Poetry can help awaken us to the richness of the language that surrounds us, even in the seeming cacophony of the digital age.
Perhaps now more than ever, we spend our days immersed in language. We communicate—talk, write and read—through a burgeoning array of forms and technologies. But most of us rarely stop to think about how language works, or how come we succeed in getting our ideas across in words. It all seems to happen naturally. Poets, novelists, speechwriters or the merely curious sometimes confront these questions, but it is a job that often falls to linguists and philosophers of language.
Here’s one striking puzzle: We speak and write with remarkably different aims. We sometimes try to get clear on the facts, so we can reach agreement on how things are. But we sometimes try to express ourselves so we can capture the uniqueness of our viewpoint and experiences. It is the same for listeners: language lets us learn the answers to practical questions, but it also opens us up to novel insights and perspectives. Simply put, language straddles the chasm between science and art.
A central challenge for philosophy is to explain how language accommodates these two very different kinds of enterprise. Literary theorists and translators often say that artistic language takes on special meaning (semantics), different from what we ordinarily find. Cognitive scientists often say instead that the difference comes from our ability to recognize the purposes and goals of speakers who use language in different ways (pragmatics). We believe, contrary to these received views, that the key differences are to be found in the different ways the audience can engage with language.