The Poetics of Thought


Posted in Uncategorized by Fred McVittie on August 26, 2009

Although the structure of this project is inevitably going to be revised during the course of its construction, this is the current map I have in my mind of how it will proceed.

Part One – Coming to one’s Senses (Making Sense)

This first part will introduce the background of ideas through which we might begin to understand what the term ‘poetics of thought’ might mean. I will be tracing a philosophical and scientific trajectory out of evolutionary theory, particularly understandings concerning the evolution of mind. This will be extended mainly through the philosophical traditions of phenomenology and into cognitive science, Central to this will be the proposition that the cerebral activity we call ‘thought’ was originally no more than a set of cognitive and sensory mechanisms for negotiating the physical environment in which our ancestors were embedded. Then I will be addressing the question of how it is that a middle-sized social biped with this limited and contingent cognitive system can begin to think not only of the concrete and perceivable stuff of lived experience; the trees, and tigers, and potential mates that its mind evolved to recognise and engage with, but also the abstract ideas that dominate the thoughts of modern humans; love, science, art, politics, religion, all concepts that make no impact on the senses whatsoever and yet make the greatest of sense and are what modern human life is all about. This making sense, this meaningful sense-making, I will argue, is best understood as poetry. This theme will be developed with reference to psychoanalysis, particularly to the work of James Hillman; to the various poetics of Gaston Bachelard and others, and to recent explorations within cognitive linguistics and experiential philosophy, particularly the seminal work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, and others. By the end of this section I want the groundwork to be laid for an understanding perhaps best summed up by Mark Johnson when he writes that “Meaning and thought emerge from our capacity for perception, object manipulation, and bodily movement”.

Part Two – Empirical Knowledge and other kinds of Poetry

In this part of the project I want to begin to distinguish different forms of thought and the poetic devices which are used to allow these distinctions to operate. Although a number of different types of mental content will be considered; fantasy, belief, hope, desire, hypothesis; a central concern will be the idea of ‘knowledge’, particularly rational empirical knowledge or science, which, I will claim, utilises conceptual and expressive devices to assert its status as ‘the poetry of reality’. This will be followed by a consideration of the various sub-categories of knowledge; occult knowledge, religious knowledge, situated knowledge, carnal knowledge, and I will be trying to advance a claim that these various ‘types of knowledge’ share a common poetic framework; that each of these draws on a set of metaphors and figures of speech and thought which serve to organise our understanding of these different forms. I should state at this point that I will not be claiming that all knowledge is relative and that because empirical knowledge is expressed poetically that it has an equivalence with other forms of knowledge or other forms of thought. On the contrary, I will also be asserting here that this mobilisation of a common poetic framework for different types of knowing inevitably and accurately leads to a hierarchy in which some kinds of knowledge are understood as more valuable than others. I will be saying that the particular space that empirical knowledge occupies within its genre of poetic cognition and expression is unique, and reflects its unique status within the social life of thought. As a complement to this I will be proposing that the other conceptual content I mentioned; the fantasies, beliefs, hopes and desires which thread through human life, have different values and are perhaps best rendered in their own poetic terms.

Part Three – Code is Poetry

I want to use the final part of this project to explore different modes of writing and speaking and being expressive, perhaps suggesting different modes of thinking that might align with these other poetic constructions. I am particularly interested in the possibilities inherent in the kinds of writing and speaking practices that we here on youtube, and those on twitter and facebook, and on blogs and wikis, might find themselves somehow giving voice to. What kinds of poetry is at work in the grammar of cascading style sheets and semantic databases? How might the protocols of the network be understood as creating figures of collective speech, and to what extent are we able to embody these figurations in the tissues of our own understanding? Is there a place in the wires for other kinds of thinking, or for the thinking of other thoughts? Knowledge and belief, fantasy and desire. The needle skips back to the beginning of the record, and as the car accelerates down the sliproad and merges with the traffic on the motorway we can look out of the windows of our car at the people in the cars in the adjacent lane, their lips moving, smiling. He is making a joke and she is pretending she hasn’t heard it before. In the back, the children are singing along with the radio.

A note on structure:

Because the material on this site is being developed on youtube I imagine it will be inevitable that the way that youtube works will affect the shape and style of this overall project.  For example, the restriction on the length of videos to 10 minutes for each one means that the content I develop will have to be articulated in short sections.  I don’t know yet what this means in terms of remediating that content into written form in this blog but I would be surprised if there weren’t huge compositional problems ahead.

On youtube at


One Response

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  1. Kaposvári Márk said, on August 27, 2009 at 7:34 pm

    to frame this comment a bit I think I should say that I’m from Hungary and I came across your videos a few months ago when I discovered “cognitive poetics” as a relevant enough approach – rather neglected in the academia hereabouts – to support my field of research in literary analysis. I won’t go into details, yet I would like to thank you for all the healthy influence you had, say, on my reflective advancement. Indeed, I found some of your posts most lubricating in unfolding and even orienting my ideas, my attention, the emphases in my attention. What I want to say at this point is simply that your efforts are invaluably thoughtful and, what’s more, poetic; the needle skips back to the beginning. In brief, I look forward your account you decided to bring now into a less “fuzzy” focus.
    (Perhaps in some of your ramblings you could also reflect upon the co-evolutionary aspects with respect to cognition and poetics, about how abstract and developing (?) smybolism accelerates (and not only maps) cognitive potentials (for instance,
    the “e-prime” you recently mentioned may, as you implied, probably result in social and conceptual changes also…)
    If you could find the essay “cognitive science and the problem of representation” by Richard van Oort I would, by all means, recommend it to your critical attention,
    Anyway, I’m not here to recommend, I’m here to appreciate, so once again, thanks for your articulations, for sharing the life of your mind,

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