Is philosophy a kind of poetry?

This is the fourth in a series of posts on philosophy.

Last year, struggling to understand an especially dense philosophical paper, I was reminded of my youthful efforts to decode poets like Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. Then I had an epiphany: Philosophy is like poetry with little rhyme and lots of reason. And philosophy, perhaps, has the same point as art.

Philosophers, like it or not, have much in common with poets. Dickinson and Stevens don’t impart truth, empirical or ethical. They don’t say, This is how things are, or ought to be. They say, This is how things might be. Poets yank you from your self so you can peer out of someone else’s eyes. And poets draw attention to their medium, asking, Aren’t words weird?

Philosophy does these things too. Plato disparaged poets, and yet he relied on imagination as much as logic—and on metaphors, characters and dialogue–to advance his arguments. His meanings can be murky, too. I like teaching the parable of the cave to freshmen not because it’s clear but because it isn’t.

If philosophy is an art form, we don’t have to fret over its lack of progress, because progress isn’t the point. What matters is whether an artist’s work jolts us out of our perceptual doldrums and helps us see life anew. Good philosophy does that. Thus Spoke Zarathustra transports me to the lonely mountaintop with crazy Zara-Nietzsche.

Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus gives me a similar frisson. Confronting the oracular utterances of Wittgenstein, I feel like Amy Adams in Arrival. I’m awed by my encounter with an alien intelligence, in which, if I look hard enough, I might dimly discern myself.

Conversely, some of my favorite literary works have philosophical themes. In mordant metaphysical fables like “The Zahir” and “Funes the Memorious,” Jorge Luis Borges warns that there is such a thing as too much knowledge. Stanislaw Lem’s novel Solaris, about humans’ discovery of a sentient planet, dives as deep into the mind-body problem as Thomas Nagel’s “What is it like to be a bat?”

Rebecca Goldstein, like Lem, trained as a philosopher before writing The Mind-Body Problem and 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Her novels subject ideas to severe stress tests by embedding them in intellectuals buffeted by ambition, love, fear. Goldstein (who is speaking at Stevens on April 27) describes her novels as “philosophical fiction.” Call it “phi-fi.”

But I don’t want to push the philosophy-art analogy too far, because it poses problems. First, imagine, as an absurdly implausible thought experiment, that philosophers all start churning out arty philosophy, or phi-fi. One shudders to think of the resulting flood of hogwash, which would fail as either philosophy or art.

Second, most philosophers will reject the poetry-philosophy analogy. Gary Gutting recently described the work of modern French philosophers as “a kind of abstract poetry.” That’s not a compliment. Gutting thinks those philosophers are “unnecessarily” obscure. For Gutting, clarity of expression is a virtue.

Equating philosophy and art, in the end, doesn’t do justice to either, and it emphasizes style at the expense of substance. Good art needn’t be philosophical, nor good philosophy artful. David Chalmers won’t be offended when I say that “Why Isn’t There More Progress in Philosophy?”, which inspired this series of posts, isn’t poetic. It’s doggedly straightforward.

What I appreciate most about Chalmers is his overall philosophical outlook. He maintains faith in the possibility of knowledge even as he candidly acknowledges his field’s history of futility. That tension between optimism and skepticism suffuses his work.

It’s time to tip my cards. What good is philosophy in a scientific age? Its chief value, I propose, is protecting us from our yearning for certainty. Skepticism can be excessive, and insidious. A tobacco executive hoping to obfuscate the link between smoking and cancer once said, “Doubt is our product.” Doubt is philosophy’s product, too, except in a good way. And that’s the theme I’ll explore in my next and final post of this series.

John Horgan directs the Center for Science Writings, which is part of the College of Arts & Letters. This column is adapted from one originally published on his ScientificAmerican.com blog, “Cross-check.”