Aristotle on the Philosophical Elements of Historia

By Carli, Silvia | The Review of Metaphysics, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Aristotle on the Philosophical Elements of Historia


Carli, Silvia, The Review of Metaphysics


IN THE POETICS, Aristotle briefly compares historical works with mimetic compositions. (1) He remarks that the former "speak of" (legei) events that have actually happened (ta genomena), whereas the latter of "events as they might happen (hoia an genoito) or are possible according to probability or necessity." (2) The historian represents a multiplicity of facts whose relations are, at times, purely temporal: they follow one another or take place at the same time as others. (3) The poet, on the other hand, imitates unitary actions whose parts are connected by causal relations. (4) The culmination of this comparison is the famous statement that "poetry is more philosophical and more serious than history, for poetry speaks more of universals, whereas history of particulars." (5)

The picture of history that emerges from Aristotle's treatise on poetry has been widely criticized. (6) Specifically, two related points have been called into question. The first is the thesis that historia deals with particulars, which, the critique goes, is based on a misinterpretation of the nature and value of the works produced by the Greek historians. The second is the philosopher's sharp distinction between history and poetry, which fails to appreciate the kinship between the two disciplines. On this critical reading, far from being different in kind, they differ at best in degree. Thus Ste. Croix observes that it is likely that Aristotle was familiar with Thucydides' work, and that, if he had been consistent with his own tenets "he ought not to have written off history as dealing only with particulars." (7) Rather, he should have acknowledged that there is no "essential difference" between poetic plots and Thucydides' History. (8) More recently Martin Ostwald writes that the above mentioned passage of Poetics 9 "shows a rather deplorable blindness to historiography. If we were to take Aristotle literally, the only kind of historical writing he would recognize as such would be the kind of annalistic historical writings practiced in his own times ... [that] tend to list events but do nothing to relate them to one another. What Aristotle says here is certainly not applicable to Herodotus or Thucydides .... It seems to me that the activity of the historian involves the relation of events in terms of 'what is probable or necessary' just as much as does the activity of the tragic poet." (9)

This paper argues that these criticisms originate from a misinterpretation of Aristotle's position. (10) A careful reading of the relevant passages of the Poetics, on the one hand (section 2), and the analysis of his broad conception of historia as a preliminary inquiry that leads to the philosophical investigation of causes and principles on the other (section 3), show that he did not confine history to the realm of particulars. Rather, he acknowledged that it has some connection with universality, and to that extent, that it partakes in the philosophical nature of poetry. At the same time, however, he also provided valid indications to the effect that, despite their affinity, historia and poietike differ in kind, because they are defined by different functions (erga). For this reason he correctly holds that poetry is more philosophical than history, even as he acknowledges that historical works contain a poetic element (section 4). The paper opens with a brief section devoted to the philosopher's view of poetry, which is the term of comparison for the entire discussion of history.

I

The philosophical nature of poetry. Aristotle holds that poetry is more philosophical than history because it speaks more of universals, not that it is philosophy or that it expresses universals tout court. (11) Philosophia (12) is the highest form of knowledge that moves from what is first for us to what is first in itself, that is to say, from sensible to intelligible objects. (13) It presupposes that something is the case (to hoti) (14) and articulates the why and the cause of those facts (to dioti kai ten aitian). …

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