Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 16: Recognition

December 29th, 2013 by

As I’ve been interviewing screenwriters, I typically ask what some of their influences are. One book title comes up over and over again: Aristotle’s “Poetics”. I confess I’ve never read the entire thing, only bits and pieces. So I thought, why not do a weekly series with a post each Sunday to provide a structure to compel me to go through it. That way we’d all benefit from the process.

For background on Aristotle, you can go here to see an article on him in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

To download “Poetics,” you can go here.

Part 16: Recognition

What Recognition is has been already explained. We will now enumerate
its kinds.

First, the least artistic form, which, from poverty of wit, is most
commonly employed- recognition by signs. Of these some are congenital-
such as ‘the spear which the earth-born race bear on their bodies,’
or the stars introduced by Carcinus in his Thyestes. Others are acquired
after birth; and of these some are bodily marks, as scars; some external
tokens, as necklaces, or the little ark in the Tyro by which the discovery
is effected. Even these admit of more or less skilful treatment. Thus
in the recognition of Odysseus by his scar, the discovery is made
in one way by the nurse, in another by the swineherds. The use of
tokens for the express purpose of proof- and, indeed, any formal proof
with or without tokens- is a less artistic mode of recognition. A
better kind is that which comes about by a turn of incident, as in
the Bath Scene in the Odyssey.

Next come the recognitions invented at will by the poet, and on that
account wanting in art. For example, Orestes in the Iphigenia reveals
the fact that he is Orestes. She, indeed, makes herself known by the
letter; but he, by speaking himself, and saying what the poet, not
what the plot requires. This, therefore, is nearly allied to the fault
above mentioned- for Orestes might as well have brought tokens with
him. Another similar instance is the ‘voice of the shuttle’ in the
Tereus of Sophocles.

The third kind depends on memory when the sight of some object awakens
a feeling: as in the Cyprians of Dicaeogenes, where the hero breaks
into tears on seeing the picture; or again in the Lay of Alcinous,
where Odysseus, hearing the minstrel play the lyre, recalls the past
and weeps; and hence the recognition.

The fourth kind is by process of reasoning. Thus in the Choephori:
‘Some one resembling me has come: no one resembles me but Orestes:
therefore Orestes has come.’ Such too is the discovery made by Iphigenia
in the play of Polyidus the Sophist. It was a natural reflection for
Orestes to make, ‘So I too must die at the altar like my sister.’
So, again, in the Tydeus of Theodectes, the father says, ‘I came to
find my son, and I lose my own life.’ So too in the Phineidae: the
women, on seeing the place, inferred their fate- ‘Here we are doomed
to die, for here we were cast forth.’ Again, there is a composite
kind of recognition involving false inference on the part of one of
the characters, as in the Odysseus Disguised as a Messenger. A said
[that no one else was able to bend the bow; … hence B (the disguised
Odysseus) imagined that A would] recognize the bow which, in fact,
he had not seen; and to bring about a recognition by this means- the
expectation that A would recognize the bow- is false inference.

But, of all recognitions, the best is that which arises from the incidents
themselves, where the startling discovery is made by natural means.
Such is that in the Oedipus of Sophocles, and in the Iphigenia; for
it was natural that Iphigenia should wish to dispatch a letter. These
recognitions alone dispense with the artificial aid of tokens or amulets.
Next come the recognitions by process of reasoning.

I believe the Greek word Aristotle uses here for the term “recognition” is Anagnorisis (ἀναγνώρισις). One definition I found online:

The recognition or discovery by the protagonist of the identity of some character or the nature of his own predicament, which leads to the resolution of the plot; denouement.

The root of the Greek word is related to “gnosis” which means ‘knowledge,’ thus recognition is tied to some new knowledge a character learns that pivots their understanding of their situation.

Aristotle’s list of five types of recognition evolves from least “artistic” to most. Briefly they are:

* Signs or marks
* Contrived by author
* Prompted by memory
* Deductive reasoning

There appears to be an intriguing arc at work here. The first two would seem to be the most obvious examples of a writer’s hand print. The next two are elevated in status because they move the recognition from outside the story universe — the writer’s hand — to inside, rooted in the experience of the characters. Memory would seem to be less than deductive reasoning because the former is more internal in nature while the latter lends itself to an interactive experience with the audience whereby we participate in the character’s revelatory process.

Based upon what we have studied thus far, it is abundantly clear why the last type on the list ranks the highest in Aristotle’s opinion: “But, of all recognitions, the best is that which arises from the incidents themselves, where the startling discovery is made by natural means” [emphasis added].

This reads like classic Aristotle, taking us back to the ideas of ‘necessity’ and ‘probability’ whereby it is the events in the plot themselves that create the circumstances of the revelation. And this makes perfect sense as from an audience standpoint, it represents the most immersive way of participating in the recognition — as the character experiences occurrences which lead to discovery, so too do we.

Yet even as Aristotle talks about “incidents” that drive the revelation, thus seemingly grounded in plot, there is an implicit connection to character: For the very idea of ‘recognition’ requires a character to do the recognizing. That is, the incidents are meaningless unless they mean something revelatory to specific characters.

