My friend Jennie and I used to argue often about the different ways that poetry and philosophy go about examining the world and attempting to speak truly about it. She always claimed that there were certain truths, usually of a spiritual nature, or if not spiritual, then about particular deep aspects of life and nature, that poetry was better at investigating and expressing than philosophy. I’m not in a position to give her reasons for these claims. And I don’t think she was right in the way that she thought she was. However, I do think that there is perhaps an important difference between poetry and philosophy concerning access to truth (a general difference, and not one that is meant to admit of no exceptions); I will try to articulate it below.
First, I do not have much patience for the idea of ineffable truths, simply because I take it that truth is a property of sentences used in particular contexts, and therefore if something is ineffable, then it cannot be formulated into sentences, and it therefore cannot admit of truth or falsity. So I don’t think that it is the business of philosophy or poetry to try to show or gesture at ineffable truths.
I do not think that philosophy and poetry are necessarily separated by reason or argument; that is, I do not think that reason and argument belong to philosophy but not to poetry. That is not to say, of course, that every poem presents an argument. And it seems likely to me that the argument of a poem does not consist of the same kind of moves found in a philosophical argument. Some poetry (I certainly won’t speak for all poetry) seems to me to work because of the way it directs one’s thoughts, attitudes, and emotions, often directing them toward ordinary “objects” in subtly new ways and in such a way that one arrives at new thoughts, attitudes, and emotions. Through a serious of such movements, each of which draws on the reader’s background of ideas, emotions, dispositions, desires, experiences, etc., in order to draw the reader forward and in, a poem might present a kind of argument for seeing something in a particular way; that new insight, or whatever it should be called, is a kind of conclusion.
Insofar as philosophy operates on a more singular plain of categorical, propositional, predicate logic, philosophical arguments can typically be reconstructed explicitly from their texts. Importantly, this reconstruction can be done without injury to the argument. I don’t mean to deny the power of persuasion that might come with a style of writing. But I think that many philosophers would recognize a distinction between a well reasoned argument and a persuasive one. I can imagine a philosopher saying, “I see that the argument is valid and the premises appear to all be true, but I’m still not inclined to accept the conclusion.”
An important result that comes out of the above differences between philosophy and poetry is that poetry might allow one to arrive at a certain conclusion that could not be arrived at in the same way through philosophical reasoning. That is, while we might be able to explicitly restate the point of a poem in paraphrase, we will not—or perhaps the weaker “may not”—be moved to accept the point as true if all we have access to is the paraphrase. The “logic” or “reasoning” of the poem itself is required if one is to have access to the truth in such a way that one is moved to accept it. I’m not ruling out the possibility that some of the “conclusions” of poems could be argued for in an explicitly philosophical manner. But even then, such reasoning may not provide the right kind of epistemic access to the truth.
All of that is in the abstract. I will try to look for an example to illustrate my point.