Hilary Lawson

The Poetic Strategy


Describing the world is a strangely perplexing process. It feels as if it should be effortless, but the more closely we seek to say how things are the more we uncover our failure to do so. It is an outcome that philosophy both uncovers and relies upon for its continued existence. No doubt it is for this reason that poetry and philosophy, so seemingly distinct in their approach to the world, find themselves deeply entwined.

Now there are, of course, those who suppose that the task of describing the world is in some way solvable, who think we can have access to, in Richard Rorty’s phrase, ›the really real‹. It is a view adopted by many scientists and widely held in our culture and embedded in the notion of progress and the increasing knowledge of humankind. In the philosophical world it is characterised as realism. Realist philosophers, and those who endorse the project to correctly describe an independent reality, have tended to regard poetry as a romantic flourish, a flowery plaything, while the true work of language takes place in the realm of the literal. Poetry may express emotion or create a mood, the emotion may be powerful and deep, but it has no place in our understanding of the world and is secondary and dependent on agreed and fixed meanings that we use in our factual descriptions.

In contrast, in an article published just a few months ago and within six months of his death, Rorty proposed that poetry was the source of the imagination (Rorty, The Fire of Life, in: Poetry, Nov 2007), and without imagination he argued there would be no new words, and without new words, no reasoning, no intellectual or moral progress. Poetry is the fire of life. By giving poetry a central rather than secondary place, Rorty placed himself in a line of, what I shall call, ›non-realist‹ philosophers that includes Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Derrida, and who between them have perhaps been the primary philosophical figures of non-analytic philosophy. Non-realism is not about the assertion of a different set of existent things separate from the material which is prior or more real. Instead it is a challenge to the possibility of saying how things are, a challenge to our ability to speak of the really real. Unlike the anti-realist, the non-realist denies the very possibility of an ontology.

Each of these non-realist philosophers provided their own particular challenge to realism, and each grappled with the puzzle of how to respond to the perceived failure of the realist project. In each case they were led to place poetry or a poetic stance at the centre of the philosophical endeavour. They did so not in some romantic desire to escape the literal but in response to what they saw as the failure of the literal to deliver philosophic truths about the nature of the world. The attachment to poetry, as a metaphorical use of language, is not an outcome of a wooliness of thinking, or a lack of rigour, as critics have sometimes argued, but is the consequence of a determined and unflinching thinking through of the realist project and a recognition of its impossibility.

I do not intend here to rehearse the arguments against realism other than to note that realism cannot get off the ground without a theory about the means by which language describes or is hooked onto the world and Hilary Putnam, the renowned American analytic philosopher, has described this project to identify the relationship between language and world as being ›in tatters‹. Furthermore, at the outset of the analytic school of thought Wittgenstein in the Tractatus concluded that an account of the relationship between language and the world is not possible because the account would have to stand outside of language itself. Non-realists maintain that in the ninety years since that conclusion no viable realist response has been forthcoming.

While the challenge to realism is substantial, the alternative is far from evident. It is perhaps the difficulty of the non-realist ›position‹ – if for the moment one can call it such – that has enabled realists to pursue the metaphysical project, to say how things ultimately are, against the odds. For realists, however difficult it is to form a viable realist theory, and all admit its complexity, the alternative is notably less appealing. For non-realism is seemingly at once embedded in a mire. If it is not possible to say how the world really is, if it is not possible to connect language to the world, how is the non-realist to find a means to express any view at all? There are times when Nietzsche, Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Derrida appear to be making claims about the nature of world and of the human condition but on reflection they cannot hold to any of these claims for were they to do so they would seemingly be retaining an implicit realism. The denial of our capacity to describe the really real would appear also to involve the denial of that denial itself. Such is the non-realist predicament.

