Transcending the Aesthetic Dimension, Erlebnis and Bildung


When we seek a hermeneutical interpretation we are looking to understand how understanding-in-itself has evolved throughout history. With an emphasis on the constant and imminent flux of texts, we place change on the basis of the interpreter’s relation to the past. Gadamer’s treatise Truth and Method is probably our most competent attempt at a larger hermeneutic approach to philosophy and should be praised for its sheer enabling capacity – in the sense that the style of Truth and Method both provides a schema for philosophical work and a refreshed perspective on the evolution of major philosophical problems, from the unique angle of hermeneutics. By schema I mean that there is a certain choice for presenting a hermeneutical survey, in that the genius of Gadamer’s evaluation of meaningful words from one era to the next is perhaps not the significance of Gadamer’s approach and method. Rather, the approach is concerned with the limits, with the setbacks, with the stop-gap of meanings, not with how we have come to understand a concept per se, but much broader and myopic perhaps, Truth and Method is concerned with the human sciences place and relation towards knowledge from a unique philosophic point of view, which looks to what happens to us “over and above our wanting and doing.”

Beginning in Goethe’s era which lasted a full century up to the revolutionary-era, conceptions of culture, or in more mystical terms of Bildung, (the word which originally typified European understanding of culture) – culture was the tradition by which man carried his soul in the image of God. Bildung itself cannot be sought except through the reflective thematic content of the educator. What is gained in the seeking of Bildung is a cultivation of Bildung itself, which is not attached to any kind of goal, rather, the attainment itself is a preservation of knowledge of the world that is already known, is finite and shared with God and in this case it is shared three ways, with the educator as well.

To Hegel, someone who could not understand the universality of Bildung lacked the ability to think abstractedly, or the ability to turn one’s gaze from oneself to the world. This perspective in fact explains the magnum opus Phenomenology of the Spirit, and for German idealism, it is the text which led to the notion of theoretical Bildung, or the notion that by recognizing ones own in the alien, to become home in it, that is the classical conception of the movement of spirit. Of returning to itself from what is other is the basic quest of spirit. Thus what constitutes Bildung is not alienation as such but the return to oneself.

Bildung is the element through which the educated man moves. In a similar vein, memory is seen as the motor or the faculty of Bildung, as the practical apparatus that has a sort of intentional ness about its constitution. Because the cultivated self has generated a proper space of relation to other viewpoints, then Bildung is at the core a building up of sense. Non-cultivated consciousness is only directed to the other sphere and is unable to generate a proper relation or space of relation to all spheres, i.e. to have a universal sense. Phronesis, or practical knowledge is very similar to the concept and movement of Bildung, as it is intent on grasping the circumstances in their infinite variety. Phronetic knowledge is indeed preferred by Aristotle because it instructs one on how to act morally.

What concerned Kant in the Critique of Practical Reason was that judgment should always be relegated to the other, making the attainment of Bildung of no cosmic significance; rather, it is merely an intuitive feeling that comes with proper attachment to the particular from the universal. Only the aesthetic taste itself is left over in the attainment of Bildung. Thus, to Kant the true state of community is taste. This notion was of course taken from Aristotle who claimed that good taste is the ability to have a sensible judgment of perfection.

The history of the concept of taste was not originally aesthetic, but rather a moral issue. The cultivated man is cultivated on the basis of his unattachment from society and its outgrowths, so as he is able to make proper judgments. The concept of taste undoubtedly implies a mode of knowing. The ethics that arose around taste served as the guiding reason behind all moral judgments. Taste in the Kantian transcendental subjectivity is not the ground but the supreme consummation of all moral judgment.

Kantian Critique of Aesthetics renders reason as the guiding force of the human sciences, which brought moral subjective decision making as completely alienated, in a state that cannot know itself. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant denied all significance of knowledge to taste. Taste produces no knowledge of the object it senses, and neither is it a matter of subjective consciousness, rather taste is reflective. Therefore, the methodology of taste is a matter of sociability because taste itself is similar to cultivating moral feeling, and is designated as the way in which genuine taste assumes a definite unchangeable form.

