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  • Dangerous Knowledge:On the Epistemic and Moral Significance of Arts in Education
  • David Carr (bio)

Plato and Aristotle

Plato is usually credited as the source of the "ancient quarrel" between reason and rhetoric—and, for him, the arts fall mostly on the less favorable side of rhetoric.1 To be sure, Plato's harsh verdict on the arts rests on an idealist metaphysics and epistemology (or realism about universals)—enshrining a general pessimism about the epistemic prospects of sense experience—which few, nowadays, would consider persuasive. For Plato, since what is presented to us by the senses is no more than an inaccurate copy of truth as revealed by the intellect, and since the artist merely reproduces such copies, the productions of artists are not once but twice removed from any genuine knowledge of reality. To be sure, Plato is not entirely consistent about this: for example, since music may embody an ideal (perhaps Pythagorean) order of mathematical balance, proportion, and harmony, exposure to some sorts of music may be conducive to right order in the soul. In general, however, the artist is less than welcome in Plato's ideal polity.

On the other hand, the more naturalist drift of Aristotle's philosophy—not least his emphasis on the significance of experience for cultivation of the judgements of practical wisdom—is much more hospitable to the contribution of arts to positive human formation. Indeed, insofar as Aristotle considered proper emotional development (as distinct from mere emotional control) necessary to the growth of the practical wisdom of virtue, and also regarded (at least some) arts as conducive to such growth, he also recognized the potential significance of music and poetry for the development of virtue. Thus, if "Sophocles draws men as they ought to be and Euripides draws them as they are,"2 then the exploration of moral ideals provided by [End Page 1] the former and the knowledge of human nature offered by the latter might serve to promote healthy moral reflection and properly ordered emotion.

At all events, the significance for human moral development of the arts was clearly recognized by both Plato and Aristotle. Since for Plato morality is a matter of reason rather than emotion (or affect), and all that aims to sway the emotions is to that extent morally suspect, the art of rhetoric in particular and the arts in general may be considered a mixed moral blessing. If it is not, therefore, best to exile artists altogether from the ideal state, their work should at least be subject to censorship—perhaps, indeed, pressed into the service of state control and propaganda. For Aristotle, on the other hand, insofar as the artist can assist us to understand the world, ourselves, and our relations with others—including the emotional or affective dimensions of our lives—great poetry may actually contribute to the development of moral virtue. That said, he would also have agreed with Plato about the morally problematic effects of some art—as indicated, for example, by his remarks on the adverse effects of some music in Politics.3

Art and Knowledge after Romanticism and Formalism

To this extent, Plato and Aristotle would seem to have agreed that there are significant connections between art and knowledge in general and/or moral knowledge in particular. To be sure, insofar as Plato held that most art deals in the blatant untruths of rhetoric—and is to that extent a source of sophistry and delusion—this remark needs some qualification. Thus, the key Platonic point seems to be that insofar as art can engender the irrational or nonrational falsehoods that preclude the development of knowledge, it is nevertheless of some epistemic significance—and so, to the extent that moral development is implicated in the development of knowledge, art would also be a matter of moral significance. For Plato, one serious impediment to knowledge is presence of the kind of nonrational emotions that arts apparently seek to arouse. For Aristotle, on the other hand, since emotional development is integral to the growth of moral wisdom, and poetry may contribute to the refinement of human affections, poetry and other arts may well contribute to the knowledge presupposed to such wisdom. In...


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