It is for this reason that the non-realist is led towards poetry. If we are not capable of describing the world, such a claim cannot be made literally without it being at once self-denying. For, if the statement ›we are not capable of describing the world‹ is itself taken as a description of the world – which at first sight it appears to be – it is not possible to provide the statement with meaning since it denies itself. More broadly, a non-realist account requires a means by which expression and meaning is made possible without it being at the same time a commitment to asserting a given state of affairs. If realists require an account of how language is hooked onto the world, non-realists require an account of how we can have meaning and can intervene successfully without access to the really real. Non-realist philosophers would certainly appear to be trying to say how things are in some sense even if they cannot do so directly, even if they choose to describe this saying as playing in the language game, or exploring our vocabulary, or unravelling the tradition from within. And it is here that a poetic stance seemingly allows the non-realist philosopher a space from which to be able to speak. A means of talking that does not involve a commitment to the real. Hence Wittgenstein’s remark: ›I think I summed up my attitude to philosophy when I said: ›Philosophy ought really to be written only as poetic composition‹‹ (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, ed. G. H. Von Wright, Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1980, p. 24e). Or Heidegger’s: ›Poetically, man dwells on this earth.‹ (Martin Heidegger, Existence and Being, Vision Press 1949,3 p.312)

It is the late Wittgenstein and late Heidegger who find in the poetic strategy a response to the implicit realism of their early works. It is in his later work that Rorty advocates the poeticization of culture and at the end of his life, after he is diagnosed with cancer, that Rorty comments: ›I now wish that I had spent somewhat more of my life with verse.‹ (Perhaps the desire of young men to build edifices of thought is tempered by age, and failure.) TS Eliot, however, came to the same conclusion, and for similar reasons, at the outset of his career. He came from Harvard to study at Oxford in 1914 not as poet but as a budding philosopher. Two years later, while still in England, he submitted a dissertation, on ›Knowledge and Experience in the philosophy of FH Bradley‹ to Harvard as part of his doctorate. It was not published until 1964, less than a year before his death and is remarkable for the way in which it prefigures relativist and poststructural standpoints elaborated by non-realist philosophers many years later.

In his conclusion Eliot adopts the perspectival stance typical of non-realism when he writes: »We are certain of everything – relatively, and of nothing – positively.« (Eliot 1989, p.157). And goes on to argue, in terms that could almost have been written by Derrida a half century later: »Any assertion about the world, or any ultimate statement about any object in the world, will inevitably be an interpretation. It is a valuation and an assignment of meaning. The things of which we are collectively certain, we may say our common formulae, are certainly not true. What makes a real world is difference of opinion« (Ibid, p. 165).

Eliot takes up a radical non-realist stance providing a critique not of material reality but the very possibility of things: ›The fact that we can only think in terms of things does not compel us to the conclusion that reality consists of things. We have found from the first that the thing is thoroughly relative, that it exists only in a context of experience, of experience with which it is continuous.‹ (Ibid)

These are remarkable conclusions, written two years before Wittgenstein wrote the Tractatus, ten years before Heidegger’s ›Being and Time‹, fifty years before Derrida coined the term deconstruction and introduced the notion of ›differance‹ and demonstrate the sophistication and originality of Eliot’s philosophical thinking (as Childs, Shusterman and Michaels have catalogued in some detail). Just as similar conclusions led Wittgenstein to abandon the attempt to make general philosophical claims about the world, so we can conclude Eliot was led as a young man to abandon philosophy in favour of poetry. Not as an abandonment of the rational but as its extension.


Non realism may lead to poetry but what is poetry capable of delivering? Amongst non realist philosophers the strongest claims are made by Heidegger who sees poetry as the means to approach an understanding not available to us from the literal. For Heidegger, the poet is engaged in the attempt to name that which is holy. Poetry allows us insight into the essence of Being. ›… poetry is the inaugural naming of being and of the essence of all things…‹ (Heidegger 1949, p.307).

TS Eliot can be seen to adopt his own version of this strong thesis expressed in the context of the Absolute rather than Being. Eliot does not claim that poetry can arrive at the Absolute, any more than Heidegger supposes that poetry can reach Being, but in both cases poetry provides a means to approach an underlying truth – even if that truth is itself ineffable.

