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Poetry and Its Valuating Subject: How Much Knowledge of Art can Aesthetic Experience Yield

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par Tan Shi Wei
National Junior College Singapore -  2008

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We have seen earlier how the reactive nature of aesthetic experience cannot be justified in the classical way. Without the propositional content used to legitimize the standard analysis of knowledge, it seems that knowledge claims about aesthetic experience will never have the same kind of validity. Wittgenstein however notes that,

`every process of understanding takes place against the background of a culturally ingrained pre-understanding ... The interpretative task consists in incorporating the others interpretation of the situation into ones own... this does not mean that interpretation must lead in every case to a stable and unambiguously differentiated assignment.'7(*)

If aesthetic experience is contained within the active engagement of both the artist and the recipient, it could be sufficient to validate knowledge claims on a reader-by-reader basis, i.e. without having to enforce the same for all readers. In the last section of this paper, I shall illustrate possible validity issues based on the process of knowledge construction discussed earlier.

Constraints in Interpretation

As I have stated earlier, our understanding of what a poem attempts to convey to us plays an ancillary role in the understanding of the concept of aesthetic experience. At bottom, poetry being composed of words ensues that it be subjectable to the limitations of language. These involve either the limited capacity of language to communicate or an ineradicable ambiguity. For instance, the Inadequacy Thesis holds that language is inadequate to capture, portray, or do justice to, the quality and intensity of inner life8(*). It also provides that the vividness of a sensation, an emotion or even an observation cannot be communicated through description, exemplified in Winifred Novottny's example that `one might go on forever and still fail ... to put into language all that the flower is in its own particular qualities.' Wittgenstein also makes a valid point in saying that certain words can be used both transitively and intransitively which gives rise to starkly different meanings of the word. For instance,

the `transitive' use of `peculiar' would be `This soap has a peculiar smell - the smell of ground ivy leaves'; an example of the `intransitive' use would be `This soap has a peculiar smell.' In the second case, `peculiar' is not used to introduce a comparison but more or less like `striking' or `out of the ordinary'.9(*)

If language as a medium is inherently incapable of bringing across clearly what the poet intends to express, the extent of understanding on the part of the reader risk being delimited, and the knowledge he or she can construct may well be invalid. The Inadequacy Thesis seems to regard only the literal and propositional use of language when it arrived at the perceived inadequacy. It is worth noting however, that poetry more often than not optimises the connotative use of words and metaphors to express feelings about a subject matter. From a formalistic analysis of poetry, one may also reside in the assumption that the choice of word used and its function in a poem should contribute to the poem as a bigger entity. While a word used may have starkly different meanings, we should assure ourselves of the fact that it did not appear by chance, and ambiguity of the term adds to the wholeness of the poem.

* 7 Jurgen Habermas, Reason and the Rationalisation of Society, p.100

* 8 Peter LaMarque, Poetry and Private Language

* 9 Timothy G. McCarthy and Sean C. Stidd, Wittgenstein in America p.112

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