Blogging Through Truth and Method, Post 2: The Subjectivization of Aesthetics (42-81)

In the last few pages of the previous section, Gadamer dismissed the relegation of taste to the realm of aesthetics; in this section, he is going to critique two major schools of aesthetics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and hint at his own vision for the field moving forward.

Kantian Aesthetics

Kant’s major aesthetic work is the third critique, the Critique of Judgment, in which he posited that taste was a subjective, a priori element and sought to legitimize judgments of taste. (I have read sections of the Critique of Judgment, of which I can say only that it is less bewildering than the Critique of Pure Reason.) Kant says that aesthetic judgments can’t be justified or proved from universal principles; they must go beyond empiricism, even though they are a priori and can claim some universality.

This means, among other things, that Kant removes taste from the realm of knowledge. In other words, when we find a given object beautiful, we don’t need to know it; rather, our sense of beauty comes from a feeling that a given object is suitable to ourselves. If you’re familiar with Kant’s metaphysics, you can probably see how this claim flows forth rather naturally from his distinction between noumenon and phenomenon. Thus, aesthetic judgments don’t involve our knowledge of the objects we’re judging, but at the same time, they are not merely subjective; they involve our making claims for all of humanity.

Kant distinguishes between free beauty, which belongs to natural objects and to abstract artistic objects, and dependent beauty, which is dependent in the sense that it relies on some outside principle for its aesthetic evaluation. Along with the distinction comes a clear privileging of free beauty, a privileging that Gadamer finds disastrous, for it consigns to the inferior realm of dependent beauty “the whole realm of poetry, of the plastic arts and of architecture, as well as all the objects of nature that we do not look at simply in terms of their beauty, as we do decorative flowers” (45). In other words, Kant’s aesthetic judgment is based on what is present to the judge’s senses, never to her thoughts.

Oddly enough, however, Kant also posits an ideal of beauty—but only in reference to human form, since only the human form involves the “expression of the moral” (47). This doctrine is connected to concepts and ends, however, and therefore contradicts what Kant has already said: “There is an ideal of beauty only of the human form precisely because it alone is capable of a beauty fixed by a concept of end!” (47). Other forms cannot have ideals of beauty—only normative ideas of correctness. (This cow, for example, looks the way a cow is supposed to look, but it can neither conform nor fail to conform to an ideal of beauty, because there is no such thing as ideal bovine beauty.)

Hegel is going to claim that all art “presents man with himself” (48). But if Kant is correct, any art other than representations of human beings borrows its moral expression from human life. Human beings alone are capable of expressing human ideas in themselves. So, for example, a bent tree does not feel wretched, even though we can look at it and extrapolate wretchedness. But a morally bent man ostensibly feels wretched at the same time that he inspires feelings of wretchedness in others.

The job of art, then, is not merely to instill pleasure but to force human beings to encounter themselves in the world. Once we recognize that taste does not exist conceptually, we can move beyond taste to something higher, and art can work on something more than merely the senses.

Kant’s privileging of nature over art is due to the fact that nature exists for some reason other than confronting human beings with themselves; thus, when it does confront us, it does so more powerfully than art. Gadamer mostly appreciates this argument, but he wants to reverse the privileging of the natural over the artistic. Instead, he says, “the advantage of art over natural beauty is that the language of art exerts its claims, and does not offer itself freely and indeterminately for interpretation according to one’s mood, but speaks to us in a significant and definite way” (51). The advantage of art, in other words, is precisely that it exists in tandem with concepts—and if we can take concepts into account, Gadamer believes our aesthetics will be more complex than Kant’s. Art allows for play and imagination in a way that nature simply does not.

Genius and the Romantics

Kant talks about genius in the Critique of Judgment, but he says that genius should be governed by taste, because genius is an individual example of the higher category of the artistically beautiful, whereas taste is universal. The Idealists and Romantics who follow in his wake, however, jettison (or at the very least severely modify) his metaphysics, and so their view of aesthetics end up being quite different from his. Where Kant is interested in taste rather than genius and natural rather than artificial beauty, Hegel, Schelling, and the others privilege the exact opposite: They are interested in genius, not taste, and they praise artistic beauty over natural beauty.

Kant, it must be admitted, is interested in taste in a very particular way; he “speaks of a perfection of taste. But what is that? The normative character of taste implies the possibility of its being cultivated and perfected” (57). Kant believes in perfect and unchangeable taste. The problem, as Gadamer sees it, is that “the idea of perfect taste which Kant discusses would be more appropriately defined by the concept of genius” (57). After all, there can be no idea of perfect taste in relation to natural beauty, only in relation to artistic creation.

Genius, then, seems to be much better suited for philosophical aesthetics than taste does, and this is exactly the direction that Hegel and his successors will go—they will focus more on the creator of art than on the consumer. As such, they will become much less concerned with “the moral interest in natural beauty that Kant had portrayed so enthusiastically” (58). What matters about art for Hegel and the Hegelians is its ability to confront human beings with themselves. Gadamer sees this largely as a positive development; he doesn’t see much use in speaking of natural beauty, because we’re always going to judge the natural world by the standards of the art of the time. Thus, eighteenth-century Europeans tended to think of the Alps as ugly because they didn’t adhere to the standard of symmetry ascendant at the time.