Others have explicitly challenged this view seeing the claim that poetry can provide insight into the essence of being as a residual hankering after the metaphysical. Rorty, for example, in explaining his attachment to poetry says: »This is not because I fear having missed out on truths that are incapable of statement in prose. There are no such truths; there is nothing about death that Swinburne and Landor knew but Epicurus and Heidegger failed to grasp. Rather, it is because I would have lived more fully if I had been able to rattle off more old chestnuts — just as I would have if I had made more close friends. Cultures with richer vocabularies are more fully human —farther removed from the beasts — than those with poorer ones.« (Richard Rorty, The Fire of Life, in: Poetry, Nov 2007)

All of the non realists can be seen however to hold the weaker thesis that language is poetic in character. Rorty is perhaps most explicit arguing for the poeticization of culture, by which he does not mean that we should all become poets but rather we should identify the poetic element inherent in our descriptions of the world and in our culture generally. For Rorty the scientist, the historian, and the novelist all use language poetically. They do so through the invention of new words and new vocabularies to say new things. Although explicit in Rorty the poetic character of language is implicit in all of the non realists work. It may be expressed as an ambiguity of meaning, or an inability to provide decidable meaning that we see in Wittgenstein and Derrida, or in the poetic disposition of Heidegger, and Nietzsche. 

There is a fundamental difficulty however with both the strong and weak thesis. As Rorty identified, the strong thesis that poetry might be a key to a deeper truth appears at once to hark back to the literal, to the desire for a metaphysical reality. While the weak thesis, is less evidently perhaps but nevertheless, equally challenged. For how are we to understand this poetic stance? We cannot of course take it to be a claim about the nature of language, a literal description of a true state of affairs: namely that language is poetic in character. As if we have in this understanding a quick glimpse into the really real. As if we have caught site of the true nature of language and, implicitly, what it is to be human. But if the poetic stance is not asserting something about the nature of language in what does it consist? Where is Rorty’s theory of meaning that enables him to give us an account of how we are to understand his claims that are not claims, his descriptions of our circumstances which are not such descriptions, and which provides us with an explanation of the means by which language as poetry is able to generate specific meaning?

As I understand it, Rorty’s reply is that we find ourselves at a particular juncture, with a particular vocabulary and its set of literal metaphors, and as such we do not need an explanation to understand what he is saying. Such a reply however seems to me to have already provided the explanation, has already given us our metaphysics, with which we can interpret Rorty’s perspective. As with those he describes as being engaged in ironist theory, Rorty wishes to provide us with a perspective which denies the possibility of authority. Recognising the reflexive problems of such a proposal his solution is to opt out of the literal in favour of the poetic. The problem with such an approach is that if such a solution was a solution it is not clear how he could not tell us about it.

A similar critique can be made of the later Wittgenstein and Derrida. What is unique about Eliot is that unlike his fellow non-realists, Eliot abandons philosophy early in his career – one must suppose for these very reasons – and devotes his life to poetry and criticism. In doing so Eliot prefigures Wittgenstein’s notion of language as use and Rorty’s pragmatism but in contrast with them the impossibility of objective truth is precisely what drives Eliot to a pursuit of a paradoxical Absolute. Eliot’s references to the Absolute are of course in the context of FH Bradley’s Hegelian notions of the Absolute but his arguments are strangely contemporary:

»(…) ›objective‹ truth is a relative truth: all that we care about is how it works; it makes no difference whether a thing really is green or blue, so long as everyone behaves toward it on the belief that it is green and blue. (…) And this emphasis upon practice – upon the relativity and the instrumentality of knowledge – is what impels us toward the Absolute.« (TS Eliot, Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of FH Bradley, Columbia University Press1989, p. 168)
»And furthermore no judgment is true until you understand it; and you never wholly understand it; because ›understanding‹ experience means merely knowing how to use it; so that what we actually know of a judgment is not its truth but its utility (and truth never is utility). That at which we aim is the real as such; and the real as such is not an object.« (Ibid, p. 167)

Eliot does not therefore give up the attempt to say how things are, even though he is convinced of the impossibility of being able to do so. In this respect he has more in common with Heidegger than with Wittgenstein, Rorty or Derrida. Those who argue for the end of metaphysics may be tempted to dismiss this approach as a task worthy of Don Quixote. Eliot’s defence must be that metaphysics are unavoidable, that Wittgensteinian silence, Derridian unravelling and deconstruction, and Rortyesque poeticization, cannot eradicate a residual ›position‹ while still retaining content. The denial of metaphysics is itself metaphysical. And it is for this reason that we have to continue to pursue the real even though we know, I use the word with caution, that the real is not achievable.


