The Aesthetics of Kant and Hegel

If I had to sum up the differences between the aesthetics of Kant and Hegel, I’d put it this way: Kant is concerned with a metaphysical aesthetic in the abstract, while Hegel is concerned with art in the concrete. It’s rather difficult to trace their aesthetic ideas without conducting a full-blown study of their metaphysical systems, but I’m going to attempt to do just that – and I’m going to assume a working knowledge of both of their systems so as not to be to long-winded.

Hegel sees art and the beauty of art as another way that the Idea manifests itself in the world (keeping in mind that nature as such for Hegel is an external manifestation of the Idea). Broadly, Hegelian aesthetics emphasize aspects of art that are common coin in continental philosophy: the historicicism of art, that is, the context, history and meaning of art as an expression of the ideas of a culture or historical period. This is a significant difference from Kantian aesthetics, which are concerned with a much more universal aesthetic. Art is also seen by Hegel as being the reflection of the mind on truth.

Hegel takes a fairly typical idealist line with regard to the individual arts (Kant takes roughly the same line): the more ‘material’ an art is, the further away from the Ideal it is, and vice versa. So with that and mind, we can map out how Hegel thinks of individual arts roughly thus:


Poetry – No external embodiments – moves directly into the realm of ideas

Music – no spatial form – music can ‘reinterpret’ or ‘recollect’ different themes on each hearing

Painting – concerned with appearance as such and minimal material-ity

Sculpture – determined by content and concerned with showing bodily form (bodily form is a manifestation of the Spirit)

Architecture – an attempt to master a medium


A common theme in Hegelian metaphysics finds its way into his aesthetics, and that is the rising to self-consciousness of the mind, seen in his explanation of epic, lyric and dramatic poetry, the last of which being where the characters themselves become poets through their speeches and soliloquies (think here of Shakespearean drama) and rise to self-consciousness.

Kant takes a decidedly different route and develops an aesthetic characterized primarily by his idea of disinterestedness, or the contemplation of art and the beautiful for its own sake. It’s fair to say that this has been the dominant trajectory of aesthetics since Kant.

Disinterestedness is when we contemplate the beautiful in its perceptual form (Kant doesn’t see colour, smell and other sensations as being aesthetic because of their sensuous nature) in a non-practical, non-practical way. It is an end in itself, not something we use to attain an end. No concept attaches to matters of aesthetic judgements, which can be classified into to groups: judgements of pure taste, which is a judgement of beauty, and judgements of the agreeable, which is a judgement for oneself.

Kant holds that the beautiful is universally valid – for something to be beautiful is for something to be beautiful for all people. For me to say that ‘X is beautiful’ is then to, in a way, demand that other people see it as beautiful. It is to make a judgement for all people. This is the ‘aesthetic ought’, but differs from the more well-known ‘practical ought’ in that, since it is a matter of aesthetics, no concept attaches to it, and hence there is no way to resolve any kind of aesthetic disagreement which inevitably arises when someone makes a judgement of pure taste.

If there is no way to settle aesthetic disagreements, and one can’t simply be forced into agreement regarding a judgement of pure taste, then it seems that the idea of a universally valid idea of beauty is pretty empty. Kant makes a trademark move, however, and argues that the possibility of universal validity is a transcendental condition for beauty – it’s what must be possible for there to be beauty.

Kant called the principle that determines what is pleasing about perceptual form subjective finality, and it occurs when a form is pleasing for its own sake. When this happens, the imagination, which provides raw data for the understanding to synthesize with its categories, is united in a free interaction.

A few differences between Kant and Hegel:

- Kant’s aesthetic is purely subjective, and is concerned with the aesthetic as such in the abstract, as well as universal notions of art and aesthetics (as is typical for Kant).

- Hegel is concerned with particular expressions of art in all their historical/contextual concretness, because for Hegel art becomes actual in the particular. Hegel is thus much less concerned with an abstract metaphysic of beauty, because he sees the particular and concrete beauty of art as a manifestation of the Idea. A rough map:

Individual———-> self-consciousness———-> Idea

- Both, however, see the most ideal in the least material

- Hegel sees the rise to self-consciousness as an end, of sorts, for art

- Kant sees that the aesthetic has no end and is an end in itself – if it has an end, it’s not purely aesthetic. His aesthetic is much more ‘static’ and much more metaphysical.

- Hegel’s aesthetic possesses an historical dynamic, since he sees art as one more step to the Idea realizing itself in history.

A question for further reflection: would Kant or Hegel see photography as art? A tentative step towards and answer could be that Hegel might be see it as art, despite the materiality of its medium, since a photograph can really show the historical context for when it was taken. Kant may be in a better position to say if photography is aesthetic because of his fundamental subjectivism.

Notes on Idealism II

- The starting point of idealism, at least in the modern period, can be traced to Descartes and his distinction between material and immaterial substances. Material substances are foreign to immaterial substances – one cannot know or cause or move the other.

