Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hegel's Aesthetics: A handy way of looking at things

I have long been an admirer of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the German philosopher (1770-1831). Like another German philosopher, Nietzsche, Hegel has tended to suffer by association. This is a pity because Hegal has a lot to teach us about art.

Whereas Nietzsche was [quite unfairly in my opinion] tainted by the admiration of the Nazis, Hegel was over-shadowed by Karl Marx--a much less perceptive thinker, IMHO--who drew on Hegelian concepts to lay the groundwork for the dialectical materialism of Lenin and that whole mess.

So Hegel deserves, I humbly suggest, serious reconsideration. Some of his thoughts and interests were very modern. He was very interested in why people think the way they do, why they hold certain beliefs , which have tended to change over time, and why they behave in certain ways, which also evolve over time (although he died the same year Darwin graduated from Cambridge and so never knew of the latter's theory of evolution).

In short Hegel was interested in explaining observed phenomena, so in some ways he was a very practical philosopher, although you don't really get that when you open up something like Phenomenology of Mind, with its dense prose and page long paragraphs.

One of the most useful concepts that I have drawn from Hegel is that of genuine and ersatz manifestations of the same phenomenon which tend to reinforce, not diminish the importance of the phenomenon. Take the modern obsession with the lives of other people. The latter half of the twentieth century was a golden age of biography. Some truly great biographies were written, genuine works of art. At the same time we saw the rise of People magazine and lower-brow populist knock-offs. In trying to understand what is happening to the human race, some philosophers might ignore populist or crass manifestations of what are, when you scratch the surface, the same yearnings as you find reflect in more serious works of art.

But to Hegel they were both of interest. The existence of the same yearnings in different forms only heightened the importance of spelling out those yearnings, in this case the desire to understand how other people live their lives, something that fascinates us because we somehow sense that the way we live our own lives is a work in progress, but a body of work nonetheless. My own interpretation of Hegel, and my own belief, is that our lives are works of art and we are hungry to know how other artists are doing.

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