That Silly Goose: Kurt Godel’s “Poetry”

In Wittgenstein’s Ladder, Marjorie Perloff makes the case that poets take Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas very seriously.  But not just poets, plenty of fiction writers (e.g., Thomas Bernhard, David Markson, and David Foster Wallace) and artists as well.  This is interesting because it can be said that professional philosophers nowadays take Wittgenstein less seriously than do poets and artists.  A close survey of the field might reveal that few doctoral candidates in philosophy pen dissertations on Wittgenstein in ipso.  In fact, Wittgenstein’s contemporary Kurt Godel likely attracts much more scholarly interest.  This could be in part because so much work has been done on Wittgenstein, a significant portion by former pupils, and current academic trends could be swayed for other reasons as well.

I’m reading a popular intellectual biography of Kurt Godel.  It’s interesting that Godel disliked Wittgenstein.  This fact wasn’t really made public but can be found in Godel’s Nachlass, which is stored in the Princeton library.

The two philosophers had much in common but were worlds apart in terms of their personalities and views.  Both were from Vienna.  Both were converts to philosophy (Wittgenstein from engineering; Godel from mathematics).  Both attended sessions of the Vienna Circle under the direction of Moritz Schlick.  Whereas LW had little patience for the Vienna Circle (although they unanimously adored him), Godel was a regular session participant (and quietly disagreed with its dominant views).

In terms of philosophy, they both have had a profound influence.  But they sharply disagreed with each other.  Godel rejected LW’s views on logic and math; and LW rejected the plausibility of Godel’s incompleteness theorem (it’s doubtful that LW even looked at the famous proofs) and his Platonism.

These facts make me consider LW’s unfashionable status in academic philosophy.  One problem is LW ‘s “artistry” and “poeticizing,” the very thing that Gottlob Frege criticized him for, his manner and style.  Many philosophers claim that LW’s aphoristic writing lacks formal rigor. This aspect of LW’s method appeals primarily to non-philosophers.

Most philosophers tend to admire Godel’s technical meta-mathematical approach over LW’s analysis of ordinary language.  In many respects, the precision and accuracy of formalization, the rigor of the technical, empirical, and scientific holds sway. Ordinary language philosophy, the “linguistic turn,” and speech act theory are generally considered to be museum pieces.

An irony is that Godel’s formal methods circle back and often assert counter-intuitive results.  After all, who would have thought that Plato was right all along?  LW didn’t.  And neither did Bertrand Russell and the Vienna School.

As Perloff points out, poets and artists have latched onto LW’s “poetry.”  This isn’t unusual, really.  In the age old strife between philosophy and poetry, the Homer camp has been much more amenable to reconciliation than the Plato camp.  Similarly, poets have flocked to Nietzsche and Heidegger for inspiring metaphors and similes.  So why don’t poets latch onto Godel’s Platonism and “poetic” proofs?  What could be more poetic than Godel’s defense of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness?  Sure, LW employed similes and metaphors, but so did Godel.  Douglas R. Hofstadter discusses this fact.

It could be true that philosophers find more appeal in Godel than LW, whereas poets find more appeal in LW than Godel.  However, it can be argued that Godel’s metaphors and analogies have had and will have a much more profound impact overall.  Even if that’s false, why do poets find more appeal in LW than Godel?  Why do poets favor LW?

In his Godel, Escher, Bach, Douglas R. Hofstadter makes a strong case for Godel’s impact on aesthetics.  We read Hofstadter, but do we pay due diligence to Godel?  Do we address Godel’s ‘poetry’ in the same way or with similar enthusiasm as we discuss LW’s ‘poetry’?

Well, the Northern Irish poet Matt Kirkham takes Godel (more or less) seriously.

Here is his poem entitled “Kurt Gödel As An Atlantic Brant Goose“:

Give me the waters of the moon that lie –

“Take your time,” she says, “and figure this out:

why if sand is so fine does this hourglass take

two weeks to run down?  They call it after water.”

− and if they were truly water, not true dust,

I would lift them and pour them down

on the autumn lanes’ dust till the lanes

were waterlogged with words for water, air-nursed

before the geese return to land on water

and the air-nursed swallow leaves.  Write in dust

that water is just a word, like the moon,

a mirror, a world that is not the world.


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