- From that, it follows that sensations are either innate (Descartes) or given by God (Malebrance), since sensations can’t be produced by material substances.

- Malebrance developed Descartes logic with regard to causality – since we have no clear and distinct idea of causality to apply to matter, he fell back on God to supply causality.

- The obvious criticism here is Hume’s: if we have no idea of causality to apply to matter, how on earth can we apply it to God? Hence Hume’s position of causality being our own ideas projected onto objects, learned from custom.

- Berkeley’s critique can also be seeing hovering in the background: if sensations are explained entirely by the mind/God, why suppose ‘matter’?

- Descartes definition of matter and material substances had the effect of producing a world full of mutually exclusive substances which cannot act on or be acted upon each other. Matter has only mobility, not motion or the power to cause motion. God is the cause of all motion.

- The great sceptical problems are seen to be necessary conclusions if Descartes principles are accepted – matter as extension, the exclusivity of substances, the location of sensations within us as innate ideas, etc.

Rough Notes on Idealism

- Idealism is broadly the thesis that reality is mental – more specifically, reality is constituted by perception (Berkely), and the only things known are what is given in conscious experience.

- An argument for this view could be sketched out as follows: everything we know about reality is based on our own experience, all our experience is mental in nature (given in consciousness and mediated by the mind) therefore, reality is ultimately mental. All we experience or perceive are ideas (or sense-data, to use a more modern term) and bundles of ideas.

- As is commonly noted, this is an extreme form of empiricism.

- A simple objection: from the fact that all we perceive is X (in this case, ideas) it does not follow that all is X (granting for the sake of argument the Way of Ideas). That leap is quite unjustified in this case.

- John Haldane notes another objection:

‘Berkeley maintained that the realist assumption that some things are mind-independent is self-contradictory, since just as an object cannot be both seen and unseen, so nothing can be both conceived and unconceived. There is a difference, however, between the fact of conceiving of something and the content of what is conceived; and it is not contradictory to conceive of something as existing unconceived. Although I may be conceiving it, it is not thereby part of an object’s nature, let along of its being, to be conceived of by me or by anyone else.’

- Issue could also be taken with the empiricist epistemology that undergirds Berkeley’s project, and, for that matter, the Way of Ideas as a whole (the latter could be criticized just by pointing out how many skeptical problems arise when such an idea is entertained).

A Mess of Thoughts On Modernity, Christianity, and Presuppositionalism

Another blog post based on Facebook comments – no editing has been done here, so I’ll correct things piecemeal.

(1) Epistemology, or, more generally, knowing, is made the key ‘thing’, as it were – or, more precisely, between right and wrong ways of knowing. Knowledge tends to be (almost without fail) reduced to various forms of propositionalism and the right/wrong way to know them. Without the right presuppositions, one simply cannot know things. That’s a broad and sloppy sketch.

(2) The forms of knowing articulated by presuppositonalism fail to take seriously the critiques of knowledge leveled against it by the ‘modernity’, in particular Kant, who insisted that we cannot know from a position outside ourselves, ie objectively. There is no universal perspective, no non-contingent knowledge. This was something taken up by Wittgenstein in the context of language, and the it’s the same basic idea – knowledge is always something had in a particular context (this is Hegelian as well), at a particular time. Knowledge is contingent, not universal, timeless, etc – and these critiques are simply brushed aside. Similar differences can be seen in the disputes between continental and analytic philosophy/metaphysics. Are truths universal (analytic), or contingent/historicist (continental)?

I admire Van Til’s boldness but other than that see very little to be gained, past perhaps an initial ‘shock’ causing one to rethink just exactly how one knows. But this goes back to the modern critiques of knowledge – philosophy of the last 300 years or so has taught us that the ‘foundations of knowledge’ are far less important than were once thought. So to the insistence of the presuppositionalist that one cannot ‘account’ for various items of knowledge, I (along with the rest of the modern world) say, so what? While questions of warrant and justification do have a place in philosophy, they certainly don’t have the dominant place that they did throughout much of the history of philosophy. This makes epistemic methods like presuppositionalism much less powerful/attractive.

I doubt very much that any real analogy can be made between how we know and how God knows, for the very simple reason that God is uncreated, whereas we are created. As all our experience is with the created, we can’t really speculate on the uncreated, especially on something as specific as knowing.

