on g.w.f. hegel’s aesthetics (reply to reinaert de v.’s the rise of modernity, part 1)

aufheben hegel

Dear Reinaert de V.,

…it’s been so long reading a post from you (The Rise of Modernity, Part 1) & now together we’re back continuing to think & write about philosophy again. I feel that your philosophical interests are akin to my own, with obvious variance here & there. Yet, as our ideas have converged before, we’ve overcome our differences & now I’m struggling to recall who brought up G.W.F. Hegel first. I think it was you who about a year ago spoke of writing on his aesthetics & that inspired me to read & then write on his Phenomenology of Spirit—followed by looking & writing a little on his Aesthetics. Part of my interest also came to the fore while researching, reading & writing about Althusser’s ideology. Althusser openly rejected Hegel, since whole aspects of Hegel’s metaphysical ‘excesses’ were sloughed-off by late Marxist materialism. Let it be known that the more I found Hegel’s thought to be reviled by nineteenth & twentieth century thinkers, the more I wanted to embrace him. With this said, I’m not of the mind to simultaneously let go of Althusser & the others, as I see that this impulse is too narrow-minded & not inclusive, nor wide ranging enough to adequately engage philosophers that are of opposing views.

I needed to know what Hegel was all about & I wanted to try to grasp this imposing figure, who has always represented a special kind of insurmountable thinking. The only obstruction I discovered had to be overcome in my own mind. The resolve had to do with the work it takes to climb the rocks & to prepare for the inevitable confrontation with a failure to comprehend & to then re-read & to then strive for his kind of knowing that always includes the discomfort of not knowing. This continual task of re-reading is itself a kind of knowing. The conscious acquisition of knowledge has to confront what it doesn’t know in order to learn & then know better then it did before. Our eventual goals to know can be held alongside Hegel’s rushing toward absolute knowledge, absolute idea & absolute spirit, all of this is with the knowledge that philosophy should help us to be more capable of getting set on this journey of knowing & with the admission that this philosophical path is also Hegel’s way to absolute knowledge, that will include self-knowing & as a way to know the world as without the typical constraints that divide subject & object—as a pure unified knowing, that we’ll never truly know altogether.

Of course, we’ll be forced to see this drive to know & to know Hegel as fraught with many frustrations & these frustrations are often mistaken as flaws with Hegel’s un/intended obscurity. I’ve decided to think of the pain felt with these obscurities as a way of confronting & comprehending the dialectic & more specifically coming to terms with the central pivot of the dialectic, known as the sublation, the aufheben. This is noticed after the very beginning of any presuppositionless sense apprehension that is being & nothing sublated, then becoming thought & that could become a moment of conceptual thinking—this process of spirit coming to know is sometimes lovingly referred to by Hegel as a way to science (we’d be good to think of this too as thinking that’s onward to philosophical conceptualization & idea). Aufheben is a unique German word that roughly means to bring up, as well as to preserve & also to cancel out, to do away with, perhaps to bring back again. I like to think of the word as a reconciliation. This strange self-contradicting word: aufheben—which for Fichte & our usual understanding of Hegel’s dialectic—is defined as the contradiction &/or the antithesis. It can then be thought of as related to the fundamental negation within Hegel’s dialectic. Another word we can’t ignore here is speculation, or the speculative, which is certainly linked to the above mentioned word as a reconciliation that happens within the aufheben. The speculative is a reconciling of oppositions that thereby brings things, concepts, ideas, problems, philosophy &c. into the whole of the absolute, all in the name of the Hegelian dialectic. I’m sure Hegel thought of the whole of his philosophy as speculative, which again underscores the word aufheben. In short, we have to pass through, push down, bring up, & preserve the aufheben to really know Hegel.

From this initial confrontation of mine & back to the actual point of simply thanking you for your interest in Hegel, we’re drawn to a conclusion that when we sit down to study Hegel, to think about Hegel & then to sometimes reject Hegel, we’d be amiss to not take notice of the dialectical & speculative logic he laid for out us. This urges us to take notice of how he could’ve predicted his own negations, his potential demise, whereby the absolute spirit of our contemporary way of knowing has included & possibly grown out of this foreboding presence known as Hegel’s philosophy. This way of thinking about the dialectic includes his own speculative end, but never an end absolutely, as any ending has to include Hegel coming before us. We must not confuse this with the potential to lead us nowhere, since we can remember that his telos leads us to a transformation of the whole that once was, to the whole that can be & that won’t be overlooked as brought forward by Hegel.

