Tragedy and Philosophy


Richard Marshall interviews Dennis Schmidt in 3:AM Magazine:

3:AM: You have written about the tension between tragedy and philosophy – German philosophy in particular. What is this tension?

DS: I would suggest that this tension is at the very root of the idea of philosophy that we have inherited in the West and that, until recently, has largely gone unchallenged. Over time, this tension was simply set aside as philosophy increasingly came to neglect the claims of art. But when philosophy as we now know it began Plato took the work of art, especially tragedies (and here Homer is included since Plato does not distinguish tragedy and epic as Aristotle will), as a sort of foil in his efforts to delineate this new way of speaking about the world called “philosophy.” A different stage or theatre was exposed – a theatre of ideas in the mind, not of actors on the stage – language and dialogue were still crucial to this new theatre, but even the residue of theatre that belonged to philosophical dialogue would very soon disappear. The birth of the essay, of the treatise, is coterminous with the essential exclusion of the work of art from philosophy. [As an aside, I would suggest that interviews, such as the one’s you conduct, are a gentle way of restoring something of the dialogue character of thinking to philosophy.] Part of the argument that I made in speaking of the German recovery of Greek tragedy as a philosophical problem is that this marks a genuinely new moment in the long history of philosophy and that this recovery of tragedy as a question opens up avenues for philosophy in general that have been closed off since the beginnings of philosophy.

Perhaps the most direct way to characterize this tension is to say that tragedy is the expression of a view of life as defined finally by an insurmountable contradiction (of a law of life at odds with itself), while philosophy will always aim at a sort of overcoming of contradiction (of the law of non-contradiction as the need of truth). There is, of course, more to be said. The form of presentation proper to tragedy is, as Aristotle notes, reliant upon language, meter, plot, spectacle, and stage. Tragedy needs to appeal to emotional life, to a feeling that perhaps cannot be conceptualized. Philosophy, on the other hand, is deeply distrustful of any turn to emotional life and it is equally suspicious of any language that does not abide by the rule of the concept, that is, by the demand for universalizability and consistency. The concept has long remained the mother tongue of philosophy and, at the same time, a tragedy that can be reduced to its concept does not merit the claim of being a work of art.

More here.