Friday, December 28, 2018

"The Meaning of the Wax Argument" by James Frederick William Rowe

The Meaning of the Wax Argument
James Frederick William Rowe

My words are molten wax
Adrip from lip or pen
Sharing no similarity
To the meaning so signified
Yet known to reason
As the pool of wax
Is known as the same substance
To the candle it once was
My mind knows meaning
My senses – nothing.


Poet’s Notes:  I was teaching John Searle's famous philosophical thought-experiment the Chinese Room in class the other day when I began thinking about meaning on the subway home. Specifically, I thought that just as Descartes said that we do not understand the substance of the wax by our senses, as a candle and a puddle of wax share none of the same properties as one another, the word as spoken and word as read have no intrinsic connection, yet are understood to represent the same thing. Moreover, and more importantly, neither the spoken nor written word has any true connection to the meaning itself, yet still can convey it. This led me to the suitably rationalistic conclusion that "my mind knows meaning / my senses – nothing" as well as providing the pun of a title, where I combine a theme of meaning with argumentation taken from the wax argument.

This poem is simple enough and was written in a single subway ride with no alteration. Of course, wax figures predominately, as I unite the notion of molten wax (which is yet understood to be wax) to the words that both my pen and lips "drip", and later explicitly reference the wax argument to reach the aforementioned rationalistic conclusion.  Amusingly, I didn't even intend for this poem to come out an even ten verses, but it did, and I am pleased with that harmony.

Editor’s Note:  I enjoy the way James waxes poetic here in this clever if heady piece.  Those who wish to wrestle with Searle's Chinese Room may do so here https://www.iep.utm.edu/chineser/.

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