Jan Zwicky

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Jan Zwicky
Born (1955-05-10) 10 May 1955 (age 61)
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
Residence Quadra Island, British Columbia, Canada
Nationality Canadian
Occupation Poet, philosopher, musician
Partner(s) Robert Bringhurst
"Philosophy is thinking in love with clarity."

Jan Zwicky (born 10 May 1955) is a Canadian philosopher, poet, essayist, and musician.

Life and career[edit]

Zwicky received her BA from the University of Calgary and earned her PhD at the University of Toronto in 1981 where her studies focussed on the philosophy of logic and science. She subsequently taught philosophy at Princeton University; philosophy and interdisciplinary humanities at the University of Waterloo; philosophy at the University of Western Ontario; philosophy, English, and creative writing at the University of New Brunswick; and philosophy at the University of Alberta.

Zwicky is a Professor Emerita in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Victoria, where she taught both philosophy and interdisciplinary humanities courses from 1996 until 2009. She has served as a faculty member at the Banff Centre Writing Studio, has conducted numerous writing workshops, and edits regularly for Brick Books.


Zwicky is an eco-political and anti-colonial thinker, comparable to fellow Canadian poets Tim Lilburn and Don McKay, who promotes the fundamental unity of ontology and ethics by laying emphasis on the act of attention.

Heraclitus, Plato, Freud, Virginia Woolf and Wittgenstein are among the thinkers who figure prominently in her philosophical work, which challenges the hegemonic status of logico-linguistic analysis in 20th and 21st Century Anglo-American philosophy. She has developed the notion of resonance as central to the understanding of ontological structures, and argues for its relevance in epistemology.

To Zwicky, form is integral to meaning. As part of this view, she maintains that the form of a linguistic gesture determines a speaker's ontological commitments more thoroughly than any explicit content. For this reason, her own texts have an unusual structure: they are double texts. In both Lyric Philosophy and Wisdom & Metaphor, her own aphoristic remarks on the left-hand pages are meant to be read with and against excerpts from the history of philosophy, musical scores, paintings, photographs and poems. Her books are thus dialectical or polyphonic in nature, i.e. there are many voices that range across disciplines.

Her books also feature both a linear and a non-linear structure. The books can, and should, be read from front to back. That is, Zwicky carefully orders her remarks and has a rational, linear argument to make. But every page is also constructed so that it evokes remarks or images from other pages. In this way, her books are a dense, non-linear web of inter-connections – a resonant whole that is deep and can be plumbed for meaning. Works that display this type of resonance, whether composed in language, musical tones, colours, or other media, she calls lyric. She cites the writing of Heraclitus and Wittgenstein as philosophical examples, and argues that naturally occurring ecologies have a similar resonant structure. Freud's distinction between primary and secondary processes, and Max Wertheimer's foundational work in gestalt psychology are also highly influential.

But Zwicky does not wish to supplant logical analysis with lyric understanding. Instead, she construes the two as complementary and includes both in a broader conception of rationality. She believes that the Anglo-American notion of what constitutes "good" philosophy is excessively narrow; and that the so-called continental notion is rooted in the false idea that human thinking "constructs" the world. According to Zwicky, neglect of either logical or lyric thinking leads to our ontological, epistemological, ethical and environmental peril.

The great virtue of her philosophical writing is that it is enactive, leaving the reader with the very experience, and, therefore, some real understanding of what she is discussing. In other words, it very purposefully has lyric structure like the philosophical work of Heraclitus and Wittgenstein.

Dr. James O. Young, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Victoria has said: "There’s a reasonable chance that people will be reading her work a century from now. This is something that one says about only a very small number of philosophers."[2]


Zwicky's poetry is influenced by music in the classical European, blues, and jazz traditions.[3] It also deals with the natural world, and has often been cited for its intense lyricism. Numerous individual poems have been translated into Czech, French, German, Serbian, Spanish and Italian.

