"Nothing Human Is Foreign to Me" on the Role of Difference in Hegel's Aesthetics

Article excerpt

The reception of Hegel's philosophy of art has mostly stood under the shadow of his famous thesis on "the end of arts." This leaves many modern readers of Hegel's aesthetic philosophy with a feeling of desolation in relation to his contributions as an aesthetic philosopher, especially those readers who would like to recognize important creative contributions by modern arts. Hegel seems, because of this claim regarding the end of the arts, to be a thinker who would make only limiting claims regarding the role of the arts, and he seems to threaten to reduce the creative content of the arts to a message that could be absorbed by philosophy and expressed far better in conceptual terms. Thus twentieth century philosophers, such as Theodor Adorno and Sarah Kofman, criticize Hegel as a philosopher of the arts who views the arts as thoroughly subordinate to philosophical speculation, thus depriving the arts of any specific function and introducing "art-alien elements" into his account of the arts.' Robert Pippin claims on a similar basis that Hegel's philosophy of the arts leaves him incapable of accounting for the immense creative riches of contemporary arts.2

However this essay means to demonstrate that Hegel's aesthetic thought, when freed from historical distortions, actually recognizes a very valuable on-going cultural function in the arts, and that this function cannot be exhausted through conceptual speculation. Specifically, Hegel argues that once the arts are freed from their classical purpose of representing humanity as divine, they can take on the function of conveying to subjects modes of experience that would otherwise not be available to them. The modern arts have the possibility of representing subjective passion as a sensible object of intuition, and thus allow us to represent a form of subjectivity without actually having to live through it. Hegel equates this on-going positive function of the arts with Terence's dictum: "Nothing human is foreign to me," a saying which only the arts and not philosophy allow us to affirm.3 Developing this thesis will establish Hegel as a theorist of the ongoing development of the arts, but it will do so in a different manner than those readings that identify Hegel's conception of the end of the arts with theories of non-representational, abstract arts in modernity.4 While Hegel does recognize the increasing abstraction of the arts from any objective content, he regards this development as relatively neutral, as a merely formal "freedom from" and not a real "freedom to." Instead, I will argue that, for Hegel, conveying modes of experience, and particularly "passions" that lie outside the "ethos" of the spectator gives the arts a function and task that is both irreducible to the contents of other modes of absolute spirit, as well as positive in the sense of advancing the adequacy of absolute spirit in its own self-comprehension. Thus my reading will highlight the role of "difference" in Hegel's aesthetics in two senses: it will emphasize that Hegel recognizes an irreducible, on-going difference in function between the arts and other modes of objective spirit; and it will demonstrate that this function actually consists in the capacity of the arts to communicate modes of subjectivity that are "different" than what a subject can comprehend using concepts or otherwise relate to on the level of feeling.

The question might be posed: what is to be gained by grasping the passions of individuals that lie outside Hegel's conception of ethical life? Answering this question will prove more challenging using the texts on Hegel's aesthetics; however I will venture the thesis that for Hegel, grasping otherwise inaccessible passions provides modern individuals with the power to understand the historical changes and contingencies that drive the ongoing development of ethical life. By seeing and feeling a mode of life that lies outside of the ethos in which we live, we learn to discriminate between what is contingent and what is essential in our ethos, and we learn to discriminate not merely in the mode of thought, but on the level of our own emotive experience. …