Of the non-realists Eliot is in many respects the most radical. His critique of the possibility of objective truth leads him to give up philosophy and devote his life to poetry and the pursuit of ›the real‹. The question to consider is to what extent Eliot is successful with his radical poetic strategy. In response to this question, I’m going to focus on The Four Quartets as Eliot’s most evident attempt to approach philosophical truths, albeit that they are at once not truths.

In these poems I’m going to argue that Eliot does to a remarkable degree succeed in approaching something that we might be tempted to call an underlying truth. He does not of course do so by stating a position but allows the text to propose an insight only almost at once to undermine its own pretensions and thereby leave us with a notion that we have passed close by to somewhere that cannot be named. In this manoeuvring there are certainly echoes of the later Heidegger but with a greater sense of illusion and of unstated strangeness.

In the short space available I can only provide a limited indication of this success. Of course I also risk appearing to say straight-forwardly what Eliot is so careful to avoid saying directly, or at all. My description should be taken therefore not as a description but as a temporary way of holding the Quartets which may help to explain my judgment as to their success.

One of the central themes in the Four Quartets is the nature of time. Eliot offers us a number of alternative stories about time each with their own linked set of metaphors. There is time as the momentary present: the shaft of sunlight in which we spend our lives. There is time as passage: the river we flow along. And time as the sea, time as it stretches before and after the moment of the present, out to the edges of the beginning and the end. I want to suggest that we approach these perspectives on time as precise descriptions of our experience and of reality rather than supposing them to be a poetic flourish. We find ourselves in the moment of the present, a present from which we cannot escape, a present which provides everything that there is. Yet we are also in the ocean of time, part, we might say in the context of the Einsteinian story, of four dimensional space time. Our lives, our civilization an inconsequential eddy in the vastness of this ocean. And between these two static poles there is time as movement, as coming and going, as becoming and passing away.

Each of these perspectives on time are attempts to describe how it is to be alive. Yet time is all of these seemingly incompatible things. And where Eliot’s poetic and philosophic brilliance comes to the fore is his ability to be able both to describe with fine precision each of these perspectives but at the same time to illustrate the inherent strangeness and paradox of each description so that we cannot be content with having understood but have instead a sense of having passed close by to a truth which if examined closely would be seen to be illusory.

Take for example one of these perspectives in a little more detail. Time as the momentary present. This is the moment of subjectivity, the moment of experience. It is the moment we can always point to as ›now‹. It is a strange place this momentary present despite the fact that we spend our time there. For here we are now. In this now together. There is nothing else at this moment for us than the now. Memories can be part of this present but they do not give us access to the past and are instead hazy versions of a previous present held in the now. The past a memory, the future an imaginary space, we have only the present. Yet this present that is at once all that we have, is also somehow wafer thin, almost without substance.

Eliot describes this present in his famous phrase »the still point of the turning world«. Still, because in the momentary present there is no movement. Movement only happens between moments of the present. The world outside of the present turns, but the moment is still. If there was movement within the momentary present it would have duration and could be subdivided into shorter instants. It was this paradox that Zeno relied upon to argue against instants and in favour of the One. It is a paradox that many believe we have now excised with Cantor’s notion of infinity but in doing so we replace the paradox of the present with the paradox embedded in the notion of infinity itself. Within the phrase ›the still point of the turning world‹ Eliot has already incorporated an essential strangeness, an ineffability to a description of the now. The description contains its contradiction. The present is still yet the world, of which it is part, turns. Yet despite, or perhaps even because of, the contradiction we have sense of understanding what Eliot is seeking to say.

Eliot goes on to describe this present as ›Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards‹. It is the same strategy of internal contradiction, but this is not empty poetic rhetoric. The present is not flesh in the sense that it is not of the physical. The wafer thin present of experience has no corporeality. It is not of the body. Pure subjectivity is somehow ethereal. And yet, it is not empty, it is not fleshless. It has content and distinguishes itself as being itself. Nor is there sense of direction in the present. In the moment of the present there is no sense of being caused by the past, it is just itself. Nor does it cause any subsequent present. We are simply here, now, in the moment. A strangeness that Hume so extensively grappled with. So Eliot’s description of the present: ›Neither flesh, nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards‹, is a precise and accurate description, but is expressed in a contradictory manner. Here Eliot offers us what we might imagine is a glimpse of the Absolute, of how things really are, and he tries to get as close as possible, to be as precise as possible, but at the same time to express this precision in a way which undermines the notion that the Absolute has been described, for the description is at once something that cannot be fully held because it does not allow for a resting point.

