What are words worth: do poets and philosophers speak the same language?

Unthinkable: Research project and poetry prize explore overlap between perceived rival disciplines

Plato may have been the father of western philosophy but he could also be a bit of an ass. Imagine trying to ban poetry! Poets could make the bad seem good and the good seem bad and that sort of trickery couldn’t be tolerated in Plato’s fundamentalist scheme.

This loathing of poetry was one of the reasons why life in Plato's Republic would be "rather humdrum", Bertrand Russell once noted.

The Welsh-born polymath himself had a nuanced take on the bards. Writing between Europe’s great wars, he was wary – rightly so – of the rise of romanticism. Poetry tends to deal with emotions and while emotions make “life interesting . . . when, as in philosophy, we are trying to understand the world, they appear rather as a hindrance”.

Yet Russell acknowledged that a well-crafted verse could illuminate and inform in a special way. A few lines from Henry Vaughan on the nature of eternity - “a vast shadow moved; in which the world/ And all her train were hurled” – was capable of “expressing what reason, patiently pursued, will ultimately compel us to believe”, he wrote.


Victorian rhyming verse written for children is often bluntly didactic – it is basically a kind of propaganda in poetic form

Fellow Brit Mary Midgley went further in building bridges between poetry and philosophy. When she began studying philosophy in the 1930s, the "dominant view" was that there was little hope for a dialogue with poets, explains Dr Rachael Wiseman, one half of the philosophical research team In Parenthesis.

The perception was that “poetry is all about imagination, vision and intuition, and philosophy is all about reason, analysis and argument”, Wiseman says. “But Midgley thought this was the wrong picture of both fields.

“Poets and philosophers are both engaged with a struggle to understand human life, meaning, and our place in the cosmos . . . They are both careful observers of others and of themselves, and when they are great poets or philosophers they are able to see things that are invisible to others and make them visible. So that people say ‘Aha – of course. I always knew it was like that!’ ”

Dr Clare MacCumhaill, Wiseman's collaborator on a research project into a quartet of influential women philosophers that includes Midgley and Iris Murdoch, insists "philosophers need to use imagination and poetry in their work".

John Locke, for example, set out a detailed, logical argument for democratic government but what gave his political philosophy its power “is the imaginative vision he presented – that of the ‘social contract’. He told us a story about how rights and duties arise between free, equal and rational individuals.”

MacCumhaill and Wiseman are exploring the theme further in a year-long celebration of Mary Midgley’s philosophical legacy. Notes from the Biscuit Tin takes it name from a well-worn a fruit cake box from which Midgley “dispensed wit, wisdom and ginger snaps to her visitors over many decades”.

Midgley’s family gifted the tin to Wiseman and MacCumhaill after her death in 2018, and it has now travelled across the globe under a collaborative programme of events between philosophers and poets. While the coronavirus lockdown has impeded its journey somewhat, the tin is scheduled to arrive after the summer in Tokyo, Sydney and Paris before the final stop in Dublin in 2021.

The duo, who teamed up with An Post last year to stage the Philosophy by Postcard initiative to mark the centenary of Murdoch’s birth in Dublin, is also running a poetry competition aimed at children aged six to 13 as part of the Midgley celebration. A number of free worksheets can be downloaded to help participants reflect on ethical issues ranging from climate change to friendship.

Speaking to Unthinkable before the column breaks for the summer, MacCumhaill acknowledges that not all poetry can be categorised as philosophical.

“Victorian rhyming verse written for children is often bluntly didactic – it is basically a kind of propaganda in poetic form. Philosopher Cora Diamond contrasts this with poetry that allows us to see and feel things differently, and which can alter our self-conception.

“For instance, in her essay Eating Meat and Eating People, she discusses Walter de la Mare’s astonishing Titmouse, which is a good example of making things that are invisible to others visible, and the fellow-feeling for the titmouse that the poem makes possible; the vision of the titmouse as fellow.”

Midgley was drawn to poems dealing with themes of nature, MacCumhaill adds. “What she is looking for in these poets is ways of communicating the wonder and reverence of the sort that de la Mare expresses and that, she thinks, we should have toward nature – though she also recognises a hangover from romanticism that is all too ready to associate science with the ‘meddling intellect’, which Wordsworth thinks ‘murders to dissect’, rather than the ‘biophilia’, love of living things, that Charles Darwin, for instance, exemplifies.

“Another great theme in Midgely is the self and she is keen to highlight expressions of subjectivity which show our connectedness to the natural world and to each other. For instance, she quotes from the classicist Edwardian poet AE Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, ‘Take my hand, quick, and tell me/ What have you in your heart?’ This seems to chime with Midgley’s own approach to philosophy as a shared enterprise that is also grounded in feeling.”

Is that what the biscuit tin is designed to represent?

“That’s right. We noticed at Mary’s memorial service that philosophy and biscuits were a common theme – rather unusually,” Wiseman replies. “That gave us the idea of salvaging the old biscuit tin that was a perennial presence on her side-table and to use it to mediate philosophical discussions and happenings on themes that interested her and us.”

Says MacCumhaill: “It’s also a way of challenging ways that contemporary philosophy is done, or at least helps make a space for new interventions and different kinds of conversations.”

Ask a sage

Question: What have you done during lockdown?

Emily Dickinson replies: "To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations."

The Unthinkable philosophy column returns in September