Sunday, May 31, 2015

on history, poetry, and philosophy.

“The difference between the historian and the poet is not merely that one writes verse and the other prose…the essential difference is that the one tells us what happened and the other the sort of thing that would happen. This is why poetry is at once more like philosophy and more worth while than history, since poetry tends to make general statements, while those of history are particular. A ‘general statement’ means one that tells us what sort of man would, probably or necessarily, say or do what sort of things, and this is what poetry aims at, though it attaches proper names; a particular statement on the other hand tells us what Alcibiades, for instance, did or what happened to him.”
Aristotle, Poetics 1451b3-1
I like how Aristotle likens the poet to the philosopher—so much for the alleged war between them. However, I’m puzzled by Aristotle’s reason for thinking that the poet is more like the philosopher than the historian. Is it really the case that the poet’s business is to tell us what a certain sort of person would do? Is this what the philosopher is in the business of doing? Furthermore, the historian does tell us what has happened, as opposed to what would happen, but the historian also gives us an account of what happened—viz. an explanation. And isn’t part of the point of learning history is to know what we would most likely do in similar circumstances?


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