Friday, April 4, 2014

From philosophy to art

 I mentioned in an earlier post that one could learn a lot about Hegel by reading what others have written about him. Since then I have begun reading Hegel himself, at least his Aesthetics. Right from the beginning, when Hegel excludes "das Naturschöne" from his aesthetics, it was apparent why Goethe would not have traveled that road. What interests Hegel is "das Kunstschöne," which is superior to the beauty of nature because it is beauty born and reborn "aus dem Geiste." He goes on:

Ja formell betrachtet ist selbst ein schlechter Einfall, wie er dem Menschen wohl durch den Kopf geht, höher als irgen ein Naturproduct; denn in solchem Einfalle ist immer die Geistigkeit und Freiheit präsent.

Natural existences like the sun, he writes are indifferent, "nicht in sich frei und selbstbewußt."

Frankly this kind of thinking appeals to me.  It is not surprising that I am a scholar of the 18th century, not of the Romantic period. While I admire the beauty of the natural world, especially the order that it manifests, my heart does not leap when I behold a rainbow in the sky. I recall now that my heart kept beating after after Rick's death, but life no longer seemed worth living. When the first spring arrived, it was only with intellectual curiosity that I noted the rebirth of the flowers and the cherry blossoms in Central Park. It was Kant's observations on aesthetic judgment that pre-occupied me.

Kant is also a philosopher that one can learn a lot about by reading what others have said, although I did spend some time in graduate school grappling with the Critique of Judgment. And at some stage I got Kant's point: it is our ability to respond subjectively -- whether to the beauty of sunsets or to the Sistine Chapel -- that makes our other cognitive accomplishments possible. In other words, because we feel we can also think. Which doesn't mean that our feelings of pleasure or displeasure are objective, but these feelings seem validated because other people feel the same way. A kind of "universal hand" operates, especially in our public judgments, whether it concerns art or politics, and we find ourselves in a community of people who think the same way. (For this reason "TED talks" have always annoyed me: see this particularly obnoxious clip. The outtake? See how virtuous we are, and you can be, too, if you think like us.)

This may not be the usual way of interpreting Kant, but lately I came up with another new interpretation. Kant was laying down the condition for the possibility of experience. To 21st-century ears, Kant's statement about "enlightenment" -- "Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority" -- suggests autonomy, with its demand of independence from the opinions of others. From where we stand now in the 21st century, that statement seems to suggest that everyone should be independent of everyone else. But if everyone agrees on such an interpretation, it too is a subjective aesthetic judgment; it is "true" because "everyone" agrees. Freedom of thought, therefore, might lead to adherence to authority, not rejection of it.

In our critical judgments, in our evaluation of how we are to act, we may choose dependence, not for the extreme cases of which the philosophes spoke in the eighteenth century, but, for instance, in adhering to our marriage vows or our responsibilities toward our children or our students. (Diderot, however, sought philosophically to undermine the first.) In the modern world we are all in the same boat, but our "self-determining freedom" does not mean that we all evaluate life in the same way. I don't know if Kant predicted or hoped for the extreme outcome of autonomy in practice, but it does not follow that we are unfree if we accept our dependencies, especially in our relationships with others. Of course, it also follows that we critically evaluate the choices we wish to embark on, e.g., whether to marry or to have children. For most people, and I include myself here, critical evaluation often comes après (not avant) la lettre, at which point we are left with contemplating what role duty should play in determining our behavior.

The title of this post indicates what I had actually wanted to write about, namely, the 19th-century turn away from philosophy and toward art. Stay tuned.

Pictures sources: Hplus magazine; America Reads

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