The Birth of the Subject as the Death of Art

It is virtually unquestioned that the essence of art lies in the expression of the self. To give a dangerously vague definition of this doctrine: Art is the taking of something inner by way of some medium and rendering it external. It’d be fair to say that this is a watered-down and popular version of expressionism, which is a doctrine that ‘stresses the artist’s emotional attitude toward himself and the world,’ (H.W. Janson, History of Art, p. 666). This doctrine may have its origin in Kant, for whom aesthetic judgement of taste cannot be subsumed under any universal law or generalization, which seems to kick off the ‘turn to the subject’ in aesthetics – that is, post-Kant, aesthetics is primarily concerned with the inner state of the subject. This isn’t too far from romanticism – indeed, expressionism and romanticism are in some cases so similar it can be difficult to distinguish them:

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A Monstrous Indifference, by Joy Overcome: Pt. 1

The reader of this essay may at first be excused for the feeling of bewilderment that is sure to set upon her on her reading of the title. Cormac McCarthy and H.P Lovecraft are hardly literary bedfellows, and to draw the central themes of their writing together by interpreting an independently developed video game may appear to many to be a futile, as well inappropriate, exercise in interpretation. Continue reading

Against Narrativity

In a fascinating essay, ‘Art and the Moral Realm’, Noël Carroll argues that art is a valuable component of our moral reflection, and he argues that in particular narrative works of art shape our moral reflection in a unique and profound sense. This is so primarily because we have to see or configure our lives as narrative in order for them to have any significance:

‘…to answer the question of whether our life is worthy, we need a holistic sense of it, and that holistic sense is best captured by narrative – an incomparable device for organizing or colligating or collecting the diversity of our experiences into a unity. To see our lives as significant requires at least an ability to configure them as meaningful stories. But whence do we learn the skill of rendering or configuring our lives as meaningful narrative?’ (‘Art and the Moral Realm’, in ‘The Blackwell Guide to Aesthetics’, p. 133)

The answer to this question Carroll finds in the exposure to other narratives, bildungroman, where we learn how to best how to configure our lives into a meaningful unity:
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The Eschatology of the Transcendentals

Thinking on the symposium on Roger Scruton, I found myself wanting to flesh out a bit the relation between the classical Transcendentals and his philosophy of beauty-as-belonging, so let’s see what can be done with that.

The classical Transcendentals are Beauty, Goodness and Truth – the most important universals or forms (the Christian way of looking at things has generally ascribed them to the divine life – perhaps as divine Ideas, or something else along that line). The will and mind are oriented towards these transcendentals by virtue of the desire evoked by our desire for particulars which instantiate one (often more) transcendental – our desire for a beautiful thing isn’t satisfied by the thing, because our desire for a beautiful thing is ultimately a desire for the beautiful as such. On this view, beauty is a rather abstract thing.

Scruton, in a nutshell, brings beauty down into day-to-day life. The beautiful for Scruton is something which, when pursued, gives meaning to the world and to our endeavors, and from this follows our sense of belonging. Hence, beauty-as-belonging (see the above symposium for more detail). Scruton grounds a lot of his meaning-talk and beauty in the actions of a community – generally, for Scruton, a religious community, where reconciliation and forgiveness can be had.

A possibly fruitful way to put these two themes together might be as follows: suppose we bring the notion of the eschatalogical into play here (which Scruton does, albeit in a somewhat vague manner) – specifically, Christian eschatology? What might that look like?

Perhaps we can think of the transcendentals as ‘orienting our sense of belonging’, that is, as conditioning how we achieve and even express belonging. On the Christian scheme of things, the transcendentals have ‘come down’ to us in the person of Jesus Christ – the embodiment of God, who is Truth, Goodness and Beauty as such. They will, however, ‘come down’ further at the eschaton – this is the now/not yet tension of Christian theology. Thus, in this ‘coming down’, that which orients our mind and will towards action in pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness is seen to be not an abstract form but a concrete person doing concrete things.

Building of Scruton’s philosophy of belonging as being something we practice and ‘build for’, and bringing in the Christian idea of being ‘in Christ’, wherein we participate in both the suffering and vindication of Christ, we might say that we act ‘transcendentally’. Our acts of love, sacrifice and charity are ways in which, borrowing again from Scruton, we redeem the world and build our home in anticipation of when we truly come home at the eschaton. In short, by making the world beautiful, whether through art, or acts of love, acts of service, tending a garden or simple acts of kindness, we act the transcendental – instead of being ‘out there’, they have been shown to be right here in our communities and acts of faith. Our actions becomes practices of belonging in preparation for the final redemption. By ‘coming down’, the transcendentals orient us towards redemptive practices.

Here we need to take careful account of the role of grace – it is only by grace that any of this happens because it is only by a free movement of grace from above that any of our actions are in fact actions of grace and redemption, because it is only by grace that we are incorporated in Christ.

As a kind of summary: by way of Incarnation, Truth, Beauty and Goodness have been shown to be concrete acts done in community, and by practicing the transcendentals (which have been shown to be actions of redemption in preparation for the final redemption) we make the world our home, where we belong, while we wait for our true Home, where we Truly Belong.

An Unexpected Symposium on Roger Scruton

I found this great little set of essays on Roger Scruton’s idea of beauty today, and it’s worth a share:

An Unexpected Symposium on Roger Scruton

Here’s the talk to which the essays are replying:

Some highlights from the essays:

‘The overall thrust is that, yes, Beauty is not something that can be “neatly taped up in a definitive sentence or treatise.” It is not just being at home, nor is it in the eye of the beholder. It is experienced in more than one way, and it manifests less often as a memory of the past than an invitation to a great journey in the present.’

