Symposium Introduction

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.

John Hamilton


Response to Robert Pippin

In my response to Robert Pippin’s series of probing and provoking studies in Philosophy by Other Means, I shall focus on the third chapter, “The Status of Literature in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: On the Lives of Concepts.” As with each chapter in the volume, this essay reflects on the role of the arts in philosophical discourse, how aesthetic objects might relate to or confront conceptual labor, how beauty and understanding might interact, or, as the chapter’s subtitle indicates, how concepts might become alive. The concern pertains to the encounter between two distinct activities, what Heidegger designated as Dichten und Denken, between poetic expression and theoretical consideration, between a creative, disclosing use of language and a cognitive, analytic use.  Must the two modes be held apart? Or is it possible that poetry and philosophy may have some reciprocal effect on each other? How might philosophy alter our reading of poetry and vice versa? What value might we assign to this exchange? Are philosophical accounts not inevitably appropriative, reducing the specificity of a poem to address more general truths that ultimately betray this specificity? Or can literature impart some knowledge that philosophy would otherwise not attain? If so, what would this knowledge be? Is the poetic disturbance or interruption of the intellect worth anything at all? Is it possible to regard works of art as “philosophy by other means”? 

The engagement, of course, is quite old, having been classically portrayed by Socrates in Plato’s Republic as “the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy” [παλαιά τις διαφορὰ φιλοσοφίᾳ τε καὶ ποιητικῇ, Rep. 10, 607b]), a stand-off or duel that Pippin already evokes in the preceding chapter on “Kant and the Problem of Tragedy.” Here, in a parenthetical clause, Pippin comments: “(if there is a quarrel, especially one of such seriousness, there must be a rivalry over issues claimed by both)” (20–21). The claim is straightforward: contestation presumes parity. Every incitement to compete asserts some basis of equivalence with one’s chosen opponent; hence, the “rivalry” or match between poetry and philosophy that Pippin stages yet again and does so in a consistently sophisticated and brilliant fashion. 

As for my response, I would like to emphasize three interrelated points that this statement broaches. First, Pippin’s evocation of the “ancient quarrel” is an acknowledged citation: “Plato’s banishing the poets from Kallipolis” (20) is summoned to bear witness to an interdependence that conventional philosophy, beginning with the Platonic tradition itself, has purportedly aimed to discount. Second, the stated “rivalry” not only presumes a level of parity, that philosophy and poetry somehow meet on equal footing, but also serves as a reminder that both modes participate in the same rules of engagement, that is, both deal and share a concern with language: both partake in a common lexicon; both involve doing things with words. If poetry is, indeed, philosophy by other means, then surely it is because the means by which both operate is language. 

Yet it is the third and final point that I find particularly interesting, and it has to do with the form of Pippin’s allusive citation, namely, that it is set within the brackets of a parenthesis. The rhetorical term, derived from Greek, is especially pertinent insofar as it denotes a “positing” (thesis) that is “in” the discourse (en-) while being “off to the side” (para-). With a parenthesis, language is placed into the text, en-thetically, yet as something that appears simultaneously off to the side, para-thetically. The positing or thesis is both in and beside the current discourse, en and para, a part of the whole while being apart from the whole. This double aspect has always made it difficult to ascertain how any parenthesis relates to the main argument. For this reason, in his magisterial treatise on rhetorical figures, Pierre Fontanier advises that one should be cautious in employing a parenthesis, since it “tends necessarily to produce encumbrance, obscurity, confusion.” Although there can be no doubt as to the intention behind Pippin’s bracketed remark, the parenthetical quality should not be passed over too quickly. 

Which brings me to the chapter on “The Status of Literature in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit.” What I would like to underscore are the three points mentioned above: the nature of citation, the common grounding in language, and especially the parenthetical effect of an included exclusion. These points, which are brought in together and treated neither comprehensively nor systematically, will guide my response.

The problem that motivates Pippin’s thinking is an issue that has long attracted scholarship on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit—namely, why Hegel chose to conclude “his most exciting and original work … with a quotation, or rather a significant misquotation of a poet?” (39) That is, why does the culminating section on “Absolute Knowing” (Absolutes Wissen) give the last word to a couplet from Schiller’s poem on “Friendship” (Freundschaft)? Would the citation, by calling in Schiller’s verses as testimony, illustration, or elaboration, not compromise the absoluteness of “absolute Knowing”? Would not the very notion of the absolute as that which is isolated and free from contingency be undercut by this turn to the discourse of an Other? As Pippin acknowledges, he is not the first, nor will he be the last, to find the sheer presence of this exogenous last word troublesome. 

As readers of the Phenomenology know, Hegel turns to literary citations at key moments in unfolding the narrative of “spirit’s experience of itself”—moments that cannot be relegated to a merely illustrative or summarizing function. The appeal to Goethe and Sophocles, Diderot, Jacobi, and finally Schiller clearly performs a philosophical service, even if that role might remain mysterious. And with his usual gifts for patient and lucid investigation, Pippin’s reflections provide compelling reasons for taking Hegel’s citational practices quite seriously. Through a discussion of the crucial force of “the negative” in the Phenomenology and in adducing the virtue of “liveliness” (Lebendigkeit) from the subsequent lectures on Aesthetics, the essay demonstrates how self-knowledge can occur only by way of self-estrangement and thereby shows why quoting the couplet from Schiller is a necessary gesture, why the aesthetic dimension is indispensably “within,” and “not merely as a preparation or propaedeutic for, the proper expression of philosophical science” (45). Within, I would stress, by being apart—that is, parenthetically

The moral implications that Pippin draws are particularly significant. I am referring to Hegel’s insistence that one not “look exclusively to a subject’s ex ante formulated intention” (52). Actions and behaviors are not simply modeled on prior intentions. Rather, true intentions come to light only through specific deeds. For Hegel, there is no determination prior to enactment. As Goethe’s Faust realizes in correcting Luther’s translation, “In the beginning was the Deed,” not the “Word.” As in the case of Faust, it is only when the subject abandons his high-vaulted, narrow study—only when he embarks on deeds, whether nobly or hideously—that he comes to a true self-understanding. Pippin thus summarizes: “Action must be understood as a self-negation in this sense, a negation of the subject’s pretension to complete ownership of the nature and import of the deed, and therewith the sharing of such authority with others” (53). Only by negating pure subjectivity can subjectivity be truly realized. To remain with Goethe’s tragedy: Mephistopheles, “the spirit who always negates” (der Geist der stets verneint), seems to incarnate the negation of Faust’s initial intention. With the devil beside him, Faust can realize who he truly is, just as God comes to be God in the self-negating emptying (the kenosis or Entäusserung) of creation. Such is the power of seduction: although it may appear to lead the subject off track, it may also reveal some truth about ourselves, something that we may prefer to suppress or ignore.

In the Homeric epic, Odysseus expresses his mental plan to Circe—namely, that he wishes to return home to Ithaca; and he learns that, should he be tempted by the Sirens, he would never reach his home, never realize his plan. Yet, when he listens to the seductive song of the Sirens, who promise complete knowledge, he demands to be unbound. In contrast to what he had believed he wanted, the seduction of the Sirens reveals what he truly wants. He comes to realize that he ranks the acquisition of knowledge over homecoming. 

Seduction flourishes in parentheses insofar as it inserts an intention that is determined by the outside. In leading the subject away from itself, seduction parenthetically returns the subject to itself. The pattern recurs in Hegel’s aesthetic theory: An artist’s thoughts or mental plans do not simply precede artistic production but rather are determined only as the production is worked out and received. Seduction shows that what is apart from the discourse is in fact a part of the discourse. 

In an important sense, all citations exhibit a parenthetic form—a form that responds to the question Pippin raises midway through the essay: “how Geist might also find itself ‘in’ what it has also torn apart” (41). Like citations, which insert texts taken from an outside source, parentheses interrupt the discourse. Quintilian thus defines parenthesis as a figure of thought (figura sententiae), which occurs “when some thought in the middle interrupts the continuation of a discourse” (cum continuationi sermonis medius aliqui sensus intervenit, Inst. orat. 9, 3.23).  In modern typography, this interruption is generally marked by brackets, which introduce a further element of difference or heteronomy vis-à-vis the body of the text. Although Hegel’s closing citation of Schiller is not set in brackets, the parenthetic nature is clear, with the couplet indented from the margins. It suggests, by its very form, that literature is led into philosophical discourse in order to lead understanding away from itself and thereby toward itself. 

In the rhetorical tradition, a parenthesis is generally regarded as a type of amplification that assumes many useful, integrative functions: to provide supplemental information, to make a relevant qualification, or to furnish a clarifying specification. At times, a parenthesis can be employed to announce a theme to be expanded afterward, at some later point. In all these examples, the parenthesis is a rhetorical technique that fills in the text. Still, precisely by supplementing the text, the parenthesis implies that the text would be otherwise deficient or wanting, in need of completion or realization. The dismissible proves to be indispensable. Again, every citation is a parenthesis insofar as it internalizes an external text. 

As Aristotle states in his Metaphysics, quotation is one of three viable methods for granting a discourse credibility and currency: “Some people do not accept statements unless you express them mathematically; others, unless by way of examples; while others deem that one call in a poet as a witness [οἱ δὲ μάτθρα ἀξιοῦσιν ἐπαγεσθαι ποιητἠν]” (995a7–8). Emphasis falls on those who “deem” citations “valuable” or axiomatic (axiousin), a value obtained by repeating words formerly and poetically expressed, words that the philosopher is “to lead in” (epagesthai). The Greek verb in the middle voice corresponds almost exactly to the German anführen, which engages the metaphor of calling in a “witness” or martyr before a judge. Hence, the term citation, derived from citus, the perfect passive participle of ciere, “to cause to move, stir, or shake,” and cognate with the Greek verb κινεῖν, “to put into motion.” A passage cited is one that has been called to appear, made to move from one context to another, perhaps even shaken loose from its initial setting. Yet, this kinetic energy is not always amenable to control—the citation as attestant or testifier can always become a hostile witness. This possibility is grounded in the fact that the testimony adduced by citation can never be entirely absorbed by the new, incorporating text. In addition to the synchronic axis, how the citation relates to the present discourse, there is also the diachronic axis, how the citing text relates back to the cited discourse; and the energy that is ignited by the friction between the synchronic and the diachronic, between repetition and difference, derivation and innovation—also stands to disrupt the adoptive context. 

The words one uses to communicate, either poetically or philosophically, contain significances, connotations, and figures that evade subjective mastery. Vectors of meaning, which arrive from past usage and head toward future usage, course through every word and thereby pull it away from its present instance. In pronouncing or writing a word, the discursive subject puts a provisional stop to this dynamic movement, halting the flow that connects each term to its No-longer and its Not-yet for the sake of the communicative moment at hand. All the same, words have a history and a future. The meaning posited in the present is defined by what preceded and what is yet to come, by what is absent, not present. Accordingly, to speak or write in the present is to employ language parenthetically, positing in each term an intentional meaning, which is undercut by the vast repertoire of meanings that subsist off to the side. The fact that philosophers and poets share a language and therefore partake of the images and metaphors inherent in the words they employ invites both types of discursive subjects to repeat each other, to confirm and disrupt, as well as to disrupt in order to confirm. As though out of respect for the Phenomenology’s last word, Unendlichkeit, a word that is both Schiller’s and Hegel’s yet belongs exclusively to neither, the parenthesis remains open-ended. 


Fonatnier, Pierre. 1977. Les figures du discours. Paris: Flammarion. 

Pippin, Robert B. 2021. Philosophy by Other Means: Arts in Philosophy and Philosophy in the Arts. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

  • Robert Pippin

    Robert Pippin


    Response to John Hamilton

    I found John Hamilton’s remarks on the implications—rhetorical and philosophical—of the parenthetical and the citational, both in Hegel and in general, very stimulating and apposite. So, the heart of my response is simply appreciative and encouraged, encouraged to reflect more on the implications of what he says for what I tried to say in Chapter 3 of the book, on the role of literature in Hegel’s Phenomenology. Hamilton’s comments provide an opportunity for extending that discussion into some implications of Hegel’s remarks that I do not believe Hegel had thought through sufficiently and that have potentially serious consequences for the position Hegel defends or is taken to defend in his various remarks on systematicity, or on the comprehensiveness of philosophy

      This first involves his question about whether philosophy and literature might “have some reciprocal effect on each other,” and his further suggestion about this effect, that “the words one uses to communicate, either poetically or philosophically, contain significances, connotations, and figures that evade subjective mastery.” To put everything at once, this is a deep point that Hegel should acknowledge, but he does not; he even resists it. And Hamilton’s main final point, that literature, by its very form (let us say its linguistic density) “is led into philosophical discourse in order to lead understanding away from itself and thereby toward itself,” is one I want to agree with and take somewhat further. When a properly appreciative philosophy “returns to itself” in the sense I take Hamilton to mean, it may, if indeed properly appreciative, start to look very different from its traditional form, and not just at a higher level of self-consciousness. It might perhaps look very different from a Hegelian conception altogether.