Kant’s Doctrine of Free and Dependent Beauty:

What is pure and free beauty in aesthetic terms? Pure beauty is rooted in an aesthetic judgment which is always un-associated with a concept – i.e. the more beauty is not judged by intellectual content, the more that beauty is dependent. In pure beauty itself, pleasure itself is not a judgment of the object; it is a judgment unaffected by contradiction of concepts.

The normative view of beauty conversely, is a single intuition of the imagination. Normative beauty derives pleasure because its judgment does not contradict any condition by which another thing could belong to that particular genus. The nature of all art to Kant is that it presents man with himself.

Kant sought to explain art by keeping it in the sphere of understanding that everything’s uniqueness to the senses is found purely by what is present to the senses. This made art an autonomous phenomenon, in the sense that it is now through the non-conceptuality of taste that we are moved beyond the aesthetics of mere taste. Art is now about allowing man to encounter himself in the natural world. The naturally beautiful is that which can present man to himself – as beautiful, nature finds a language that makes intelligible the idea of what mankind is. Since beauty in nature renders man in his determinedness. Man cannot discover himself in nature because art cannot communicate to us this self-discovery of man in a reality that does not intend to do so.

The Kantian genius is important for us to understand the idea of the preferred aesthetic orientation to pure beauty and to art. A genius is one who is able to formulate the meaning of art – since we are now dealing with art in a reflexive relationship to both nature and man, that is that something is beautiful in that it lies beyond aesthetic concepts, notice the room left for the critic here. To Kant, all things universal are reflexive in that they are a state of mind. Thus the critique of taste, i.e. aesthetics is a preparation for teleology. Art creates the freedom of play in our cognitive faculties.

By elevating the aesthetic pleasure faculty into the higher experience of a life-feeling, the very stuff of aesthetic pleasure became the stuff of consciousness itself. Through deriving all objective validity from transcendental subjectivity, the neo-Kantians declared this concept of art perception itself to be the most important element of both pragmatic and normative consciousness, as influenced from the art sphere.

Another significant word which would prove to exemplify a tendency of aesthetics is Erlebnis – which means simply to be still alive when something happens. It suggests the immediacy by which something is grasped. The philosophy of erlebnis became quickly associated with the philosophy of life a la Nietzsche and Bergson as the central protest against industrialized society. Erlebnis sees everything finite as an expression of the infinity of life, of spirit. Each one of our experiences exists as a separate picture of the universe taken out of explanatory context, i.e. we are alienated from our experience but it is connected to the universal.

More of what erlebnis implies; the word experience is historically constituted by certain structures of meaning, as found in the human sciences, however strange and incomprehensible they may seem to us, each experience can be traced back to ultimate units of what is given in consciousness, unities which themselves no longer contain anything alien, objective or in need of interpretation. A unit of experience is itself a unit of meaning. Therefore, picking up in the Kantian tradition, the unity of experience cannot be psychologically deduced to any mechanistic model, which is directly tied to the rise of and eventual protest against industrial society.

This is similar to Raymond Williams’ intellectual history of nineteenth century England, Culture and Society, that literature during the time of the Romantics developed a reflexivity with the currents of the market, and of mechanization, that conceptions of culture as system, and the birth of the idea of “masses” began out of economics, not culture, but the two came to relate interdependently.

To Dilthey, all life is conceived teleologically, in other words, life objectifies itself in structures of meaning and the task for humans is to translate the objectification back into spiritual life, from which it emerged. The concept of life is in an continual alienation from its source and the human sciences are tasked with grounding experience back into its universality. Thus the concept of experience is the epistemological basis for all knowledge of the objective.

Husserl would strip the Kantian idea out of experience that was founded upon free beauty into the realm of intentional meaning, i.e. that all experience is inflected with a certain intentionality in perception. What can be called an experience can be constituted in memory.

