Should We Care What Hegel Really Thought of Art?

Jakob Schlesinger, portrait of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, 1831. Public domain

And do we need more of the great idealist philosopher’s lectures on aesthetics?

Probably the most important philosophy news of the year came this autumn, when it was announced that a large stash of new Hegel manuscripts had been discovered in the library of the Archdiocese of München and Freising.

Well, I say ‘new Hegel manuscripts’. Spread across five boxes, the discovery (by Jena philosophy professor Klaus Viewig) is actually of 4000 pages of lecture notes taken between 1816 and 1818 by Hegel’s apparently very diligent student Friedrich Wilhelm Carové, during the period when the great German idealist philosopher was teaching at Heidelberg. This is still important though, not least because according to Viewig, the dominant focus of the manuscripts is the philosophy of art.

With his ideas about art anticipating modernism, and acting as a decisive influence on the likes of Adorno, Heidegger, and Arthur Danto, Hegel has long been considered one of the most essential figures in Western aesthetics. Briefly: Hegel reconstructs a sort of art history whereby, in societies like ancient Greece, or medieval Europe, art somehow gave objective sensuous expression to people’s ‘highest’ needs: for instance, their religious faith (think of medieval art that depicts the suffering of Christ). It therefore played a vital social role. But nowadays, developments in religion (particularly, the turning-inward catalysed by the Reformation) and philosophy (including natural science) mean that art is no longer really needed to play this role. Other things can do this more effectively instead (we might understand the truth of our society by, say, reading Hegel, instead). Art has, therefore, come to a sort of ‘end’: thus explaining the development of an insular, though autonomous, ‘artworld’.

This might (by art’s own lights) be thought to be a good thing, since ‘beauty’ is for Hegel the sensuous expression of human freedom. In a way, the more autonomous art is, the more it might be able to do this. But Hegel never wrote a systematic treatise on the topic himself: what we have instead are his lectures on the philosophy of art (delivered between 1818 and 1829), which were written up posthumously from the notes taken by another student, Heinrich Gustav Hotho. Textual controversies abound: it is hoped that the new discovery might help clear up what Hegel ‘really’ thought about art, and which bits Hotho either misremembered, or added himself.

This is exciting – not least because it gives me an idea for a sort of Umberto Eco-style novel about some Hegel scholars who decide to hoax the discovery of some lecture notes to help beat their rivals at interpreting Hegel’s philosophy of art. Viewig, for his part, has compared the discovery to finding a new score by Mozart. But on the other hand, it makes me think: do we really need any more Hegel?

Hegel is one of the greatest philosophers of all time. That’s as close to a fact as, in philosophy, you’re ever really likely to get. He is important because after Kant published the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, there was an immense flourishing of philosophical activity in the German-speaking world, as thinkers picked up on Kant’s ‘Copernican Revolution’ (as a sort of re-centring of the subject as the source of objective knowledge) and ran with it, correcting what were often thought of as Kant’s mistakes (not least, his seemingly hard distinction between the world as it ‘appears’ to us, and the world as it is ‘in itself’). Hegel is usually thought to be the most sophisticated representative of this tradition – as he rose to prominence at the end of it, systematising the less clearly and consistently worked-out insights of the likes of J.G. Fichte and F.W.J. Schelling (Hegel’s younger, more obviously intellectually brilliant college roommate). Crudely, Hegel understands knowledge as the result of an essentially historical process, as we come closer to ‘absolute’ knowledge by working through various contradictions between how things seem to us, and how they actually either are or could be, over time.

Famously, this way of seeing things was immensely influential on Marx (although as a materialist, Marx also defines himself against Hegel’s idealism). He was also a decisive influence on the likes of Simone de Beauvoir and Frantz Fanon, as well as exercising an immense negative influence – as someone thinkers like Schopenhauer (who used to spitefully schedule his lectures at the same time as Hegel’s when he also worked at the University of Berlin), Kierkegaard and the early Analytics defined themselves against.

