- Hegel and Herder on Art, History, and Reason
The introduction of a historical perspective in aesthetics is usually traced back to Hegel's 1820 lectures on fine art. Given at the University of Berlin, these lectures were amongst Hegel's most successful and best attended.1 By then a recognized intellectual figure, Hegel sets out to salvage art from its subjectivization in Kantian and romantic aesthetics, but ends up declaring that art, considered in its highest vocation, is a thing of the past. This judgment on art—that its greatness is a thing of the past—follows from Hegel's attempt to combine a notion of art's historicity with a conception of its absolute essence. Hegel, however, was not the first to think systematically about the historicity of art. For this aspect of art—and, indeed, of reason too—was explored philosophically a good sixty years before Hegel's Berlin lectures by a young and aspiring student of Kant's, namely Johann Gottfried Herder. In a series of essays and fragments, Herder develops an advanced and elaborate alternative to Hegel's conception, a fundamentally non-essentialist approach to art, history, and reason.
Over the past twenty years or so, Hegel's attempt to combine an essentialist and an historicist approach to art has been revitalized, with increasing force and sophistication, by Arthur Danto.2 The attempts to rehabilitate Herder's aesthetics, however, have been few and far between.3 This is the aim of the present essay, which seeks to contrast the young Herder's non-essentialist understanding of the historicity of art with Hegel's essentialist views on the artwork's historicity, pleading for a rehabilitation of the former.4 I approach this task from three different directions. First, I offer a brief account of Herder's and Hegel's views on reason, history, and art. Second, I look closer at their conceptions of classical tragedy and sculpture, which, due to Winckelmann's studies, [End Page 17] were perceived at the time as the gateway to a historically sensitive conception of culture as such. Finally, I round off by looking at some of the hermeneutic implications of Herder's non-essentialist standpoint.
According to Hegel, a phenomenologically mature and accountable philosophy is distinguished by its readiness to reflect on its own, historical presuppositions. It must acknowledge the critical commitments of modern thinking, but also take into account how these commitments are the result of spirit's laborious journey through history. Only by combining the perspective of modernity with the resources of tradition may philosophy inhabit a place where systematicity and historicity concur. Reality may now be exhausted in the form of a speculative logic. This, according to Hegel, is the end of history, but as the end of history, it is also the dawn of a new era, that of free and self-determining spirit.
Hegel's notion of the end of history testifies to a formidable optimism about the power of critical thought. In modernity, Hegel claims, art and religion no longer emerge as adequate media of self-reflection. It is philosophy that has taken on this task. Considered from the standpoint of modernity, religion and art are no longer appropriate forms of expression; now only the conceptual optics of philosophy adequately reflects our deepest truths and values.5
Artistically speaking, this moment may well emerge as a loss. For even though Hegel never claims that art, as such, will no longer be produced,6 he reckons it will not be produced in the same spirit as before. No longer expressive of a shared, ethical and political commitment, art is not brought forth by necessity. Intellectually speaking, however, the end of art triggers a different response. Not only does the end of art represent another step towards the conceptual self-determination of spirit. It also follows that only when a phenomenon such as art has finally fulfilled its historical possibilities can it be brought to philosophical clarity about itself. Only after art can we know conceptually what art is. Aesthetics can only begin at the point when art, considered in its highest vocation, no longer holds a historical future.
As a young and...