Incommensurability of Scientific and Poetic Knowledge*
Reasoning Research Institute
University of Massachusetts
Expanded Translation of a talk given at the International
Congress on Science, Mysticism, Poetry, and Consciousness,
Instituto Piaget, Lisbon, April 1994.
Eighty years ago, in his book "Mysticism
and Logic" Bertrand Russell explained the basis from which
he was developing his discussion of the problems inherent in this
juxtaposition. Although the areas are not quite the same, the
problems raised by the juxtaposition of scientific and poetic
knowledge are very similar and can, I believe, be approached from
the same starting point. Indeed, Russell made clear that the
attempts to deal logically with elements of mysticism have always
taken place in the domain of metaphysics and that the term
"metaphysics" comprises not only the mystical heritage
of religions but also everything that is mysterious in the sphere
I have found Russells definition useful
because it enabled me to formulate precisely the point on which I
disagree with most philosophers. I therefore want to begin by
quoting a relevant passage from Russells text:
Metaphysics, or the attempt to conceive
the world as a whole by means of thought, has been
developed, from the first, by the union and conflict of
two very different human impulses, the one urging men
towards mysticism, the other urging them towards science.
Some men have achieved greatness through one of these
impulses alone, others through the other alone: in Hume,
for example, the scientific impulse reigns quite
unchecked, while in Blake a strong hostility to science
coexists with profound mystic insight. But the greatest
men who have been philosophers have felt the need both of
science and of mysticism: the attempt to harmonise the
two was what made their life, and what always must, for
all its arduous uncertainty, make philosophy, to some
minds, a greater thing than either science or religion.
(Russell, 1917/1986; p.20)
My disagreement springs from the last sentence.
I agree with the observation that the great philosophers have
tried to find a way to integrate the mystical and the scientific.
But from my point of view it was precisely the preoccupation with
mysticism that blocked their progress in epistemology. The
attempt to analyze the mystics wisdom with the tools of
reason invariably leads to a twofold failure: on the one hand it
destroys the mystics vision of unity because it segments
experience into separate, specifiable parts; on the other, it
compromises the rules of rational thought because it admits terms
whose definition remains questionable because it is based on
Wittgenstein has expressed this impasse in his
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one
must be silent.
(Wittgenstein, 1933; p.189.)
Put that way, it may give the impression that
it is easy to distinguish the things of which one can speak from
those of which one cannot. But this distinction is not at all
obvious. It dawns on one whenever one finds oneself in a
situation where nothing one could say expresses what one would
like to say.
This dilemma probably crops up most often when
we would like to explain to someone precisely what it is that
moves us in a painting, a poem, or a piece of music. We try to
speak of the colors, the merit of the composition, the
articulation, the associations, the power of the symbolism, and
all the things we have picked up from erudite historians and
critics but we realize that we are not even coming close
to the actual cause of our emotional reaction and attachment to
the work of art. In the end we can only say: I cannot explain it,
but its out of this world.
Fifty years ago, we might have used the
expression "sublime". It would have meant the same,
even if we were not aware of the Latin root of that word, which
is sublimare and means "to raise above". In this
case, of course, above the limits of what is specifiable in
literal language. In order to convey what we feel, we have to use
Though the study of metaphor has been
fashionable for some time, I have not found anywhere in the
contemporary literature a reference to the particular distinction
of different types of metaphor that, to me, seems indispensable
if we want to examine the relation between science and mysticism.
The Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico was
the first to propose a criterion that allows us to separate the
rational scientific use of language from the poetic discourse of
mystics and metaphysicians (cf. Vico, 1744). To recognize the
value I attribute to this criterion, you need a brief, general
explanation of what I believe to be the pattern of metaphor.
Metaphors are constructed by referring to one
concept in order to describe another. Such a substitution
requires some similarity or analogy between the two. This is to
say, a metaphor works to the degree that we are able to transfer
one or several customary characteristics of the first thing to
the second, to which it is not habitually attributed. The fact
that there are always two items involved, is the basis of
On the one hand, he says, there are linguistic
expressions that use words associated with some common experience
in order to evoke another experience that would also be
accessible to whoever hears or reads the metaphor. We all know
this type of metaphor quite well because it is frequently used in
everyday language. To clarify its difference from the second
type, I shall give an example. If I tell you that the other day I
met my friend Robert, and it was with him in his Ferrari that I
flew to Boston, you understand my metaphoric use of
"flew" because both flying and traveling by car are
within the range of your actual (or at least potential)
experience and you have no difficulty in gathering that speed is
the characteristic to be transferred.
For the second type, I shall turn to a poet,
for instance the author of a psalm, who wrote: "If I take
the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the
sea ...". You have no possibility of interpreting these
words as a description of experiences you have had. Between the
wings you have known and your concept of morning there is a
mysterious gap; and the uttermost parts of the sea are altogether
outside your experiential range. This hiatus is characteristic of
Vicos second type of metaphor. It projects something known
into a domain beyond experience or, vice versa, it attributes a
mysterious property to something familiar.
Poets, of course, use both types, and Blake,
for example, was a master at linking them.
Smile on our loves, and, while thou
Blue curtains of sky, scatter thy
On every flower that shuts its sweet
In timely sleep. ...