Among her many accolades, both Zwicky's Songs for Relinquishing the Earth and Robinson's Crossing were shortlisted for Governor General's Awards for Poetry. Songs for Relinquishing the Earth won the award in 1999.

Her 2011 book, Forge, was shortlisted for the 2012 Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize.[4]




  • "Wittgenstein and the Logic of Inference", Dialogue, Vol. XXI, No. 4, December 1982
  • "Bringhurst's Presocratics: Lyric and Ecology" in Poetry and Knowing: Speculative Essays and Interviews (edited by Tim Lilburn) – 1995
  • "Plato's Phaedrus: Philosophy as Dialogue With the Dead", Apeiron, Vol. 30, No. 1, March 1997
  • "Being, Polyphony, Lyric: An Open Letter to Robert Bringhurst", Canadian Literature, No. 156, Spring 1998
  • "The Geology of Norway", Harvard Review of Philosophy, Vol. 7, Spring 1999
  • "Dream Logic and the Politics of Interpretation" & "Once Upon a Time in the West: Heidegger and the Poets" in Thinking and Singing: Poetry & The Practice of Philosophy (edited by Tim Lilburn, with an introduction by Brian Bartlett (includes works by Robert Bringhurst, Dennis Lee, Tim Lilburn, and Don McKay)) – 2002
  • "Wilderness and Agriculture" in The Eye in the Thicket: Essays at a Natural History (edited by Sean Virgo) – 2002
  • "Integrity and Ornament" in Crime and Ornament, edited by Bernie Miller and Melony Ward 2002
  • "Oracularity", Metaphilosophy, Vol. 34, No. 4, July 2003
  • "The Ethics of the Negative Review", Malahat Review, No. 144, Fall 2003
  • Introduction to Hard Choices: Climate Change in Canada, edited by Harold Coward and A.J. Weaver 2004
  • "Mathematical Analogy and Metaphorical Insight", The Mathematical Intelligencer, Vol. 28, No. 2 2006
  • '"Lyric, Narrative, Memory" in A Ragged Pen: Essays on Poetry & Memory (includes works by Robert Finley, Patrick Friesen, Aislinn Hunter, and Anne Simpson) – 2006
  • "Lyric Realism: Nature Poetry, Silence and Ontology", Malahat Review, No. 165, Winter 2008
  • "What Is Ineffable?", International Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 26, No. 2, June 2012, pp 197–217
  • "Alcibiades' Love" in Philosophy as a Way of Life: Ancients and Moderns (edited by Michael Chase, Stephen R. L. Clark, and Michael McGhee) – 2013


  • "There is No Place That Does Not See You" – 2002 Interviewed by Anne Simpson in Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation (edited by Tim Bowling)
  • "The Details: An Interview with Jan Zwicky" – 2008 Interviewed by Jay Ruzesky in the Malahat Review, No. 165, Winter 2008
  • "Perfect Fluency" – 2011 Interviewed by Scott Pinkmountain in the Owen Wister Review
  • "The Griffin Poetry Prize Questionnaire: Jan Zwicky" – 4 June 2012, The National Post, Mark Medley


  • "Contemplation and Resistance: A conversation [with Tim Lilburn]" reprinted in Lyric Ecology (edited by Mark Dickinson and Clare Goulet, 2010)


  1. ^ Lyric Ecology: An Appreciation of the Work of Jan Zwicky, eds Mark Dickinson and Clare Goulet. (Toronto: Cormorant Books, 2010)
  2. ^ Joy Poliquin. "Excellence in Teaching Awards. Philosopher/poet wins humanities teaching award.". The Ring. University of Victoria's community newspaper. Retrieved 2011-11-26. 
  3. ^ Medley, Mark (4 June 2012), "The Griffin Poetry Prize Questionnaire: Jan Zwicky", National Post, retrieved 31 August 2016 
  4. ^ http://www.griffinpoetryprize.com/awards-and-poets/shortlists/2012-shortlist/

External links[edit]