In this transcript of a conversation between Simon Critchley & Badiou on Badiou's book Being and Event, Badiou states:

And after that, I have also to understand why there is in modern times a clear relationship between poetry and philosophy. As you know, it’s a Heideggerian idea: this renewal of a philosophical interest in poetics is fundamentally in the Heideggerian field. So it’s a great discovery of Heidegger that we have to learn something essential from poetry.

First, I note that Badiou talks of a renewal so that this approchement is merely the latest rapprochement.

Now, what is this great discovery and something essential? Is this something that Heidegger learnt from reading Hölderlin? (In fact, Heidegger delivered a lecture course on a single poem of Hölderlin's The Ister (The River) in 1942.) Is this discovery a source for Critical Theory in Literary Studies?

Holderlin was certainly interested in Heraclitus. But I don't want to posit Hölderlin as merely a middle term between Heraclitus and Heidegger. Rather as Badiou himself says (in the same conversation) to see the poetic situation and subjectivity speak itself:

What is for poetry the very nature of a situation? ...I think that a poetic situation is always a situation in language...it’s the state of affairs in the expressive dimension of language. What is a poetic event? It’s always the birth of a new possibility of naming inside the language,...[it] is the creation of the possibility of naming that which was without name...The consequences of a poetic event are the creation of poems and the appearance of a new poetic subjectivity – Romanticism, Surrealism, and so on. That is not too complicated. But we can say that there is always in every truth procedure a poetic moment.


Maybe that for Heidegger poetry is the peak of language. That is: poetry can say something other forms of language (for example theoretical statements) cannot. For example, it can designate, circumscribe, reveal, speak of what is not obvious or in plain view.

  • But this can all be done in prose. Poetry being the 'peak of language' sounds good. – Mozibur Ullah Jun 1 '13 at 6:20
  • @MoziburUllah Indeed, Dichtung can mean prose as well as poetry – jeroenk Jun 3 '13 at 7:51
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    well, I've discovered he wrote a book called - language, thought & poetry. So that might be useful to look at. – Mozibur Ullah Jun 3 '13 at 8:11

I don't know what Heidegger thought. But it should be clear that philosophy has this in common with poetry : both are about using innovation in language and imagery to try to capture and describe new ways of experiencing and thinking about the world.

The poet crafts new metaphors and turns of phrase which can give you an insight into what something is like : perhaps it's the experience of being in love, of being amazed by nature, of the tragedy of a war etc.

Philosophy is also a history of powerful metaphors : Plato's shadows on the wall of a fire-lit cave give us a sense of the inadequateness of the mere world with respect to the forms. Wittgenstein's language "goes on holiday". Hobbes submits to a Leviathan and Deleuze talks of folds and war-machines.

Philosophy needs poetry's techniques to imagine and communicate novel ideas which would be hard, if not impossible, to convey and understand without them.

  • -1 The question is specifically about Heidegger. – jeroenk Feb 14 '14 at 9:06
  • How do you know it's "about" Heidegger, and not just using a reference to Heidegger to ask a more general question about Philosophy and Poetry? – interstar Feb 14 '14 at 18:06

'Rediscovery' I think clearly applies to: from Romanticism - which was far more dominant and lasting in philosophy in Germany than in England. John Vervaeke has a great lecture on Romanticism in the context of the history of philosophy, which was all news to me. I can't think of a figure like Goethe in the English speaking world, able to contribute significantly in natural philosophy, and make a lasting impact with poetry also. Maybe Thoreau.. It's notable Thoreau followed the post-Socratic traditions of cynics and Stoics, focusing his philosophy on ordinary life, and with a kind of existential introspection. Also, that he was a very marginal figure in his lifetime who's significance was only recognised later (unlike Goethe!).