(Blake, "The Morning Star",
Blue curtains, sky, and silver dew, flowers and
eyes are familiar things in our experience and we have no
difficulty in combining them in novel ways. But in Blakes
poetic imagination the acts of smiling, drawing, and scattering
are attributed to the Evening Star and thus evoke an ineffable
With the magic metaphor the poet alludes to
what is not communicable in literal language because it is not
part of the speakers common experiential world. He wants to
share one of those phenomena that William James has called private
and personal (James, 1901-1902).
The difference that distinguishes the poetic
metaphors from those that one might call prosaic, gains
considerable importance if we want to recognize different kinds
of knowledge. If we define the scientific kind as abstractions
drawn from experiences or experiments that are repeatable and
accessible to other scientists, two things become clear. Poetic
metaphors are not compatible with scientific discourse, and,
second, the discourse of poets and mystics cannot be translated
into the language of the sciences.
In any case, poets and mystics have an aim that
is altogether different from that of scientists. They use their
poetic metaphors to evoke images which, as Bertrand Russell would
say, should make manifest the unity of an absolute world.
This, in Paul Valérys words, is:
... a matter whose diversity and
complexity confront the intellect and its will to
represent and to dominate by means of symbols the
insuperable obstacle of the real: the indivisible and the
indefinable. (Valéry, 1936/1957, p.822).
The concept of a unity that comprises
everything is not feasible according to the rules of rational
thought. Reason can cut a piece out of the flow of experience. If
then it reflects upon just this a "something"
made discrete by cuts it creates the concept of unit. As
Husserl (1887) noted, this is also the first step in the
generation of "things", if it is followed by
reflections on what lies between the cuts. The point that
is relevant here, is that the concept of unit is dependent on the
endless flow of experience. (Our experience is without ends,
because as rational observers we awoke only long after it began,
and we shall no longer be there when it ceases.)
This requirement of a background against which
a discrete entity can be posited, is the source of a problem in
the Big Bang theory. The theory would like to cover the genesis
and the development of the universe. Yet, precisely because it
purports to be a history, it leads us at once to ask what was
there before the Big Bang. This turns out to be a metaphysical
question, and science cannot deal with those. It uses rational
thought to construct conceptual models that are to help us
organize and systematize the phenomena of our experience.
Vicos distinction of two types of
metaphor has provided a way to separate the scientific enterprise
from that of poetic wisdom. Much earlier, however, a Byzantine
school of theology established the impossibility of capturing the
mystical in rational concepts. If God is omnipotent, omniscient,
and present everywhere, these theologians argued, then God is
entirely different from all things we encounter in our
experience. And since our concepts are but abstractions from our
experience, we cannot hope to form an adequate concept of God. It
is essential to realize that this argument in no way diminished
the Byzantines faith or the value they attributed to
revelation. It merely made them aware of the incommensurability
of mystical wisdom and rational knowledge.
One of the clearest images of the power of
mystical metaphor is formulated in a scene of cross examination
in Bernard Shaws St.Joan, where Robert Beaudricourt,
the Inquisitor, urges her to reveal the instructions she claims
to have received:
JOAN: ...you must not talk to me about
Robert: How do you mean? Voices?
Joan: I hear voices telling
me what to do. They come from God.
Robert: They come from your
Joan: Of course. That is how the
messages of God come to us.
(Shaw, St.Joan 1923, scene 1)
There can be no doubt that, in their initial
conception of rational models, scientists, too, draw on poetic
imagination. It falls under what Peirce called
"abduction" and is essential in the way they configure
and then relate experiences. Their hypotheses are generated in
the form of "as if" conjectures. In order to become
viable theories, they must be able to serve others as a useful
interpretation of observations. Hypotheses and theories,
therefore, must be couched in terms that refer to
"data" that are public in the sense that they can be
deliberately brought about, recognized, and communicated. No
matter how well this succeeds, however, the scientific theories
and models concern the rationally segmented world of human
observations and experience, not the unitary world of the
Nearly all active physicists and a good many
philosophers have come to see that there is a mysterious side to
the world which, of its nature, will remain out of the reach of
science. But there is still the trend of the 19th century to
replace religion with science. In the press and in beautifully
produced programs on television, in classrooms and lecture
theaters, science is celebrated as the golden path to TRUTH. This
generates a fundamentalism that is no less pernicious than the
If humanity is to find a viable equilibrium for
survival on this planet, both scientists and mystics will have to
acknowledge that although the rational coordination of actual
experience and the wisdom gleaned from poetic metaphors are
incommensurate, they need not be incompatible. The most urgent
task seems to be to develop a way of thinking and living that
gives proper due to both.
Blake, W. (ca 1770) The Evening Star.
Husserl, E. (1887) Philosophie der
Arithmetik. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1970.
James,W. (1901-2) Varieties of religious
experience. Clifford Lectures. London: Longmans, Green &
Russell, B. (1917) Mysticism and logic. London:
Unwin Paperbacks, 1989
Shaw, G.B. (1923) St.Joan.
Valéry, P. (1936) Une vue de Descartes
(Variété IV), in Oeuvres, Paris: Bibliothèque de la
Vico, G-B. (1744) Principi di scienza nuova.
English translation by T.G.Bergin & M.H.Fisch, New York:
Wittgenstein, L. (1933) Tractatus
logico-philosophiocus. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner
& Co., (2nd revised printing).