[lit-ideas] Poeitic Power

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: "Lit-Ideas" <Lit-Ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Thu, 15 Jun 2006 18:30:05 -0700

[See comments & questions below]


On page 197 Taylor writes, “In the moral domain, Locke . . . builds on
Descartes’s model of rational control and defines a task of self-remaking
which falls to the punctual self.  Rather than following the telos of
nature, we become constructors of our own character.


“This emphasis on constructive activity leads to a new understanding of
language, which one can see again arising in Hobbes and Locke.  It is an
offshoot of the nominalist theories: words are ultimately given their
meaning arbitrarily through definitions which attach them to certain things
or ideas.  But the function of language is to aid the construction of
thought.  We need language to build an adequate picture of things.  We
couldn’t match the world with a painstaking combination of individual bits
of perception, individual ideas.  Through language, we can combine them in
whole bunches, in whole classes, and this alone makes it possible to have
genuine knowledge.


“It follows, of course, that words can also be terribly dangerous.  They can
be that through which we utterly lose contact with reality, if they are not
properly anchored in experience through definitions.  That is why both
Hobbes and Locke are wary of them and at times almost obsessionally anxious
that our words not run away with us.  This fear of losing control is the
natural outgrowth of the role given to language here: to help us to master
and marshall our thoughts.  As Condillac says later, developing the Lockean
doctrine, language gives us ‘empire sur notre imagination’.


“This centring on the constructive powers of language undergoes a further
crucial development in the late eighteenth century.  Language and in general
our representational powers come to be seen not only or mainly as directed
to the correct portrayal of an independent reality but also as our way of
manifesting through expression what we are, and our place within things.
And on the new understanding of ourselves as expressive beings, this
manifestation is also seen as a self-completion.  This expressive revolution
identifies and exalts a new poietic power, that of the creative imagination.
I will return to this below; here I want to say only that this new shift
further increases the importance of our poietic capacities.  They are seen
as even more central to human life.  And this is the basis for the growing
interest and fascination in them in all their forms – in language and
artistic creation – which rises at times almost to obsession in our


Comments & questions: 


Undoubtedly everyone else knows what “poietic” means, but I had to look it
up: “Poeitic” relates to production or the arts of production.  Poietic
knowledge is distinguished from practical or theoretical knowledge.  Thus,
when we go on a search to find ourselves and find something, come to
conclusions about who we are, is this practical knowledge we have obtained,
or have we created something poeitically that may not bear an identical
relationship to the natural world?  


We might ask a similar set of questions about our political philosophy.  We
are happy with it – quite sure it is the truth – but does it adhere to
nature or is it something we or more likely some predecessor has created


And to what extent does poietic power relate to the writing of poetry?  I
suspect Taylor would say that insofar as our poetry gives us greater
understanding of our selves, we may suspect that it may not be merely
descriptive but poietic as well.











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