The original conception of allegory is also important to seeking full perspective on the aesthetic dimension. Allegory was originally thought as something that was said but represented by something else, a concept completely within the realm of rhetoric. A symbol conversely is different from allegory in that it is not related to its meaning through another meaning, but its meaning is constituted by its own sensory existence, which is infused with meaning. A symbol has meaning and acquires presence only by being shown or spoken. Allegory has a history beginning with Homer and Biblical and religious texts, and was used as a practical device to eliminate offensive material from a text. .

On the other hand, symbol was first taken to the extent of a symbol of one’s inner experience, and then ultimately a representation of the real. This association with non-aesthetic symbolism was actually closely linked to Protestant definitions and usages of the time. In the same vein as the anti-industrial conception of life as full and infinite experience, the idea of symbol and indeed allegory itself came to be associated with “everything that happens is a symbol, representing itself and it points towards everything else…”

While the idealists would attempt to push symbol and allegory into the realm of pure aesthetic experience, their rationale is very similar to Goethe and Kantian transcendental subjectivity, that it was conceived in order for a correspondence between the universal with each particular – an argument which represents a reversion to a philosophy of art closely aligned with ancient Greek “religion of art.” The problem with idealist conceptions of symbol in art was that each symbol had a certain indifference so that the universal is wholly the particular. Indeed the Idealist school, although far predating Schoupennarian “sublimation” and the unconscious were anti-Freudians through and through! The idea that a symbol can only represent itself as an image, that there was no extension-meaning, left over and perhaps alienated meaning would disturb the delicate metaphysical harmony of the universal flow of spirit, or what was usually referred to as mind. Staying within the Protestant conception fused with the Greek return to aesthetics, Gadamer notes that, “the symbol was the coincidence of sensible appearance and suprasensible appearance and suprasensible meaning, and this coincidence is, like the original significance of the Greek symbolon and its continuance in the terminology of various religious denominations, not a subsequent co-ordination, as in symbolism through which the priesthood reflects their higher knowledge, symbolism (to the idealists) rests, rather, on the “original connection” between gods and men.

The notion of a unity of the symbol has created a tension within the symbol and its immediate and simultaneous connection to the finite and the infinite. Because the meaning of symbols points beyond their sensory appearance a vacillation of undecided ness inflects each symbol between the form and the essence inherent in each.

The tradition of unity of the symbol has been historically constituted largely as a revolt against the ascension of concept in art a la the Kantian idea of genius and pure beauty in art. Art had to depend on an unconscious freedom from the concept regardless of whether or not the idealists would come to label all art as an expression of the idea, albeit universal, which could still technically be unencumbered by the world of conflicted concepts and intellectualism, i.e. pure and beautiful.

Retrieving the Question of Aesthetic Truth:

Is the religious conception of art, which creates a larger art-consciousness compatible with erlebnis (the experience and connection to pure self-centered genius through experience)? In other words, religio-art is so closely aligned with dogma that we can infer that nearly all symbolism and allegory could be understood by all.

Beginning with Kantian notions of transcendental subjectivity, we have a remolding of aesthetics with Schiller and the rise of the idealists which represents a shift from sensory to moral pleasure, which we spoke of earlier. But it is important again to notice that the idealists actually did not disavow the Kantian imperative of aesthetic sensory critiques, rather, they elevated Kant’s call towards living, towards living aesthetically!

Indeed the art-consciousness of Bildung can be extended over the entire society through a fusion of the aesthetic and moral spheres, in that freedom and in contemporary terms, “socially conscious art” can perhaps only make a change in the aesthetic dimension, not in reality.

Schiller’s notion of aesthetic cultivation opposed to versions of taste as evolved throughout the nineteenth century, where, as Hegel put it, an alienated consciousness which it is up to the cultured citizen to develop a stance towards aesthetic taste which differentiates her from the rest others conception and ultimately grounds their experience of art.