Now you might wish to argue that Eliot is here relying on different meanings of the word ›flesh‹, and that the seeming contradiction is in fact a poetic creation. Instead we can see Eliot using these words to highlight the limitation of all description. There is no literal meaning accessible for Eliot just as there is no literal meaning for Derrida. Meaning is undecidable and we operate in the play of language. Eliot seeks to draw our attention to the limitation of our vocabulary by highlighting its contradiction and thereby the strangeness of our predicament. In offering us a precise description and at the same time undermining this description in each phrase, and as a whole, Eliot gives us a sense of the having glimpsed the Absolute and at the same time demonstrates that such a glimpse is illusory. In this play the reader has the impression of having caught sight of something about the nature of the world and our place in it. Not because of the accuracy of the description, or because of the deliberate undermining of that description, but in the search after accuracy and its failure.

In subsequent phrases Eliot reasserts this account of the present, repeating its paradox in new forms:

…At the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline.

And then Eliot reminds us that this strange ineffable present, this stuff of paradox, is all that we have even though it is at the same time no thing.

                            Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

One way of understanding Eliot’s underlying strategy is a means to avoid the text becoming static. He describes precisely but in such a manner that the description cannot be held. Contradiction is only one of his tools to achieve this outcome. More broadly his text is a moving raft of metaphor that evades all capture. We can see the example of the momentary present repeated throughout the Quartets, both in specific phrases and sentences that offer and undermine themselves in the one gesture, and as a whole in the way that the poems develop and refer back to previous metaphors only to use them in a new context and thereby deepen the previous offering and undermine that offering.

As a philosopher Eliot argued: »The Absolute, we find, does not fall within any of the classes of objects: it is neither real nor unreal nor imaginary.« (TS Eliot, Knowledge and Experience, p.168)

As a poet he abandons this attempt to philosophically describe our circumstances and instead avoids offering any description which can be held as such. Eliot describes this process himself in a later Quartet:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years –
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres –
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words .
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. 

Again it will be apparent that this is no mere rhetorical poetic remark but a precise description of Eliot’s predicament. And it is of course at once the non-realist predicament. Here is a sentiment that could for example equally apply to Derrida’s canon, and to which Derrida himself would surely approve. If meaning is undecidable it cannot be expressed as such. Derrida offers us a variety of terms to explicate our circumstances: deconstruction, absence, difference, trace, each adopted and abandoned in turn. His continual reinvention of his own vocabulary is one of the means he has used to seek to overcome the self-referential aporia engendered by non-realism. Eliot sums up this predicament with poetic brevity: ›one has only learnt to get the better of words for the thing one no longer has to say‹. A description which at once applies to itself, thereby providing insight and undermining that insight in the same gesture. It is in this movement of an approach to a truth and the abandonment of that truth that we have a sense of falling and being close to something deeper.


The literal and the poetic appear distinct. The literal is precise, defined, capable of confirmation or refutation. The poetic is metaphorical, elusive, and cannot be corrected. The one offers a description of the world which might be thought to be true or false, the other does not invite such judgment. The poetic strategy appears as an abandonment of the literal, an abandonment of the attempt to describe the world. It is an abandonment that leads Wittgenstein to silence on matters metaphysical.

The literal however has always already failed. It is at once poetic. While the poetic requires the literal. Literal prose and poetic expression are not two opposites but two ends of a spectrum. If we seek to be literal and therefore precise and exact in our descriptions we uncover our inability to do so. If we seek to be purely poetic we find ourselves dependent on the descriptive and mundane.

Now in my own way I have struggled with the non realist predicament, and my last book ›Closure‹ tried to rework the problems of non-realism in the context of the vocabulary of openness and closure. This vocabulary, it seems to me, may be helpful in casting light on the relationship between the literal and the poetic.