    Consider first Hamilton’s etymology of the manner in which literature is introduced into the Phenomenology of Spirit—citations. Citation from citus, from ciere, “to cause to move, stir or shake.” In the Phenomenology, this appears to be connected to his conception of the aesthetic effect, Lebendigkeit, enlivening, of concepts, or a kind of animation of concepts. Concepts, the vehicles of intelligibility for him, conceived as Hegel does as functions whose content is provided by the roles they play in judgments, might be said to play other roles than logical, than in inferential consequences. But Hegel is of two minds about this and its implications, and as he grew older, perhaps alarmed by the very implications drawn in various chapters in Philosophy by Other Means (and by the very idea of the book, which he would disagree with) became what must be called more conservative. For example, in The Science of Logic, his claim about one of the central issues in any such animation, the issue raised by Hamilton about ciere: motility or Bewegtheit, it is only conceptual concreteness, the interanimation among concepts alone that develops conceptual content. This appears his only sense of animation, i.e., the non-isolatability of conceptual moments, their interanimation because intra definitional of each other. But in the Lectures on Fine Art, he stresses something else.

    Thinking, however, results in thoughts alone; it evaporates the form of reality into the form of the pure Concept, and even if it grasps and apprehends real things in their particular character and real existence, it nevertheless lifts even this particular sphere into the element of the universal and ideal wherein alone thinking is at home with itself…Thinking is only a reconciliation between reality and truth within thinking itself. But poetic creation and formation is a reconciliation in the form of a real phenomenon itself, even if this form be presented only spiritually.

    And this is not just true of the aesthetic dimension. He had formulated this thought in very general terms in his Phenomenology.

    Nowadays the task before us consists not so much in purifying the individual of the sensuously immediate and in making him into a thinking substance which has itself been subjected to thought; it consists instead in doing the very opposite. It consists in actualizing and spiritually animating the universal through the sublation of fixed and determinate thoughts. (Hegel 2018, §33)

    But he is still ultimately talking about reconciliation with the world, and he still has the arts subservient to, incomplete expressions of, philosophy. He does not seem open to Hamilton’s point about “connotations and figures that evade subjective mastery.” There is a mark of this resistance to any such notion in his misquotation of Schiller at the end of the Phenomenology. And this is linked to other issues, like his anxiety about any invocation of irony as a mode of reflection, and his active resistance to the Atheneum romantics, the Schlegel brothers especially, and their search for a literary philosophy or philosophical literature. For Schiller’s line about the Weltenmeister, or world-master, that  the entire realm of souls “foams up to him—infinity” Hegel substitutes the “ream of spirits,” and more tellingly, “foams up to him HIS infinity,” what is already “his” not anything that might, precisely by not being already his, reshape what was originally “his,” say in the way an action when performed might re-shape what we ex ante conceived as our intention. Or, invoking Hamilton’s words, something that might “reveal some truth” about a philosophical regime “that we may prefer to suppress or ignore.” Or, invoking another of Hamilton’s themes, the parenthesis framing Unendlichkeit, infinity, does not, for Hegel, appear to leave things “open-ended.”

    So, in Hegel’s account the sensuous particularity that is at home in art, that “other” has not been allowed to challenge Hegel’s major inheritance from the Greek enlightenment, that to be is to be intelligible, and not only intelligible, but systematically and conceptually intelligible. 

    And this also, to touch on a point Hammer also raises, has something to do with Hegel’s historicization of tragedy, a theme which comes up in Hammer’s remarks as well), and so his denial, given the existence of the modern state and so the various “mediations” that reconcile individuals with the institutions of bourgeois ethical life, of any modern tragedy. Tragedy, or what would be the eternally irreconcilable, is thus instead historicized; it is temporary, a mark of the temporary incompleteness of Geists’ self-understanding. And this in turn, bears on Hegel’s reading of Faust, which, despite his account of the vanishing of modern tragedy in general, he is willing to call the one philosophical tragedy. In Hamilton’s brief remarks, he echoes Hegel’s views— and in this he is surely right about Hegel—that “Only by negating pure subjectivity can subjectivity be truly realized.” But, given what Hamilton says, I assume he also means that genuine tragedy still remains—that what Faust has learned about himself is devastating, not something that can be integrated into a more self-aware Faust, a Faust that has progressed because of his “learning by suffering.” (I speak here only of the Faust I of 1790, all that Hegel had available). The deepest tragic dimension would be that such a self-revelation is always, if genuine, a self-negation that remains irreconcilable, as when Oedipus discovers he is not who he thought he was, or when anyone cannot but discover that. But Hegel also says, 

    I will only refer to Goethe’s Faust, the one absolutely philosophical tragedy. Here on the one side, dissatisfaction with learning and, on the other, the freshness of life and enjoyment in the world, in general the tragic quest for harmony between the Absolute in its essence and appearance and the individual’s knowledge and will, all this provides a breadth of subject-matter which no other dramatist has ventured to compass in one and the same work.

    Hegel suggests by this that the Absolute—again, something like the Concept, the regime of systematic intelligibility—can “tragically” not be reconciled with “its appearance,” the individual’s knowledge and will,” but he had already made clear in his discussion of Faust in the Phenomenology that  this tragic failure is due to the abstractness and so emptiness of Faust’s conception of the alternative to his universal learning and knowledge—the heights and depths of “life” as experienced—is abstract, fatally individualistic and sweepingly hedonistic and so empty. It for this reason that the work can be read philosophically by Hegel, but as so read, I am suggesting, it is not finally a tragedy. It is an example of Hegel’s philosophical domestication of tragedy. That limitation in Faust’s self-understanding is not ours, but only a stage on the way to us, and so it is for that reason that he fails, that the Faust character “helped itself to life, but in doing so, it even more so laid hold on death.”

    So the real power of literature’s bearing on philosophy, or at least one feature of that bearing, might be to introduce both a sense of tragic finitude into philosophy’s systematic ambitions, its attempt, in Wilfrid Sellars’s famous words, to understand how all things in the most general sense of that term hang together in the most general sense of that term. The tragic idea would be not just that perhaps they don’t hang together, but how to appreciate, attend to, understand that fate in all its various lived-out consequences.

    I do not mean to suggest that Hegel is wrong about the arts as sensible-affective modalities of philosophical knowledge, especially when self-knowledge is understood historically, a way of understanding what has come to matter to us, to Geist, in the most important senses. Externalizing our self-understanding at a time in some sort of lived embodiment, like an art work, can indeed be a vehicle for transformation and deeper self-awareness. I mean only to suggest that Hegel is resistant to any deeper challenge to its claim for comprehensiveness, and so blind to a disclosive moment that could also disrupt any satisfaction in the very idea of such self-knowledge. Another way to put this point would be to note that Hegel’s account best fits romantic literature and the realist novel, and must be creatively re-thought to bear on much modernist art and literature. All of which brings me to Espen Hammer and Adorno.

Espen Hammer


Hegel, Adorno, and Modernism

For more than a decade, Robert Pippin has brought his unique expertise on Hegel and modern European philosophy to bear on the arts. Much of this engagement has focused on the endeavor to find in Hegel a malgré lui and avant la lettre theory of aesthetic modernism. To what extent is this a viable project? How far can Pippin get with it? My plan is to raise these questions by reflecting on Pippin’s remarks on tragedy, Adorno, and Coetzee. While I see his reading of Hegel as providing an immensely fertile ground for thinking about art, I ask whether Hegel’s characteristic demand for intelligibility is likely to provide us with the adequate tools for theorizing some of the most significant yet also challenging achievements of high modernism.

A fundamental idea informing each of the thirteen brilliant essays in Philosophy by Other Means is that while critical attention to art, and especially modern art, can serve as a mode or form of philosophical reflection, philosophy itself can be illuminated, or perhaps we should say articulated or expressed, by art. As Pippin puts it, “the claim is twofold: that criticism properly understood often requires a form of philosophic reflection, and that philosophy is impoverished if it is not informed by critical attention to aesthetic objects.” 

A view of this kind, which encourages philosophers to look more closely to the arts, is likely to be resisted by those who, for broadly methodological or epistemological reasons, think of the arts as “cognitively inferior” to philosophy. Also, it seems to challenge a view of aesthetic experience, familiar from Kant, as an autonomous endeavor, devoted to certain constitutive principles or commitments that set it apart from, and perhaps make it incompatible with, conceptually mediated acts of reflection. Indeed, even in the absence of any such claim to aesthetic autonomy, it is sometimes claimed that philosophy can represent a threat to the arts, that it cannot help distorting whatever it is that a work of art is able to convey or express.

As Pippin rightly points out, the European tradition contains strands in which philosophy and the arts, while of course different, to a considerable extent have been understood to be engaged, ultimately, in the same, or related, endeavor. Kant, for example, may have initiated much of the subsequent interest in aesthetic autonomy. However, he also left plenty of room within his predominantly judgment/taste-centered account for thinking about the relevance of aesthetic experience to philosophy. His quest, for example, to demonstrate that there can be a transition from nature to freedom led him to consider a genuinely philosophical problem (how is there a compatibility of nature and freedom?) from the vantage-point of the kind of purposiveness that he associated with the exercise of reflective (aesthetic) judgment. 

Pippin understands Hegel to have taken this collaborative effort even further. In his Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel situates art in a thoroughly historical and communal framework. While viewing artworks as being receptive to the general aspiration, to be theorized in terms of the concept of Geist or spirit, of attaining self-understanding and self-transparency, both individually and collectively, he is highly attentive to the specificities of exemplary works. Pippin’s Hegel is an aesthetic truth-theorist who in art and the serious engagement with it sees a specific mode of self-understanding, or articulation of our collective mindedness, akin to philosophy in its contribution to the ultimate purpose of making full and free human self-transparency possible yet different from it in its essentially sensuous (as opposed to conceptual) mode of presentation.

Pippin’s essays on James, Proust, and Coetzee do an outstanding job of exploring how literature, in particular, due to its imaginative, emotional, and experiential concreteness, can articulate concepts for us that philosophy, in its pursuit of abstraction and generality, risks thinning to such an extent as to leave us incapable of fully appreciating their true meaning and implications. I take at least part of, say, Pippin’s account of jealousy in Proust to be about what it is that, for us as members of a given life-form (call it modern), may count as jealousy—what it is, in other words, for jealousy to be an intelligible form of emotional response, and where the limits of intelligibility may have to be drawn. 

Proust’s novel is of course fictional. On the view I take Pippin to be defending, what it tells us about jealousy, or other “significant matters,” should not be interpreted in terms of some attempt to provide an adequate representation of the phenomenon. Nor would simply generalizing from Swann’s or Marcel’s experiences would be likely to generate anything that could clarify the reader’s or critic’s own understanding of jealousy. Rather, what matters is how particular moments of the narrative achieve exemplarity and thus a claim to universality. These moments, which are able to inform our self-understanding, must be read and interpreted. They cannot simply be paraphrased.  

Yet what about Adorno, whose thinking about the arts Pippin discusses in chapter 8? Much of the chapter is devoted to defending Hegel against what Pippin sees as Adorno’s unjust criticism. However, the essay also contains a fair share of very interesting observations regarding Adorno’s own view of art and aesthetics.

Viewed from a somewhat high altitude, there are clearly some noteworthy ways in which Adorno’s and Pippin’s (Hegelian) views intersect. Adorno follows Hegel to the letter in claiming that works of art must be viewed as historically situated vehicles of human expression that sensuously as well as formally present a content capable of counting as a form of self-reflective “truth” for at least its own intended audience. Like Hegel, Adorno is skeptical of views that predominantly seek to analyze works of art in terms of how they affect, or appear to, the viewer (given, as in Kant, certain stipulated capacities for “enjoying” such items). Rather than theorizing aesthetic experience exclusively in terms of pleasure (taken, say, in “the beautiful”), both Hegel and Adorno understand it as capable—in at least fortunate or privileged instances—of providing genuine, though largely pre-conceptual, forms of insight into “what truly matters” (for its historically constituted and adequate audience). In both thinkers, art enjoys a semi-autonomous position in society: it emerges from perfectly empirical (sometimes enabling, sometimes restricting) conditions; while exceptional individuals stand behind the most valued and expressive artistic achievements, their work and orientation engage with communally and historically constituted frameworks of understanding of great importance to its collective addressee, yet as such they are not reducible to their context of origin. At the same time, both Hegel and Adorno see art as having its own distinct “logic”—where this logic, which in both thinkers relates to the interplay between formal features and content (which in art will be “subjective” and “expressive”), is itself “dialectical” in at least the minimal sense that the two relata mutually determine each other. Finally, Pippin’s Hegel should be able to agree with Adorno that something about modernity, or modern life in general, puts distinct pressure on art, calling for art to respond in ways that deeply affect the fate of art in this period. While the historical Hegel may not have had much to say about what we think of as modern art beyond observing such phenomena as the prosaic, entirely “post-religious,” nature of Dutch genre painting, the eccentric excesses of Jean Paul’s subjective humor, and the radical subjectivation of the lyric voice in German Romanticism, Pippin’s Hegel presents us with resources for thinking about art after Manet and others, and Adorno, as is well known, focuses almost exclusively on modern art: its claim to being modern (and “new”) and what it means for art to exist in a modern society. In order to bring the kind of intersubjective and self-reflective form of mindedness with which art engages to the fore, Adorno follows Hegel in quite regularly employing the term Geist. 

