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Hegel's Aesthetics

Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art.  Introduction (from the Glen Gray edition)


I.  We will study fine art.  The beauty of art is higher than the beauty of nature, as spirit (a term with no necessarily religious connotations: Geist means “mind” and “culture,” too) is higher than nature.  Man, finite spirit—where spirit becomes conscious of itself—is the artist.  He is natural . . . and more.

There are two arguments (opposed to Hegel) claiming that art cannot be discussed philosophically; art is incapable of rigorous and disciplined treatment.

(1)  The first objection to philosophical aesthetics to which Hegel replies is that art is simply supposed to be charming.  It “belongs to the relaxation and recreation of spiritual life” (25).  Therefore, so serious treatment of art is inappropriate and pedantic.  Art might even seem to be a luxury which might soften one’s character unless it were justified by its moral content—but adding a moral message to art does not constitute a philosophical approach.  Art seems to deal with mere sense appearances, not with concepts.

(2) The second objection to philosophical aesthetics to which Hegel replies is that art tries to be free and diverse and by its very intention beyond the grasp of concepts.  Therefore a philosophical reflection on art is impossible.

Hegel replies to these arguments that he intends to deal only with that art whose purpose is not merely to charm, but to be “one mode and form through which the divine, the profoundest interests of mankind, and spiritual truths of the widest range, are brought home to consciousness and expressed” (29).  We usually set up a split between the Infinite beyond and the poor present, the finite here and now.  Art heals this split.

If you believe that the objects of the senses are the real truth, then you will find art to be mere deception; but in fact such objects only have meaning insofar as they are animated by a spiritual significance.  Otherwise they are mere dust.  If the things of the senses get their value through their mental/spiritual/cultural significance, then a philosopher has something to contribute to appreciating art. 

Mind is competent to appreciate its own products.  Art is a product of mind; therefore, philosophy, which is mind’s reflection upon its own activities, is competent to study art. Indeed, mind can better appreciate art than it can understand nature.

In the times of the ancient Greeks, people found in their sculpture the very presentations of their gods.  Nowadays, art makes us think more, turns us within.  This is yet another reason why philosophy can appropriately discuss art.

The creative process may look disorderly, but principles of mind are at work nonetheless; and it is the task of philosophy to bring them to light.  What mind has made, mind can interpret.


II.  There are many ways to approach the study of art

(1) We can approach art empirically—by experience and observation.

a.  We can study the facts about art history, gain knowledge about the conditions under which the work was produced.  We can form generalizations.  We can formulate rules.  These rules then will be especially insisted upon when artistic inspiration is lacking.  General rules, say, about making poetry, are fine, but they do not show the would-be poet how to make the concrete decisions necessary in writing a poem.

b.  We can go about formulating theories of beauty.  We can criticize the theories of others and advance new definitions.  In this process some excellent ideas have been published, but it is necessary always to remain in contact with the works themselves.  The better theories make us more aware of the content or theme or meaning of the work and of the manner in which it is presented—the essence and the detail.  Every word or tone or brush stroke should help delineate the inner truth of the work.

c.  As we come to appreciate genius and become more philosophically advanced, we learn that we must go beyond the conventional rules and come to appreciate a wider range of works. 

            A good basis in scholarship will always be valuable to the theorist and to the connoisseur.

(2) We can approach art by starting with the beautiful—not as an abstract generalization from many art works but as a living spiritual value.

(3) Philosophy must integrate both the living spiritual universal value of beauty with the variety of particular works in history.


III.  What is fine art? [literally “beautiful art.”]

Where do we get our concept of fine art?  Let us start from common, ordinary ideas (each to be discussed in detail).  (1) A work of art is no product of nature.  It is brought into being through the agency of man.  (2) It is created essentially for man, and, what is more, it is to a greater or less degree produced in a sensory medium and addressed to man’s senses.  (3) Art contains an end or purpose bound up with it.

            (1)  Some object that people have thought that art is a production of an external object that can be learned like any craft.  But art is not following rules.  “It is bound as spiritual activity to work by drawing on its own resources, and to bring before the mind’s eye a quite other and richer content and ampler individual creations than any abstract formulas can dictate.” (52)

            Today the opposite extreme is popular.  No longer is the rule-directed method in vogue, but we see art as the product of a genius giving vent to his impulse.  But this view forgets the role of craftsmanship.

