Weary of particulars

In his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, G. W. F. Hegel identifies three elements to good commentary on art: (a) wide familiarity with the works of art, (b) wide familiarity with the history in which those works were created, and (c) a penetrating mind with a lively imagination for the making of apt comparisons and insightful contrasts. Typically for Hegel, he finds previous works of art criticism to be wanting and rather trivial, whether Longinus’ On the Sublime or Henry Home’s Elements of Criticism (1762). In terms of the abc’s of art criticism, they do not range widely enough over artworks from different times and places, nor do they combine their reflection with deep enough insight. In consequence they fail to attune their eye to an artwork’s true significance. But as anyone who is familiar with Hegel knows, he doesn’t think mere criticism can reach the heights of philosophical insight anyways. That can only be achieved by attending to the ontological nature of beauty, which necessarily involves showing how art reconciles the unfolding of universal Spirit with the concrete particular.

To get a better sense of what Hegel is saying here—i.e. why he insists on an ontological understanding of beauty in terms of the development of Spirit—we can begin by turning to what he says elsewhere in his lectures about the what and the why of art-making. Yes, he notes, making a work of art is a productive activity like others: painting is a craft just as iron-working is. But in order to make truly beautiful art one needs to do more than complete an apprenticeship. Here Hegel appeals to the Romantic conception of art, put forward by the likes of Goethe and Schiller, which posits a capacity for genius that can be roughly equated with the spontaneous, playful, radically free operation of the imagination. In its deepest and most abiding form, beautiful art is made by artists who combine a craftsman’s savoir-faire, Romantic genius, and the reflective philosophy with which Hegel is mostly closely associated. The last term is the most important since the depth of self-conscious awareness necessarily determines the level of representational sophistication. In Hegel’s scheme greater reflective awareness enhances the truthfulness of the employed skill and the liveliness of active imagination.

Let’s turn now to the “why” question. Why do human beings make art? As Hegel was fond of saying across his work and in his various lectures, a human being is a thinking consciousness. Humans are what they are in virtue of the fact that they can reflect upon their particular selves, upon being human in general, and upon existence in general. In this respect they are unique among all the things in the universe. Where all other naturally existing things are “only immediate and single,” humanity “reduplicates” itself in being self-reflexive.[1] That is to say, human beings duplicate themselves in their self-aware subjectivity. They make art because they possess this capacity of self-awareness. They are impelled to produce things in which their subjective existence is externalized (i.e. in a building, a statue, a painting, or a poem). What’s more, through the works of artistic creation, at a certain historical stage of self-conscious development, human beings see their own subjectivity reflected back to themselves in an external, objective thing. The cover-image for the Penguin translation of Hegel’s lectures—Domenico Beccafumi’s Zeuxis Painting the Portrait of Helen—is therefore aptly chosen.

Given this conception of the what and the why of art, Hegel proceeds to identify the end to which it should be directed. This gets us back to his ontological conception of beauty. The “work of art,” he says, “ought to bring a content before the mind’s eye, not in its generality as such, but with this generality made absolutely individual, and sensuously particularized.” Why does he put it this way? To answer this question fully is no simple task. It would require a much lengthier account than I am going to give here.[2] Very briefly, Hegel thought that Kant saw and elucidated the ontological antithesis between the universal Spirit and the individual concrete phenomena, but that he failed to “resolve” it. And that resolution is philosophy’s essential task—to grasp the truth of the antithesis in its reconciliation. Kant was stuck in a bifurcated world of noumena and phenomena. Hegel’s account of art is therefore deeply and closely connected to his wider philosophical project in which a major goal was to move beyond the “lifeless formalism” of Kant, as he puts it in §50 of the Phenomenology of Spirit. One of the ways Hegel outlines this reconciliation is through his philosophy of art: an artwork reveals the truth of the reconciliation between universal and particular, between spirit and sensuousness, in a concrete, specific instance: a symbol, a building, a statue, etc. Framing artwork in this way also provides Hegel with his criterion of judgment. Better art will reveal more of the truth—i.e. on a higher level, in a more integrated, developed synthesis—of the active reconciliation between the fullness of inward human self-conscious subjectivity and the robust imaginative exploration of the limits of plastic sensuous form. And it does so because this revelation is part and parcel of Spirit’s self-conscious realization of itself.

