Access to the full content is only available to members of institutions that have purchased access. If you belong to such an institution, please log in or find out more about how to order.



DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M036-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 20, 2024, from

Article Summary

Though poetry today seems a relatively marginal topic in philosophy, it was crucial for philosophy’s own initial self-definition. In ancient Greece, poetry was revered as the authoritative expression of sacred myth and traditional wisdom. With Socrates and Plato, philosophy began by distinguishing itself from poetry as a new, superior form of knowledge which could provide better guidance for life and even superior pleasure. Just as the sophists were attacked for relativism and deception, so were poets stridently criticized for irrationality and falsehood. For Plato, not only did poetry stem from and appeal to the emotional, unreasoning aspects of human nature; it was also far removed from truth, being only an imitation of our world of appearances which itself was but an imitation of the real world of ideas or forms. He therefore insisted that poets be banished from his ideal state because they threatened its proper governance by reason and philosophy.

Subsequent philosophy of poetry has been devoted to overcoming Plato’s condemnatory theory, while tending to confirm philosophy’s superiority. This task, begun by Aristotle, was for a long time pursued primarily under Plato’s general model of poetry (and indeed all art) as imitation or mimesis. The main strategy here was to argue that what poetry imitates or represents is more than mere superficial appearance, but rather general essences or the ideas themselves. For such theories, poetry’s relation to truth is crucial. Other theories were later developed that preferred to define and justify poetry in terms of formal properties or expression, or its distinctively beneficial effects on its audience. These strategies became increasingly influential from the time of Romanticism, but can be traced back to more ancient sources.

The vast majority of theories follow Plato in treating poetry as a distinct domain, separate from and subordinate to philosophy. But since Romanticism, some have argued for the essential unity of these two enterprises. Great philosophy is here seen as the poetic creation of new ways of thinking and new forms of language, while the role of poetry as uniting and gathering things together so that the truth and presence of being shines forth.

Citing this article:
Shusterman, Richard M.. Poetry, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M036-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.