In this post and the next I will be revisiting the definitions of both ‘know’ and ‘about’ in this blog’s title. This week’s thought arose unexpectedly in the course of some other reading.
I am one of the editors of The Cambridge Quarterly. Founded in 1965, it is soon going to reach its 50th birthday. Ahead of this, I have been reading dozens of past articles, in order to get a sense of where we came from, and what this might suggest about where to go next. One of the pieces I read was an interview with Jerome McGann, author of, amongst other things, . The article is a transcript of McGann’s conversation with Steven Earnshaw and Philip Shaw, and it comes with an introduction by my fellow editor Geoff Ward. One of the questions Earnshaw asks is, ‘what distinguishes, in your view, literary knowledge from other types of knowledge?’. McGann’s reply struck a chord.
Scientific knowledge is committed to conceptualisation. Its paradigm form for us is the replicatable experiment. That means that it’s at once very abstract as a form of knowledge, and highly concrete as a form of replicated activity. Poetry in a certain sense is the opposite of this. To me, it has to be physical, poetry is – even if you don’t speak it out loud – something that you get in your ears, your mouth, lips, and it’s best, it seems to me, if you, as a teacher of poetry, get people to recite it, and physicalise the language. That’s ‘the aesthetic’ of poetry, literally physical or sensory, sensible. So knowledge in poetry is always coming through at the level of experience rather than at the level of concept. Insofar as concepts are in poetry they are there in highly concrete forms. (‘An Interview with Jerome McGann’, Cambridge Quarterly, 22 (1993), 355-369)
This neatly captures something I’ve been fumbling towards. What particularly attracts me is a kind of in the way McGann contrasts, but also brings together, science and literature. Where one pursues an abstract form of knowledge by asking concrete questions, the other pursues a concrete form of knowledge by asking abstract questions; or, one poses a set of concrete questions in order to acquire knowledge in an abstract form, while the other poses a set of abstract questions in order to acquire knowledge in a concrete form.
I don’t think this chiastic way of setting it out works perfectly. What is meant by ‘concrete’ and ‘abstract’ isn’t consistent enough. Also, a possible reversal like this doesn’t mean that any two approaches, or the kinds of knowledge they enable, are equivalent in any way at all. Nevertheless, when it comes to the mind, I think the chiasmus works pretty well. Both the abstract and the concrete have their advantages and their drawbacks, as processes and outcomes. We get something from both. I also think that the affinity that follows from this intimate, tightly-turned contrast, is real. In literature and in science there is a need to work with particulars and with the principles we might extract from them.