Until his retirement David Cook was a psychiatrist, a professional life working with people often in great distress.
When as an undergraduate I asked my tutor, a distinguished neurophysiologist, what does physiology tell us about consciousness and free will, he looked at me intently and said ‘It’s an extraordinary thing, very little.’ After about two years of turmoil I concluded that brain science would always be on the outside and therefore be bound to be reductive in the way it characterised human behaviour. Consciousness would be an epiphenomenon or emergent property and free will an illusion. Much later I re-phrased a remark of Kant so as to crystallise my concerns, ‘What possible role could be assigned to consciousness in a wholly determined being?’ Martin Gardner makes the same point in his excellent paper The Mystery of Free Will. “Free will in my opinion is another word for self-awareness or consciousness, I cannot conceive of one without the other.”
Later as a young psychiatrist I suffered a disappointment. The pharmaceutical industry, which both serviced and shaped the needs of doctors, and the medical model on which it was predicated, promoted a ‘faulty machine’ approach to the treatment of depression and psychosis. In many psychiatric clinics existential issues received only an embarrassed mention.
These affronts to my sense of what it is to be human, sent me on a prolonged search. Shakespeare’s insights into human nature were a revelation, and I also profited from reading some of the giants of philosophy and psychology. Perhaps the three who impressed me most were Kant, William James and Wittgenstein. Twentieth-century literature was also full of treasures, and the poets I particularly admired were Pound, Eliot, Auden and Rilke.
It strikes me now that a poem and philosophical text have this in common, they are products of a mind that has long been in dialogue with itself. Of course the ends of poetry and philosophy differ, as surely as their methods. One seeks to capture the exemplary event which illuminates much else, the other the general principles through which to organise our experience and understanding of the world. Both have become more conscious of the medium they employ, more overtly concerned ‘to purify the dialect of the tribe.’ Perhaps in the future they will find common cause in resisting the claims of scientism or reductive materialism, the one through an appeal to moral sentiment, the other through rigorous argument. However there is no reason why thought and feeling should not reinforce each other in both disciplines. And no reason why philosophy should not seek to persuade through the writer’s accomplished style, nor poetry to illuminate through philosophical insight. (‘No intellect, no ardour is redundant: to make one through the other more abundant.’ Lanckoronski/Rilke – Leishman translation).
And so the name of this website, Thought and Poetry, suggested to me by my publisher, Stephen Morris.
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