There is in other words plenty of common ground here. While influenced by a plethora of different thinkers, including Kant, Marx, Kierkegaard, Weber, Benjamin, and his associates at the Institute for Social Research, Adorno deserves to be thought of as a Hegelian philosopher. Nevertheless, Pippin presents some rather strong criticisms of Adorno, especially with regard to his reception of Hegel.

I agree with Pippin that, while common in his intellectual environment, Adorno’s reading of Hegel as a totalizing master-thinker who sacrifices particularity and proper attention to human finitude and suffering at the altar of a vast metaphysical system is excessive and implausible. As is the case with his book-length readings of Husserl and Heidegger, Adorno unduly projects his intuitions, familiar from the Dialectic of Enlightenment, about the historical dominance of “subjective reason” onto a central thinker, ascribing to him a form of idealist imposition-theory that, as Pippin rightly points out, does not do justice to crucial aspirations of Hegel’s philosophy. 

Drawing on his interpretation of Kant’s account of the synthetic unity of apperception (and, in Faith and Knowledge, on his reading of Kant’s theory of the transcendental imagination), Hegel aims from a very early period of his writing at demonstrating the existence of a “speculative” identity between thinking and being. According to Hegel, rather than being imposed on the sensuously given (and thereby feeding into Adorno’s worries about Herrschaft), pure thinking is supposed to articulate a space of intelligibility within which everything that can be the case is determined on an a priori basis. Thus, thinking’s “self-knowledge,” which for complex reasons are deemed by Hegel to be “dialectical,” stipulates in completely general terms what it is for anything that is to be intelligible; and what it is, ultimately, for something to be is to be intelligible. As Pippin puts it, “the task of identity theory or pure thinking is not to say of anything what it is; it is to say what is necessary for anything at all, such that any ‘what is it’ question could have some purchase.” Outside of that order of being there is nothing that can be made cognitively relevant.

Pointing this out is all very well—and in my view completely true to Hegel’s aspirations. Yet here is a very general problem: What if Hegel fails to provide an acceptable articulation of the relevant space of intelligibility? Yes, there is no remnant of a Cartesian problematic in Hegel: every dialectical move is supposed to be immanent to spirit’s own self-articulation, which itself leaves no “thing in itself” outside its range. Yet, on the other hand, there is, I would argue, in Hegel a Kantian problematic, calling us to consider whether the concepts we happen to have provide an intelligible, coherent, and determinate content―in short whether they provide a significant form of access to anything at all. What is required for our thinking to purport intelligibly to provide access to the world? 

What if, despite his assurances to the contrary, Hegel articulates a distorted and alienating space of intelligibility—one that, as Marx claims, could even be viewed as ideological? (Wittgenstein, famously, thought of something like this as language “going on holiday,” “lacking friction.”) If so, then Hegel might still be able to defend his claims about the identity of thought and being. He could still claim that thought, if truly conceived and articulated, is identical with being. However, his defense would be “abstract” and, while perhaps justified with reference to arguments seeking to establish the inherently conceptual nature of all possible intuitions, no longer supported by the actual execution of his dialectic. It seems to me that Adorno’s critique, which to a considerable extent depends on an analysis of the concept/intuition dyad (claiming that while concepts are certainly able to pick out or refer to particulars, the ones we happen to have, having been shaped by historically emerging constraints, tend not to do justice to, or abstract too much from, the full and sensuously mediated encounter with the world), is best read as an attack on Hegel’s dialectical demonstration of the general intelligibility of our whole repertoire of conceptual responses to the world. In what can nevertheless be thought of as a Hegelian view, Adorno speculates on the historical conditions of such full intelligibility, arguing that they can only be satisfied when certain overarching social and anthropological conditions are met. (Adorno, one might say, is a disillusioned Hegelian—influenced by the implicit appeal to a notion of finitude in subsequent philosophical thought yet wary of simple and foundationalist appeals to “the positive,” “man’s socio-material being,” “will to power,” and the like.) His Hegelian anticipation, as it were, is for a reconciliation to be achieved; it is outstanding.

Many of the most important and relevant questions regarding modern and especially modernist art emerge at this point. After all, a crucial claim in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is that art of this kind may be viewed as attempting both to challenge standard (though historically emergent) forms of meaning-making and to express a form of sensuously mediated form of meaning-making that, while in tension with conceptual articulation, both complements and differs from conceptual thinking. It seems to me that a Hegelian view of the arts would have to include both an account of what it is for spirit to be expressed aesthetically (and therefore “sensuously”) and a commitment to the essential intelligibility of such expression. If, for Hegel, art is to be understood as a species of self-knowledge, capable of its own form of truth (which would entail being adequate in some sense to spirit’s “needs”), then the achievement of intelligibility must be a requirement or at least a regulative ideal. While “criticism” (conceptual articulation) cannot exhaust the meaning of a work, it can point to ways of beholding and experiencing the work itself that permit intelligibility. However, in the volume’s second essay, “Kant and the Problem of Tragedy,” Pippin admits (and indeed forcefully argues) that tragedy poses “a challenge to Hegel’s sweeping insistence on universal intelligibility.” Although, for complex socio-historical and literary reasons, Adorno did not believe that modern art can be tragic, the idea that literary works of art might be able to pose such a challenge is one that he would support. In fact, it is central to his whole aesthetic endeavor. 

Can Pippin (as a Hegelian) both locate artistic endeavors that challenge “universal intelligibility” yet also, at the same time, attribute, as a necessity, such intelligibility to them? Is there not a tension here? In response, Pippin might say, as he does in the Adorno essay, that a Hegelian postulate of intelligibility is ultimately restricted to the kind of a priori level that one finds in the Science of Logic. To be sure, the sense of unintelligibility that emerges in classic tragedy—that, as Pippin puts it, “no sense is to be made”—may not involve, or relate to, the kind of commitments entailed by the very general and a priori concepts that Hegel deals with in the Science of Logic. (The tode ti-question seems categorically different from questions such as “why do sometimes the most morally excellent individuals end up suffering so unjustly?”) Yet, as Pippin admits, Hegel’s claim to universal intelligibility is indeed “sweeping,” and there is in his thinking ultimately no hard and fast a priori/a posteriori distinction that permits us to think of tragic unintelligibility as an entirely innocuous matter when it comes to assessing Hegel’s overall view. 

As a fundamentally Hegelian thinker writing in what were arguably far darker times than Hegel’s own, it should not come as a surprise that the question of intelligibility plays such a significant role in Adorno’s interpretation of twentieth-century, modernist art. Paradoxically, he sees art in the age of triumphant fascism, two world wars, Hiroshima, late capitalist ideology, and so on, as being committed to expressing its own unintelligibility: “In the contemporary situation, it is their [works of art – E. H.] incomprehensibility (Unbegreiflichkeit) that needs to be comprehended.” For Adorno, the modern artist—Paul Celan, for example—lets formal organization and “dissonance” become privileged vehicles for expressing an otherwise entirely “unintelligible” pain. While obliquely expressed in the works themselves, this content does not fully lend itself to standard discursive articulation. Nor can it be made manifest in the more immediate sense that Hegel, who insists on the norm of intelligibility, attributes to artistic expression.

In several of his recent writings, Pippin has made an effort to extend an essentially Hegelian model to modernism, emphasizing more than anything else the fundamentally self-reflective nature of serious modernist works of art. Genuineness, the capacity to compel conviction even in conditions that seem to threaten the autonomy and perhaps even existence of such art, and in which few or no conventions help guiding the artist, is what the artist is striving for. Yet what about the “challenge to Hegel’s sweeping insistence on universal intelligibility” that Pippin so eloquently is able to locate in classical tragedy? Is that not a dimension of modern art that deserves to be considered? And if it is taken into account, to what extent would it warrant a revision of Hegel’s view? Indeed, I would love to hear some further reflections regarding the general applicability of a Hegelian view to the conditions of modern art. Could the effort to problematize intelligibility―asking, as it were, about its conditions of possibility―ever be constitutive of a work of art? Do historical conditions ever exist such that they not only make artists cultivate a sense of the absurd and “negative,” etc. but, in some Hegelian geistige sense, impose on them an obligation to do so? 

Here is a possible illustration of what I have in mind. In the 2018 Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come, the art historian T. J. Clarke claims to see in Picasso’s UNESCO building mural Fall of Icarus the emergence of “‘flatness of a new kind, particularly piecemeal and lacking in structure, floating the scene’s absurd protagonists apart,” having the look, he adds, “of a burlesque Barnett Newman with figures supplied by Matisse.” What Picasso seems to have responded to most deeply, and set himself the task of reproducing, was Bruegel’s sense, in his better known Fall of Icarus from 1560, “that the tragedy of Icarus had made no difference to the universe it took place in―that in the real world tragedy is an incident, a brief interruption, an agony in a vacuum…” As such, Clarke concludes, Picasso’s painting must be viewed as “a necessary moment—a tremendous negative—in the process of rethinking (demythologizing) the twentieth century.” If anything, this is precisely the kind of remark that, while Hegelian in its emphasis on historical self-reflection, ultimately requires a rather different framework from that offered by Hegel. The “tremendous negative” of which Clarke speaks does not seem identical with Hegel’s negativity. It cannot be recuperated.

In the final chapter of the collection, “Philosophical Fiction? On J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello,” I see openings in Pippin’s Hegelian view for what I would take to be a more decisive account of the irreducible specificity of modernism and modern arts than he offers in, say, chapters 4 and 5 (dealing with the Lectures on Aesthetics) that only briefly touch on the problem of extrapolating Hegel’s views beyond his own historical circumstances. Reminiscent of Adorno asking whether poetry can be written after Auschwitz, the Chandos-letter, in the way it is taken up by Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello-figure, asks fundamental questions about the very endeavor of self-expression and sense-making, and indeed art as such, under conditions such as those Elizabeth mentions: massive “factories of death” in what amounts to, as Pippin puts it, “a highly commercialized, consumerist, bureaucratically and in that sense rationally organized, technology-dependent form of life…” The crisis of the arts that may seem to have been brought about at least in part by its response to the ethical and existential challenges such a form of life brings about is very precisely registered by Pippin. Yet is “seeing our concepts and norms come alive” in literary expression a sufficiently radical way of being, as a writer, attentive to the “Lutheran” despair and confusion with which Elizabeth views the world (and her place in it)? Is not the Chandos-letter—with its intimations of a possible breakdown of discourse, its avant la lettre Beckettian invocations of silence—more authentically expressing an arch-modernist and highly self-reflective questioning of the very possibility of expression? Indeed, Pippin typically thinks of art as making visible or audible, in aesthetic form, an “affective intelligibility” that, while not directly transferable to a discursive expression, informs its audience of what it “is like” to experience something. The work communicates this specific kind of variation of what we ordinarily think of as “meaning.” Yet the corresponding, or rather competing, Costello/Adorno/Hofmannstahl/Chandos-view seems to be that in view of such conditions, art, employing its formal means, responds by calling into question the very possibility of such meaning-making communication.

At this point, and mainly in response to Adorno’s account of modernism, Pippin may rightly worry about aesthetic indeterminacy—that the protest against suffering et cetera ends up being “mute” or marked by some purportedly mysterious or sublime “absence.” The Hegelian in Adorno anticipates this objection, claiming that aesthetic form is what ensures determinacy. The form of a work of art relates to all its ways of organizing and synthesizing its particulars, thereby achieving articulation. In much advanced modern art, there is a pronounced tension between form and content (or “sensuousness,” “mimesis”), threatening to fragment the work. Such art can present itself as a riddle. In that limited sense it can be indeterminate. Yet, its “immanent logic” prevents it from collapsing into mere indeterminacy. 

To sum up: this is an exceptionally interesting and stimulating book that I very much enjoyed reading. Pippin’s nuanced and wide-ranging defense of Hegel’s philosophy of art provides a robust platform from which to explore and make sense of a wide range of modern cultural achievements. Prompted by Pippin’s recognition of the implications of tragedy, his reflections on Coetzee’s Costello-figure, his critical engagement with Adorno, and his interest in extending a Hegelian view of the arts to modernism, my overall question has been whether Hegel’s demand for intelligibility and transparency, not just in philosophy but in art as well, can be extended successfully to the crisis of art associated with high modernism.  


Adorno, Theodor W. 1997. Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Clark, T. J. 2018. Heaven on Earth: Painting and the Life to Come. London: Thames & Hudson.