The Analytic Philosophy tradition diverged from the arts, to adhere more to the models of mathematics & logic as templates, and consideration of what art is and is for, has ceased to be a central point of discussion. Whereas the Continental Philosophy tradition has been greatly affected by literary analysis and consideration of a far wider range of types texts as having philosophical import, or have cultural significance that has philosophical import, allowing literature & poetry being contemplated to be considered 'serious philosophy', rather then kept in a seperate cultural domain. Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, primary influences on Heidegger, saw art as a central concern.

There is an example of the contradictions that come from the limiting of philosophy to certain types of language, that came up in discussing the category of water: Is steam necessarily ice? There is a tendency to, rather arbitrarily distinguish between 'factual' and 'poetic' use of language, and regard the latter as frivolous and essentially, meangless - as the OP did there. But as Wittgenstein observed, language is use: "How did we learn the meaning of this word? From what sort of examples?"

Poetry is part of our use of language. We use metaphor so much we don't even notice: joining the fray is a metaphor from weaving we apply to battle, when moving we weave from side to side, and shuttle is another weaving term applied to spaceships! Much of this extending of language has come from poetry; the kennings of Darraðarljóð in the Njals saga made me notice the prevelance of weaving metaphors; chortle and gallumph have entered the language from The Jabberwock, a poem set expressly at creating portmanteaus, another word from the Alice books; 1498 words or phrases were first attested in Shakespeare. I would look to WW1 poetry, and the early writing of Bob Dylan like Pawn In Their Game (sung at the same podium Martin Luther King Jr later that day gave his I Have A Dream speech from), for the cultural significance with philosophical import, of poetry. They said things in ways facts couldn't, that helped contribute to changing how we live.

Heidegger's ontology of time, is an essentially experiential and personal view, the idea of 'throwness' into circumstances, and that the full context of our lives can be only be understood from the perspective that they are finite. This is a kind of somatic, experiential, and poetic experience, of time, and knowledge of death. He viewed our own being as shaped by our doing, including rituals, architecture, and cultural practices - he saw the lived practice of these as actually shaping and changing the reality we live in. Our widest frame is what makes a life worthwhile, and of course if poetry is an important part of that for people, that makes it a philosophical concern, and/or the consequences of ceasing to value poetry in this way.

An example I think Heidegger would approve of, a poem commonly recited at funerals, that has so entered our language that it is part of the language of how we die, of how we approach death, and the reciting of which helps people live out a shift of attitude tomone that is more philosophical:

"Death, be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;


One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die." - John Donne

So if we address what it means to die, and how we die, that would fail I think without considering poetry. The Illiad is a much older example of holding a cultural record of war and death and grief, Hecuba being a kind of archetype of those raised up and thrown down by fate (mentioned in one of 13th C Carmina Burana poem like that). Ecclesiastes is considered a profoundly subversive book of the Old Testament, at odds on many points with the other parts, but I would say the participatory, recitable nature of it explains why it is there, and why it is read both at weddings & funerals, and even became a pop song:

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under

heaven: A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and

a time to pluck up that which is planted; A time to kill, and a time

to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep,

and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance" - Ecclesiastes

'This too shall pass' and 'Know thyself' are strictly more aphorisms than poetry, but have gone on to influence literally millenia of philosoohy and literature.

Philosophy that ignores the significance of these kinds of experience, is impoverished by that. Philosophy that ignores the nature and purpose of art, has chosen early defeat in pursuit of understanding truth, wherever it leads. It is a modern folly to divide these out of the concerns of philosophy

(although I admit, Plato wanted no poets in his Republic; his involvement in the politics of Syracuse was, startlingly inneffective however, and I'm with Popper's judgement of him).


Philosophy can learn how to reach the heart of people

It is basically about how to write truth in a way that reaches and permeates the public sphere, connecting reason with aesthetics.