This is why criticism alone cannot grasp the true significance of art. It does not conceptualize the principles of its given field of application adequately because it is not sufficiently aware of the ontological dimension. That is the task for which philosophy is uniquely equipped. And what does philosophy see when it comes to history, of which art history is a determinate part?

the only thought which philosophy brings with it is the simple idea of reason – the idea that reason governs the world, and that world history is therefore a rational process. From the point of view of history as such, this conviction and insight is a presupposition. Within philosophy itself, however, it is not a presupposition; for it is proved in philosophy by speculative cognition that reason … is substance and infinite power; it is itself the infinite material of all natural and spiritual life, and the infinite form which activates this material content. It is substance, i.e. that through which and in which all reality has its being and subsistence; it is infinite power, for reason is sufficiently powerful to be able to create something more than just an ideal…and it is the infinite content, the essence and truth of everything, itself constituting the material on which it operates through its own activity.[3]

This quote illustrates the tension in Hegel between the historicality of knowledge and the necessity of positing its a priori conceptualization. In the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, from which the above citation is taken, Hegel brings up the example of Kepler. The great astronomer could not have made his discovery of the motion of the planets without the a priori knowledge of ellipses, cubes, and their mathematical and physical relations. That is to say, without the knowledge Kepler had already attained he would not have been able to analyze the motion of the heavens, no matter how long or carefully he stared up at the sky. By analogy Hegel is saying the same kind of a priori knowledge is needed for each and every field of inquiry, including history and art and, on the highest and absolutely complete level, philosophy.

Having very briefly sketched out what Hegel says about art in his lectures, and à propos of the just-mentioned example of Kepler, I want to raise a couple of points. To start with, we can see that Hegel views history in terms of its top-down ontological development. History is ultimately the development of Reason for itself, by itself. Individuals, their intentions and actions, including their aesthetic creations, matter in ultimate terms only to the extent that they are part of the comprehension of Reason’s self-directed development. This strong commitment to teleology takes a narrowly linear, progressive, stadial, programmatic form. What “the particular arts realize in individual works of art,” Hegel says in conclusion to his introductory aesthetic lectures, “are according to their abstract conception simply the universal types which constitute the self-unfolding of the Idea of beauty.”[4] While it is possible to be in some agreement with his goal of elucidating the “progressive unfolding of truth,” which is how he puts it at the start of the Phenomenology of Spirit (see §808 for an important elaboration), I find both his execution and his absolute framing of the aim to be highly questionable. Revision is required.

In fact we can charge Hegel with a fault he himself identified in the work of art critics: (a) he ranges over a wide swathe of art history, but (b) his imaginative capacity fails him, which is likely related to (c) the questionable form his philosophical project takes. This may seem like a strange way of putting it given Hegel’s creative ambition and his intellectual depth. Nevertheless, I would maintain that the speculative history he sketches—in its conception as well as in its concrete analysis—looks suspect, not least because the apotheosis of self-reflective Spirit happens in the Europe of his day. The trajectory of Hegel’s story almost always takes the same form: from “Oriental,” to Greek, to Roman, to “Germanic” (for example, see the Philosophy of Right, § 354-8).[5] In retrospect it seems almost perversely megalomaniacal to say that one has finally stumbled on the systematic outlines of ontological truth precisely because one lives in the time and place of the one expounding the system. In the Philosophy of Right Hegel describes Plato’s Republic as an ideal which is really an exposition of ancient Greek ethical life. Why can’t we read Hegel’s work as an ideal which is likewise an exposition of post-Revolutionary Europe? If Plato mistook his particular account of politics for universal, should Hegel not have been more vigilant against the same assumption? Perhaps he was blinded by his belief, uttered in his lectures, that he had gone out ahead of everyone, surveyed the whole of the past in advance, and developed a philosophical justification for world history as “the rational and necessary evolution of the world Spirit.”[6]