Hammer, Espen. 2015. Adorno’s Modernism: Art, Experience, and Catastrophe. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1992. The Postmodern Explained. Trans. Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Pippin, Robert B. 2019. Hegel’s Realm of Shadows: Logic as Metaphysics in The Science of Logic. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press. 

—–. 2021. Philosophy by Other Means: Arts in Philosophy and Philosophy in the Arts. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

  • Robert Pippin

    Robert Pippin


    Response to Espen Hammer

    As I have already indicated, my claim in Philosophy by Other Means was that Hegel’s understanding of the relation between philosophy and the arts, especially literature, fits well where it fits. This is especially so in the exploration of the emergence of new aspects of the social bond, or new ways to understand the relation between independent self-standingness and social dependence in modern societies. But Hammer’s remarks remind me that I did not say enough about where Hegel’s approach falls short, doesn’t fit, especially with respect to the issue Hammer focuses on, much modernist art beyond the selection of authors and painters where I think Hegel can be illuminating, like James, Proust, Coetzee, or, in another book, Manet and Cézanne. (This is a qualification that ought to be said about many aspects of Hegel: he is right, for example, that there has been significant historical progress in the realization of human freedom; he is wrong to neglect the areas of catastrophic regression and barbarism that have also occurred.)

    To do justice to the two issues he raises though will require me to back up a bit, reformulate some issues, and introduce another interlocutor into the conversation, Martin Heidegger. I mean, first, the possibility that Adorno might still be making a powerful point against Hege’s idealism even after we acknowledge the of much of what he wrote is inaccurate, and second, whether a Hegelian approach can do justice to the issue that emerged in post-Hegelian European thought as well as in modernist art, finitude, especially the finitude of human cognitive powers and of philosophy. All of this will be in the service of agreeing with Hammer about Hegel’s limitations, while trying to avoid what I still regard as too abstract and indeterminate a way to focus on that limitation—terms like “unintelligibility” or the sweeping and I think basically empty term, “nonidentity.” I remain unsure that either of these terms helps us get very far in understanding the impact of and meaning modernist art or what some call the crisis of late modern philosophy.

    I should mention first the strange, Oedipal hold Hegel has over modern European thought. Adorno is far from the only one who frames his project not only as an attack on Hegel, but on Hegel as the father who must be killed, that, as Adorno says the “task that confronts aesthetics today” is an “emancipation from absolute idealism” (that is, he makes clear, from Hegel). One can easily find quite similar statements in Foucault, Derrida, Delueze, Lyotard, Bataille, and these replay in various keys the oddly fervid tone in Schelling, Marx, Kierkegaard, Schopenhauer and others. I want to introduce Heidegger into the conversation because his ambition is so similar to Adorno’s: “This overcoming of Hegel is the intrinsically necessary step in the development of Western philosophy which must be made for it to remain at all alive.”

    Finitude is a good, if very general name for the problem all these potential Oedipuses want to recover. But invoking Heidegger can. I hope, allow us to see how Adorno is trapped by the figure he most opposes, that his attempted negation of Hegel leaves him still too tied to Hegel. He is an inverted Hegelian, and that is still a Hegelian. A typical formulation by Adorno:

    The new wants nonidentity, yet intention reduces it to identity; modern artconstantly works at the Münchhausean trick of carrying out the identification of the nonidentical.

    So instead of conceptual identity, we get cognitive or conceptual non-identity.  But the problem is rather Hegel’s metaphysical claim that what it is to be is to be intelligible, knowable, in principle knowability; on in Heidegger’s terms that the meaning of Being since the ancient Greek enlightenment is knowability. Hegel accepts that the primary meaningful availability of the world is cognition, initially, conceptually mediated perceptual cognition. Hammer is much closer to the main point, I think, when instead of cognition, he raises the issue of a “sensuously mediated form of meaning-making.” That is, the issue is meaning, not in a semantic-linguistic sense or as a matter of conceptual content, or as the correlate of intentionality but as meaningfulness, what Heidegger calls Bedeutsamkeit. And this, eventually, is what makes his approach more suitable to the literature and art of late modernity. (There is no problem of “fit” or identity/non-identity between the experience of meaningfulness (or its failure) and meaningfulness in itself.) 

    In Being and Time, Heidegger had stated his theme clearly: “Significance (Bedutsamkeit, meaningfulness) is that on the basis of which the world is disclosed as such.” His famous problem of “the meaning of Being” is the problem of the meaningfulness of beings; that is, beings in the way they matter. This is the first step in what could be called Heidegger’s attempt to turn philosophy from its concern with the analysis of concepts and towards a historical hermeneutics as its central activity. Ways of mattering are the original ways of being available. Perceptual cognition is originally merely an element of this more primordial availability. Beings become salient in a familiarity permeated by degrees of significance; it is how beings originally show up for us in our experience. The famous claim is that any attunement to such meaningfulness—not at all a matter of cognition or failed cognition—has been lost, forgotten, and that is how Heidegger wants to characterize our “destitute” time. The meaning of being has been reduced to the mere perceivable standing presence of beings, a kind derivative cognitive object that is the other side of the problem of a kind of autonomous predatory subjectivity that so rightly bothers Adorno too. It is because of this re-orientation (away from the putative primacy of mere perceptual receptivity, or observation, or theoretical spectatorship or the conceptual logic of beings) to how beings originally become available, salient, come to matter in a world, that Heidegger begins to pay more and more attention to the arts, and eventually as a successor to metaphysics, a poetic thinking. 

    The task of metaphysics is said to be to “awaken” a fundamental attunement to the world (or to awaken us to the realization that we are always already attuned), to call to mind what might be disclosed to us in such a fundamental attunement: a way of being “onto,” receptive to, what matters and the possibility of mattering beings and Being as such) that is not an issue of belief or consciousness but, as in the musical sense of being tuned, on the right wavelength, or appreciatively engaged in this field of what matters. The ontologically significant states that disclose such meaningfulness as such are attunements like anxiety or boredom or art works. We can, however, come to understand objects to be available in a way that conflicts with and covers up their actual availability. Scientism is like this, and Hegelianism can be another. 

     Another reason it is important to keep this focus is that without it would be very hard to comprehend what Heidegger proposes as a “new way of thinking,” the notion of poetic thinking already on partial view in his Basic Problems lecture in his remarks on Rilke, and in Introduction to Metaphysics and its treatment of Sophocles. This is indeed a basic turn towards the arts as the future of what Heidegger calls “thinking,” after philosophy, or after what Heidegger calls metaphysics. So the “problem of Being” for Heidegger is, in all his writings, the problem of the co-relation between meaningfulness and its availability through modalities of attunement, especially through the arts. The manifestation of such significance, and the way in which that significance manifests itself, “happens” as a matter of mattering, is not a problem of idealism and realism. 

    This means that, speaking now with spectacular and wild concision, the modernist experience of failed meaning is to be understood not as the utter collapse of all regimes of sense-making and so the advent of unintelligibility or incomprehensibility, but as a failure due to various prior metaphysical delusions about the fundamentality of “rendering discursively  intelligible” in understanding the availability of the world for a being open to, attuned to such possible availability. It is this context that I hope to respond to Hammer’s questions.

    The first problem Hammer raises —did Hegel achieve his goal—is strictly philosophical. Hegel’s claim for the identity of thinking and being, the identity between an account of the conceptual moments necessary for any thinking to be a possible truth-bearer and the conditions of determinateness by means of which any being can be distinguished from any other and so be what it distinctly is, depends on an account of  a claim for necessity in the developments staged in his Science of Logic; just this conceptual structure and no other, and claims for necessity set a very high bar that Hegel may very well not have reached. Second, as for the issue of subjective idealism (Hammer’s “only for us”). Hegel has tried to distinguish his project from Kant’s by eliminating its subjectivizing element—the doctrine of pure subjective forms of intuition. And that is another issue which, as far as I know, Adorno never dealt with in these terms. (That is Hegel’s own explanation of why his idealism is not subjective.) Finally, when . .  .:

    Paradoxically, [Adorno] sees art in the age of triumphant fascism, two world wars, Hiroshima, late capitalist ideology, and so on, as being committed to expressing its own unintelligibility: “In the contemporary situation, it is their [works of art—E. H.] incomprehensibility (Unbegreiflichkeit) that needs to be comprehended.

    . . . the difficulty is in full view. The failure to render intelligible might better be posed as the failure of the rationalist assumption that to be is to be conceptually intelligible at all, with intelligibility being understood as discursive intelligibility. This would be the beginning of giving up the notion of comprehending the incomprehensible and the dead-end of what Hegel would call the indeterminate negation of intelligibility as unintelligibility. Put in a different way, in that epochal modernist document, von Hofmennstahl’s Chandos Letter, when Lord Chandos complains, “The abstract words, which the tongue must enlist as a matter of course in order to make a judgment, disintegrated in my mouth like moldy mushrooms [modrige Pilze],” his crisis might be much better understood as resulting from his apparent commitment to abstraction and judgment as the proper vehicles of meaning, or even to poetry as it had come to be, now inadequate to what is happening to us, and not to poetry itself.

    This is a way of agreeing with Hammer when he asks about challenges to Hegel’s “sweeping insistence on universal intelligibility” and rightly claims a limitation in Hegel. But it is also to suggest that Hegel’s idealism is appropriate for the domain of the intelligibles, but lacks an account of a more fundamental form of the availability of the world, its original meaningfulness and familiarity. (Hegel appears to think treat the issues that come to matter in historical epochs as the result of emergent norms about what ought to matter, and that is as naïve as it is dangerously optimistic.) As with Heidegger’s accounts of anxiety and boredom, the failure of meaning in this sense is never the arrival of an indeterminate domain of unintelligibility, but much more a failure of a determinate regime of sense-making in a changed historical setting. There is no abyss to stare into except the ones we have created. The failure of meaning always teaches us something about meaning and its possibility, and is always shadowed by that disclosure and therefore always determinate.

    Is what we have created the result of what Elizabeth Costello calls the constant presence of “factories of death” and what Hammer quotes as “a highly commercialized, consumerist, bureaucratically and in that sense rationally organized, technology-dependent form of life…”? Certainly that is part of it but in trying to understand the distinctive role the arts might play in helping us to understand what has happened to us, these phenomena might be better understood as symptoms rather than causes, as themselves explicanda rather than explicans. This sentiment is well expressed by Elizabeth Costello when she is called on to defend a literary life and therewith what turns out it be a defense of literary thinking, of literature as a form of reflective thought. This is her version of Kafka’s “Before the Law” in his novel, The Trial. She agrees with Lord Chandos about the unavailability of traditional language and art as a way of understanding our “destitute” time, but she suggests the following.

    But all that is ended. The word-mirror is broken, irreparably, it seems… The words on the page will no longer stand up and be counted, each proclaiming, “I mean what I mean!”…There used to be a time, we believe, when we could say who we were. Now we are just performers speaking our parts. The bottom has dropped out. We could think of this as a tragic turn of events were it not that it is hard to have respect for whatever was the bottom that dropped out—it looks to us like an illusion now.

    This realization, though, hardly leaves us nowhere, consigned to forever documenting impossibility and unintelligibility repetitiously. Ideas, she says, don’t measure up to or fail to measure up to things. Rather, “ideas [we now understand, as opposed to the illusory time] have no autonomous existence, can exist only in things.” And whatever form of sense we can make of such residence demands of us something she alludes to when she says, when challenged by her inquisitors about the basis of her claims, “beliefs are not the only ethical supports we have. We can rely on our hearts as well,” hearts perhaps opened and attuned by the arts, perhaps now, exclusively by the arts.

    This still leaves two questions unanswered. What about radical skepticism about meaning in the sense of meaningfulness (Heidegger himself calls modernity “the age of consummate meaninglessness”), and how might we connect any disclosive sense of literature’s potential with the issue of truth, if not truth in the discursive, propositional sense? These are quite important, but I would like to postpone discussion of them until responding to Rob Chodat’s comments this afternoon.

Elisa Magrì


Escaping Subjectivity in Proust and Hegel

Robert Pippin’s latest book, Philosophy by Other Means. The Arts in Philosophy & Philosophy in the Arts, compels us to rethink the relation between philosophy and the arts by engaging not just philosophical traditions and aesthetic theories (including Kant, Hegel, Adorno, and Fried), but also philosophical questions that animate the works of novelists like James, Proust, and Coetzee. Continuing the work developed in some of his recent books on film, literature, and modernism, Pippin’s aim in Philosophy by Other Means is to develop a philosophical criticism of aesthetic objects that bears on questions concerning the value of the work of art and the intelligibility of aesthetic experience. In many ways, Pippin’s philosophical criticism is inspired by a Hegelian understanding of the arts, as his approach is concerned with the arts’ “distinct mode of truth” (13). This means that the purpose of aesthetic interpretation is not to extract a moral content from the work of art but rather to understand the latter in its unity with reality, namely, as the individualization of a distinct manner of apprehending reality. This raises a number of puzzles, including­––among others­––the fact that the artist’s apprehension of reality is not a theory or an intention that is simply translated into an external object, but rather an attempt at gaining self-knowledge through the arts. Such a task is not immune to ambiguity. As Pippin argues, not only the viewer or reader of a painting or text can get the meaning of the work of art wrong, but also the text or painting can betray a misrepresentation of reality or even self-deception on the part of the artist.

