917–2003). Meaning is then linked to precise lexical meaning. He argued in return that the metaphor can have a "pragmatic effect", like a slap in the face. But most people apart from Davidson would say that is meaningful.

Instead of saying that the metaphor is true, it can be apt.

The old positivist demand that the meaning of a statement consists in the method of verifying it, which Davidson defends, Snævarr is distant. Instead of saying that the metaphor is true, it can be apt. Both metaphors and narratives reshape the object while at the same time saying something important about it. Here Snævarr follows the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur (1913–2005), who has written about both.

The difference between fiction and reality

Like the metaphor, the narrative also has validity far beyond the poetry. We tell stories about ourselves and others because we are historical beings, but this does not mean that all the stories are fictional. Snævarr is far from dissolving the distinction between fiction and reality, so that everything is reduced to different narratives and the struggle between them. The same source-critical criteria apply here as in historical research: Some narratives cover the facts better than others, even though all historians create narratives about the past. Snævarr does not want to mix history writing and fiction, even if every story telling is selective and has a specific perspective.

Likewise is comedy not just a fictional genre, but also something we see in real life: like when a minister has to resign because plagiarism in his master's thesis after having appealed a student's alleged 'self-plagiarism' to the Supreme Court. We structure experience in such patterns, both those of others and our own. The poem has an anthropological basis.

Snævarr consequently goes against a too strict concept of rationality: Living rationally is not only finding the best means to realize one's goals, but also making life meaningful and coherent. This happens through stories and metaphors. So-called everyday rationality is not beyond the poetic realm.

The inspiration from Ludvig Wittgenstein

Philosophy is about seeing the world in new ways, discovering aspects, and reflecting on how these new possibilities are possible. Ludwig Wittgensteins (1889–1951) example i Philosophical studies with the figure that can be seen as both a duck and a hare, illustrates this. One has to choose between the two aspects: duck or hare, unless one is what Wittgenstein calls aspect blind. If we see war as a game of chess, strategy, planning and cunning become essential, while violence, murder and suffering take a back seat.

Although Snævarr visits most recent philosophers, Wittgenstein is probably the one who has influenced the work the most, apart from metaphor theorists such as Ricoeur, Max Black, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. It is therefore strange that only two works by Wittgenstein are in the bibliography. IN Mixed comments (1974) Wittgenstein says that he "composes philosophy". It fits well with Snævarr's concept.

The discussion about the relationship between dead and living metaphors also comes a little in the background. Snævarr constantly returns to the conventional metaphor 'man is one ulv'. The very distinction between dead and living metaphors was important to Max Black and Ricoeur and led to a constant consumption of new metaphors: the play between the two elements of the living metaphor had to be examined – before it settled down and habit made it invisible when the metaphor died.

Another shortcoming is that Snævarr does not discuss the essay as a genre with regard to the project. The so-called fourth genre is, after all, tailor-made for Snævarr's thought experiments and the overlap between poetry and philosophy, since Essay means both trial and experiment. Theodore W. Ornament (1903–69), who regarded the essay as his preferred philosophical form, is only mentioned in passing once. But in such a comprehensive and thought-rich work as this, such objections become petty.

Snævarr is both a Norwegian professor of philosophy and an Icelandic poet. In this book he has tried to come to terms with himself. The problem of the relationship between poetry and philosophy is discussed more thoroughly and more convincingly than in any book I have read on the subject. Parts of this work should be included in the syllabus not only in philosophy and literary studies, but in all subject areas concerned with models, metaphors, narratives and how these affect our perception of reality.

The book can be downloaded at

Eivind Tjønneland
Eivind Tjønneland
Historian of ideas and author. Regular critic in MODERN TIMES. (Former professor of literature at the University of Bergen.)

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