In the vocabulary of openness and closure, we close the openness that is the world. Through the process of closure we create sameness out of difference, and in doing so realise the differentiation, the identities, the things, that enable us to intervene in the world, to achieve and do things, in short to survive. But these closures do not enable us to intervene in the world by being, or describing, openness. Closure is not a categorisation or patterning of openness, instead each closure is a way of holding the world that realises new material and new texture. We can, for example, hold our current perceptual visual field in many potential ways, themselves containing countless further potential identities but none of these are, or approach, openness. Any more than when we hold the stars as constellations, the constellations are a description of what is ultimately there, as if Orion or the Plough are somehow out there in the universe. And in the same way, our everyday world of people, houses and cars, tables and chairs, are closures that hold the openness of the world in a certain way rather than being descriptions of how things are.

In this context, the pursuit of the literal is the pursuit of a final or complete closure, the pursuit of a description that will not require any further revision. While the poetic is the pursuit of openness and the evasion of closure. In neither case can they be successful. When examined the closure offered by the literal will be flawed. The scientific enterprise must in this sense have no end, for it will always require further closures to counter the failures of the current ones. And in some sense it never comes any closer to openness for the gap is always almost everything. While the poetic cannot evade closure while still having content. The ultimate poetic gesture would be silence – a philosophical strategy adopted not only by Wittgenstein but by many religious individuals – but then silence is not a poem.

Perhaps this is what Eliot meant when he writes in Burnt Norton:
Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die. Words, after speech, reach
Into the silence.

In his philosophical writing Eliot explicitly identifies our inability to say how things are, our inability to capture openness with our closures.

»We all recognise the world as the same ›that‹; it is when we attempt to describe it that our worlds fall apart, for as we have seen, the same ›that‹ can only persist through a limited range of whatness. But just as we all admit the world to be the same world, though we cannot specify in precisely what respects, for there are no precise respects, so we feel that there are truths valid for this world, though we do not know what these truths are. The true critic is a scrupulous avoider of formulae; he refrains from statements which pretend to be literally true; he finds fact nowhere and approximation always.« (TS Eliot, Knowledge and Experience, p.163)

Eliot’s pursuit of poetry can be seen as the pursuit of openness not through closure but through the evasion of closure. A total evasion of closure would be silence so instead Eliot offers us insights only to undermine them. We find ourselves on the cusp of openness and closure and Eliot in his poetry both reflects and explores that cusp.

Eliot does not describe openness but reaches out towards its character by constructing a text that does not allow us to hold any particular closure. Allowing the text to remain open with seemingly precise descriptions, at least in so far as it is open. A similar experience can be achieved by being silent, and without thought, and allowing the world to wash over oneself. Most easily approached when we are alone and in circumstances where differentiation of our experience is not required or even easily achieved – facing out to sea, or under a night sky. At such points we have a sense of the wonder at the strangeness of being alive and at the same time a sense of having understood how things are, but it is an understanding without content, a closure that is at once open.

As a philosopher, Eliot tried to describe this cusp of openness and closure saying: »Every experience is a paradox in that it means to be absolute, and yet is relative; in that it somehow always goes beyond itself and yet never escapes itself.« (Ibid, p.166)

As a non realist poet Eliot instead offers a description of this circumstance but one that is not intended to be held and which defies attempts to do so.

Each is perhaps a mirror image of the other. Both seek to describe the cusp of openness and closure: one from a perspective of the literal and the pursuit of closure; the other from a perspective of the poetic and the pursuit of openness.


The notion of understanding and knowledge is so close to us, so embedded in two millennia of western culture, that we have forgotten how strange the idea is. Our language, our stories about the world, our closures and in particular our linguistic closures, help us intervene in the world, help us achieve our aims and purposes. They are not thereby a description of the world nor is their usefulness and success, if we wish to call it that, dependent on their being true in a realist sense. We usually assume that our closures accurately depict the world but so long as they are effective we do not insist that the closures are complete, are capable of exhausting the openness of the world even if we have a specific and precise task. An engineer building a bridge will require the closures used to be effective, and will assume that they are an accurate depiction of the world. The engineer will be meticulous in identifying any weaknesses in the closures used to describe the project that might undermine its success, but the engineer is not concerned to complete closure, to define for example what the bridge really is, or the nature of force. The only concern is that the calculations and description of the project enable effective intervention. Limitations in the closures employed are to be ignored – unless they threaten the project. The aim is not to know the world but to intervene effectively.

