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Aristotelian Negotiations: Interweaving tragedy theory and the history of knowledge

The DFG project Aristotelian Negotiations officially ended on June 30, 2022. The project management and editing was done by Dr. Arata Takeda.

Project outline

The European tragedy is an invention of the early modern period. Its emergence within the context of the European Renaissance marks less a process of the rebirth, as the traditional name of the period suggests, than a process of reorientation and redefinition. In the course of debates over the theory of tragedy between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, controversial negotiations occur around the question of what kind of suffering should have primacy in tragedy: suffering of a catastrophe that proves to be unavoidable or suffering in face of a catastrophe that can eventually be avoided. The former as well as the latter kind of suffering, for which the terms ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ pathos are being suggested, were possible and common in ancient tragedy. The research literature does not tire of pointing out emphatically that Greek tragedy could also end happily – however, the fact that Aristotle in his “Poetics” gave explicit preference to soft pathos is readily overlooked. The history of tragedy decides the question of primacy between hard and soft pathos in favor of the former. Murder, blood, and corpses, instead of impending catastrophe and redemptive recognition, were to dominate in modern tragedy.

The project departed from the assumption that the emergence of the European tragedy is accompanied by a profound transformation of the idea of the tragic and sought to gain insights into the consequences of this transformation in terms of cultural history and gender politics. The fruitfulness of the project depended upon two things: first, how far it would succeed in proving that the distinction between hard and soft pathos is meaningful for the understanding of this transformation process; and second, the extent to which Walter Benjamin's dictum, according to which tragedy is based on the idea of sacrifice, would need to be critically historicized in the light of the expected findings.

If, according to Aristotle, soft pathos pertained more substantially to tragedy than hard pathos, this implied the cultural and political claim that tragedy should be based less on the idea of sacrifice than, on the contrary, on the rejection thereof. By performing sacrifice instead of offering it, tragedy has taken the civilizational step from presence to representation of violence and sacrifice. Yet the possible next step as suggested by Aristotle from representation to 'unnecessity' of violence and sacrifice did not occur. Through the investigation of the history of the idea of the tragic, the project sought to elucidate this fact and its far-reaching implications for cultural history, in particular with regard to the theory of sacrifice, the problem of dealing with empirical and represented violence, and the question of the legitimacy of religious and political violence.

Project information at GEPRIS.

Department of Philosophy and Humanities
Dahlem Research School
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft
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