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:

IDEAL

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

MATERIAL

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.

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