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Cognition in Aristotle's Poetics

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image of Mnemosyne

This paper examines Aristotle's understanding of the contributions of perceptual and rational cognition to the composition and reception of poetry. An initial outline of Aristotle's cognitive psychology shows that Aristotelian perception is sufficiently powerful to sustain very rich, complex patterns of behaviour in human as well as non-human animals, and examines the interaction between perception (cognition of the particular and the 'that') and the distinctive capacity for reason (which makes possible cognition of the universal and the 'why') in human behaviour. The rest of the paper applies this framework to a number of problems in the Poetics: (i) If Aristotelian tekhnê is defined as a productive disposition involving reason, how can poetic tekhnê be manifested in the work of poets who work by non-rational habit or talent? (ii) Why does Aristotle believe that the pleasure taken in imitation qua imitation involves rational inference? (iii) What does Aristotle mean when he contrasts history (concerned with the particular) and poetry (concerned with the universal)? (iv) How is Aristotle's insistence on universality and rationality in the construction of poetic plots to be reconciled with his willingness to tolerate irrationalities and implausibilities?

Affiliations: 1: Department of Classics, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK;, Email:


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