Patrick J. Welsh
There is a lot in this section that bothers me. This turns out to provide
the occasion to more fully air my larger objection to Hegel’s mode of
presentation. Perhaps I will follow-up with something more expository. (It
would not be the first time that, in sitting with Hegel, I find that I am
the one who has been mistaken…)
First, I do not understand why Hegel is pursuing the philosophy of art in
terms of the idea of the beautiful. He has already said that he is only
really interested in specifically artistic beauty—and even there I do not
see why he does not instead speak of artistic truth or perfection or, quite
simply, the idea of art. This whole discussion of the beautiful “as such”
strikes me as quite out of place, not Hegel’s proper topic as
systematically determined and frequently stated in other places.
Yet, at the outset of this chapter, we find Hegel declaring, “as for the
idea [of the beautiful] according to its own nature, as natural living
thing as such, or the beautiful as such, what is beautiful coincides with
the living thing” (224).
This is not the first time that Hegel has deployed such language in these
lectures, but I feel there as been some slippage in the topic. Earlier, he
said that “the content [of art] is thought [*Gedanke*] and the form is the
sensuous, the pictorial shape” (210). Beauty, in this earlier context, is
specified as “the unity of the content with this content’s mode of
determinate being; it is reality ‘being-commensurate’ and ‘made
commensurate’ with the concept” (211).
How can Hegel justify the priority he here assigns to thought as it
manifests itself in the form of individual soul? It is not that art cannot
assume this form, but it is only one particular mode. What, then, is it
doing at the center of Hegel’s presentation of the universal concept of art?
Later in the lectures, Hegel does arrive where I think that he belongs,
that is, with the concept of concrete human individuality as action. But
why does he not go there right away? This is not a rhetorical question.
This whole chapter reads as an ad hoc and organizationally muddled
rehearsal of material from his philosophy-of-nature account of organics and
the first chapter of his anthropology, on soul.
Is this anything more than a concession to an audience not presumed
familiar with his larger philosophical system? Because that is my best
Against this interpretation, however, is the extent to which this foray
into the beautiful seems to derail his discussion of art as a mode of
absolute spirit. The in-itself ideality of the living thing is an
assumption too deeply embedded in Hegel’s line of inquiry to merit
restatement in this context. And in any case, the soul is not yet developed
spirit! It is not even properly in history!
My objections to this approach to art by detour through the idea of the
beautiful is not merely systematic nitpicking. It is a decision that has
what I contend are deleterious effects on his subsequent treatments of the
arts in their more determinate particularization and historical actuality.
Specifically, it illegitimately privileges the literal representation of
the human form. The visual arts are accorded undue precedence.
For instance, when Hegel has to account for music, he has almost nothing to
say—and what he does say is not particularly informed by all of the
anthropological discussion introduced by his presentation of the beautiful.
I imagine he would have a similarly difficult time with the paintings of
abstract expressionism, to cite a more recent example. The absence of any
concrete commensurability with individual soul is entirely besides the
point for our appreciation or assessment of these and many other works.
Yet, they are nevertheless eminent candidates for the concrete self-knowing
of spirit in a sensuous form.
Hegel’s concept of the beautiful idea does nothing but obscure this
accomplishment. And with what gain? I see nothing that outweighs these