In order to further discuss this problem, I will connect some of the intellectual itineraries delineated by Pippin in the book in order to engage both his interpretation of Hegel’s aesthetics as well as Pippin’s philosophical criticism of Proust. The specific argument I will address hereafter concerns the paradox of subjectivity that Pippin attributes to Proust, according to which art allows us “to escape subjectivity while remaining a subject” (182). The paradox revolves around the fact that, in Proust, art and especially the novel, provides a way to escape solipsism while also remaining the expression of a subjective viewpoint onto reality. As I will argue, Pippin’s analysis of Proust is compatible with Hegel’s aesthetics. Yet Hegel’s account ultimately avoids Proust’s paradox due to Hegel’s concern not just with the context in which the work of art is situated, but also with the critique of such socio-historical reality. My aim is not to outline a dualism between Hegel and Proust, as I am convinced that their approaches share more than it is normally assumed, and Pippin’s work in this regard is decisive. My concern is rather about the “objective” character of art, which Hegel seems to defend against Proust, and such a difference may cast some shadows on Pippin’s modernist appraisal of Hegel’s aesthetics. Let me first reconstruct Pippin’s interpretation of Proust, and then I will explain how his thesis offers an interesting point of departure for comparing Proust and Hegel.

Pippin presents Proust’s paradox of subjectivity in one of the most captivating chapters of the book, “Subjectivity: A Proustian Problem.” Pippin shows that Proust’s overarching goal in In Search of Lost Time is to make explicit, articulate, and appropriate the life of one’s mind. Specifically, Proust attempts to describe in great detail “‘what it is like’ for a character to experience his or her singular, distinct experiential path through a life, and how such a character would understand and interpret such experiences,” what Pippin aptly calls the “problem of subjectivity” (180). To grasp the life of one’s mind means, for Proust, to reconstruct how the self lives in time and makes the past one’s own by narrating it. Such a task is complicated by the fact that, in Proust, subjectivity is not only the subjective viewpoint that is intrinsic to our experiences but also a multiplicity of past selves that the author of the novel seeks to uncover through the aid of both memory and literature.1 It follows that the search of lost time is less an attempt at recollecting the past as an objective temporal event than recreating the life of a ‘lost hour’ that has died, whose core hides in some material object “as do the souls of the dead in certain folk-stories” (Proust 1958, 17).

Following Pippin, it can be argued that three main skeptical issues arise in relation to Proust’s project: (1) the problem of avoiding solipsism, hence to preserve the objectivity of the external world, (2) the problem of maintaining the objectivity of the other’s viewpoint, (3) the problem of defending the reliability of the first-person viewpoint.

(i) The concern about the objectivity of the external world is related to the risks of solipsism caused by the reliance on the subjective viewpoint. According to Pippin, Marcel seeks to escape the excesses of subjectivity through the effort of recovering what was “truly like” to experience certain objects, others, or events. For example, at the very beginning of the novel, Marcel recounts what it was like to experience the magic lantern show he used to watch while his great-aunt told him the story of Golo. In so doing, Marcel brings to light elements that had not been attended in the course of the experience itself, when Marcel was a child. In this regard, Pippin notes that consciousness is characterized by degrees of attentiveness, such that “one can see something at one time (and thus ‘know’ that one saw it) but realize only later that one did see it” (184–5). At the same time, however, Marcel is perfectly aware that the re-presentation of the past is in fact a reconstructive work of recollection and art. Marcel’s aspiration in the novel appears concerned with re-enacting the matter of former sensations in the hope to be brought face to face with his former self, which is intangible. This is connected to what Pippin calls the paradox of escaping subjectivity while remaining a subject. Marcel seeks to avoid his being confined to the one-sidedness of his point of view by re-creating the material sensations and impressions that are connected to his lost past. And yet, in so doing, Marcel is also, at the same time, embodying the point of view of his present self, which is going to fade away like the former self he seeks to retrieve. According to Pippin, for Proust, the ultimate solution for escaping subjectivity is literature, for literature achieves what involuntary memory can only afford in bursts and flashes, namely the narrative objectivation of one’s point of view. However, this also means that, for Proust, art objectivates what it is like to be a self at the expense of the objectivity of the world. For Marcel seeks to resurrect the world as he experienced it through the matter of his own sensations. The world appears confined to Marcel’s sensuous understanding of reality, thereby providing an exclusive access to Marcel’s inner life and its significance, but this is not meant by Proust to also be an access to the actual objectivity of the world.

(ii) The problem of the objectivity of the other’s viewpoint concerns the fact that, for Proust, interpersonal experience does not aim to achieve “a punctual insight into some fact about another’s inner life” (189). On the contrary, on Pippin’s view, at stake in the self-other relation is “a kind of openness to the other, a willingness to be known as a subject by an other, and so to confront, potentially, characterizations of, reactions of, oneself that challenge one’s own self-understanding and so what one thinks one has learned about the other” (ibidem). The capacity to recreate in oneself such openness towards the other is intrinsically connected to art. For Pippin, Proust regards art as a ‘voyage’ into another’s world. Trough aesthetic experience, that is, “we experience the world as seen by Elstir and Vinteuil, and by entering imaginatively into those worlds, we do not lose our own” (191). In this way, aesthetic experience awakens the multiplicity of selves that constellate our past, making us attuned to the complexity of another’s standpoint. However, while art certainly predisposes us to better appreciate the multiplicity of selves embodied by another subject, Proust’s paradox of subjectivity ultimately indicates that interpersonal experience is not only necessarily opaque but also mediated by one’s beliefs and memory.  In this way, the objectivity of the other loses relevance when contrasted to the depth and complexity of one’s experience. This is confirmed by Marcel’s reflections, when he notes that, in the course of his relationship with Albertine, he felt compelled to become a different person in the effort to better understand Albertine’s elusive personality. However, in so doing, Marcel also acknowledges the primacy of self-experience over the experience of another, for the other can only be known through the reverberations they produce onto one’s life and memory.2 How can then the openness and receptivity induced by art conduce to an actual understanding of another, if the other’s independent experience seems to vanish in proportion to the depth and pervasiveness of one’s self-experience?

(iii) The objectivity of the first-person viewpoint is closely related to the puzzle of self-knowledge in Proust. As Pippin argues, the problem concerns the difficulty of separating the self, as the transcendental “I-think” that accompanies all our representations, from the temporal stream of personal life that informs one’s identity and narrative. Here again, for Proust, it is the work of art that helps us satisfy the drive to know oneself in an expressive medium. To illustrate this, Pippin refers to music as an equivalent expression of the quest for self-knowledge in art and philosophy. Musical talent and commitment to music have the power to give expression to the self-reference that characterizes one’s inner life as a being that is temporally extended and animated by a distinct rhythm. Music is not the only medium that objectivates the search for self-knowledge, for literature and art in general, including Proust’s novel, serve a similar purpose. As Pippin remarks, readers of Proust can become “readers of themselves” through Proust’s novel, not because they identify with Marcel but rather because they develop “receptiveness to the sensual powers of involuntary memories, by appreciating the complexities of the interpretative task needed to ‘translate’ such memories” (196). Once again, Pippin shows that in Proust the paradox of escaping subjectivity while remaining a subject can only be overcome through art, which opens up spaces for self-reflection and self-understanding that “distrust the intellect as a guide” (ibidem). However, in Proust art appears to sublimate one’s experience into the work of art without ever aspiring to ground the objectivity of the first-person viewpoint in anything other than sensuous, subjective experience. To distrust the intellect as a guide is not only to distrust an intellectualistic understanding of time and temporality, but to also severe the relation between sensibility and understanding that is essential for achieving self-knowledge.

Relatedly, it is worth noting that the self that emerges is not a ‘social self’ positioned in a socio-historical context but rather a stratification of psychological selves. While art seeks to bring to unity such multiplicity without reducing it to any given concept, involuntary memory keeps interspersing one’s awareness with fragments of the past, thereby eluding the narrative coherence pursued by art. Ultimately, Proust’s paradox compels us to renounce the pursuit of the objectivity of world, others, and self to embark on “the pilgrimage of heart” as Proust claims in his Against Sainte-Beuve, where he also vehemently rejects any attempt to ground the intelligibility of art in philosophical criticism or in a critical apprehension of the socio-cultural context in which a particular artist operates.3

Prima facie, the view that art is the objectivation of subjectivity resonates with Hegel’s aesthetics, as Pippin articulates it in Chapters 4 and 5. According to Pippin, in Hegel art is an achieved form of self-knowledge in that it objectivates not just the intentions, fantasies, and projects of the artist, but also the collective, norm-governed framework to which the subject belongs. In this regard, Pippin points out that such collective normative framework is not arbitrarily stipulated but involves a network of practices that must function in a certain authoritative way for the ascription of authority to be possible. On this view, in Hegel, as Pippin put is, “there is no privileged ‘ownership’ of the meaning of the deed by the subject” (72), precisely because the kind of introspective reflection enabled by aesthetic reflection encompasses the artist’s intention and the larger social framework to which the subject belongs, whether consciously or not. Relatedly, Pippin also maintains that the work of art can be regarded as the “emerging self-understanding of itself at work in the object” (133).

On this basis, it is possible to establish an interesting parallel between Hegel’s and Proust’s respective aesthetic projects. In both cases the work of art turns out to be a form of “self-conception” that is materialized by the act of writing, painting, or composing music. However, in Hegel, art represents the objectivation of subjectivity because it is given through a “sensuous externality”, which yields critical insights into the objectivity of a given historical time. Hegel’s argument is that, owing to the Idea’s particularization in the sensory nature of the work of art, this latter exhibits the ‘truth’ in the form of representation, as including the antitheses that disquiet human consciousness and that dispose subjectivity in different ways with respect to the historical and socio-cultural world one inhabits. This means that the work of art ends up revealing the distance that the artist, intentionally or not, establishes between themselves and the socio-cultural context and tradition they belong to. It follows that the characteristic intelligibility of the work of art, which Pippin aptly calls “affective intelligibility,” in Hegel also builds upon a clash between self and world. This makes aesthetic experience conducive to an intuition of the artist’s apprehension of their own time or socio-normative setting as a form of developed understanding and not just––as in Proust––as a sensory apprehension of reality.

To be sure, it is possible to apply this view to Proust himself, reading his work, as Pippin suggests, as a “narrative and reflective presentation of what it is like to live with unavoidable questions [about the skeptical dimensions surrounding self, world, and others] and how one might at least be said to come to terms with them, and all of this while the social world of the characters is coming apart on the eve and then after the First World War” (17). However, for Hegel, the critique of the sensuous externality of art is not just a matter of philosophical criticism but rather invests the nature of the work of art itself. On Hegel’s view, the sensuous side of art “produces no more than a shadow world of shapes, sounds, and imaginable ideas” whose purpose is “to call forth a response and echo in the mind from all the depths of consciousness” (Hegel 1997, 67). Pippin aptly compares the enlivening of art with Hegel’s notion of Schein, as the manifestation or shining of the Idea in sensuous material. As Pippin argues, the grip of such shining “can loosen and fail” (63). This happens precisely because the concept of Schein in Hegel’s Science of Logic is governed by the antithesis between identity and difference that has yet to determine the ground of their reciprocal relation. It follows that the response that art calls forth is not to be found in any lesson or moral content to be imparted or conveyed, but rather in the awakening of the antitheses of modern societies and the possibility of their reconciliation (Hegel 1997, 87). While Hegel is very clear that art is not meant to instruct or educate (as Pippin also maintains from the outset), for art is not governed by an interest that is external to itself, Hegel’s argument also points to the fact that, once the matter of sensory experience is schematized in the work of art, this latter becomes a content that bears universal significance, including historical significance. Accordingly, in Hegel the work of art turns subjectivity (the artists’ experiential viewpoint, corresponding to Proust’s search for lost impressions and sensations) into an actual content that, despite being unstable in the manifold of its reflections, retains an immanent connection to the external world. That is, art sheds light on the ground of our unstable and always evolving perception of time, bringing to light the antitheses or contradictions that constellate our experiences as social agents. In this way, art allows intersubjective communication about what counts as “objective” and “subjective” in our apprehension of the world.

From this, one may infer that Hegel resists and challenges Proust’s paradox of subjectivity by attempting to vindicate the objectivity of the world, self, and others. Instead, Proust ultimately regards art as the uncovering of a hidden essence that eludes objectivity. Would Pippin agree that Hegel avoids Proust’s paradox? If this is the case, does Hegel’s approach ultimately compel us to move beyond modernism?



Hegel, G.W.F. On Art, Religion, and the History of Philosophy. Introductory Lectures. Edited by J.G. Gray. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.

