Some Very Preliminary Remarks on Hegel’s Aesthetics (Updated)


Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

According to our – very plastic – seminar-schedule, the tentative completion-date for our cooperative reading of Hegel’s Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics is the middle of June, which is approaching.  I myself am now engaged in a second reading of the Lectures, with the aim of making careful notes to be the basis of a short essay.  I will post that essay at The Orthosphere.  The present short missive consists of what I hope are helpful hints to anyone tackling Hegel’s treatise.

Believe it or not, the Lectures show Hegel’s prose at what might be its most accessible and least abstract; its chapters are few, only five, and three of the five are relatively short.  Readers should remind themselves on every turn of the page that the first four chapters constitute the preparation for the fifth chapter, where Hegel (at last, readers might well say when they reach it finally) addresses the topic entirely in his own voice.  Being an historical thinker par excellence and, in his own terms, a dialectical thinker, Hegel, in the first four chapters, mainly rehearses the history of aesthetics and critiques other theories of fine art and the beautiful prior to or in contention with his own.  Here again readers need to take care to keep separate Hegel’s summaries of what other, previous thinkers have had to say about fine art and beauty, and what Hegel himself holds to be the case.

Despite dealing mainly in an historical review of the topic, the first four chapters of the Lectures do in fact contain original statements.  Often, in critiquing someone else’s theory, Hegel will attempt to rescue from it, despite what he sees as its errors or inadequacies, something pertinent or true, as he sees it.  He is wont to accomplish this by negation, however, which means that readers must always sift his grammar with the utmost of attention.

Hegel considers that while fine art, whether it is music, sculpture, or poetry, necessarily has a material component in the realm of phenomena, that same fine art belongs essentially to an immaterial or metaphysical realm.  In this, the reader encounters a vocabulary difficulty.  Hegel sometimes speaks of “mind” or “consciousness,” but he is just as apt to substitute the word “idea,” sometimes capitalized, as a synonym.  Thus “consciousness” is its “idea” of itself; but as the whole of the cosmos is likewise an “idea,” that is, a “mind” or “consciousness,” with which the individual, subjective “mind” or “consciousness” must come to grips, and which furnishes the artist with the “content” of his artistic production – well, things can become a bit tangled.  I might give testimony here that on a second reading, things seem to fall in place more readily than they did on a first reading.

Another vocabulary snarl is the distinction between Hegel’s usage of the term “idea,” which has the meanings given above, and his usage of the term “ideal.”  What Hegel means by “ideal” is best indicated by an example (mine, not his): Painter Smith’s oil-on-canvas of a leaping antelope might well constitute the ideal expression of (what to call it?) “antelopeness,” which no one will ever encounter no matter how many actual antelopes he investigates.  “Ideal” refers in Hegel’s usage to the articulation of the pure genus, and it can only be an intuition, never anything empirical.

Hegel also ranks fine art, because it is a living product of the mind, as higher in the order of being, than nature, which is, for him, mere phenomenon.  Readers should pay careful attention to the almost casual remarks in the first lecture where Hegel puts fine art and beauty in the same exalted category as religion and philosophy.  Although these remarks might seem to a first-time reader to be made, casually indeed, and purely in passing, they are in fact thematic: They are fundamental tenets of the theory of fine art and beauty at which Hegel finally arrives, giving his authorial conclusions, in the fifth lecture.

I give below what I believe to be a crucial passage right in the middle of the third and middle lecture (section XLVII):

“God is more honored by what the mind does or makes than by productions or formations of nature.  For not only is there a divinity [Gottheit] in man, but in him it is operative under a form that is appropriate to the essence of God, in a mode quite other and higher than nature.  God is spirit [Geist], and it is only in man that the medium through which the divine element passes has the form of conscious spirit, that actively realizes itself.  In nature the corresponding medium is the unconscious, sensible, and external, which is far below consciousness in value.  In the products of art God is operative neither more nor less than in the phenomena of nature; but the divine element, as it makes itself known in the work of art, has attained, as being generated out of the mind, an adequate thoroughfare for its existence; while existence in the unconscious sensuousness of nature is not a mode of appearance adequate to the Divine Being.”

Oh – and another thing.  Readers should try not to be put off by Hegel’s repeated invocation of “science” [Wissenschaft], his word for the discourse of what is absolute and necessary.  Hegel uses the word “science” under a definition radically other than the one that would be offered on inquiry by, say, a contemporary university science faculty.

2 thoughts on “Some Very Preliminary Remarks on Hegel’s Aesthetics (Updated)

  1. Pingback: Some Very Preliminary Remarks on Hegel’s Aesthetics | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: Some Very Preliminary Remarks on Hegel’s Aesthetics | Reaction Times


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