            What human need stimulates artistic production?  “The universal need for expression in art lies, therefore, in man’s rational impulse to exalt the inner and outer world into a spiritual consciousness for himself, as an object in which he recognizes his own self.”  Art, in other words, takes materials from the outer world and inspiration from the inner world and brings them together into a unity in which man can see himself.  “I made it” is the satisfaction that art brings to every maker.  Self-expression further implies that the artist somehow puts himself outside of himself, and so can recognize himself in his product.  For Hegel this is especially important, since nature and man are not ultimately different, not ultimately divided, separate, unresolved.  For me to recognize my essential nature outside myself in art prepares the way for me to recognize my essential nature in the world as a whole.

            (2)  When we observe that the art work is set in a sensory medium (e.g., colors or  tones) and is thus limited, we usually mean that the work ought to elicit feeling  . . . noble feelings, base feelings, extreme feelings, any feelings at all, so long as it evokes feelings.  But this notion of art as evoking feeling is just as empty and formalistic in its way as any of the old rules about how to make art.  No specific content is implied.  Furthermore, free rein is given to personal whim.

            The work is addressed not only to the senses but to the mind.  It is not like a natural object to which we might relate in the mode of desire.  (A proper aesthetic response to a painting of a mountain stream is not to be thirsty for the water represented in the painting.)  “Thus, the interest of art distinguishes itself from the practical interest of desire by the fact that it permits its object to subsist freely and in independence, while desire utilizes it in its own service by its destruction.  On the other hand, artistic contemplation differs from theoretical consideration by the scientific intelligence, in cherishing interest for the object as an individual existence, and not setting to work to transmute it into its universal thought and concept” (66).  Experience of art is unlike science, because science, theoretical speculation, is uninterested in the individuality of its object.  It studies water, not this glass as opposed to that one.  Experience of art is unlike ordinary sense experience, because our customary encounter with things shows our desires to dominate and consume, while in aesthetic experience we enjoy just beholding the work and are even indifferent to whether it really exists or not.

            (3) What is the end, goal, or purpose of art?  Some people have believed that the purpose of art was imitation—copying nature.  Hegel says that mere imitation is superfluous.  The artist is never as good as nature herself.  Such art draws all our attention to the cleverness of the artist in making such a lifelike representation.  This becomes boring and trivial, like ridiculous parlor tricks.  The theory of imitation cannot account for architecture, and this theory is once again empty of content, indifferent to the beautiful and the ugly.

            If someone says, “Everything is the content of art,” once again an empty statement has been made.  For Hegel, the statement is not only empty but false.  The concept of art has normative implications, and not just anything will count.

            The quest for unity and purpose has led reflective thinkers to the view that art is supposed to mitigate the passions, tame the savage beast in man by representing an objectification of such passion so as to induce recognition and reflection.  If I create a drama about cruelty, I may enable my audience to recognize on stage the actions they secretly desire to do; they may then improve themselves by reflecting upon the characters and actions in the play.  This type of art is edification; it becomes moralistic very quickly.

            Art does instruct—but not by presenting an abstract doctrine that could be stated independently of the work.  The work must never be the mere shell, the cover for the presentation of a thesis.  Stories that could be adequately summed up on a brief “moral” are not real art.

            In the modern period it is customary for people to assume a complete opposition between moral law and the sensuous impulses of man’s nature. In modern culture man “live in two contradictory worlds at once; so that even consciousness wanders back and forward in this contradiction, and . . . is unable to satisfy itself.  For on the one side, we see man a prisoner in common reality and earthly temporality, oppressed by want and poverty, hard driven by nature, entangled in matter, in sensuous aims and their enjoyments.  On the other side, he exalts himself to eternal ideas, to a realm of laws and attributions, strips the world of its living and flourishing reality and dissolves it into abstractions . . . .” (85).  Neither side alone possesses the truth.  Philosophy must bring the material and the ideal together and must show their specific concrete harmony.


