Feb 12 2018

Why Science Must Rely on Poetry

porticos in Bologna, Italia

Why Science Must Rely on Poetry

Samuel Matlack’s essay “Quantum Poetics: Why physics can’t get rid of metaphor” in The New Atlantis (Summer/Fall 2017) covers all the right bases (via Vico, Borges, and George Steiner among others) of how science relies on language in order to explain itself.

Yet language (particularly metaphor and idiom) are abstract in the very ways science seeks to be precise. This is why, Matlack, suggests:

It is easier to translate between Chinese and English — both express human experience, the vast majority of which is shared — than it is to translate advanced mathematics into a spoken language, because the world that mathematics expresses is theoretical and for the most part not available to our lived experience.

And that reminded me of something I’d recently read from Hannah Arendt (1906–1975):

These observations on the interconnection of language and thought, which make us suspect that no speechless thought can exist, obviously do not apply to civilizations where the written sign rather than the spoken word is decisive and where, consequently, thinking itself is not soundless speech but mental dealing with images. This is notably true of China…. There “the power of words is supported by the power of the written sign, the image,” and not the other way round, as in the alphabetic languages, where script is thought of as secondary, no more than an agreed-upon set of symbols. For the Chinese, every sign makes visible what we would call a concept or an essence—Confucius is reported to have said that the Chinese sign for “dog” is the perfect image of dog as such, whereas in our understanding “no image could ever be adequate to the concept” of dog in general. “It would never attain that universality of the concept which renders it valid of all” dogs.[1]

And what I had read from Arendt reminded me of something I’d previously read in Vico:

All these observations prove that human nature determined the creation of poetic style before prose style, just as human nature determined the creation of mythical and imaginative universals before rational and philosophical universals, which were the product of discourse in prose. For after the poets had formed poetic speech by combining universal ideas, the nations formed prose speech by contracting these poetic combinations into single words, as if into general categories. Take for example the poetic sentence ‘My blood boils in my heart’, which expresses a natural, eternal, and universal property of humankind. They took the notions of blood, boiling, and heart, and formed them into a single word, or general category: anger, which is called stomachos in Greek, ira in Latin, and collera in Italian. By the same steps, hieroglyphs and heroic emblems were reduced to a few vernacular letters, as general types to which countless different articulate sounds could be assigned. This process required the utmost ingenuity; and the use of such general words and letters rendered people’s minds more agile and more capable of abstraction. This in turn prepared the way for the philosophers, who formulated intelligible general categories. This offers us a small piece of the history of human thought, from which we see the origins of letters could only be traced in the same breath with the origin of languages![2]

But mostly, Matlack’s essay reminded me of ideas found in the works of Owen Barfield (1898–1997), first suggested to me in an essay by his buddy C. S. Lewis (1898–1963):

[Michel] Bréal [(1832–1915)] in his Semantics often spoke in metaphorical, that is consciously, rhetorically, metaphorical language, of language itself. Messrs. Ogden and Richards in The Meaning of Meaning took Bréal to task on the ground that “it is impossible thus to handle a scientific subject in metaphorical terms.” Barfield in his Poetic Diction retorted that Ogden and Richards were, as a matter of fact, just as metaphorical as Bréal. They had forgotten, he complained, that all language has a figurative origin and that the “scientific” terms on which they piqued themselves––words like organism, stimulus, reference—were not miraculously exempt. On the contrary, he maintained, “these authors who professed to eschew figurative expressions were really confining themselves to one very old kind of figure; they were rigid under the spell of those verbal ghosts of the physical sciences which today make up practically the whole meaning-system of so many European minds.”[3]

And let’s examine a little more from Barfield on how, whether in science or social life, we think by means of words:

We think by means of words, and we have to use the same ones for so many different thoughts that as soon as new meanings have entered into one set, they creep into all our theories and begin to mould our whole cosmos; and from the theories they pass into more words, and so into our lives and institutions.[4]

The new meaning becomes a means to distort ends, for: “the creative imagination latent in the word itself.” [5] Barfield goes on to point out that the poet makes the terms; the logician/scientist uses the terms:

Thus, the poet’s relation to terms is that of maker. And it is in this making of terms—whether the results are to be durable or fleeting—that we can divine the very poetic itself.… The use of them is left to the Logician, who, in his endeavor to keep them steady and thus fit them to his laws, is continually seeking to reduce their meaning. I say seeking to do so, because logic is essentially a compromise. He could only evolve a language, whose propositions would really obey the laws of thought by eliminating meaning altogether. But he compromises before this zero-point is reached.[6]

For Barfield science and poetry are not all that different:

It has already been emphasized that the rational principle must be strongly developed in the great poet. Is it necessary to add to this that the scientist, if he as ‘discovered’ anything, must also have discovered it by the right interaction of the rational and poetic principles? Really, there is no distinction between Poetry and Science, as kinds of knowing, at all. There is only a distinction between bad poetry and bad science.[7]



[1] Arendt, The Life of the Mind, (1971) (New York, NY: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1978), Volume I. Thinking 100.

[2] Vico, [The Third] New Science: Principles of the New Science Concerning the Common Nature of Nations, trans. David Marsh, (New York, NY: Penguin 1999), II, § 2, v, [¶ 460], p. 189.

[3] Lewis, “Bulspels and Flalansferes,” Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London: Oxford UP, 1939) quoted from The Importance of Language, ed. Max Black (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962) 36.

[4] Barfield, History in English Words, (New York, NY: George H. Doran Co., 1926) 173.

[5] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning, (1928), Third Edition, (Middleton, CN: Wesleyan UP, 1973) 37.

[6] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning 135–36.

[7] Barfield, Poetic Diction: a Study in Meaning 145–46.