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“Before Knowing: Philosophic Lyric and the Thinking Self”

  • Columbia University (map)

Paper Abstract

This paper explores early modern lyric selfhood in terms of the individual as a thinker and the lyric itself as an instrument of philosophic speculation and discovery—a story radically different from conventional characterizations of lyric poetry as the expression of affect/feeling, self-reflection or the mimesis of individual interiority. Specifically, it examines how (and why) the formal structures and particular energies of Petrarchan lyric get redeployed for the philosophic poetry of the Renaissance. Drawing on Ernst Cassirer’s insight that the first philosophical shifts of the period are initially discernible in Petrarch’s poems (among other texts), I will focus on the development of the cosmological lyric of the sixteenth century in Italy, France and England as a distinct, under-studied strand in the legacy of early modern Petrarchism. 

Why does philosophy draw on the genre of lyric long before the major prose treatises of the new science? How do we account for this collaboration in the longer history of the quarrel between poetry and philosophy? In answering these questions, I suggest an alternate theoretical framework for the lyric, one that identifies it as strongly with cognition as with emotion, and shows how the lyric’s interrogation of self-making allows for a new theorization of the individual self as a thinker engaged in the dynamic process of thinking, cognition, and discovery. The lyric itself thus discloses how knowledge of the world can be attained through the self, as it remains engaged in the acts of description and intellective attention.