IV.  Kant achieved the insight that art unifies the split between nature and man, between (sensory) object and (conscious) subject, between (sensuous) impulse and (rational) form.  Kant posits (asserts the existence of) a subjective sense of beauty that all men possess.  Hegel wants to show that our subjective sense of beauty is objectively valid.

            Kant distinguished aesthetic perception from ordinary sense perception with its attendant practical desires.  Kant believed that our sense of beauty is an intuition, not a concept; for Hegel, there is a concept, but we are usually not conscious of it when we experience something as beautiful.

            For Kant and Hegel the aesthetic object has its purpose within itself.  Its purpose is to be a beautiful totality.  If we say that its purpose lies outside itself, it would have an external end.  But if art is to reflect the divine, it, as appearance, must have the quality of self-containedness that the divine whole has.

Once art is seen as having its purpose within itself, art transcends the customary conceptual oppositions of modern understanding.  To think in terms of cause versus effect, or content versus form, of means versus ends, of universal versus particular, of feeling versus thought, of nature versus freedom is to think in terms of obsolete dualities.  The point is not to do away with concept in appreciating art, but to do away with naïve oppositions between concepts.  The Infinite and the finite have much more to do with each other than customary understanding can recognize.


V.  The content of art must be capable of being represented.  I cannot have an art-work about the relation of implication that holds between some two mathematical theorems.  T.S. Eliot criticized Shakespeare for attempting to deal in Hamlet with something that could not be presented on the stage.  Whether or not this particular criticism is justified, it does illustrate what Hegel has in mind.

“The work of art . . . is essentially a question, an address to the responsive heart, an appeal to affections and to minds” (105).

Here is Hegel’s criterion for excellence in art: “Inasmuch as the task of art is to represent the Idea to direct perception in sensuous shape, and not in the form of thought or of pure spirituality as such, and seeing that this work of representation has its value and dignity in the correspondence and the unity of the two sides, i.e., of the Idea and its plastic embodiment, it follows that the level and excellence of art in attaining a realization adequate to its Idea must depend upon the grade of inwardness and unity with which Idea and shape display themselves as fused into one” (106).  

There are three types of art, corresponding to three historical periods, three ways of conceiving of God, and three ways of thinking and feeling.

(1) Symbolic.  The God concept, the Idea, is here vague, poorly defined, or indefinite, indeterminate, lacking definite characteristics.  The Idea conceived in this way has no implication for individuals.  Art strains to find a way of expressing this infinite Indefinite at all.  Perhaps the Idea is attached arbitrarily to some natural object as its (symbolic) significance.  Seeking in nature for the expression of the abstractly conceived Idea, the artist chooses the distorted, the indefinite, the huge, the contrasting, and the glorious—but these forms are still determinate, still definite, and cannot unite with the Idea as abstract.  The Idea becomes negative, sublime—with respect to which all earthly form is inadequate.  Eastern pantheism is the religious expression of this stage of the Idea: everything and nothing represents the Absolute.  The emotions expressed here are yearning, fermentation, mystery, and sublimity.

(2) Classical.  Art at this stage is the free and adequate embodiment of the Idea in the shape which is uniquely appropriate to it.  This discussion is impossible to understand until we learn that Hegel was referring to Greek sculptures of their anthropomorphic gods as the main form of classical art.  Where God is conceived as practically human, it is very possible for art to give a satisfactory representation of divine truth.  The Idea must, after all, become manifest.  What could be more natural than for the Idea—God—to take on human form?  Art reaches a great triumph when it realizes that such a great unity between what it is trying to represent and what it actually produces.  Not just any representation of a natural object would serve this purpose.  Only the human form is so appropriate for Geist.  Since God is Geist, his manifestation as human gives to art its primary task and triumph.  In Greek sculpture we see eternal repose, essential self-stability.  Greek art implies a community.