Pippin, Robert. “On ‘Becoming Who One Is’ (and Failing): Proust’s Problematic Selves,” in The Persistence of Subjectivity. On the Kantian Aftermath, 307-338. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Proust, Marcel. By way of Sainte-Beuve. Trans. S. Townsend Warner. London: Chatto & Vindus, 1958.

Proust, Marcel. In search of lost time. Trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff, Terence Kilmartin, D. J. Enright. New York: Random House, 1992–3.

  1. See on this also Pippin 2005, 307-338.

  2. “It was perhaps because they were so diverse, the persons whom I used to contemplate in her at this period, that later I developed the habit of becoming myself a different person, according to the particular Albertine to whom my thoughts had turned; a jealous, an indifferent, a voluptuous, a melancholy, a frenzied person created anew not merely by the accident of what memory had risen to the surface, but in proportion also to the strength of the belief that was lent to the support of one and the same memory by the varying manner in which I appreciated it. For this is the point to which we must always return, to these beliefs with which most of the time we are quite unconsciously filled, but which for all that are of more importance to our happiness than is the average person whom we see, for it is through them that we see him, it is they that impart his momentary greatness to the person seen” (Proust 1992-3 [Within a Budding Grove] 719–20, my emphasis).

  3. “In art there is no such thing as an originator, a precursor (at any rate, in the scientific sense of the words): everything being comprised in the individual, every man takes up the continuous attempt of art or of literature on his own account, and for him the works of his predecessors are not, as they are for the scientist, a fund of truth which those who come after may profit by. A writer of genius today has it all to do. He is not so much further forward than Homer” (Proust 1958, 74).

  • Robert Pippin

    Robert Pippin


    Response to Elisa Magrì

    In Proust’s novel Marcel wants to know what is at stake for him in his loving, or his obsession with, Albertine, what she means to him, what matters to him, who he is. He wants, of course, to understand Albertine, especially what he is to her, the issue that leads to the suspicion that love is just the other side of jealousy, that the two are always inseparable, basically because of the inescapability of this issue—what he is to her—and the impossibility of knowing. And he wants to understand something totally alien to himself (to Marcel, not to Proust), her “world,” the lesbian social world he suspects is much more important to her. Marcel is also an eager social climber and so he wants to understand the social hierarchies of the Guermantes and their rich friends. These are strivings that raise the important questions that Magrì poses, in general, “objectivity.” Now that Albertine narrative, as a concentration of these issues, is typological in the novel, and so is also reflected in the Swann-Odette story, the Robert de Saint-Loup and Rachel story, and the Charlus-Morel story. Inevitably, all are also imbricated in Magrì’s main interest, which I would formulate as what the narrator, the novelist and so by extension “the novel” know, if anything, again, what she calls the problem of objectivity of art, all figured in the question of what Marcel learns, if anything, as he becomes a writer. That is, this issue is particularly acute when we ask, as she does, about the implications of staging any of these questions by presenting them through the largely monologic inner reflections of a particular character, Marcel.

    So, to her questions. She notes that one measure of a possible source of Marcel’s conviction, or what he wants to regard as the basis for a reliable conviction, about a recovery of the past as it was, the crucial element in Marcel’s quest to understand how he became who he is, involves the famous theme of involuntary memory. Any experience in the present moment, fleeting and evanescent as it is, dominated by often distorting present and temporary concerns, has the paradoxical character of involving sensuous experiences, things felt, heard, smelled, tasted, that are somehow not fully attended to as experienced, and also among the most significant in our eventual self-understanding. Here is his statement of the claim.

    For the truths which the intellect apprehends directly in the world of full and unimpeded light have something less profound, less necessary than those which life communicates to us against our will in an impression which is material because it enters us through the senses but yet has a spiritual meaning which it is possible for us to extract. TR, 273; 185.

    But Magrì worries that in this re-experiencing by a present self—something that will be crucial to the role of art in escaping subjectivity—we lose in effect what she variously calls reliability or objectivity. This is clearly a reasonable worry, but the key notion in the Proustian quotation cited is not experience itself, but what Marcel calls its spiritual meaning. As Marcel goes on to say, “the task was to interpret the given sensations as signs of so many laws and ideas, by trying to think—that is to say, to draw forth from the shadow—what I had merely felt, by trying to convert it into its spiritual equivalent. And this method, which seemed to me the sole method, what was it but the creation of a work of art?” So the present self does not merely re-experience what had been sensuously experienced; it sets a task—interpretation, and that task only begins with the sudden material shock of the taste of the madeleine crashing through any present attentiveness; likewise the sound of wheels on cobble stones, the tinkling of a spoon. It is true that we might be tempted to think of the results of such interpretation as settling on what the event meant merely for Marcel in the present, but his ambition clearly aims much higher—for “laws and ideas.” I take him to mean something like how the past generally bears on the present and future, or what it means to be a stable self through time when all of its experiences are temporally inflected.  He clearly thinks he can “write himself” out of any present subjectivity in an interpretation of general significance. We might also be tempted to think that this is not possible, that all interpretation is “unreliable,” but that is what we would have to defend in non-Proustian terms and in this context, all I can say is that I don’t think we would succeed.

    Second, there is the problem of our access to “the viewpoint of the other.” I had suggested, echoing a theme of Cavell’s, that anxiety about our knowledge of the other, especially a worry that any view we have of who the other really is is a fantasy-anxiety, or in Proustian terms, a fantasy that we can never escape subjectivity. Cavell’s suggestion is that this is actually a resistance to being known (if the other is unknowable, neither am I), and that a mutual acknowledgment of such a fear and a willingness to be known, could initiate a reciprocal exchange that, while it never results in some settled final view of the another, does allow a process of exploration and correction that is all that we should expect from finite, temporal beings. 

    Now it is certainly true that Marcel will tell us such things as this in Within a Budding Grove:

    …when we are in love with a woman we simply project on to her a state of our own soul, that consequently the important thing is not the worth of the woman but the profundity of the state; and that the emotions which a perfectly ordinary girl arouses in us can enable us to bring to the surface of our consciousness some of the most innermost parts of our being.

    This does indeed seem to border on narcissism and a social solipsism. But it also seems to me much more like a self-deceived way of staging the resistance Cavell talks about. In The Captive and The Fugitive Marcel is hardly content to regard his love affair with Albertine as a mere means of self-exploration. In the case of Swann, Marcel, Robert and Charlus, their desperate need to be loved by their beloveds is all the more apparent the more they try to evade and deny such a need. In fact, Marcel is so obsessed with Albertine as escaping his understanding, so committed to finding out what she does when they are apart, that there are rarely if ever clear instances of the “projection” phenomenon he describes in this passage. One’s “self-experience” in such relations involves at its center an absence; one does not ever find in the experience a determinate projection of oneself that allows the “innermost parts of our being” to come to the fore. One finds instead the ever-absent Albertine.

    The situation is very like Swann’s pathetic closing line from Swann in Love, that “To think that I’ve wasted years of my life, that I’ve longed to die, that I’ve experienced my greatest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type!” (S, 543; 517) When this spectacular self-delusion is quoted, commentators and readers often fail to note the narrator’s comment that this was a mark of “caddishness” on Swann’s part, when he had let his “moral standards” about himself (of honesty especially) “drop.” I try to show in this chapter all of the instances of Swann’s genuine love for Odette, even to the point of becoming the perfect, loyal, attentive bourgeois husband and father, happily abandoning the Faubourg Saint-Germain set for what was originally Odette’s rather pathetic salon. He has hardly, in his own eyes, wasted his life.

    But there is a reason Swann and Marcel and Robert and Charlus feel such an absence, and it is not because of the unknowability of the other. Rather it stems from their deluded hope that there might be some final moment of revelation in which especially their standing in the eyes of the other, whether they are truly loved, could occur, some final proof, the absence of which means they are forever at a loss. This is portrayed ironically by the issue of letters, which are treated much like secret espionage documents in which the final truth is supposed to be revealed: the letter Swann receives about Odette’s past, the letter Charlus receives about Morel, and the letter Marcel sees in Albertine’s kimono while she sleeps, something that could quite probably settle his worries about Albertine’s life with women once and for all. For reasons I describe in the chapter, he declines to read it.

    There are never, of course, such decisive documents; knowledge of others can never be punctual and final; it is always, in the words of our seminar’s title, dialectical, and that in the sense of acknowledgement and exploration described above and requiring the same interpretive work that involuntary memories requires. I would suggest that while characters in novels are not persons in life, we end this massive novel “knowing” Marcel and Swann, and Madame Verdurin and Robert de Saint-Loup and the Baron de Charlus without that knowledge being formulated propositionally. And we do not just know them as characters, but, as Marcel suggests about our memories, knowing their “spiritual meaning,” by having “converted” the experience of them “into its spiritual equivalent.” This is not rendered suspicious by being based on our affective experience of them in our reading, any more than our involuntary memories come already labeled with their meaning and importance.

    Magrì’s third worry concerns self-knowledge, and her concern is once more, “reliability.” Here again, however, it seems that art sublimates one’s experience into the work of art without ever aspiring to ground the reliability of one’s viewpoint in anything other than subjectivity. Relatedly, the self that emerges is not a ‘social self’ positioned in a socio-historical context but rather a stratification of psychological selves.

    As noted before, this all depends on what one takes to be the object of such a self, the purported object of self-knowledge. It is in fact not an object, “the self.” The most concentrated passage about this theme occurs in The Captive when Marcel hears a new piece by the composer Vinteuil, a septet that he knows will stand as Vinteuil’s masterpiece. He remembers the earlier sonata with its “little phrase,” which had played such a role in the Swann-Odette narrative, and he realized now that for all the differences, he is “hearing” the same Vinteuil and that this appreciation of him musically is what it is to know him, what it would be to know oneself. He realizes that the two pieces, however different,

    were nevertheless the same prayer, bursting forth like different inner sunrises, and merely refracted through the different mediums of other thoughts, or artistic researches carried on through the years in which he had sought to create something new. (III, 257)

     Although the works are so different, Marcel realizes that they teach him that “in spite of the conclusions to which science seemed to point, the individual did exist: and that that an individual, whether oneself or another, exists as a kind of “accent ” throughout so much temporal change. (It is thus important that the image is musical, where such an accent is not exactly an inflection on content. Since there is no independent content in music, it, the accent, is the “content,” the music, and by its existence serves as “a proof of the irreducibly individual existence of the soul” [III, 258]). “All artists, all selves, are thus like travelers from an unknown land that they have forgotten, but which stamp their talk and manner nonetheless, to which fatherland they remain all our lives “unconsciously attuned,” They are thus able to express “who they are” only as an “ineffable something” more than the substantial content of their roles and practices and ideals. If all this is so than knowing is hardly observing, whether third-personally or introspectively. But more like what we hope for in music, to be properly attuned to a piece’s distinct accent. Any such accent, as is the case of Vinteuil, reflects everything that his engagement with his social world, with his village, his daughter, his obscurity, has made him, and I see no reason to think that in being so attuned, if successful, that social world is not also available to us. And musical pieces are performed; Vinteuil is offering his septet in a way that reflects him by escaping him, by taking up residence in its reception in a public world, where it will become what it becomes, just as Marcel finds his subject by withdrawing from it and re-entering as a writer. Proust’s subject is not just the subjective experiences of Marcel but the entire social world to which we must become attuned if we want to understand Marcel, or by analogy ourselves. As Hegel reminds us, Geist, human social reality, is a product of itself; the individuals in a social whole whose beliefs and commitments constitute and sustain a common ethical life, but who are themselves inheritors of and thereby reflections of that social world.

    So when we are reminded that . . . 

    The only true voyage of discovery, the only really rejuvenating experience, would be not to visit strange lands, but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil; with men like these we really do fly from star to star.

    . . . we do not see, when we see through the eyes of the other, their private world, but “the universe” that each of them sees, all dimensions of the only universe there is, “accented” by a creative self, not trapped within it such a self.

Robert Chodat


Truth By Other Means

The full breadth of the German philosophical tradition is rarely understood very well in literary studies, and one of the virtues of Robert Pippin’s work is to suggest that, more than literary scholars realize, the moves they make were often understood decades or even centuries earlier, and usually with more depth and acuity. I’ll begin by highlighting a couple broad claims in Philosophy By Other Means that I’d want to recommend to literary scholars. Then I’ll raise a question about how to understand a central part of Pippin’s overall framework.  

The first idea to recommend is the book’s conception of criticism. What does a work mean, and is it any good? As Pippin says, these are questions we all ask whenever seek an “extension and deepening” of our encounter with a work. The fact that we often re-watch or re-read (or etc.) a work suggests, says Pippin, that we “sense” a work “knows something,” something that requires more reflection for us to fully grasp—a view enacted in Pippin’s own detailed and insightful readings of James, Proust, and Coetzee.  Such an idea contrasts with some prominent views. In the mid-1960s, for instance, Susan Sontag suggested that the art that most mattered was one that was “cool,” whose “basic unit” wasn’t the “the idea” but the “extension of sensations”—a work that asserts “its existence as ‘object’” and is “an instrument for modifying consciousness.” A decade or so later, Donald Davidson compared metaphors to a brute “bump on the head,” and more recently, affect theorists have emphasized the “role of prelinguistic or nonlinguistic forces” that “make us what we are,” the affects that are neither under our ‘conscious’ control nor even necessarily within the register of our awareness,” and “only sometimes” can be “captured in language.” In some respects, affect theory parallels the rise of “post-critique,” the effort in literary studies over the last decade and a half to move away from “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” to acknowledge and appreciate what “hooks” us about art in the first place, in Rita Felski’s term. 

