Poetry, History, and Dialectic

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Poetry, History, and Dialectic

Twice in the Poetics, Aristotle contrasts poetry with history. Whatever its didactic value, the contrast has not seemed to readers of special philosophical interest. The aim of this paper is to show that this contrast is philosophically significant not just for our understanding of tragedy but also for the light it sheds on Aristotle’s overall methodology. I shall show how he uses the method sketched in the Topics to define tragedy and explain why the same method will not define history. In particular, tragedy admits of definition because its parts constitute a unity, and much of the Poetics aims to show how, despite being defined through six distinct parts, tragedy can be one. In contrast, history, though a proper preliminary to poetics and concerned also with human action, does not admit of scientific treatment because it contains no essential unities. Aristotle’s understanding of ‘science’ is used here to explain why any attempt to create a scientific history would turn history into poetry.

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Aristotle claims that the art of dialectic sketched in the Topics contributes to philosophical knowledge because it can be used to find indemonstrable first principles from common opinions: "for, being capable of examining, dialectic has a path to the principles of all disciplines" (õB¤ £œŸæ›à¤) (I.2.101b3-4). Scientific knowledge of a subject consists of grasping its principles and demonstrating its essential attributes from them. How does one come to know the first principles? Obviously, they cannot be demonstrated from prior principles; they are first principles. As such, they are somehow determined by dialectic. Thus, dialectic transforms what we can call, for lack of a better term, a "subject matter" into a science. What is the state of this subject matter before dialectic discovers its principles? It is clear from our Topics text that this examination will look for common opinions, and it is well recognized that Aristotle's actual inquiries often begin from common opinions.(1) So the pre-scientific subject matter must contain common opinions about its facts. Aristotle has a name for such a setting out of facts: in the Prior Analytics, he speaks of deriving the principles of each field from experience and he refers to the account of the phenomena of a field as a "history" (Èóõ¦òå˜) (46a17-27). Evidently, "history" precedes "science," and transition is effected by dialectic. Aristotle has much to say about how knowledge is derived from sensation and experience, but he never explains how (or whether!) his many remarks fit together into a single process.
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