(3)  Romantic.  When art proposes to present spirit in a concrete, sensible form, and the Idea of spirit matures, it has more than it can do adequately.  In Christianity, unlike Greek religion, the unity of man and God becomes explicit.  (Christ is asserted to be that unity.)  Now art is aimed towards the individual’s inner life (or the ideal world within) (or feeling)—the triumph of the inner over the external.  (If the external is completely devalued, art is in trouble.)  Like symbolic art, romantic art does not give great weight to individual objects of sensation.  In modern (Renaissance through the early 19th century) romantic painting, the visible is made to represent all the diversity of the heart—emotion, idea, and purpose.  In music the inwardness, the subjectivity, is deeper; the music there is principle, order, and harmony, as well as emotion.  In poetry the sensory element is in the highest degree integrated with the meanings of mind.  (Musical sounds are only the bodies of significances.)  All the arts make use of the poetic imagination.

The beautiful is the universal Spirit.  The ideal is that universal embodied.  The Idea is the unity of the concept and its realization.








Questions and foci for discussion. 


            Beauty of nature as subordinate to beauty of the arts (pp. 2, 29d (nature as the work of God—but God does not stop working through creation when humans come on the scene); 35d ).

Fine art brings to our minds and expresses the Divine, the deepest interests of humankind, and the most comprehensive truths of the spirit (7 [557]; cf. 49; 55).

            Art is no longer our highest interest (9), on account of the modern primacy of reason (10), so that art now elicits a philosophical response (11).  

            The person: the spirit and soul shining through (20).

            Beauty, summary definition (20.2): inner content shines in outer.

            Concept of fine art taken as a starting point (22).

            Art comprehensible neither simply in terms of rule-following nor the inspiration of genius (26-27).

            Hegel puts music down (28). 

            The “for itself” clearly explained 31.

            Should we think in terms of a feeling or sense of beauty? (33d)  No, because the appeal to immediacy obscures the need for education regarding the depths of reason and spirit.

            Desire clearly explained (cf. Kant’s teaching that the beautiful appeals at a higher level than the pleasant). (36)

            Art’s function of reconciling sense and intellect (38-39).  Modern culture produces and demands resolution of this tension (54), and philosophy shows the nullity of the separated poles (55).

            Biographical observation: talent shows itself early, with an early and easily acquired technical facility, delighting and specializing in the chosen art form (41).

            Objections to mimesis as a theory of art (42-45).

            Relativism/chaos of indiscriminate welcome of everything into the category of fine art (46).

            Art cannot be a mere means to moral training or character education, but it does uplift to a post-emotional center of life since one (1) relates contemplatively to the work and (2) engages in reflection on meanings (49-53).





Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art

G.W.F. Hegel tr. T. M. Knox vol.1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975)

After the Intro.

Chapter I.  Concept of the Beautiful as Such.  1.  The Idea.  The Idea is the concept together with its actualization.  It just won’t do, after Kant’s treatment of the agreeable and the pleasant, not to get beyond the feeling of the beautiful in an aesthetic which notes levels (“that the sense of spirit of sight, and the understanding too, is rejoiced, that feeling is excited, and that a delight has been aroused.  The whole thing revolves round this awakening of joy” (107).

2.  The Idea in Existence.

3.  The Idea of the Beautiful.  The Idea is the true, and when it is realized in existence, it is also beautiful.  Understanding can’t comprehend beauty on account of its tendency to separate what is integrated in the Idea (111).  The infinity and freedom of the Idea must appear even in a restricted content, so that the Concept corresponds with itself in its actualization, as sustained by “subjectivity, unity, soul, individuality” (112).  If we comport ourselves as mere subjects before external sensory objects as independently real, we err (cf. Phenomenology chapter 1), only to switch roles, annihilating the things in our projects.  Both sides here are finite, and this kind of freedom is false freedom (112-13).  Considering things as beautiful overcomes this limited opposition (113).  The practical motives withdraw, and, beyond any ought one allows the object to stand in its independence as “perfectly realized Concept and end” (114).  The reality of the Concept “appears as just a complete creation, the parts of which are nevertheless revealed as ideally ensouled and unified.  For the harmony of the Concept with its appearance is a perfect interpenetration.  Consequently the external form and shape does not remain separate from the external material, nor is it stamped on it mechanically for some other purposes . . .”  and yet the aspects, parts, and members must each have a freedom for themselves with respect to each other.  The necessity of each one’s belonging should be “hidden behind an appearance of undersigned contingency” lest they remain mere tools for the manifestation of necessity, ideal unity.  This freedom and infinity of the Concept of beauty marks the beautiful object and its contemplation” (115).