There’s a strain in literary studies that has vehemently rebuked all such notions. For Walter Benn Michaels, for instance, an emphasis on audience experiences makes it impossible for us to have a meaningful disagreement about works, let alone an institutionalizable practice such as literary criticism. But Pippin’s account is more phenomenologically credible than that of Michaels, because, following Hegel, he more explicitly resists driving any firm wedge between sensation and thought in the first place. We sense that a work “knows something,” but that knowledge isn’t in place of something affective. One aim of art, as Hegel says, is to “awaken” or “vivify” what might otherwise remain “slumbering” in the human spirit (62), and it’s crucially important to Pippin that “sensibility is the primary aesthetic modality” of a work, even if it isn’t a fully independent modality (66). It isn’t wrong to talk about “sensations” and “forces” or even “bumps” and getting “hooked”; it’s just incomplete. As every teenager understands, artworks elicit an unusual form of intimacy, which often makes them central to friendships and romances; our shared responses to them allow us to measure our mutuality. Pippin grasps the doubleness of art when he says that works strive to be “affectively intelligible” (101)—a phrase that both Michaels and his enemies may have trouble understanding. He’s a cognitivist, we might say, but not a narrow one. Perhaps it’s best to say that Pippin offers a “rationalist” form of criticism, in the modest sense of “rationality” used by Stanley Cavell when he says, in an early essay, that the familiar “lack of conclusiveness in aesthetic argument, rather than showing up an irrationality, shows the kind of rationality it has, and needs.” Works, says Cavell, are “known by feeling, or in feeling” (phrases that can seem as paradoxical as “affectively intelligible”), and criticism is the practice through which one learns to articulate the particular kind of “logic” or “necessity” that works have: what it means to support one’s claim, rule out other claims, and so on. Sontag or affect theorists are all participating in such a rational practice, whether or not they want to acknowledge it. 

To be sure, artists themselves may not reflect in discursive ways on their work. But observers can ask about their doings in much the way that we can ask why a quarterback threw a pass into traffic over the middle. The fact that neither the artist nor the quarterback deliberated at length, and may be entirely uninformative in post hoc interviews, doesn’t mean their actions aren’t purposefully undertaken or evaluable. And this basic stance explains—this is a second thing I’ll highlight—Pippin’s account of Modernism. Virginia Woolf famously suggested that modern authors should stop “melodiously celebrating the innocence of roses and sheep,” and should instead ask audiences to “tolerate” some unnerving qualities, what Woolf called “the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure.” On some accounts, Woolf and her contemporaries were recording a disorienting new sense of things continually falling apart—random shards that leave an impact but that no longer cohere in graspable ways. But for a Hegelian, the human “need” to “actualize” or “externalize” our mindedness would’ve been no less present in the decades before and after World War I than it was before or since. Modernism thus presents less a set of sensible objects or what J. M. Bernstein calls a “skeptical denial of meaning” than new forms of artistic significance within, and against, an increasingly skeptical culture—a world so overwhelmingly consumerist, so techno-scientifically advanced, so densely bureaucratic that it seems unable to grasp what Hegel called “the most comprehensive truths of spirit.” In such a condition, being “melodious” seems merely sentimental. And the analogy I just made between the artist and the quarterback can often grow strained: what counts as successful quarterbacking is usually far easier to assess than what counts today as successful art-making. But for all that, the works of James, Proust, and Coetzee do make sense, however obscure or spasmodic they initially seem. They’re not conceptual or discursive, but they are affectively intelligible. 

Here, however, I come to my questions. To say that James, Proust, Coetzee, and other modern artists are “affectively intelligible” is one thing, and few people explain it better than Pippin. But Pippin sometimes seems to want to go further, or what seems to me further, and to suggest not only that artworks can make sense, but also that they can be something more: they can be true or false. An artwork, he says in the opening chapter, must be “appreciated in all its concreteness, in its ‘unity’ with reality,” which is another way of saying that it must be appreciated, as he puts it, “in its distinct mode of truth.” 

This all must also mean that not only can a reader or viewer get a text “wrong,” … but that a text that purports to have some purchase on truth can be “wrong” as well. There were certainly persons who behaved as depicted in Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, but something goes wrong, is disturbingly “off,” about the way they are represented. More often, the work can have nothing to do with the human world as it actually is; it deals instead with caricatures, stereotypes, adolescent fantasies, and so is simply irrelevant. The films of Quentin Tarantino seem to me like this, or Marvel comic superhero movies. (Pippin 13)

The tone of this passage is a bit unclear to me. It’s making a major claim about art’s power to disclose truth, yet the two scare-quotes around “wrong,” and then around “off,” seem to imply some sort of distance from that claim, or perhaps a discomfort with the ways we have of articulating it. “Purports to have some purchase on truth” is also strangely indirect: “have some purchase on truth” rather than “striving to be true” or “claiming to be true”? And the tiny prepositional phrase “to me” feels like an oddly personal insertion, given the stakes of the claim. Hegel himself didn’t hesitate: artworks can express or fail to express the deepest truths of spirit. I can’t tell if Pippin is hedging.

Whatever Pippin’s own feelings about the claims, I find myself ambivalent about describing novels, poems, paintings, films, or (especially) music in these terms. And when I say “ambivalent,” I’m not being polite; I feel genuinely on the fence. At the very least it’s unclear to me what it means to think about the truth or falsity of works of art within the context of Pippin’s own book. One reason for my uncertainty is that, aside from the references to Tarantino and Griffiths and Marvel, there are very few artists or works mentioned in Philosophy By Other Means that are said to get things “wrong.” There’s nothing here like what one finds in the work of one of Pippin’s main interlocutors, Michael Fried, who tends to draw sharp distinctions between artists whom he admires and artists with whom he has less sympathy—most famously in “Art and Objecthood,” where he isn’t shy about questioning the self-justifications of Donald Judd and Tony Smith and their effort to create what Fried deems “non-art.” Perhaps Pippin is simply more genial than Fried. But whatever the reason, the price is a certain lack of friction: a contrast class of “false” or “failed” artworks never really comes into view, particularly in his discussions of narrative and literature, and the specific details of how a work can go “wrong” remain to me obscure. 

Conversely, it’s not clear to me that what is being described in the chapters on James, Proust, and Coetzee is exactly their getting something “right.” As an admirer of James and Coetzee in particular, I wholly agree with Pippin that the figures discussed in Part II of the book are astonishingly perceptive, historically sensitive, powerfully imaginative, morally searching, and artistically daring. But do they need to be credited with more? I worry that speaking about the “truth” of a work can be used to justify an overly narrow notion of what a powerful artwork will look like, or that such judgments will merely replicate one’s preexisting moral beliefs and/or philosophical commitments. At the risk of sounding crude, I wonder in the present case whether James, Proust, and Coetzee figure so prominently in Pippin’s work because they are, on his telling, pretty good Hegelians. That’s crude because novelists aren’t philosophers, as Pippin shows and repeatedly notes, and nowhere does he simple-mindedly conflate the novels of James, Proust, and Coetzee with the Phenomenology. But it’s undeniable that, for Pippin, there are strong resonances between Hegel and these later writers: James suggests in his inimitable way that one comes to have a “mind of one’s own” only as part of a “stand taken in the social world” (170); Proust suggests in his own inimitable way that knowing another comes not in an instant, but as some sort of diachronic, interactive, interpretive process (216-17); and Coetzee suggests, in his differently inimitable way, that there can be hints of “limited recovery and success,” an “unusual expression of hope” that many readers fail to notice (226). The question, then, is: Are there artworks that for Pippin get something “right,” that are “true” or don’t seem “disturbingly ‘off’,” yet which don’t chime with such overtly Hegelian themes? Are authors who offer a different, non- or anti-Hegelian vision necessarily getting something “wrong”?

The question first popped to mind as I was reading Pippin’s chapter on Coetzee’s early novels, which quotes the following passage from Dusklands. The speaker is Jacobus Coetzee, writing in the eighteenth century about his exploration of the interior of South Africa:

I become a spherical reflecting eye moving through the wilderness and ingesting it. Destroyer of the wilderness, I move through the land cutting down a devouring path from horizon to horizon. There is nothing from which my eye turns, I am all that I see. … What is there that is not me? I am a transparent sac with a black core full of images and a gun. (Dusklands 231)

What made me pause over this passage is that anyone familiar with American literary history will hear it as a rewriting of the most famous passage in Emerson’s early essay Nature: “Standing on the bare ground … all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance” (Emerson, Nature). It would be an understatement to say that Emerson’s passage was influential on later writers; critics have traced its impact on figures from Thoreau and Whitman to Wallace Stevens, Walker Evans, Jack Kerouac, and Mad Men. The kind of visionary individualism that is expressed in Nature is, however, unlikely to speak to a Hegelian. It will seem, that is, “wrong,” or at best simply to express a stage of spirit that will eventually be aufgehoben. And indeed, on Pippin’s reading, the fact that it is aufgehoben in Dusklands is one of the novel’s insights. Coetzee’s all-encompassing eye is anything but an image of ecstatic independence, and Emerson’s casual way of dismissing sociality (knowing another is a “trifle and disturbance”) devolves instead into “a position necessarily and irredeemably lonely: trapped by being so successful in denying and negating all dependence-making otherness, such a voice is not only monological but monomaniacal…” (231).

There are of course writers other than Coetzee who grasp dependence-making otherness, and who also seem to perceive a violent, monomaniacal dimension to the project of Emersonian vision. Here one of Toni Morrison’s self-descriptions comes to mind: “I write what I have recently begun to call village literature, fiction that is really for the village, for the tribe. Peasant literature for my people…” Morrison’s work is full of non-conforming Emersonian individualists, often women, who burn down the conventions of their society (e.g., Sula in Sula), but these characters seldom survive for long, and ultimately Morrison’s novels do often seem designed to affirm the priority of the “village” or “tribe,” to honor the specific history, rituals, memories, and speech of a historically situated community. My guess, however, is that Morrison’s writing would seem to Pippin to ignore the other side of his key dialectic: whereas Emersonians discount the Hegelian emphasis on dependence, “village literature” discounts the Hegelian emphasis on independence. Morrison may have written an M.A. thesis on Woolf, and may at times evoke the spasmodic and the fragmentary, but at their core, her books won’t seem modern enough. Her novels typically focus on particular families within small, relatively self-enclosed communities, often in small towns—places where everybody knows your name and remembers your grandparents. They are places where social relations are structured more by face-to-face gossip and intergenerational storytelling than by the communication technologies that fascinated so many of her close contemporaries (DeLillo, Pynchon). All of which makes sense: Morrison writes about groups that have been ignored or brutalized by the large-scale governmental and social systems that Hegel believed was a defining feature of modern life. These communities have survived the worst sorts of violent marginalization, and the novels seem to pay tribute to what to Hegel might look like a “pre-modern” set of social arrangements. 

Perhaps it goes without saying, but I’m assuming here that Whitman, Stevens, Mad Men, and Morrison have philosophical dimensions, much as James, Proust, and Coetzee do. Certainly they’ve generated philosophical reflection; at any rate, they seem no more un-philosophical than the westerns and noirs that Pippin has written about. And my point isn’t to accumulate examples that Pippin doesn’t mention (he can’t write about everything, after all). The question is simply whether it makes sense to think of such texts as “wrong” in some important way, given the distance they seem to have from the novels described in Part II of his book. These kinds of authors and works may not be as “disturbingly ‘off’” as Birth of a Nation, and perhaps they trade in fewer adolescent fantasies than Tarantino, but they would still seem to be in some respect “false,” or at least partial, incomplete.

