Poetry and Private Language Essay

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This paper discusses three thesis in relation to poetry: (1) the Inadequacy Thesis: language is inadequate to capture, portray, do justice to, the quality and intensity of the inner life; (2) the Empathy Thesis: descriptions of certain kinds of experiences can only be (adequately) understood by a person who has had similar experiences; (3) the Poetic Thesis, which has two parts: (a) only through poetry can we hope to overcome the problem of the Inadequacy Thesis and (b) the difficulty of (some) poetry is at least partly explained by the Empathy Thesis. The paper argues that there are important truths underlying each thesis but that it would be wrong to connect this kernel of truth with a Lockean view of language, and in particular with a …show more content…
Recall, for example, Shakespeare's Sonnet 130 (My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun) where he devotes the first twelve lines to rejecting all the standard similes to describe a loved one, and ends: 'And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / As any she belied with false compare'.

The inadequacy view is not restricted to descriptions of feelings. Winifred Novottny extends it to observation in general:

To describe a view from the window, or even a flower in a jug inside the room (a wallflower, dark red, darker at the centre, wilting at the edges, lit by the morning sun, spraying out of its jug, reflected in a mirror), one might go on forever and still fail ... to put into language all that the flower is in its own particular qualities. ... And if the particularity, concretion, 'thinginess' even of what we call 'concrete objects' is so inaccessible to the probe of our common language, how much less accessible is that of a moment in the mind, or a mood, a vision, or an attitude. (2)

Let us call this view the Inadequacy Thesis: language is inadequate to capture, portray, do justice to, the quality and intensity of the inner life.

The second view, equally familiar, is not altogether consonant with the Inadequacy Thesis, though is not incompatible with it. This is the idea that we can only properly understand other people's descriptions of their inner life, their feelings or experiences, if we have had similar

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