Aside from the dubious goal of world history in its concrete form, there is, secondly, a problem with the notion of the rational self-determination of the Idea. This is the ahistorical mode I already noted above. It is hard to see how the self-determining Idea can be fully known as self-determining by coming at it from the historically-conditioned side of its development. Hegel acknowledges this but sticks to his rationalist presupposition on a priori grounds. World history is the history of the development of concrete Spirit, but the driving force of this development is grounded in an Idea prior to it. As Leon Pompa argues in Human nature and historical knowledge, the development of Spirit finally rests on a non-historical requirement.[7] If we accept Hegel’s point that every historian “bring his categories with him,”[8] as I do, and that the depth and nature of historical understanding is inseparable from such categories, which are themselves rooted in the ethical backdrop of a given society, as he also claims, does that mean that we have to be committed to his strong and narrow sense of teleology? No, we do not. Instead we can try to retain the deeply important insight Hegel offers us, but look to alternate ways of writing history in revised “post-Hegelian” mode. One route lies in the less stringently teleological way of weaving legal, moral, scientific, aesthetic, and political history together, such as Montesquieu wrote (whom Hegel was fond of praising). With that in mind we might try to account for the warp and weft of history—i.e. the development of human subjectivity situated in its historical social forms—without a strongly predetermined sense of its ultimate goal or an excessively rationalist commitment to its totally transparent comprehensibility.[9]

Hegel failed to execute the synthetic trinity he himself espouses, uniting breadth of vision with vigour of imagination and self-aware philosophical reflection. That he ranges broadly over history cannot be denied. But the top-down manner in which he does so prevents him from the kind of detailed historical considerations with which the practice of history is usually associated. He would not see this as a substantial objection. Nor would he accept that his resolution of the drama of Spirit appears to be the Romantic expression of a deep-seated narrative wish. He wants to escape from the particular contingent historical moment in all its indeterminacy to the full realization of self-conscious Reason, and does so by insisting that that moment has arrived or will shortly arrive in Germanic Europe (is this how Hegel makes sense of Napoleon?). In the Introduction to the Lectures on the Philosophy of World History Hegel says that Spirit in history “issues forth in innumerable directions.” This is one valid way of framing dialectical development. But he also affirms that we can know all of history as the broad unified development of Spirit (“everything must be part of a single enterprise”). It is therefore deeply telling to hear Hegel admit to growing “weary of particulars.” For he is more interested in knowing “to what end they all contribute.”[10]

Perhaps nowadays, when notions such as ethnocentrism are widely recognized, it won’t take much convincing to see that, in spite of its “absolute” pretensions, Hegel’s vision is partial. One might also be more inclined to believe that what he has to say about the history of art, particularly of those cultures relegated to earlier stages of development or which seem to lie entirely outside his field of vision, may be rather blinkered (as indeed it is). I don’t say this in order to score cheap points. That Hegel was sometimes wrong in his historical judgment, partial in his historical vision, and mistaken in the form he gave his teleology, does not entirely invalidate the dialectical explication of works of art in terms of the sociocultural and intellectual formations of their time and place. So if I am rather critical of what Hegel says about the history of art—and from what I’ve read, I’m not convinced the Aesthetic Lectures on Fine Art greatly alters what one finds in the Introductory Lectures—that does not mean I wish to jettison his insight that there is closely interwoven connection between history and human subjectivity.

Now let’s return to what Hegel says in his lectures about classical art. Because he is interested in the expression of the truth of the historical reconciliation of the universal Spirit with the concrete particular, because he already knows where this story is going and is committed ahistorically to the rational presupposition of the Idea as its ground, he not unsurprisingly tends to slot artworks into his predetermined scheme. Hegel often seems concerned with historical context only to the extent that it will lead him to the next episode in the adventure of Spirit. Again, it may seem strange or somewhat unfair to say, at least to those familiar with the breadth and depth and rigour of Hegel’s knowledge, but to me he is far too impatient when it comes to focusing on concrete historical moments, to say nothing of specific works of art. He comes off rather poorly when compared with other thinkers in the same tradition, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty. That the Greeks made statues of human beings and not, say, abstract cave-paintings or Egyptian hieroglyphs, Hegel regards as a sign that they attained a certain level of subjective awareness. The human form, represented in a plastic medium, marble, is given to the Greek culture by Spirit through the dialectical development of history. Such being the case, Greek statue-making is superior to the symbolic, pictorial art found in caves or in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs because it represents a higher development in Spirit’s self-consciousness, through human self-consciousness. Symbolic art is concerned more directly with the pictorial, with the immediate unselfconscious sensuousness of its form, Hegel declares, whereas Greek statue-making takes up the sensuous and vivifies it with a formal awareness of the representation of the subjective human being.