It’s with friendly admiration that I’m happy to say you’ve done fine work to continue Hegel’s concepts into a fresh now. It’s worth noting that whenever we focus on a specific idea of Hegel’s ideal, we must not lose sight of how this transfers to the bigger picture of his entire oeuvre (the absolute). You have looked at the aesthetics of Hegel, citing passages form his Lectures on Aesthetics & I couldn’t help but thinking that your selections sound very much like his Lectures on the Philosophy of History. For example you write: “Thus the enlightened individual is able to move about freely & realize himself fully by partaking of the substantiality that is the state & thereby becoming more than what was his own.” When we compare this statement of yours to one found in Hegel’s Philosophy of History, we are reminded that the individual is fully actualized (as you indicated) in the state: “The worth of individuals is measured by the extent to which they reflect & represent the national spirit…” But, perhaps this is not in a totalitarian way, as the individual is realized within the a state of mutual freedom with other individuals. These other individuals are allowed their differences & particularities as features of their freedom, since this freedom is not really about the impulsive free reign of desires. When we continue moving from this idea that the individual is actualized in a state—a state of freedom with others—we come to the thought that you point to that directly echoes Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” … reading this next Hegel’s statement from the Philosophy of History shows  a distinct similarity: “The individual can certainly make the state into a means of attaining this or that end. But the truth is realized only insofar as each individual wills the universal cause itself and has discarded all that is inessential.”

As you already know, what we’re talking about is spirit, absolute spirit. The realization of reason is universal & it is spirit as the realization of the idea. The spirit is a determination of the self as it is also a determination of science, religion, knowledge & art. The goals of history, its telos is reason & it is the idea as it’s manifested via the spirit of man as an individual & as a collective. All of this can be thought as the expression of freedom. The objects of thought are what spirit contemplates as consciousness. Freedom is not something that the spirit merely strives for, it is also contained in the basic structure of thought as it knows itself in a self-determined way & not in a pre-ordained, deterministic way. The limitations of the world are what cause our own determinations to become what we are. It is the idea that becomes a goal for the knowing subject, the idea where the concepts of subject & object become sublated, a kind of pure knowing to eventually be without the subjective/objective distinction, the two are conflated as a free idea. There are seeming contradictions that arise from the idea that man is free, while he’s also confined to the rules of the state. Hegel addresses this in the Philosophy of History: “The concept of freedom is such that justice & ethical life are inseparable from it…” & later in the same paragraph we find the conclusion: “…such restrictions [of the state, laws, government &c.] are the indispensible conditions of liberation; society & the state are the only situations in which freedom can be realized.”  It has become evident that Hegel’s thought was consistent throughout the Aesthetics, the Philosophy of History, the Philosophy of Right & many other places. What I find intriguing is that while you outline the details of how you read his Aesthetics, absolute spirit emerges, in the way it manifests itself through the individual & how it includes the expression of man’s spirit, freedom & idea that are communicated into art & also into world history.

We already know that Hegel designates in the Aesthetics that philosophy supersedes the arts & just about everything else. Thus creating a kind of philosophical bird’s-eye-view where Hegel can then look to the pattern of how art has expressed itself in a religious context & that this religious context for art has passed. The apogee of art as a religious expression has been superseded by ‘lesser’ ideals. In the introduction of Hegel’s Aesthetics we find this put in Hegel’s words: “We have got beyond venerating works of art as divine & worshipping them.” & in a couple of sentences later we find: “…art, considered in its highest vocation, is & remains a thing of the past. Thereby it has lost for us genuine truth & life & it has been rather transferred into our ideas…”  What’s of note here is that “art’s imminent demise” (as you put it) is also due to this observation of Hegel’s that’s brought together with an implication that the individual is sublimated into the apparatus of the state & that this is a condition of art’s demise as it stand today. I believe that this can be maintained, while at the same time retaining & integrating an idea of an art that values thought, conceptualization & reflection.

Little did Hegel know that this would hold true & we’ll be sure to include the all-important ‘concept/idea’ as the driving force behind much of art created recently. As vital as concept is for Hegel’s philosophy, it is also just as intrinsic for a comprehension of artistic practice today. Once religion took ultimate precedence & now it’s thought, reflection, idea & concept. Hegel wasn’t too far off, especially if we consider this within the dialectic, whereby we can see that the self-negation of art has been happening over & over, throughout most of the 20th century (continuing into the 21st). The so-called death of art as a practice & theory has been a (now stale) recurring theme for decades now, yet artistic practice continues to negate itself & to push man’s spirit onward. Art occupies a curious place in today’s world & in that bizarre presentation we’ll see it as a glaring reflection of our own thought, questioning, pain & suffering. Our own pain is addressed in ways that make art appear to be too honest, too brutal. These confrontations are certainly the aufheben for us to bring a fresh re-reading into the world as a free expression of where we’re at in our world, in our spirit, in our minds & universally. We are called upon to conceptualize ourselves thinking about an art that struggles a great deal to let it self be known, as much as we are placed with the responsibility of knowing ourselves how to comprehend just a bit more of it than we did yesterday, till tomorrow places us within a new challenge to think of art again & to not know what we’ll eventually never know absolutely. Hegel leaves us with known & unknown pieces of his wisdom to carry on with the work of thinking that will observe the beauty of striving to know something/someone once more.

Aurelio Madrid

bibliography/works cited:

Hegel, G.W.F. Aesthetics, Lectures on Fine Art Vol. 1. Trans. T.M. Knox. New York: Oxford U. Press. 1975. print.

Hegel, G.W.F. Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, Introduction. Trans H.B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press. 1975. print.

Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals 3rd ed.. Trans. James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett. 1993. print.

Magee, Glen Alexander. The Hegel Dictionary. New York: Continuum Pubs. 2010. print.

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