Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Coleridge's most famous phrase, "willing suspension of disbelief for the moment" or "poetic faith" describes the voluntary non-disbelief we exercise in the enjoyment of poetry and drama. (There is reason to put more emphasis on the 'willing' and 'voluntary' than we normally do; in enjoying, say, Sophocles' Ajax, we are not merely not disbelieving, but willingly giving some sort of assent that involves the suspension of disbelief.) More than this, however, I think it indicates a necessary (and sometimes neglected) first step to the proper understanding of great historical philosophical texts. There is always the temptation, of course, to get immediately down to criticism; and some arguments, given our background, will inevitably come across as so bizarre that the temptation to begin with the scoffing is almost irresistible. But there is a fundamental value in starting with a poetic faith in the text. Not a belief, mind you; but the sort of assent to the text that allows suspension of disbelief, the same sort we find in literary reading. There's a value in starting by simply getting into the world presented by the text and looking around a bit, just to get a feel for the flow and structure of thought.

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