At present, Hegelian aesthetics—as established by Hegel in the 1820s, in his Berlin lectures on fine art—persists in at least three distinct (and sometimes conflicting) strains, schools, or guises. First, especially in literary and art theory, it persists as the sine qua non of a dialectically-inflected Marxist criticism, as the latter passes from the early writings of Georg Lukács, through the Frankfurt School aesthetics of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, and on to the work of such contemporary figures as Fredric Jameson and T. J. Clark. These Marxist critics, while rejecting Hegel’s idealism, have yet endorsed fundamentally Hegelian insights about the necessarily historical nature of art—the sense that different shapes of spirit (or, rather, different modes of production) underwrite different art practices and that individual works are best understood as ciphers for more fundamental social operations. Secondly, within the analytic-philosophical tradition, the outsized influence of Arthur Danto’s philosophy of art has made at least some of Hegel’s claims inescapable. As it was for Hegel, art, for Danto, is essentially an articulation of the sensual and the rational, an instance of “embodied meaning.” And while Danto can claim that this definition of art is universal (it holds for all art, for all ages), it is arrived at only at art’s historical end. Thus, in Danto’s self-consciously Hegelian formulation, art, having reached its end, is “vaporized in a dazzle of pure thought about itself, remaining, as it were, solely as the object of its own theoretical consciousness.”
Robert Pippin’s work comprises a third version of Hegelian aesthetics, or a third way of “being Hegelian” in the contemporary philosophy of art. Developed across a series of books on film, literature, and visual art—and including the recently published Philosophy by Other Means: The Arts in Philosophy and Philosophy in the Arts (2021), the focus of this Syndicate forum—Pippin’s treatment of aesthetic matters grows out of a transformative reading of German idealist philosophy and of Hegel’s philosophy in particular. Beginning with Hegel’s Idealism (1989), Pippin has resisted readings of Hegel as a pre-critical dogmatist or neo-Platonist mystic. He has emphasized instead Hegel’s prolongation and radicalization of the critical project adumbrated by Immanuel Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason. Thus, for Pippin, Hegel is principally concerned with what it means to be a rational agent in an historical world, what it means for our institutions to be, recognizably, our own, and (so) for our practices to be free—not in the sense of our practices being undetermined, nor in the sense of their being the phenomenal effects of noumenal causes, but in the sense of their being determined through reason, susceptible to interrogation, justification, and correction. If philosophy is, as Hegel would famously have it, “its own time recollected in thought,” then the aim of aim of Hegelian philosophy must be to recollect those social practices that express the development of spirit, of human mindedness, at some particular, historical moment. And this means appreciating (as Hegel did in his own time) the philosophical import of politics, religion, and art. The last, Pippin understands as making sensibly—rather than conceptually—intelligible spirit’s self-expression and self-knowledge. Art, then, is a form of thought—or, better, a form of thought-in-action. But as a sensible form of thought, it can only be understood through its particular manifestations, through particular works of art.
The version of Hegelian aesthetics that Pippin presents in Philosophy by Other Means—in careful treatments of the fiction of James, Proust, and Coetzee; in discussions of the place of painting and literature in Hegel’s philosophical system; in explications of the art criticism of Michael Fried; and in a searching reading of the challenge that tragedy presents to philosophical rationality—this version of Hegelian aesthetics shares with Hegelian-Marxist criticism its emphasis on the historical character of art; and it shares with Danto’s philosophy of art a conception of artworks as sensual bearers of meaning. It breaks with the former, however, in rejecting economic determinism—focusing on questions of normativity and sociality rather than class and commodities. And in one of the most illuminating chapters of Philosophy by Other Means, Pippin takes on Adorno’s well-known characterization of Hegel as an arch-idealist—as the purveyor of a system that is, as Adorno writes in Negative Dialectics, “the belly turned mind,” living only to consume the non-identical. Pippin breaks as well with Danto’s domesticated Hegelianism, for Pippin, like Hegel and unlike Danto, sees art as making intelligible the most fundamental questions of social life—questions that become explicit in Pippin’s discussion of Fried’s account of especially modern art’s attempts to stave off alienating, false, inauthentic, or just “theatrical” forms of existence.
Philosophy by Other Means demonstrates Pippin’s remarkable breadth as a thinker—for how many philosophers can converse with John McDowell on “second nature” as readily as with Michael Fried on Olympia. But more than this, in its rigorous treatment of art as an embodied mode of knowledge or self-knowledge, it gives rise to a startlingly different picture of Hegel and his theory of art.
What follows is a forum dedicated to Philosophy by Other Means. It comprises the lightly-edited record of an exchange of ideas that occurred at Harvard University over two sessions on 25 February 2022. The responses that follow take up diverse aspects of the book’s argument. Playing on the book’s title, John Hamilton reminds us that “[i]f poetry is, indeed, philosophy by other means, then surely it is because the means by which both operate is language.” With this in mind, he focuses on the curious role of poetic language in Hegel’s philosophy—and especially on the philosopher’s numerous quotations from literary works in his Phenomenology. Robert Chodat shows how Pippin’s Hegel deftly avoids some of the impasses in which contemporary literary studies has found itself mired. But he also worries that the careful balance between art and philosophy that Pippin tries to sustain sometimes falters, that artworks are sometimes made to present, in aesthetically pleasing form, some concept of Hegelian philosophy. Elisa Magrì uses Pippin’s reading of a literary work—À la recherche du temps perdu—as an opportunity to discover a Hegelian solution to a philosophical problem posed in Proust’s writing: the problem of maintaining the constitutive role of subjective experience without falling into a world-denying solipsism. Finally, focusing his attention on Pippin’s discussions of Adorno, Coetzee, and tragic drama, Espen Hammer asks whether Pippin’s Hegelian belief in art’s ultimate intelligibility can do justice to works that seem designed to deny this intelligibility. Each of these responses—and the responses from Pippin that follow them—help to clarify the insights and the stakes of Philosophy by Other Means, a singular contribution to the contemporary philosophy of art.