The symbolic form of art: Introduction

Hegel’s account of the phases of the symbolic form of art begins with “the beginning of art,” particularly in “the East,” as a prelude to “the genuine actuality of the Ideal as the classical form of art.”  “When the symbol is developed [to its height] it has . . . the character of sublimity, because . . . it is only the Idea which is still measureless, and not [articulated conceptually] that is to be given shape, and therefore cannot find in concrete appearance any specific form corresponding completely with this abstraction and universality.  But in this non-correspondence the Idea transcends its external existence instead of having blossomed or been perfectly enclosed in it.  This flight beyond the determinateness [definiteness] of appearance constitutes the general character of the sublime” (303). 

            In the drama of meaning and expression, the symbol should not be totally arbitrary, nor should it be totally explicable in understandable terms.  There must be some beyond, some mystery, something sublime that surpasses what can be fully communicated. 

            Art, like some other activities of Geist, begins in wonder in which things of nature are set free for the first time from being simply desired or handled in the light of practical aims.  The things of nature become an “‘other’ which yet is meant to be for his apprehension and in which he strives to find himself over again as well as thoughts and reason.  Here the inkling of something higher and the consciousness of externality and still unseparated and yet at the same time there is present a contradiction between natural things and the spirit, a contradiction in which objects prove themselves to be just as attractive as repulsive, and the sense of this contradiction along with the urge to remove it is precisely what generates wonder.”  “Not the first produce of this situation consists in the fact that man sets nature and objectivity in general over against himself on the one hand as cause, and he reverences it as power; but even so on the other hand he satisfies his need to make external to himself the subjective feeling of something higher, essential, and universal, and to contemplate it as objective.  In this unification there is immediately present the fact that the single natural objects—and above all the elemental ones, like the sea, rivers, mountains, stars—are not accepted just as they are in their separation, but, lifted into the realm of our ideas, acquire for our ideas the form of universal and absolute existence.”  [How much can we see John Muir here?]  “Now these ideas in their universality and essential implicit character art concentrates again into a picture for contemplation by direct consciousness and sets them out for the spirit in the objective form of a picture.  This is the beginning of art” (315-16).

            The first stage here, is nature worship (the identification of the absolute with immediate sensuous natural shape [Gestalt, structure]), which is not yet art.

            In the second stage, the meaning (the absolute, the universal or sublime) begins to detach itself as transcendent beyond its embodiments, which are represented in their wild multiplicity and through distorted forms.  This stage witnesses a “battle between meanings and their sensuous representation” through the “double struggle to spiritualize the natural and to make the spiritual perceptible” (319).


            In the third stage, the artist brings together (“compares”) meanings and expressive forms to fashion (a) fables, parables, and “apologues” (in which the moral of the story is explicitly stated where “the separation of shape from meaning . . . is not yet expressly established . . . ; consequently the presentation of the single concrete appearance, which is to illumine the universal meaning, remains the predominant thing” (322).  “At the second stage . . . the universal meaning comes explicitly into dominion over the explanatory shape” in allegory, metaphor, and simile” (322).  Finally, the two sides of the tension fall apart in didactic poetry (making the lesson so dominant as to make the form a mere appendage) and descriptive poetry (abandoning the project to convey higher meaning).  [The pattern is (a) the phenomenon has not yet come into its own; what is implicit, however, must become explicit: (b) the phenomenon in its fullness; and (c) the dissolution of the phenomenon (following the fault-lines in the structure of the phenomenon itself.]   



            Aesop’s fables, ## 3, 4, 7, 11



“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”

“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of greave value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.”  (Matthew 18.44-45)



            A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.  (15.1)

            A glad heart makes a cheerful countenance. (15.13)  A cheerful heart is a good medicine. (17.1)

            Better is a little with the reverence of the Lord than great treasure and trouble along with it.  Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is than a fatted ox and hatred along with it. (15.16-17)



            A moral tale which is genuinely a tale with morality inherent in it.   (cf. Kafka, “Bucket Rider.”


Allegory : complex, with each significant item having a definite referent in another domain of meaning.


Metaphor  X is Y


Simile  X is like Y