Beyond the Limits of Thought: Stevens’ Modernist Silences


Wittgenstein’s concerns with liminality more recently configured by Graham Priest’s
formal reduction of all paradoxes of self-reference to a singular dialetheism (contradictions that are true) as ever-transcending boundaries of the liminal, contextualises the philosophical significance of Stevens and silence. For the early Wittgenstein, the world of fact was proscribed as a limited whole beyond which we cannot speak. Later, when he relinquished propositional knowledge as the basis of meaning in favour of meaning as use, language became a medium of thought, especially for intensional states which, rather than referring to ideas and sensations that are private, become second-order descriptions of the subject of experience where ‘the report is not meant to inform the hearer about its subject matter but the person making the report’ (Investigations 190e). However, notwithstanding Altieri’s contribution to Stevens’ criticism by reading the later Wittgenstein as a modernist concerned with language as vorstellung, Steven’s poetics of silence lays bare another dimension of language. By silencing its representational function, Stevens shows that while there are limits as to what can be expressed in language, there are no limits to what can be expressed by language. Furthermore, that by exploring the phenomenological dimension of silence as perceptibly constructed by what a poem displays on the page (exemplifies), the significance of Stevens’ poetic achievement can be articulated in terms of how, in various contexts, his silences construct meaning by motivating the reader to participate in what the poem presents as an enduring multivalent silent verbal artefact.

Key Words: Modernism, silence, paradox, representation, Wallace Stevens, dialetheism,
exemplification, poetics, philosophy