By far the greatest thing is the use of metaphor. That alone cannot be learnt; it is the token of genius [εὐφυΐας]. For the right use of metaphor means an eye for resemblances.--Aristotle, Poetics 1459a (translated by W.H. Fyfe.)
Warum ich so weise bin.
Warum ich so klug bin.
Warum ich so gute Bücher schreibe.--F. Nietzsche, Ecce Homo
There is a reason why Aristotle calls metaphor the greatest gift of genius, the one that cannot be taught. He doesn’t say “being able to eliminate fuzziness and speak in clear propositional terms is the greatest gift of genius,” because it isn’t. Fuzziness and lack of precision are relatively minor intellectual problems in comparison with premature or hasty literalization of the world. (Editorial comment: analytic philosophy, for all its achievements, still doesn’t grasp this point, and that’s why it does not produce many impressive writers even though it produces industrial-scale numbers of clear ones. Jerry Fodor once called himself and his friends better writers than Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, which just proves how much the point is being missed.)--Graham Harman.
I understand the temptation felt by Harman (and W.H. Fyfe) to translate Aristotle's εὐφυΐας as 'genius;' context makes clear that Aristotle is trying to convey the idea that being good at coining metaphors is a skill that cannot be taught, but somehow a natural talent, that is, it exhibits having fine natural dispositions. One reason to resist the (Romantic sounding) use of 'genius' here is that only a few pages before (1455a), Aristotle had written [διὸ εὐφυοῦς ἡ ποιητική ἐστιν ἢ μανικοῦ:] that is why poetry needs either a naturally well disposed nature or being a manic, and here the inspired ‘manic’ [μανικοῦ] evokes our genius. For somebody with a good disposition may still need a lot of endurance or practice to get good at the skill.
One might think that Harman is just wrong to channel Aristotle on metaphor and apply it to philosophers because, in this context of the Poetics, Aristotle is discussing tragedy, not philosophy. But, as it happens Aristotle is generalizing about a skill. In fact, the ability to see sameness within difference is, indeed, also a philosophical one.* So, one way to read Aristotle is to suggest that to be a very good philosopher means to have an important skill in common with a very good poet.
As an aside, in context of his post, Harman is engaging with B.P. Morton (a blogger at the new group blog, Philpercs), and it's not quite clear to me what prompts Harman's aside about analytical philosophers and the bon mot put-down Fodor (who, like many not quite great analytical philosophers is a great, entertaining polemicist, but whose stock has been plummeting since his ill-advised, anti-Darwin book not to mention ordinary developments in cognitive psychology).
Perhaps it's because of my analytical training that my first quiet thought in response to Harman’s ‘’ analytic philosophy…does not produce many impressive writers even though it produces industrial-scale numbers of clear ones,” was it's better to produce industrial-scale numbers of clear writers than to produce considerable number of bad poets.+ But I caught myself, because I know that in our time, re-activating the polemic between analytic and continental philosophy prevents genuine thought. By now we ought to judge these philosophical traditions not by the many, but either by the best or by the potentially enduring contributions they produced (about which some other time more).
Yet, analytical philosophy does not weed out truly great writers: Russell (who won the 1950 Nobel in Literature), Quine, Iris Murdoch, Dennett (go re-read Elbow Room), and Jody Azzouni are all excellent examples.** Even Fodor has quite a few memorable lines when he is not being a polemicist. (I leave aside her the good polemical writing at which we analytical philosophers excel.) This is not to deny that the joy one can find in reading them is different in character from the joy, if it is joy, one experiences in reading Nietzsche or Kierkegaard.
Even if one agrees, as I am inclined to do, that "Fuzziness and lack of precision are relatively minor intellectual problems in comparison with premature or hasty literalization of the world," it does not follow (even if I, upon considerable reflection, agree that the 'literalization of the world' should not be undertaken in haste—it took me a while to understand this phrase) that we should praise or promote fuzziness and lack of precision for their own sakes (although I note that one can deploy fuzziness in precise and skillful ways).
Anyway, I close with this observation (which echoes Benardete on Quinean poetics): while clarity is a core virtue in the self-understanding of analytical philosophers (recall this), the dirty secret of our poetic genius is that we have an enduring love for well-chosen metaphors: for example, content (as in mental content); grounding (as in metaphysical grounding); stance (as in the intentional stance), and, more controversially, analysis (as in analysis is the method of analytic philosophy), etc. That is, like all great philosophical movements, analytic philosophy, too, combines clarity and poetry.