But Hegel was also someone who wrote a lot. His works are typically very long. To become reasonably expert in his system, you need to at least dip into the Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), the Science of Logic (1812), and the Philosophy of Right (1820). And then there is the alternative statement of his thought that Hegel gave in the Encyclopedia (1817), the various lecture series (including on art, as well as topics such as the philosophy of history, and the history of philosophy), his early pre-Phenomenology work that scholars like Axel Honneth make a lot of…

It’s not like Hegel is someone you can just skim. His work is so dense: when teaching Hegel, I’ve gotten three lectures out of a single chapter of the Phenomenology, and I still don’t think I managed to really do it justice. An introduction to Hegel’s political philosophy could easily take a term; a master’s module I once audited on the Logic took ten weeks to get about twenty pages into a 700-page book.

And so far from helping anyone understand Hegel’s thought, my worry is that if we have more Hegel (like 4000 pages worth of more Hegel) it will become completely impossible for anyone to claim any sort of expertise in Hegel at all. No-one but the most dedicated nerds will plough their way through this new text. But also – and this is crucial for people like me, who don’t want to dedicate their entire lives to Hegel but also make at least part of their living teaching him – if you don’t read the new Hegel, it’s probably going to become a lot more difficult to write about him academically. This is how peer review in the history of philosophy works: leave something out, fail to footnote some odd little passage where the reviewer remembers that maybe something slightly different was said, and you’re not getting published, baby. Doesn’t matter what point you’re trying to make overall: with this sorry omission, you have revealed yourself to be a rank amateur, and you are not going to be allowed into (for instance) the Hegel clique.

In a way, that’s fine – if the scholarly standard is ‘getting Hegel right’, then it’s entirely appropriate not to accept articles for publication if they don’t meet it. But why exactly should anyone be interested in that? Hegel was important – too important, really, not to continue to think and to write about. But philosophers aren’t important because they were big important guys: they were big important guys because they told us something novel or distinctive about the world. And tellingly, no-one announcing the discovery of the new Hegel manuscripts seems excited that they’re going to make us realise something we didn’t know before about art.

Hegel was important, as I’ve said, as someone whose thought represents the culmination (of sorts) of a movement instantiated by Kant. But this movement was only really possible because Kant had successfully drawn a line in the sand between philosophy as he did it, and the early modern Rationalism and Empiricism that came before. The same is true for other periods in which lots of innovative thinkers suddenly rose to prominence: the ‘new science’ of phenomenology inaugurated by Edmund Husserl around 1900 (that produced the likes of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty), the Analytic philosophy which emerged in Cambridge at around the same time (and produced Wittgenstein). Someone came along and found a way of saying that it’s all crap, that everything that came before is either no longer relevant, or would have to be completely re-imagined. Even some of the best and most important history of philosophy has been produced like this: see Heidegger’s radically revisionary lectures on Plato and Aristotle, or Deleuze’s description of his own scholarship as ‘philosophical buggery’ – ‘taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous.’

If there is any real point to thinking and writing about someone like Hegel, it is so that we might find out ways to use him – to find ways to think with him, to treat him as a contemporary, to help him to address the things that matter to us most today (most obviously, by considering questions like: ‘Is it art’s purpose to give objective expression to something about our society and culture?’ ‘If so, how can it do this today?’). But this means being able to think about him almost carelessly, non-expertly: to be free to use him creatively. It is important to mishear thinkers like this, as much as it is to pick up precisely on everything they’ve said.

Funnily enough, we are in a much better position to do this with philosophers whose work we have less of, not more. With a thinker whose thought has reached us only in fragments, there can be no hope of getting them finally and completely ‘right’: there are too many gaps for scholars to fill in. An interested amateur could maybe get the gist in around an hour: be prompted to some other thought, and run with it. But then the more material, the heavier its intellectual weight becomes. Even dark little avenues, forgotten nooks and crannies, neglected aspects of their thought (like piles of half-uncovered lecture notes), can’t do as much as it might otherwise have done by dint of the duty to relate it to the whole.

And so if I’d discovered the new Hegel, I’m not really sure I’d have told anyone (or, perhaps better: obviously I would have told someone, I would have wanted the professional kudos, but I would not have been convinced that I should). If Hegel still has anything relevant to tell us, and in my view he probably does, I think it might be better if there was less of him.

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