Dichtung und Wahrheit

Philosophie dürfte man eigentlich nur dichten. Wittgenstein’s imperative translates, “very roughly” (Perloff), as “Philosophy ought really to be written only as poetry.”[1] Yet how is one to approach that directive? How is one to read it—as poetry, or philosophy? If poetry, following Robert Frost, is, precisely, “what gets lost in translation,” how is one to place what’s proposed here? And where does that leave philosophy?

            “Poetry may well be ‘what gets lost in translation,’” Craig Dworkin has conceded, “though the phrase should be understood not in the sense of elegiac ruination or privation, but of absorption and reverie—in the way one might be lost in thought.”[2]

Only in poetry lost in thought, in other words, as in another language, may philosophy be found.

[1] Ludwig Wittgenstein, quoted in Marjorie Perloff, “‘Literature’ in the Expanded Field,” in Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism, ed. Charles Bernheimer (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 184 [175 -186]. Thomas Basbøll has noted that the Austrian’s dictum “means, somewhat less elegantly than the German, that ‘one ought really to do philosophy as poetry.’ The German word ‘dichten’ is the verb form of ‘Dichtung,’ which means ‘poetry.’ To my knowledge there is no such thing as poeting in English.” Thomas Basbøll, “Epiphany,” The Pangrammaticon, June 18, 2005, http://pangrammaticon.blogspot.com/2005/06/epiphany.html. “In any case,” Basbøll concludes, “modifying Peter Winch’s translation a bit, we can render this more naturally as, ‘One ought really only to compose philosophy (as one composes poetry).’”

[2] Craig Dworkin, No Medium (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013), 124. George Steiner, After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), 295: “Romance languages derive their terms for ‘translation’ from traducere because Leonardo Bruni misinterpreted a sentence in the Noctes of Aulus Gellius in which the Latin actually signifies ‘to introduce, to lead into.’ The point is trivial but symbolic.”

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