‘Man, distinct in creation, straddles the mundane and transcendent spheres. Given lordship over the world, it is man’s task to pattern the mundane after the transcendental. In the Christian tradition, man is placed in a garden to tend and keep it. That’s the role of art, as Scruton sees it. The three transcendentals are the sources of meaning; art, in its pursuit of beauty, brings meaning to life. This meaning brings a sense of belonging. Belonging is, therefore, a necessary consequence of beauty, but beauty is pursued for itself. The two are inseparable.

This understanding of art and beauty doesn’t lead to utopian attempts at perfect pockets of beauty. Appealing again to the Christian tradition, even before sin entered into the world man was a gardener – someone who brings order and meaning to nature. The search for beauty will never be complete because weeds and disorder threaten at every turn. Man will never build the Kingdom, but he must build for the Kingdom in patient expectation of the One who will make all things beautiful.’

‘The easiest analogy to be made here is with love. Love exists beyond all of us, but in order for us to love—and to be loved in return—we have to make sacrifices. We have to give ourselves over to someone else. In short, we have to belong to someone else. But this belonging is not about love belonging to us. It is about our belonging to love.

Our relationship with beauty works in much the same way. Why do we build beautiful cathedrals, or write and constantly rehearse haunting liturgies, or take the time to decorate and order our houses into places that feel like home?

Because we are practicing belonging.’

Anyway, give it a read, and bookmark Humane Pursuits.

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.

Thoughts on Beauty and Rationality

It’s a mistake to contrast ‘rational’ with aesthetic categories. For example, some people hold that the thesis of man being a rational animal means that man is just a ‘thinking thing’ or that man is simply a ‘decision making machine’, and contrast this with the thesis that man isn’t ‘rational’ but ‘imaginative’, moved by beauty rather than convinced by rationality. What such a view fails to take note of is that it is only in virtue of our rationality that we have any appetite for beauty. Desire for beauty is a rational desire, rational in the fullest sense, rationality which derives both from our participation in the source of all rationality which is also the source of all beauty and the nature of rationality itself, which includes the desire and drive to seek out ends in life and not just means. The beautiful is an end in itself, and not just a means. It is the nature of man as a rational animal to seek out ends. Hence, man, as a rational animal, seeks and delights in beauty.

Scruton and Nussbaum on Consolation, Individuality, Emotion and Music

Transcribed from Scruton’s and Nussbaum’s brilliant ‘Beauty and Consolation’ interviews:

‘All our unhappiness and alienation come from the attempt to be an individual above everything else, whereas consolation comes when one relaxes into a sense of something greater than oneself, and that is one’s species life and also the whole of history and eternity which that represents. And you do that in conjunction with animals because they already exists in that species life.

This horse for instance is immersed completely in his species being and that’s why he’s frightened of you lot [the interviewer/camera crew]. He’s not frightened of me, he knows me from hunting. We go side by side into these great animal adventures, and we lose our individuality together, and individuality which in fact he never fully had but I always have.’

– Roger Scruton

‘We form our deepest emotions at a time when our inner life is rather dreamlike, that is when we’re such small infants that we can’t speak and we aren’t part of society yet, and I think that music has some of the power it does because it’s able to tap some of those deeper layers of the personality and bring back to us some of the intense and extremely sharp but also archaic and unfocused emotions of childhood.

So in that way it is more able than is a lot of literature to jolt us out of our sense of normalcy, our sense that we’re just going about in the world using language in the usual and habitual way. So there’s a way in which music pierces like a beam straight to the most vulnerable parts of personality.

When Mahler was conducting his own work he described this experience saying, ‘a burning pain, crystallized’. And that’s the experience I think I often have with music, that there is a kind of pain in the personality somewhere buried to deep for words, and music doesn’t just reproduce it but in some way does crystallize it, it gives it a form, but a form that’s not the form of daily conversation, and it’s precisely for that reason that it has the power that it does.’

– Martha Nussbaum

Joy, Longing and Nostalgia

C.S. Lewis is pretty well-known for his ‘argument from desire’, which is more or less a take on certain aspects of Platonic philosophy. Nostalgia and joy (or sehnsucht, or longing) for Lewis are indicators of our other-worldiness. Our desires and longing for beauty reflect our desire for the Divine, beauty itself. That small nostalgic ache we get at the end of a beautiful symphony or as a sunset fades is a desire for something ‘which no natural happiness will satisfy.’ Sensible beauty serves to awaken a much deeper longing for the beauty of the absolute.

Augustine makes a similar point in with the famous opening phrase of his ‘Confessions’: our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. Pascal says similar things as well. Beauty, the experience of the beautiful, our desire for the beautiful, is a reflection of our desire for the absolute, for beauty itself. Lewis makes another point that when we have summoned into glory, that old ache will be healed. We’ll be made whole again. (A quick Google search will yield a large number of quotes made by Lewis on this topic that are worth reading)

‘The beautiful is unquestionably a transcendental orientation of the mind and the will, because the desire it evokes can never be exhausted by any finite object; it is an ultimate value that allows one to make judgements of relative value, and that weds consciousness to the whole of being as boundlessly desirable. whether or not there is actualy such a thing as an eternal beauty beyond the realm of the senses, the effect within us of beauty’s transcendce as an ideal horizon, toward which the mind is habitually drawn and apart from which the mind would not be open to the world in the way that it is. And that, in itself, is enough to render the physicalist narrative of causality profoundly dubious.’ (David Bentley hart, ‘The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss’, p. 285)

Now, obviously, this isn’t an argument of any kind – nor is it ignoring the physiological/biological aspects of nostalgia, which, incidentally, is a fascinating study. Think of this as simply some musings on the transcendent nature of the experience of beauty.