Lyrical Philosophy

Here’s an experiment: A bright and marvelously inquisitive ex-student surprised me with news of the birth of a blog, The Vitalist, out of Brooklyn’s poetry scene. And surprised me with a request for an interview. Here goes:

VITALIST: What does the phrase “lyrical philosophy” mean to you?
EM I’ve always thought that there were certain passages from philosophers that just begged to be read aloud, as if at a poetry reading, for the very musicality of their expression. Of course that goes against the grain if philosophy is exclusively the isolation of arguments assessed for their truth-value in detached, objective fashion. As someone said recently, philosophy aims at truth, music doesn’t. But I love certain sentences, say hearing Thoreau sound out in my ear “I long ago lost a hound and a bay horse and a turtle dove” (that’s in Walden) and I can repeat it like a nursery rhyme. It makes me smile and sad simultaneously. And then I can move from its lyricism to think of it as part of his view of grief and mourning, whereupon the words enter a more detached framework for assessing what life’s all about. Or the hound and bay horse can remind me of reading a sober line from Hamlet or Emily Dickinson. And there are whole paragraphs from Schopenhauer or from a Wallace Stevens essay, or poem, that are poetry AND philosophy and need to be read aloud as well as pondered in that way an existentialist would ponder them.

So the quick answer is that lyrical philosophy is philosophy to be sung, read aloud again and again. Once you get a philosophical proof, or good argument, you can set it aside, and move on; it has no more interest, it’s like solving an equation or balancing the budget — you do it once and that’s that. You know the answer and the argument. But lyrical philosophy doesn’t give you an answer to pocket because it does not respond to true-false questions, or good-bad argument questions, on a philosophy exam. You tune into lyrical philosophy every morning, or at least once a week, because you never tire of the tune, and you attend to the way it’s performed today (as opposed to yesterday) and how it fits your mood today (as opposed to yesterday’s mood). I think the biblical psalms and wisdom literature (the Whirlwind in Job, Ecclesiastes), are often lyrical philosophy. We love musical philosophy because we’re musical creatures, creatures of rhythm and sound, and voice, not just evidence-collecting, proof-producing, and argument-hawking creatures. Lyrical philosophy, like music, explores, sounds, sympathizes, excites.

That’s the start — the full deal is at
We go on to discuss whether lyrical philosophy might be a distinctive genre and tradition, and Rorty’s underestimation of what poetry and truth add to vital speech, living philosophy.

2 comments on “Lyrical Philosophy

  1. dmf says:

    to be fair to Rorty on poetry one would have to look at his work on Donald Davidson and metaphor.

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