Monday 18 August 2014

Pessoa's philosophical writings

Good art is often said to contain an element of philosophy, but it is not quite clear that the reverse is true. In a sense, good philosophy is based on strictness of thought, rather than the associative flowering that is so characteristic of art. This has not stopped eminent artists to embark on philosophical journeys, Satre's existentialism is a good example. Goethe also tried his hands at a philosophy of colours, although little of his theoretical ruminations have stood the test of time. The attraction of philosophy to writers, painters and other artists may have more to do with a perceived kinship of themes that inform art as well as philosophy, such as life and death, God and the conditions of human existence.

Measuring the world. An artists impression of science. William Blake: Newton (1795)
Pessoa's philosophical writings show clearly that this resemblance of thematic preoccupations is not sufficient to produce good philosophy. The best that can be said of his philosophical essays is that the reading 'can be rough' (Ribeiro, p.XXVIII; Ferdinand Pessoa: Philosophical Essays. A Critical Edition. New York 2012).

Nuno Ribeiro, the editor of Pessoa's philosophical essays, tries to strike a generous tone when he writes that Pessoa's 'philosophies' should be seen as a form of literary experimentation. He points to the fact that Pessoa uses heteronyms for his (unpublished) essays, meaning that he invents imaginary authors for his writings (with more or less fully fledged biographical sketches), which allows him to negate his own authorship. Pessoa, Ribeiro argues, thus creates a constantly shifting angle which permits him to explore philosophical topics.

To me, this is an extremely magnanimous line of argument, at once underestimating Pessoa's philosophical aspirations and overestimating his conceptual dexterity. Philosophy that explores a topic from different angles is of course not new. Plato's dialogues are of this very quality. Their methodological approach rests on the ability of the interlocutors to adopt different perspectives to test their coherence and validity.

The difference to Pessoa's writings however is that Plato does not simply shift perspectives as the dialogues proceed but also applies criteria to judge the various opinions. The unique nature of Pessoa's philosophical writings lies in his refusal to single out any critical framework which could assist him to reach a judgement or validate one perspective over another. It is not the pluralism of voices that is mildly annoying in Pessoa's writings but his inability to bring these voices to a fugal conclusion.

In fact, Pessoa appears to be afraid to reach conclusions because he does not trust his own vocabulary. His thoughts on rationalism are jumpy and scattershot at best, dipping in and out of problems and issues without ever bringing to bear on them a consistent adjudicating framework.

So why read Pessoa's philosophy at all? Because it is instructive of what makes good philosophy. In essence, good philosophical writing rests on preferences for conceptual frameworks that are being ruthlessly applied to the issue investigated. Only this permits one to make commitments that clear the fog of voices. Since Pessoa does not want to appear as the author in word or deed, his writings remain unfathomable even for himself. In the end, he admits defeat, pointing to the myriad terminological entanglements that he cannot escape. This may make good postmodern literature but philosophy it isn't.

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