Contemplation, Poetry, ‘the Map and the Territory’

Contemplation itself is the focus. In answering audience questions about poetry and ‘the map and the territory,’ I draw upon Goethe, Heidegger, Bortoft, and McGilchrist.

There is no prerequisite episode to this. However, the audience questions addressed below related originally to Sense and Non-Sense (Episode 011).

I. The nature of Contemplation

Starting with Goethe’s Epirrhema, we look at the meaning of ‘contemplation.’ We look at the German word betrachten and the Latin root contemplari. I supplement Goethe’s use of the term in poetry with comments from the preface of his Theory of Color. Contemplation involves opening a space for a thing to present itself. The challenge in contemplation is to not fall into abstraction.

II. Revisiting the notion that “The map is not the territory”

Audience questions provide the basis for a deeper examination of this question.

We begin with the following question.

“Languages and cultures themselves are our ways of mediating experience, sharing this quality with maps. If so, is it not then the case that with such mediation there is an infinite regress of maps in our experience? Are we in a situation of ‘maps all the way down’ that separates us from the territory?”

My initial response is this. If we are speaking of language, and especially poetry, as being that which builds a world in which we can dwell (Heidegger), then we have ‘access,’ if you will, to the territory as being the ground for that dwelling, taking it as it is present, as it shows itself. If, on the other hand, we are speaking of language as a tool, which we then use to separate ourselves from the world, in order to represent that world to us ‘objectively,’ then it is ‘maps all of the way down,’ I’m afraid.

Further discussion of the topic ensues in segment two.

III. Poetry: Closer to the Map or to the Territory?

I further address follow-up questions from the audience related to the previous answers.

The core question/observation to which I am responding here is the following.

“Even if we agree that poetry is not a map in the representational sense, it does seem that poetry speaks to the right brain. We might consider then the following. For those more oriented or at least open to right-brain thinking, the poem occurs, in some sense, as the territory. Whereas for others, the more analytical left-brained types, the poem occurs as a map. This would seemingly explain why some find poetry easy to ‘decode’ while others give up, finding it to be nonsense.”

I think that we must admit that there is some truth in the notion that the poem might be far easier for the right-brained among us to appreciate. Yet I am still hesitant with respect to this idea that the poem occurs as the territory. This seems to have some notion of representational identity. I would rather say that it occurs in such a way as to let the territory present itself.

The importance of metaphor

Now that might sound like quibbling or playing with words to some, but let me draw this analogy. For me, to say that poetry is in some sense the territory for the right-brained person is akin to the mindtrap offered by static thinking. Static thinking’s alternative to subject-object dualism is that of static holism. I then discuss Bortoft’s warning against counterfeit holism, and his discussion of left- and right-brain thinking in relation to wholeness via McGilchrist. By analogy here, I am trying to say that the language of poetry, while not being the map, might seem to some to be then the territory. Yet this would be a static interpretation, one that would be, in a sense, a counterfeit understanding of how poetry and the territory relate.

We then finish with a short segment four that includes my reading an excerpt from McGilchrist’s fine work as grounds for contemplation moving forward.


Grimm Brothers dictionary (online) entry for Betrachten


Toward the end of the episode, I refer to Iain McGilchrist’s fine work. I incorrectly use the word ‘the’ in place of ‘his’ in the title.  The correct title is The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

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