A Critique Of A Critique: Exploring The Limitations Of Subjectivity In German Aesthetic Theory

Calvin and Hobbes is the greatest comic strip of all time. (Source: philosophicalpontifications.blogspot.com; Artist: Bill Watterson)

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ORIGINAL TITLE: Hegel, Nietzsche, and Sadomasochistic Morgan Freeman: The Role of Subjectivity in German Aesthetic Theory

CONTEXT: Academic literary analysis piece critiquing the varying aesthetic philosophies of several great German philosophers: Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche.

REASON FOR INCLUSION: The same reason anybody brings up the aesthetic theories of great German philosophers: To show off. It’s not like this topic will ever come up organically in conversation, so if I can’t say “I have read and understand Immanuel Kant” here, where can I say it? (Joking aside, it’s also a great example of my ability to relate complex, abstract ideas in an accessible way to a normal human audience. Even if you’ve never read these authors, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what they’re arguing.)

An old cliché tells us that scientists are the only people who want to be proven wrong, because their love of knowledge is so pure that any new information, even that which completely tears down their life’s work, is a blessing. In most cases, this is nonsense; who among us would rather toil for decades on a dead-end theory than be the person who ends up in the history books?

In the decades following Kant’s epistemologically devastating Critique of Pure Reason, however, this claim was most likely true for many philosophers. In its wake, almost none of the foundational assumptions upon which centuries of Western philosophy were based emerged unscathed: Truth, beauty, space, and time had gone from immutable laws of reality to vagaries of human perception. It was no longer sufficient to simply view mankind in a bubble of epistemological privilege, the only animal capable of viewing the world through a wholly rational prism.

At the same time, the rapid social and scientific changes brought about during the Enlightenment, from the French Revolution to Newtown’s Laws of Motion, further undermined the previously unassailable authorities in the spiritual and secular realms alike. As terrifying as these revelations were for so many, they also opened new frontiers of subjective philosophy. Freed from the shackles of anthropocentric thought, the potential for new, all-encompassing “Theories of Everything” was greater than it had been in centuries. Subsequently, philosophers like Nietzsche and Hegel began developing increasingly ambitious epistemological frameworks to explain the world and man’s relation to it.

Yet as brilliant as these men were, and as meticulously constructed as their theories were, they suffered from a flaw: The very social subjectivity upon which their work was based.

In a sense, learning that the human world was, for lack of a better word, human lifted a tremendous burden from philosophy, in particular the study of aesthetics, because it alleviated the need to rely upon increasingly convoluted, unsustainable arguments based on immutable principles that withered in the face of scientific and social advances. For a dogmatic rationalist to prove he could deduce the source of beauty in the universe without any a posteriori knowledge would require an absurd burden of proof. Kant’s conclusion that our reason is simply an organizational tool for processing sensory data was elegant in its simplicity, even if his argument to reach this conclusion was laborious.

Hegel’s theory of dialectical history is, at its beating heart, also deceptively simple: Ideas interact with other ideas over time, causing them to evolve into new concepts, and since we are human beings, our natural inclination is to prioritize things imbued with human values over things independent of us. Nietzsche, for all his aphoristic bluster, could have summarized the thesis of “Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” in little more than “Language does not perfectly reflect reality. It is an imperfect tool and we only use it because it is impossible to efficiently convey our sensory impulses to other people without it. Do not forget this.”

These accounts are, of course, so simplified they verge on the reductive, but that is my point. Their genius was the ability to reveal to the world the obvious ideas hiding in plain sight. This is why such arguments are so seductive: They are at once so simple, yet so universal, they seem impossible to escape. A person completely unfamiliar with philosophy could easily see them as little more than common sense. How could anyone argue with the idea that words are not feelings or that ideas change over time?

The problem is that neither Nietzsche nor Hegel stopped there.

They were rigorous thinkers, men who were not content making bland generalizations, and this ambition created as many problems in their philosophies as it solved. As the details in their arguments increased, so too did their claims, and with that the burden of proof needed to justify these claims, until eventually, their theories of beauty became increasingly tendentious, falling prey to the very subjectivity they were trying to explain.