In contrast, when we look for understanding we seek a final and complete closure. To look for understanding is to look for an endpoint, a place from which no further discussion, no further exploration, needs to take place. It is a safe haven, a place where we can rest knowing that there are no further surprises, that there is nothing we have overlooked. No such safe haven is however possible and in this sense understanding must elude us. At the moment when we think we have understood how things are we have failed to do so, because our understanding is in the context of closure and offers a discrete set of identities, while the world is not a thing or set of things, but is open.

In so far as philosophy attempts to help us intervene successfully it can operate within the literal and identify effective closures and thereby refine its theories. In this respect it operates as a metascience. In so far as philosophy seeks to describe how things ultimately are, to provide an understanding of the world and our place in it, the literal is inadequate and revision and refinement of its literal theories will only make more apparent its failure. For the pursuit of closure serves merely to bring to the fore the residual gap between openness and closure, which on examination turns out to be not less than everything. (Could it be that this is the core of the dispute between so called analytic philosophy – which wants to make progress in our dealings with the world and function as a metascience, and continental philosophy which seeks an understanding of what it is to be human? The first set of questions can be addressed with theory while the latter is not reducible to the literal.)

This is not however an all or nothing choice. Nor could it be given we find ourselves on the cusp of openness and closure, given that the literal is poetic and the poetic literal. We choose where to place the balance. Philosophy is surely on the one hand concerned with understanding and starts out as an attempt to say how things ultimately are, to describe as Rorty would have it the really real, even if it ends up uncovering the impossibility of this attempt. It can also be an attempt to provide a workable theory of our circumstances that might help us operate in the world. While poetry may be appropriate to the metaphysical goal of understanding it is not going to offer a workable theory to help us intervene in the world.

Perhaps the quality of good philosophy is that it presents a workable theory but at the same time presses on the theory sufficiently for its failures to become apparent and to accept and adopt those failures as an essential element of understanding and thereby come closer to saying how things are. I think a good case could be made that Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Rorty and Derrida are all examples. And in this light I am beginning to wonder whether my own attempts to rework the tradition in the framework of openness and closure at times made it look as if the theory was more watertight than it might have been. I ended Closure with the sentence: »This book, this epilogue, this sentence, are attempts to offer (just such) a temporary form of abode – a means of holding the world that has the appearance of holding fast that which cannot be held at all.« It is a sentiment that could perhaps have been more apparent in the remainder of the seemingly literal text. But then with my scientist hat I wanted a workable theory and I was excited by the potential it seemed to offer.

The presentation of a workable theory if presented as such, as a workable theory, has its value. The closer the theory appears to be to a consistent account of the whole the more at risk is the enterprise of failure. For, as the philosopher closes the system the enterprise fails. Non realist philosophers are usually sufficiently swift footed to have spotted this danger and to have drawn attention to the limitation of the theory. There is the further risk however that by identifying the constraint the philosopher imagines the opening has been left. In my own case I proposed that the closure of the theory was itself held open because closure contains openness. The neatness of this formulation is perhaps its weakness. It is not good enough to speak about openness. The text itself must remain open, must itself avoid seeming to offer too tightly refined a closure which has the illusion of having captured an understanding of how things are. For in that moment any such understanding has been lost.

In so far as philosophers seek understanding, seek a means of catching sight of where we ultimately are, Eliot’s version of the poetic strategy looks compelling. Perhaps in this sense all philosophical insight into the nature of the world is necessarily poetic. Perhaps the metaphysical task of philosophy is to write the insights of poetry as prose. In so far as they are insights, and in so far as they can be written. Yet in the moment of having caught sight of where we stand we have lost our way. As we circle the space that would be the truth we falter in the moment of our arrival.

Let me leave Eliot with the last word. For somehow he seems always to have been there before and to such greater effect.

                                   And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate – but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious.


A version of this paper was presented to a conference ›Philosophical Poets‹ organised by Nicholas Bunnin, Simon Critchley, Katerina Deligiorgi and Ulrich Schoedlbauer for the Forum for European Philosophy and the Centre for Literature and Philosophy, University of Sussex on 9 February 2008. Further information about the Forum for European Philosophy can be found on the website: www.philosophy-forum.org. Further information about the Centre for Literature and Philosophy can be found on the website www.sussex.ac.uk/clp/.