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The Paideia Archive: Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy

Volume 3, 1998

Ancient Philosophy

Edward Halper
Pages 146-153

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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