Nineteenth-century aesthetics are also marked by the concept of Erlebnis, a complicated idea that invokes both immediate and direct experience and the permanent content of that experience. Thus, it involves a direct experience that becomes something permanent and lasting. Wilhelm Dilthey is largely responsible for the use of this term, and Dilthey tends to treat experience as the raw material of the human sciences. These experiences are united into a more or less cohesive whole, united by a transcendental ego. Erlebnis becomes what we remember—what we cannot forget, the thing whose meaning continues to work on us throughout our lives.
How Erlebniskunst Ruined Your Freshmen 

Erlebniskunst is one of those wonderful German compound words; it refers both to art based on direct experience and art that is intended to present its consumer with a direct experience. It became the dominant evaluative view of art in the late nineteenth century, but Gadamer finds it to be an artificially limiting one:

If we start to look beyond the limits of Erlebniskunst and have recourse to other criteria, new vistas open up within European art: we discover that from the classical period up to the age of the baroque art was dominated by quite other standards of value than that of being experienced, and thus our eyes are opened to totally unfamiliar artistic worlds. (71)

Any teacher of freshman English classes knows exactly what Gadamer is talking about here: Erlebniskunst is so dominant in popular views of art that students often come to Introduction to Literature without any way to evaluate works of art that don’t attempt to express their creator’s direct experience. Blame Goethe.

In this section, Gadamer is particularly interested in the modern distinction between symbol and allegory. Allegory, a rhetorical figure, involves saying something by saying something more tangible. Symbol, on the other hand, involves a tangible object with its own meaning, albeit one connected to another, intangible meaning.

Both symbol and allegory arise in religious works. Allegory begins out of a need to “code” offensive or unacceptable material—the Book of Revelation, for example, is allegorical in order to make it past Roman censors and to reveal its truths to the underground Christians. Symbol, on the other hand, is more fundamental: “it is possible to know the divine in no other way than by starting from the world of the senses” (73). Symbol is thus metaphysical in a way that allegory is not—the connection between visible and invisible is conceived of as intrinsic in a way that it is not in allegory. Thus, the symbol is “inherently and essentially significant,” whereas the allegory “has external and artificial significance” (74).

In the nineteenth century, with the rise of the genius, the symbol became valuable at the expense of the allegory, precisely because the materials of art were supposed to have intrinsic rather than artificial meanings. The artist was supposed to make connections that were invisibly there all along; form and essence had to be united, albeit not without tension. The decline of religious fervor in this era meant that allegory was problematic.

Ultimately, “Nineteenth-century aesthetics was founded on the freedom of the symbol-making activity of the mind” (81), but Gadamer doubts that this foundation is sound. After all, for most of human history, it was not the foundation of art—people had direct access to works of art, which they enjoyed for more than their aesthetic pleasures. Applying the Erlebniskunst criterion to such works misunderstands them.

3 thoughts on “Blogging Through Truth and Method, Post 2: The Subjectivization of Aesthetics (42-81)

  1. Dear David, Michial and Nathan
    I stumbled onto your podcast late last year on a random search for Aeschylus related podcasts – I studied Greek tragedy at university over twenty years and mid-life has made them more relevant
    This is just a brief note to say thank you for your podcasts – I listen in often while sitting in the car waiting for my kids to finish dance rehearsals or football practice or catching public transport –  your conversations have given me great pleasure and joy: they are stimulating, fun, provocative and interesting – sometimes I laugh out loud, sometimes I have an ahh-hah moment, sometimes I disagree violently – I guess that’s mission accomplished for you. 
    I’m still way back in the eighties (ie episode numbers not culturally – but I think I’m getting dated by some of your opening music – good choices by the way) – when I’m closer to the current I’ll try to drop a line that’s more specific to the content of the discussion
    Thanks for getting me back to reading philosophy and history and serious fiction – tho I’m not sure if my wife would second that.  Even more importantly thanks for opening my eyes to a different perspective on Christian Americans – I’m sure that you are aware that the stereotype of dogmatic, prejudiced, close-minded American fundamentalist is the dominant picture outside of the US – it’s great to have an alternative and I often you guys as an example of thoughtful, inclusive and authentically lived (in an existentialist way) Christianity.
    All the best and well done – It’s a big commitment and you’ve not only sustained a great conversation – you’ve improved over time
    Paul Robertson
    Melbourne Australia

    1. paul_rob1965 Thanks for listening and for commenting, Paul.  We’re always glad to see our work getting out to the world, and I’m glad that you’re enjoying what you hear so far.  Since our recording schedule largely revolves about the academic calendar, I imagine you could get caught up and be right up with us by the time we start recording again, probably in August or September.  
      I find it especially interesting (and gratifying) that we’re defying some international stereotypes.  I don’t travel much myself (too busy to relish the opportunity to be away from the house YET AGAIN), but certainly I’m not unaware of the bad pictures that some folks have of American Protestants.  And it’s good to hear, once in a while, that what we’re doing is not, at least in some minds, part of the problem.
      Thanks again, and feel free to write in any time!

  2. I’m fascinated by allegory, not only because I teach medieval literature but also because Plato seems to hold out allegory as a horizon for reading even Homer well (and we know how Plato felt about Homer).  That’s why I appreciate Gadamer’s historical treatment in this section of the decline of allegory as a culturally valid move in art–it’s a function, as you note at the end, of the decline of specifically theological piety and the rise of contenders, first art-as-religion and ultimately, I would content, something like what Alasdair MacIntyre would call emotivism.  
    All of that is to say that I’m hopeful that Gadamer might, over the course of this book, do some more work to rehabilitate allegory as philosophically powerful art and give me some more to think on with regards to that much-maligned genre.

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