Hegel cannot be faulted for having a predetermined conception of history’s progress per se. As he himself noted, everyone has some such scheme. Everyone has some notion of the broad orientation of history, whether implicitly or explicitly. He simply thought that he was on safer ground than Enlightenment philosophes like Voltaire or Hume, both of whom wrote history assuming human nature was uniform, because he was working in a more rationally self-conscious fashion. Yet when reading Hegel’s work or listening in on his lectures, I almost always get the feeling that he is unconcerned by the granularity of historical knowledge. Does he grow “weary of particulars” because he has already determined their diminished significance? While he grasps that such particulars are the bread and butter of “ordinary historians,” as he calls them, he is concerned with higher things. When I picture Hegel as if he were a visitor making his way through a museum, he doesn’t stop in front of any particular work of art for very long because he already knows how the artwork and the exhibit of which it is a part fits into the broader story of the unfolding of Spirit. A Kierkegaardian question arises: can Hegel be seized by the beauty of an artwork, such that he cannot look away? I have my doubts. In describing the ontological development of Spirit in terms of the metaphor of movement, perhaps he couldn’t resist the inertia pushing him towards its ultimate harmonious resolution. Instead of patiently submitting himself to the world of a specific work of art, attuning himself to the chorus of its voices and thereby offering himself the opportunity to expand the horizon of his own self-consciousness, he is content to glance and keep moving.

If we revise Hegel’s method of situating a given work of art into the ontological history of Spirit by paring his project down and speaking more modestly of the history of culture—but still seeing this in terms of the ontological-ethical backdrop of the community to which an artwork belongs, consisting of its legal, moral, aesthetic, and political history—we set aside his claim that there is knowable final goal towards which history is heading as well as a single necessary line of getting there. We are then freer to explore in detail the concrete relationship between a work of art, its setting, and other works of art. This puts me in mind of Julian Bell’s wide-ranging work of art history Mirror of the World,[11] which takes on a premise with a Hegelian ring to it. It’s story, however, soundly rejects the notion that world history is either unilinear or Eurocentric. “I see art history as a frame within which world history, in all its breadth, is continually reflected back at us,” Bell writes. Although he does not always delve deeply into an artwork’s contextual history, as a more traditional textbook might, he consistently situates such works with suitable care. He even makes many imaginative, thought-provoking uses of anachronistic comparisons and contrasts. This enthusiasm for specific artworks and their thoughtful explication is combined with a playfulness and joint appreciation of aesthetic cultures of widely different times and places, which is partly what makes the book a joy to read and look at. It’s a praiseworthy form of aesthetic sympathy that is noticeably absent in the cold conceptual gaze of Hegel. Which leads me to my final question: if Hegel grew weary of the particulars of history and art, can he really have understood their significance?

  1. G. W. F. Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, trans. B. Bosanquet, ed. Michael Inwood, Penguin, 2004, p. 35. []
  2. One of many helpful introductions is that of Frederick Beiser, Hegel, Routledge, 2005. On object-subject identity and idealism, see pp. 61-5 of his work. I have also drawn upon Michael Inwood’s Hegel, Routledge, 1983. []
  3. G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History; Introduction: Reason in History, ed. J. Hoffmeister, trans. H. B. Nisbet, intro. Duncan Forbes, Cambridge University Press, 1975, p. 27. []
  4. Hegel, Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics, p. 97. []
  5. Cf. “World history travels from east to west; for Europe is the absolute end of history, just as Asia is the beginning.” Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, p. 197. []
  6. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, p. 29. []
  7. Leon Pompa, Human nature and historical knowledge, Cambridge University Press, 1990, especially at p. 125. []
  8. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, p. 29.[]
  9. Thus I am in agreement with the post-Hegelian philosophical anthropology of Hans-Georg Gadamer, Paul Ricœur, and Charles Taylor. []
  10. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, p. 33. []
  11. Thames & Hudson, 2007. []
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