In other words, revelation can happen in the plot. But recognition requires an awareness arising within a character.

So once again in “Poetics,” a discussion about plot necessarily involves character, a fact which continues to support my ongoing take about Aristotle’s theories: Plot cannot be separated from character.

Consider one of the most famous recognitions in recent film history – the ending of The Sixth Sense where Malcolm (Bruce Willis) realizes he is dead:

This recognition falls entirely into Aristotle’s fifth category, Malcolm looking back at key incidents in his experience, stitching them together and now seeing them in a different light. But they are his memories and his emotions that create and drive the recognition. The incidents are meaningless without the meaning Malcolm ascribes to them in this moment of revelation.

A reminder: I am looking at “Poetics” through the lens of screenwriting, what is its relevance to the craft in contemporary times. And I welcome the observations of any Aristotle experts to set me straight as I’m just trying to work my way through this content the best I can.

How about you? What do you take from Part 16 of Aristotle’s “Poetics”?

See you here next Sunday for another installment of this series.

For the entire series, go here.

Comment Archive

5 thoughts on “Studying Aristotle’s “Poetics” — Part 16: Recognition

  1. This section reminded me of two favorite moments of recognition during Odysseus’ homecoming in “The Odyssey” – both involving memory, both actually involving a double recognition, and with one also involving reasoning. My favorite moment is when Odysseus shows up at his home at last, disguised as a beggar, and recognizes his ancient hound, no longer the pup that he left behind; and as soon as that ancient hound hears Odysseus speak, he wags his tail in recognition of his master’s voice (and dies almost immediately thereafter, having waited faithfully until his master’s return). And then when Odysseus goes to Penelope to reveal himself, she tells the nurse to make up the master’s bed, and move it outside the chamber. Penelope knows the true Odysseus will react with outrage at this false instruction, since their bed platform is the stump of an enormous olive tree, rooted in place; her little test, then, is both a demand that he prove he is indeed her husband by knowledge of that detail, to confirm her visual recognition (after all, they haven’t seen one another in twenty years), and also a sly demand that he in turn recognize her fidelity, since she won’t allow any man into her bedchamber who can’t provide that intimate bit of knowledge about their marital bed.

    And just this weekend in “American Hustle” I watched another wife, faithless and feckless, provide another character with a moment of recognition that involved reasoning; I don’t want to give a spoiler here in case anyone hasn’t seen it yet, but it was such a delightful little visual moment, watching recognition dawn on the other character’s face as he took in what she said and then realized what it meant.

    Thank you yet again, Scott, for leading us through this discussion of “The Poetics” – I look forward to digging even further into Aristotle’s work in 2014.

  2. pgronk says:

    Oh yes, The Odyssey. And there’s a 3rd great recogntion scene in the homecoming. The housekeeper, the old nurse, Eurycleia, recognizes the scar on Odysseus’ thigh from a boar hunt.

    To the Big Four listed by Aristotle, I would like to suggest a 5th: emotional recognition. It’s hard to achieve in movies– to sell it as an authentic moment– but then is it any easier to achieve in real life?

    The best example that comes to mind is the crisis and climax of the therapy of Conrad Jarrett , the suicidal teenager in “Ordinary People”. Conrad is continually prompted by the memory of his brother’s death in the boating accident. That’s no help — it’s pure hell. And all the logical reasoning in the world from his parents, his teachers, his friends and his shrink is of no avail in relieving his burden of guilt and quelling his suicidal impulses.

    He has to discover an emotional solution to his problem, discover it himself, discover it from within. Guided and supported by his therapist, he fights his way through the pain of memory and guilt to the life-saving emotional recognition in the most powerful and authentic session of therapy I ever seen dramatized in a movie.

  3. Oh, yes, pgronk, the boar scar is another wonderful recognition moment. And I love your concept of emotional recognition, and the example from “Ordinary People”; another example of that kind of painful emotional recognition, I think, is the dishwasher scene from “Rachel Getting Married,” when the gut punch of seeing the dead little brother’s plate brings the up-until-then hilarious dish-loading competition to an abrupt, silent halt.

  4. pgronk says:


    Yes. Moments of quiet but significant emotional recognition — epiphanies — that trigger turning points. I just saw another one while re-viewing “Titanic” for a group discussion.

    While obviously miserable being engaged to Cal, the heir to a steel fortune, Rose rejects every one of Jack’s logical arguments and appeals to break off the engagement. After Jack’s most direct and earnest intervention — she know he’s speaking the truth — she goes back to the 1% crowd. To a small scene, a quiet moment, where she sees a young girl being coaxed by her mother to fit into the manners and decorum, the straight jacket of how the 1% are supposed to act. Not a word is spoken as she has a transforming moment of emotional recognition.

    In the next scene, she finds Jack on the bow of the ship. The Big Midpoint/Turning Point Musical Moment. She’s changed her mind and the course of her life.

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