It can be fairly difficult to really talk about postmodernism because it’s not really a school or movement. Most of the time postmodernism means relativism, deconstructionism, Rorty, Derrida, and seems to be more of a reaction to aspects of modernism and analytic philosophy. The major emphases is on things like contingency, non-universal truths, and the collapse of the metanarrative (that’s probably the biggest one). So in the sense that topics like contingency, metanarrative, the denial of absolute, universal categories for truth are important topics, I say it’s a good thing – postmodernism really called into question things like the universal perspective (there is one way that the world is) and brought into sharp relief the dynamic and contingent nature of the world, which is great. But in terms of the more fanciful ideas, like the lack of meaning in the world, nothing outside the text, its all interpretation (and these are fairly rough representations for brevitys sake), postmodernism has really hit a failure of nerve:

‘There is, however, another sort of reaction possible here. If it is painful to live at risk, under the gun, with uncertainty but high stakes, maybe the thing to do is just reduce or reject the stakes. If, for example, there just isn’t any such thing as truth, then clearly one can’t go wrong by believing what is false or failing to believe what is true. If we reject the very idea of truth, we needn’t feel anxious about whether we’ve got it. So the thing to do is dispense with the search for truth and retreat into projects of some other sort: self-creation and self-redefinition as with Nietzsche and Heidegger, or Rortian irony,552 or perhaps playful mockery, as with Derrida.553 So taken, postmodernism is a kind of failure of epistemic nerve.’

And in terms of wider culture, I don’t think pomo has been terribly helpful:

‘Fear of kitsch led to the routinisation of modernism. By posing as a modernist, the artist gives an easily perceivable sign of his authenticity. But the result is cliché of another kind. This is one reason for the emergence of a wholly new artistic enterprise that some call ‘postmodernism’ but which might be better described as ‘pre-emptive kitsch’.

My Favourite Tolkien Line

‘Morgoth is thrust through the Door of Night into the outer dark beyond the Walls of the World, and a guard set for ever on that Door. The lies that he sowed in the hearts of Men and Elves do not die and cannot be slain by the Gods, but live on and bring much evil even to this day. Some say also that secretly Morgoth or his black shadow and spirit in spite of the Valar creeps back over the Walls of the World in the North and East and visits the world, others that this is Thu his great chief who escaped the Last Battle and dwells still in dark places, and perverts Men to his dreadful worship. When the world is much older, and the Gods weary, Morgoth will come back through the Door, and the last battle of all will be fought. Fionwe will fight Morgoth on the plain of Valinor, and the spirit of Turin shall be beside him; it shall be Turin who with his black sword will slay Morgoth, and thus the children of Hurin shall be avenged.’ (J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘The Shaping of Middle-Earth’, p. 47)

T.F. Torrance on the Unity of the Divine and Human in Christ

”The hyper-Calvinist, however, argues in this that, that in Christ’s life and especially his death on the cross, the deity of Christ was in repose. He suffered only in his humanity. On the cross, Christ merited forgiveness for all mankind. It was sufficient to cover the sins of all, for it was of infinite worth, but it held efficaciously only for those whom the Father had given him. We shall examine later the difference between ‘sufficient’ and ‘efficacious’, but here we must look at the relation posed here between Christ in his human nature on the cross and God in heaven. If Christ acted only in his human nature on the cross and God remained utterly apart and utterly transcendent, except that he agreed in will with Christ whom he sent to die, then all that Christ does is not necessarily what God does or accepts. In that case the sacrifice of Christ may be accepted as satisfaction only for the number of the elect that God has previously chosen or determined. But if God himself came among us in Christ his beloved Son and assumed upon himself our whole burden of guilt and judgement, then such an arbitrary view would be impossible. And we must hold the view that it is indeed God *himself* who bears our sins, God become man and taking man’s place, standing with humanity under the divine judgement, God the judge becoming himself the man judged and bearing his own judgement upon the sin of humanity, so that we cannot divorce the action of Christ on the cross from the action of God. The concept of a limited atonement divides Christ’s divinity from his humanity and thus rests upon a basic Nestorian error.’ (T.F. Torrance, ‘Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ’, p. 184-185)

Thoughts On the Bible As Story

- The first thing to note when thinking of the Bible as story is that, by modern standards, it bears little to no resemblance to a story. Caution is in order, since it is very easy to simply relegate Scripture to the status of ‘story’ and thereby make it that much easier to be held at arms length.

- For example, there is little focus on the emotional/psychological states of the characters – the texts tend to focus on the external actions of the characters and the consequences of said actions. There isn’t a linear plot – while there are indeed large trajectories present in Scripture, these don’t really take the form of dramatic plots (exceptions do exist, of course), they don’t really take the form of a story with a centralized plot.

- In fact, a good deal of Scripture isn’t really narrative in any sense – one would be hard-pressed to fit Leviticus or Paul’s epistles into the category of narrative. Other parts are more easily seen as story – Esther, Ruth and a good deal of the Old Testament definitely fit into some kind of story category.

- It may actually be a bit more productive to think in terms of ‘trajectory’ rather than ‘story’, considering that Scripture has its telos in Christ, a fact which is seen by reading the Bible backwards, as it were.

- This seems to make a good deal of sense to me, since there are multiple trajectories which can be traced in the Scriptures. The Messianic themes, for example, seem better explained as trajectories, paths towards an end, than as stories.

- This raises the issue of the role of canon, which isn’t something I’m really informed enough about to comment on other than I see it being fairly significant.