John Koethe on Wittgenstein and Lyric Poetry

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[posted by BR]

John Koethe is a member of a rare breed: a professional philosopher who is also a distinguished poet. In his “day job,” he teaches in the philosophy department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where his research and teaching focus on the philosophy of language, Wittgenstein, and epistemology. He is the author of two philosophical monographs: The Continuity of Wittgenstein’s Thought (1996) and Scepticism, Knowledge, and Forms of Reasoning (2005). But when he’s not wearing his philosopher’s hat, he can most likely be found writing or reading poetry, perhaps his deepest passion and true calling, and over the years, he has authored many superb volumes of poems, including: Falling Water (1997), The Constructor (1999), North Point North: New and Selected Poems (2003), and Sally’s Hair (2007). I was lucky to have him as a member of my dissertation committee, and a few years ago, I invited him to give a paper as part of an MLA panel I organized on “Wittgenstein and Poetics,” and the essay he wrote for the occasion has since been published in the journal Literary Imagination. It is entitled “Wittgenstein and Lyric Subjectivity.” Below is an excerpt from its opening, and the full text can be found online by clicking here (unfortunately, an institutional subscription of some sort is necessary to access it).

Wittgenstein is almost unique among philosophers in the so-called analytic tradition in being of interest to people outside the discipline of academic philosophy, a writer of influence to people engaged in a wide variety of intellectual and creative studies and pursuits. Modernist and postmodernist artists and writers in particular have found him to be a figure of fascination. In the visual arts one thinks of Jasper Johns, Bruce Nauman and the younger Peter Wegner, not to mention the exemplary work of modernist architecture, the Kundmanngasee house, Wittgenstein himself designed for his sister Gretl. And Marjorie Perloff, in her seminal book Wittgenstein’s Ladder, has brought out affinities between his work and that of a host of canonical modernist writers, including Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, Ingborg Bachmann, Robert Creeley and the poets and writers of the Oulipo and Language Poetry movements.

What are some of the aspects of Wittgenstein’s thought that account for its affinities with literary modernism?… (click here to read more)

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