This is not, of course, an intrinsically bad thing. Philosophers are not machines, nor are their audiences. Personal experience and appeals to emotion are fundamental components of our psychology, and to pretend otherwise risks intellectual dishonesty. By definition, a flawed yet persuasive argument will be more influential than a logical yet unpersuasive argument. To criticize Nietzsche’s argument for the “exceptional man” for being too idiosyncratic is to completely miss the point.

However, when making extremely broad arguments that encompass the totality of human history, as Nietzsche and Hegel do, or when attempting to frame something as subjective as aesthetic judgment within a comprehensive rubric, this can be a risky approach. Comprehensive claims require comprehensive evidence, and any attempt to apply a theory to billions of human lives should minimize the role one’s personal preferences plays. As we shall see, even the slightest unchecked premise can create a wedge that can destabilize even the most brilliant of theories.

To paraphrase a devastating critique of Hegel, one that could apply to much of philosophy, the man built a beautiful mansion with many rooms, but all I have to do to leave is walk out the front door. The farther he moves from his basic dialectic, the easier his premises are to reject. At the most basic level, Hegel’s belief that the Absolute is literally God could be rejected with a simple “I do not believe in God.” Likewise, his belief that the “end” of art refers to both an “aim” as well as an end-point in time could be easily countered with “technological advances will keep changing things.”

This is unsatisfying and pedantic, though, so for the sake of argument, let us give him a bit of leeway and broaden the Absolute to incorporate a generic “higher truth,” which could incorporate a literal God if necessary, and the “end” of art to refer to any given point in human history where religion and philosophy subsume art, even if is not a permanent state.

Even if we grant him this, Hegelian aesthetics are still hobbled by the scope of his claims.

In spite of his relentless focus on specificity, he has a tendency to use arbitrary value designations, such as “higher,” as markers of absolute value. Hegel acknowledges this tendency towards “utterly indeterminate expressions” and defends their use by claiming that “mind and mind only is capable of truth,” and that “in natural beauty we find ourselves too open to vagueness, too destitute of a criterion,” which will later lay the groundwork for his broader argument that increasing complexity, self-awareness, and cognition reflect an upward spiral towards the Absolute. In other words, as we project our subjective spirits upon the external world, we continually reshape and recreate reality, until the culmination of subjective alterations of the world will create an objective reality.

The problem is that, as we have seen here, Hegel will repeatedly disregard certain arguments or theories on the grounds that they are insufficiently concrete, vague, or products of “mere fancy.” Here, Hegel’s intellectual appetite cannibalizes itself. Like the brilliant free-market economists responsible for the 2008 credit crisis, he tends to downplay the role of irrationality in human thought. He refuses to accept it just is as an answer. He was an academic that spent hours a day poring over minute details in critical journals, debating endlessly with the greatest minds on earth. Not everyone does that. To simply wave away irrationality because it does not fit into one’s intellectual framework, or to disregard nature as the source of beauty (in part) because it would be harder to come up with a criterion is to remove an enormous piece of the puzzle. This tendency feels like a lingering vestige of the absolute rationalists who denied the need for empirical data. Maybe the frustrating truth is that the source of aesthetic beauty is almost entirely the product of a seemingly arbitrary combination of genetics and neurology that has a wholly concrete answer, but one that will not be available until technology is sufficiently advanced.

Hegel’s view that art is evolving into applied criticism is similarly tendentious. It is true that as increasingly diverse works of art enter our cultural dialectic, our critical views of art will grow more sophisticated than if we had nothing more to study than the works of Homer. The films of Quentin Tarintino, for example, appeal to a broad audience yet their enjoyment is largely predicated on an understanding of popular culture and cinematic conventions. However, this does not mean that one day people will simply give up enjoying art for its own sake. When he says “What is aroused in us by works of art is above and beyond our immediate enjoyment,” the “us” carries a more literal weight than Hegel most likely intended: analytically minded, educated adults. It is absurd to envision a point in the future where eight year-old boys voluntarily sit quietly and study Thomas Aquinas, proud that they’ve outgrown, as a society, those silly toys. It is absurd to envision a point in the future where twenty-eight year-old boys voluntarily sit quietly and study Thomas Aquinas, proud that they’ve outgrown, as a society, those silly toys.