Heidegger is deeply indebted to Hölderlin here and I'm surprised Badiou does not offer this obvious link himself. The main idea has been around since Hegel, Schelling, and Hölderlin wrote the fragment which Rosenzweig published under the name The Oldest Program Towards a System in German Idealism in 1917 (ie. Heidegger could have known it). The text is written by Hegel's hand but has a Hölderlinian swing to it. It is not without reason that the philosopher Hölderlin started to write solely in poetic style. The fragment explains the reasoning quite well:

...an ethics. Since the whole of metaphysics will in the future fall under moral [theory] - of which Kant, with his two practical postulates, has given merely an example, but not exhausted anything - this ethics will be nothing other than a complete system of all ideas (Ideen), or what comes to the same, of all practical postulates. The first idea is naturally the representation of myself as an absolutely free being (Wesen). Along with the free, self-conscious being there emerges - from out of nothing - an entire world, the one true and conceivable creation out of nothing. - Here I shall descend into the realm of physics; the question is this: how must a world be constituted for a moral being? I would like to lend wings once again to our sluggish physics, advancing so laboriously by experiments. So - if philosophy provides the ideas, experience the data, we can finally arrive at the physics on a grand scale that I expect of future ages. It does not appear that present-day physics could satisfy a creative spirit, such as ours is, or ought to be.

From nature I come to the work of man. To begin with, the idea of humanity - I want to show that there is no idea of the state, since the state is something mechanical, any more than there is an idea of a machine. Only that which is an object of freedom is called an idea. So, we must also go beyond the state! - For every state must treat free human beings as cogs in a machine; and it ought not to; hence it ought to cease. You can see for yourselves that here all ideas, of perpetual peace, etc., are only subordinate ideas to a higher idea. At the same time I want here to set down the principles for a history of humanity, and strip bare to the skin the whole wretched human contrivance of state, constitution, government, legislation. Finally come the ideas of a moral world, of divinity, of immortality - the overthrow of all bogus faith, the prosecution, by reason itself, of the priesthood, which now apes reason. - Absolute freedom of all spirits who bear the intellectual world within themselves and who can seek neither God nor immortality outside themselves.

Lastly the idea that unites all the others, the idea of beauty, taking the word in the higher Platonic sense. I am now convinced that the highest act of reason, the one in which it embraces all ideas, is an aesthetic act, and that truth and goodness are sisters only in beauty - the philosophers must possess just as much aesthetic power as the poet; our literalist philosophers are men with no aesthetic sense. The philosophy of the spirit is an aesthetic philosophy. One cannot be inspired (geistreich) in anything, one cannot even reason intelligently (geistreich) about history - without aesthetic sense. Here it will become clear what is lacking in those who have no understanding of ideas - and who admit straightforwardly enough that everything becomes obscure to them as soon as it goes beyond tables and indices.

Poetry thereby attains a higher dignity, in the end she becomes once again what she was in the beginning - the teacher of humanity; for there is no more philosophy, no more history, poetry alone will survive all the other sciences and arts.

At the same time, we hear so often that the great masses must have a sensuous religion. Not just the great masses, the philosopher needs it too. Monotheism of reason and of the heart, polytheism of the imagination and of art, this is what we need!

Here first I shall speak of an idea which, as far as I know, has never before entered anyone's mind - we must have a new mythology, this mythology however must stand in the service of the ideas, it must become a mythology of reason.

Until we render the ideas aesthetic, i.e. mythological, they are of no interest to the people, and conversely until mythology is rational, the philosopher must be ashamed of it. Thus the enlightened and the unenlightened must in the end join hands, mythology must become philosophical, and the people rational, and philosophy must become mythological in order to make philosophers sensuous. Then eternal unity reigns among us. No more the contemptuous glance, no more the blind trembling of the people before its sages and priests. Then, for the first time, there awaits us the equal cultivation of all powers, of the individual as well as of all people. No longer shall any force be suppressed, then universal freedom and equality of spirits will reign! - A higher spirit, sent from heaven, must found this new religion among us, it will be the last, the greatest work of mankind

(European Journal of Philosophy 3:2 ISSN 0966-8373 pp. 199-200. @ Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 1995, bolded mine)

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