Since Socrates' attack on poetry, philosophers and critics have been faced with the problem of reconciling two convictions which seem equally pressing. While poetry (or imaginative literature) is and has been valued as a source of insight and knowledge, it also seems clear that poetic meaning is of a rather different sort than that found in science, ordinary language, or (to introduce the classical contrast) prose. Philosophical theories of poetry, then, take one of two forms: either they deny one of these two beliefs, implying perhaps that poetry has only nonsensical or literal meaning, or they provide a cognitive analysis of poetry which differentiates its meaning from that of prose. Hegel took the second alternative, maintaining both that poetry "has been the most universal and cosmopolitan instructor of the human race" and that the logic or meaning of poetry is radically unprosaic. Poetry's cognitive value, like that of philosophy, religion, and the other forms of art, can be expressed most generally by saying that it is a form of absolute spirit in which knowledge is thorough self-knowledge; the mode or form of this knowledge is reason or dialectic as opposed to the rigid categories of the understanding. These formulas by themselves are not illuminating, being in Hegel's terms mere abstract universals; they take on concrete meaning only when we see them functioning in their capacity of actually explaining the essential forms, aspects, expressions, and historical varieties of poetry.

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Publication Date

Spring 1975

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Copyright © 1980 Pennsylvania State University Press. This article first appeared in Philosophy and Rhetoric 8, no. 2 (Spring 1975): 88-107.

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