I’m wary here of sounding like a skeptical positivist, snickering at the Germans, and I’m well-aware that the language of “truth” and “falsity” in an account like Pippin’s is supposed to help us avoid the notion that the natural sciences are the sole locus of genuine truth and knowledge. Let me finish, then, by returning to a line from Pippin’s book that I cited at the start, and ask a question. For Pippin, as I said, the fact that we often re-watch or re-read a work is a sign that we “sense” a work “knows something,” something that requires more reflection for us to fully grasp. What if we changed “knows something” in this sentence to “thinks something”—“a work is thinking something”? Doing so would retain the idea that art is a cognitive enterprise: artworks are deliberately made artifacts striving to be affectively intelligible to audiences familiar with the relevant traditions. But more than “know,” “think” retains (to my ear at least) the sense of a work of art as the achievement of a provisional vision, and lays the emphasis on the ways that images and ideas are being tested out, explored, organized and offered to stimulate new affectively charged reflections. In particular, “thinking” captures the ways that literary texts can orchestrate different perspectives, images, and figures, often in deeply ironic ways that defy easy comprehension or that push us to question our own commitments. That is, they “think” in the sense of thinking through: or, as Coetzee puts it in a phrase that Pippin footnotes, they awaken “the countervoices in oneself” and allow us to embark “upon speech with them.” “Thinking” thus also acknowledges how literary works, with their countervoices and ironic juxtapositions, display the conflicts within ourselves and in the culture generally. In the unfolding of scene and character and narrative voice, they illuminate the deeply contested quality of our concepts, the ways that—both individually and collectively—we often operate with competing intuitions about goodness, justice, courage, and so on, and frequently feel ourselves torn between them. I don’t think I subscribe to an Emersonian view of freedom, but I can recognize its force, and can appreciate fictions that try to embody it, that try to develop a standard for the culture as a whole to contemplate. There are moods when I “get” even Kerouac, however different my life may look compared to that of Sal or Dean. 

I suspect Pippin wouldn’t strongly disagree with any of these general characterizations of fiction, given what a sensitive reader he is (he’s certainly far better than most professional philosophers who try to write about fiction). But if he wouldn’t disagree, then I’m not sure how these characterizations—which emphasize the unsettled and unsettling qualities of fiction, its capacity to delight as much in an Iago as an Imogen—… how these characterizations square with the idea that artworks could be “true” and “false,” or how the terms “truth” and “falsity” could by anything but unworkably abstract in this context. Perhaps another way of saying this is that the language of truth and falsehood has for me too much of a religious ring. Once upon a time, some people claimed that any serious reader needed to choose between Joyce and Lawrence; you couldn’t have both, it was said, as if Ulysses and The Rainbow had established separate churches. The categorical note of the demand always struck me as misplaced, and still does. But maybe I still don’t fully grasp what “truth” and “falsity” mean here. I want to believe, and perhaps Pippin can help me in my unbelief. 


Bernstein, J.M. 2003. “Aesthetics, Modernism, Literature: Cavell’s Transformation of Philosophy,” in Stanley Cavell, ed. Richard Eldridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cavell, Stanley. 1969. Must We Mean What We Say? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—————–. 2010. Little Did I Know. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Davidson, Donald. 1983. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Felski, Rita. 2020. Hooked: Art and Attachment. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

Morrison, Toni. 1981. Interview with Thomas LeClair, The New Republic (March 21, 1981).

Pippin, Robert B. 2021. Philosophy by Other Means: Arts in Philosophy and Philosophy in the Arts. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Schaefer, Donovan. ““It’s Not What You Think: Affect Theory and Power Take to the Stage” (

Sontag, Susan. 1966. Against Interpretation. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

  • Robert Pippin

    Robert Pippin


    Response to Rob Chodat

    Chodat’s main focus is on a core element of what I called philosophical criticism. That core element, the very heart of the matter actually, concerns, the question of truth. I had claimed that there is or ideally should be a form of criticism that is a contribution to philosophy, even if not in the analytic and discursive form traditionally characteristic of academic philosophy. The claim is twofold: that criticism properly understood often requires a form of philosophic reflection, and that philosophy is impoverished if it is not informed by critical attention to aesthetic objects. (To state it formulaically, for me philosophy is continuous with literary criticism, not literary theory.) This partly has to do with the pragmatic dimension of aesthetic works. As in a speech act, where we want to distinguish between what someone said and the point of her saying it, so in the case of aesthetic objects, as published or exhibited (and I have concentrated on novels and films), we are provoked to try to understand what could be the point of narrating events and characterizing characters in just this way rather than that. Literary style is literary form and so inseparable from any attention to content. Implicit in that issue is the question of the truth in any such disclosure, and it partly has to do with a conception of literary form indebted to the early German romantics and idealist—the ascription to works of an autotelic formality, an imputation to them of their own implicit self-understanding and so to our viewing the work as attempting to realize such a formal self-understanding; form as energeia in the Aristotelian sense.

    Chodat’s first hesitation about all this is what he detects as an uneasiness or a potential hedge in my formulating the question such a conception of criticism raises. I would put the issue as the difference between getting a work right, and rightly getting what the work gets right. I assume we would agree that neither in the former nor the latter do we arrive at anything dispositive and final, but there is in that formulation some commitment to the work getting something right or righter, and so by implication, the claim that there are works that purport to get something right and fail. But how would we make such a distinction?

    Let me first make two general comments in response. First consider Chodat’s own formulation of what he agrees with.

    …it’s not clear to me that what is being described in the chapters on James, Proust, and Coetzee is exactly their getting something “right.” As an admirer of James and Coetzee in particular, I wholly agree with Pippin that the figures discussed in Part II of the book are astonishingly perceptive, historically sensitive, powerfully imaginative, morally searching, and artistically daring. But do they need to be credited with more? (3)

     I don’t think they need to be credited with more, but this seems to me in itself quite a lot of credit. If James is “perceptive,” what does he perceive so well? If he is morally searching, then he is presumably rightly on the trail of a moral dimension that now needs illuminating, and if he is historically sensitive, then he can be said to be rightly onto a new historical situation that requires a major re-evaluation of what Jaspers famously called the “spiritual situation of the age.”

    But, second, this still just returns us to Chodat’s apposite main question. The possibility of propositional truth assumes appropriate and statable truth conditions, an awareness of what would make the proposition true of false, an attention to the right truth-maker in the world. It is unlikely that this has anything to do with aesthetic truth. Aesthetic objects do not make claims and are distorted and trivialized if reformulated into distinct claims. The alethic aesthetic dimension relies on an older conception of truth, sometimes called an ontological conception most famously first associated with Plato and revived in a unique form by Heidegger. Commitment to such a standard means searching for what a thing, or an event or phenomena like romantic love or jealousy, or betrayal, or forgiveness, or alienation, or melancholy, or a massive historical change, truly is, what it is in truth, as opposed to what it merely appears to be. A true house is a house that best exemplifies what a house is. Hegel’s question about the modern state is whether it is what a state truly should be. Commitment to such a truth and an attempt to say how it might be available, understandably leads us to want to know how a depiction of it (not a claim about it, an aesthetic truth and not a discursive one) might be distinguished from an illusory but perhaps superficially credible distortion of such a disclosure. While understandable, any pursuit of a criterion to rely on in answering such a question is bound to be disappointed. This has something to do with the fact that access to human phenomena like the ones just mentioned is not possible observationally or third-personally. Human beings are self-interpreting animals; none of these phenomena manifest themselves except within the self-understanding of the agents involved, however crude and self-deceived such self-interpretations can be, something that is also part of how the phenomena truly are, truly manifest themselves (that is, often, by being hidden). Although this sounds close to a phenomenological treatment, an appeal to “what it is really like” for an agent or a sufferer, the difference should be emphasized. Getting closer to such a goal is paradigmatically (to return for a moment to Hamilton’s remarks) a matter of language and great linguistic creativity and imaginative power expressed in language. (Analogous modalities of access are relevant in cinema and visual art.)

    In this sense, a literary treatment can be “off” but not off in the sense of being simply “wrong,” wrong within some bivalence. In the appropriate Hegelian register alluded to above, it would be just incomplete, not yet penetrating much beyond, even if somewhat beyond, the appearances. (Chodat’s examples of Emerson and Morrison might fit here. I certainly agree with what Chodat says about the limitations of Emerson’s individualism—limitations that affect the aesthetic quality of the work—and I certainly agree that while some might think that Morrison’s novels “are not modern enough,” that would be wrong, given the contemporary audiences she writes for, and the bearing of the memory of those communities on their lives.) Sometimes, a work can be far off, untrue to what matters are like to the point of banality, superficiality, button-pushing sentimentality, Hallmark card poetry, formulaic fiction, audience pandering violence, or simply clichéd and predictable, the aesthetic version of laziness. Untruth in this sense is an aesthetic failure as well as philosophically disappointing. 

    I should note here that there are, as I have already indicated, severe limitations in Hegel’s handling of this theme. Such a marginal remark in this context will have to be too telegraphic, but it is worth noting. Hegel agrees that truth understood as correctness, a concept agreeing with reality, is an inadequate model for speculative truth. Formulated in the Hegelian register, we should ask whether a concept agrees with itself. (Again: Does this State agree with the concept of a true State, or is this house what a house should really be, for example.) What he will ultimately mean is that the real, being, the absolute, is the Concept. Formulated in the Heideggerian mode we discussed this morning, he wants to say that the meaning of Being is intelligibility, ultimately knowability. The availability of what is real “in truth” is via discursive knowability (in philosophy a priori intelligibility) and the arts can be seen as a sensible-affective modality of such knowability. But this is a restrictive notion of such availability, and it does no justice to the concern that animates Heidegger, Bedeutsamkeit, or the meaningfulness of being. That requires a mode of accessibility that is not discursive or any version of it, but disclosive. Put a different way, to return again to Hamilton’s remarks, the bearing of literature on philosophy can be a challenge, a genuine alternative within the same project.

    There is a limit to how much insisting on any of this can be defended against skeptics, but I would point out finally that philosophy itself is in no better position, despite its sometimes incredible pretensions otherwise. There are no philosophical truths, although there are innumerable aspirants, and some may in fact be true without our ever being able to know. For example, there is a picture of the world and how we experience others within such a world behind utilitarianism or materialism or Aristotelianism, one that needs to be assumed before the machinery of professional philosophy gets going with its examples and counter-examples. If, in the case, say, of utilitarianism, we become interested in the meaning and credibility of such its assumed picture, we might do better to consult Dickens’s Hard Times than by looking for it among the philosophers, where it is usually absent. Thus, to respond to Chodat’s final question, serious thinking in and about art seems to me always in pursuit of truth in the above sense, despite the endlessness of the task. That is in itself a form of truthfulness or critical integrity.

    This though returns us to Chodat’s main question. Why should we think that something like Grandrindism in Hard Times tells us something true about that world. We seem to want to say, given our philosophical tradition, that if something true has been disclosed in a literary work, we should be able to say what that is in a proposition and then wonder what reasons or arguments would lead us to be committed to its truth. There is no truth claim, many philosophers believe, without a contrast with falsity, and a disclosure by itself is just that, a manifestation that, we have to say, could disclose something true or could only seem to, if we could but make that distinction about what Heidegger treats as a disclosive event. But this suggestion is confused for several reasons. The chief is that what is disclosed can be extracted from the language, or visual images. That is no reason to think that any such disclosure is unavailable to critical reflection, assuming the writing of such criticism can create without mere paraphrase the elements in the work, the whole within which it strikes us so powerfully, that make such a disclosure credible, as well as what we would be missing in our experience if we denied such a disclosive intimating. There are no decisive or dispositive truth-makes for the interpretive enterprise, but that is no reason for widespread skepticism about something like verisimilitude, moments that ring true, even if they cannot be redeemed discursively. In this, I don’t think philosophical criticism is ultimately, with respect to the most important issues, any worse off than philosophy or for that matter worse off than what we must rely on in everyday lifer, attempts to understand what matters to us and in our world that requires interpretive finesse, provokes doubts, attempts at reassurance, challenges from others, reformulations, integration of new perspectives and so forth. It’s messy but it’s all we’ve got.

    Heidegger could not be more explicit about this than in his 1936 Erläuterung zu Hölderlins Dichtung.

    The word as work therefore never directly offers a guarantee (Gewähr) as to whether it is an essential word or a delusion [Blendwerk]. On the contrary—an essential word often looks in its simplicity like an inessential one. And what on the other hand presents itself in its finery as the look of the essential is only said by rote or repeated. Thus is language ever obliged to place itself in a seeming [Schein] produced by itself, and thereby threaten what is uniquely its own—true saying. (EH 37)

    He appears to mean that there can be something like or parallel to bivalence in the disclosure itself. The meaning of Being involves the emergence into presence (presencing), from obscurity or hiddenness into disclosure, and this is not the result of true judgments but their condition, and that emergence is never complete. (It is especially important that the disclosure is a disclosure of meaning, something that does not play the role one might expect in Tugendhat’s famous critique. Meaningfulness could be expressed in propositional form, but not determinately as some matter of fact, as when we ask, without a clear referent, “what it means to him” that he is estranged from his child, or what his failure in the war means to him.) This copresence of uncovering and concealment clearly admits of all sorts of ambiguities in and qualifications on what is disclosed. The event itself then should not be said to be simply “true,” as if every putative disclosure in a fundamental attunement or art work is necessarily true in the sense of statable in true judgments. Or at least we should say that there is potentially something genuine and something obscuring in every disclosure and the “genuine” could be said to be a form of truth. As Heidegger would say, we have to appreciate that human thought is finite, and an aspect of that finitude is “the finitude of the object,” in this case the inherent ambiguity and unclarity of any “disclosive moment.”

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