Katharsis is a beneficial transformation of painful emotions through absorbed contemplation of a powerfully moving work of art. The root meaning of "katharsis" in Greek is cleansing. The word can indicate the removal of impurities from, hence the amelioration of, any kind of substance. Before Aristotle, some philosophers had spoken (metaphorically) of psychological katharsis. Aristotle's student Aristoxenus claimed that Pythagoreans "achieved katharsis of the body through medicine, katharsis of the soul through music" (frag. 26). Plato sometimes employs the terminology of "katharsis" for philosophically extricating the soul or intellect from bodily concerns (e.g., Phaedo 67c; compare Sophist 226d–231b). But Aristotle was the first person to apply the term "katharsis" to the experience of tragedy.
The last clause of Aristotle's definition of tragedy in Poetics 6 describes tragedy as "accomplishing through pity and fear the katharsis of such emotions." No further reference to katharsis as the effect of tragedy occurs in the Poetics. Controversy over the "katharsis" clause remains acute, with no solution commanding great confidence. At issue are questions like the following: Did Aristotle mean occurrent emotions or underlying dispositions? Are pity and fear the only emotions involved? Is emotion the object or only the agency of katharsis? Does the term "katharsis" carry medical and/or religious overtones? Are the minds of tragedy's spectators purged, purified, clarified, or refined?
Our best aid to interpreting tragic katharsis is the account of musical katharsis in Aristotle's Politics 8.6–7, where Aristotle posits both pathological and normal cases of the phenomenon. As pity and fear are specifically cited in this context and further elucidation is promised in a discussion of poetry, there is a clear link with the Poetics. While Politics 8, focusing on educational needs, distinguishes various uses of music, it adopts a fundamentally character-centered view of music's capacity to "change the soul" through the passions (1340a4–b19). Though Aristotle regards both tragedy and music as mimetic (representational and expressive) art forms that arouse intense emotional states in their audiences, in his general moral psychology, ethical judgment, while cognitive, is influenced by feeling (Nicomachean Ethics 2.2–5, Rhetoric 2.1–11). Hence, we should not drive a wedge between the emotional and cognitive implications of katharsis.
Aristotle partially compares the mental effects of musical katharsis to both medical and ritual katharsis, but he nonetheless keeps musical katharsis independent of those spheres. Politics 8 encourages a model of tragic katharsis that integrates cognitive, affective, and ethical reactions into the special pleasure of tragedy. Since these reactions stem from emotional engagement with a mimetic plot structure (Poetics 14), and since all experience of mimesis is guided by cognitive awareness (Poetics 4), Aristotle's larger theory of tragedy supports the view that katharsis operates together with cognition and pleasure. Even so, katharsis should be viewed not as tragic pleasure per se but as a beneficial transformation of painful emotions, through the absorbed contemplation of a powerfully moving artwork, into a key component of a satisfyingly unified experience.
Because katharsis requires an uninhibited flow of emotion, it may bring a sense of "relief" (Politics 1342a14) and reduce any excess. But the popular modern association of katharsis with mere draining of blocked emotion oversimplifies Aristotle's perspective. The combined evidence of the Poetics and Politics suggests that Aristotle addressed Plato's concerns about emotional responses to art (Republic 606) by maintaining that such heightened emotion could channel an ethically valuable alignment of feeling and understanding. If so, it is plausible that his concept of katharsis had application to several art forms, perhaps including comedy.
Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated by Christopher Rowe. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Aristotle. Poetics. Translated by Stephen Halliwell. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Aristotle. Politics. Books VII and VIII. Translated by Richard Kraut. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997.
Halliwell, Stephen. Aristotle's Poetics. London: Duckworth, 1986.
Halliwell, Stephen. "La psychologie morale de la catharsis: Un essai de reconstruction." Études philosophiques 4 (2003): 499–517.
Lear, Jonathan. "Katharsis." Phronesis 33 (1988): 297–326.
Plato. Complete Works, edited by J. M. Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.
Stephen Halliwell (2005)