Hamann’s attempt to develop a systematic aesthetics based on the Kantian transcendental project ended up bringing the aesthetic consciousness, similar to Merleau-Ponty’s The Primacy of Perception. Perception of art in an era when experience is the under girding factor of judging art, means that anything that has meaning-for-itself, or that perception is significant within itself. This grew to a simple and all-encompassing definition of the concept of perception as the response to stimulus, or as the adequate response to stimulus. It would still always remain a response to something as something, disassociated with any correspondence to the universal. This critique of pure perception on the basis of pragmatic experience is the modus operandi of aesthetic experience, in other words the Kantian edifice has been torn down and in its stead lies a fascination with aesthetic experience, albeit radically new modes and roles of art and of the artist.

Whatever is not immediately given to our perception is still enveloped by experience and perception – i.e. even what is closed to our understanding we ourselves see as limiting. And we must accommodate a shift in our understanding of the abstract spheres of artistic consciousness (aesthetic being) and (aesthetic experience) a la Heidegger. Our experience of the aesthetic itself is a mode of historical self-understanding, and understanding occurs always via understanding something other than the self by including the unity and integrity of the other. Since the work of art presents a world from which we are involved we come to understand (sublate) the discontinuity and atomism of isolated experiences in the continuity of our own experiences.

Since we have been unable to go past Kant’s subjective turn in our understandings of aesthetic formation, there is no way that we can encounter the truth of art – all truth to art is unfinished, and it is unfinished based on the opening of the two Heideggarian influenced spheres. There is no definitive knowledge of what lies in a work of art because answering both what lies on the ontological makeup of a piece of art and in the ontology of self-understanding. As it stands, however, art understands that it does not pretend to present a full completion of truth either aesthetically or in terms of the relation to self-understanding. Neither can we accept the incommensurable argument, that within the discontinuities itself lays the answer of truth.

The Ontology of the Work of Art:

The concept of play: founded by Aristotle, that whoever tries is the one who is tried in the game of human subjectivity, so the real player is the game itself, caught in the eternal flow of spirit. Each game has its own proper mode of spirit, which as Infinite Jest’s play on American tennis as a larger allegory for a return to an experimental mode of aesthetic art, an infinitely rich palette of modern life. The field of a game is structured far more by the dimension of the field within far more than what determines the structure of the field without.

First and foremost play is self-presentation. Similar to a religious act or ceremony, the play is not intended for the spectators, rather, play is intended for the entire community, as similar to soccer, play is not intended for the spectators, yet, play is intended for the entire audience in that heightened self-understanding. The player experiences the reality of the game as a reality that passes him.

Transformation into Structure and Total Mediation:

Human play in its true consummation is art, because it is now structured. What exists in the play of art – that has changed is the lasting and true. The pleasure of drama is the same in all games; it is the pleasure and joy of knowledge. The being of all play/art is always a self telos within itself. In the concept of play, reality is the untransformed. What we recognize in a piece of art is how true it is, i.e. what one recognizes in it and in oneself through it. This structure process begins with mimesis, and lives first in representation and may eternally live in representation – the known enters into recognition only when it is grasped in its essence, and especially important for structure of play, that recognition is not attached to any accidental aspects. So therefore imitation is a copy of the essence, for self-preservation is the true nature of play!

Gadamer’s thesis is that a being of art cannot be defined as an object of an aesthetic consciousness because the aesthetic attitude is more than it knows itself. It is part of the event of being that occurs in presentation, and belongs to play as play.

So therefore structure itself is also play despite this theoretical unity. The mimetic act brings into existence what the representation brings to the spectator; it acquires its proper being in being mediated. Standing at a third remove from the truth is an imitation of an imitation – Plato. Thus, the mediation that communicates the work is total.

Total mediation means that the medium is superseded. The work presents itself in it and through it. We have the advantage of interpreting the piece of work through time, because time adds to the identity of the piece of work by which it evolves it always stays for-itself in that all aspects that change around conform to it.

The Temporality of the Aesthetic:

Time has two versions in aesthetic terms, suprahistorical or timelessness time is that which sees the present as the fleeting moment and there is the second version of time, sacred existential time, which is in contradistinction to appearance time, or true time, which both interplay in dialectic.

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