As beautiful as Hegel’s palace is, few would want to live in it.

Nietzsche’s account of beauty largely avoids many of the pitfalls Hegel succumbs to by striking a much better balance of vagary and specificity, but is not entirely successful in removing himself from his philosophy. In The Will to Power and Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” the source of beauty is biological, not spiritual, but Nietzsche wisely does not present himself as a scientist, and avoids making claims so specific they would reveal his medical ignorance or become dated with advances in technology. At the same time, it is difficult to argue with his more general postulations: Art is “a stimulant” to life, it is “not possible to remain objective” about beauty, our notions of beauty are connected to other ideas that “crystallize around” it, forging a “chain of affirmations.”

Part of Nietzsche’s genius here was his ability to make claims that sound polemical and aggressive on the surface, yet mask them in appropriately open-ended language. If all he said here was “Art makes us happy, what we like it just our opinion, and thoughts influence each other,” his argument would verge on tautology. It is when he incorporates his theories of power that his personality begins to intrude.

Traditionally, ad hominem arguments are anathema to critical analysis, but considering Nietzsche famously used Socrates’ ugliness as an example of how our experiences shape our worldview, it would be an insult to the man’s work to ignore the psychological elephant in the room: Friedrich Nietzsche was a notoriously powerless man most of his life who was obsessed with power. He was often in poor health, left the military due to an accidentally self-inflicted equestrian mishap, had relations with women that could charitably be called “less than ideal,” and was frequently a ward of his friends and family. Though we should be careful not to tread too deeply into making assumptions about how this influenced his philosophy, there is an uncomfortable disjunction between the “animal vigor” and “blooming physicality” his “victorious energy” hopes to communicate and the reality of his life.

Throughout the aesthetics-related passages in Will to Power, whenever Nietzsche moves beyond discussions of logical cognition (the “chain of affirmations,” the conflict between instinct and judgment, the utilitarian use-value of our conception of the Beautiful and the Ugly), there is an unsettling undercurrent of sexual frustration and violence. To Nietzsche, the artist — we should remember he is not referring to a specific subgroup of artists, but artists in general — not only has a high “distribution of semen in his blood” because he is “bursting with sexual energy” that demands “the ecstasies of sexuality,” but seeks to become “master of […] ugliness and awfulness” through the “excitation of his animal desires.” There is the potential for a relatable argument here, but the ideas so are lightly developed they feel more like the projection of subconscious desires than a coherent philosophy, though Nietzsche’s language is sufficiently hypnotic to prevent it from becoming a noticeable problem.

If we condense Nietzsche’s main points into a list, though, his vision of the artist becomes utterly incoherent. The artist in the process of creating something beautiful is, all at once:

  1. In a state of primal excitement,
  2. Peacefully resolving contradictions without need for violence,
  3. Indulging in sadomasochistic conquest,
  4. Drawing subconscious connections with things that practically benefit him,
  5. Thinking of related beautiful things,
  6. Thinking of unrelated beautiful things,
  7. Not thinking due to the fact that instinct overrides cognition in aesthetic judgments, and
  8. Sexually aroused.

Lacking any qualifiers or restraint, this would, it seems, apply to everyone from Verne Troyer to Morgan Freeman.

In fairness to Nietzsche, The Will to Power is a compilation of notes published posthumously, so some lack of refinement is to be expected, but even so, this is an enormously cumbersome constellation of ideas. The flashes of violence, sexuality, and sadomasochistic power fantasies in his theory could be reconciled with some convoluted mental gymnastics, but as with Hegel, the moment we remember the philosopher is imagining billions of other people going through this same process, the argument’s plausibility collapses, and it is difficult to escape the shadow of Nietzsche’s insecurities.

If these critiques of German aesthetic theory have been harsh, it is only because they offer such a wealth of insight and contribute so much to modern thought that to praise them would be redundant and unnecessary. It is nearly impossible to escape the influence of Nietzsche or Hegel in modern thought. However, we must allow ourselves to lose perspective: They were still men, incapable of seeing the world through anyone’s eyes but their own. T

hat was the point of Kant’s Copernican revolution. Just as there is no “up” or “down” in outer space, only directions to move in, there is no Absolute in opinion. There is only freedom.

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