Philosophy and Literature 28.1 (2004) 218-220
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In some ways, aesthetic theory has become a thing of the past. With the exception of a kind of fascination with works such as T. W. Adorno's Aesthetic Theory, aesthetics, as a project or tradition, has surrendered its once monolithic and grandiose position as the philosophical contemplation of art and the notion of artistic beauty to more diminutive fields such as literary theory, poetics, and cultural studies. In some ways, this is due to the very function of aesthetics: the philosophical investigation not simply of what is beautiful, but the formulation of prescriptive ideas about works of art and the judgment them according to these prescriptive ideas. This, in turn, has been looked upon with a certain degree of scorn with the rise of a more pluralistic art world, and the bold denial that art needs the guidance of philosophy let alone have any prescriptive function or be able to be classified as "good" or "bad."
However, Kai Hammermeister's The German Aesthetic Tradition takes a very different view. A bold and difficult project, Hammermeister traces the complex and often abstruse contours of German aesthetic philosophy from its inception with Baumgarten in the eighteenth century through Adorno in the twentieth. In the process, he not only provides us with an excellent historical-philosophical account of the development of German aesthetic philosophy, he also implicitly argues for the relevance of aesthetics as a way not only of comprehending art, but of understanding the cohesive links between art, society, culture, and philosophy.
The German aesthetic tradition, as Hammermeister refers to it, was a prolonged intellectual argumentation with classical conceptions of art and beauty inherited from classical Greek thought during the eighteenth century. Classical aesthetics was dominated by two opposing conceptions of art and its function. For Plato, art mirrored the outside world (mimesis) and the judgement of good works of art was based on how well this mirroring of the objective world was carried out. Aristotle's idea was that art served a purgatory function (katharsis), cleansing the emotions of the individual through the identification of the observer with the work of art. All of the thinkers in the German tradition [End Page 218] wrestle with this dual conception of art, in some form privileging one over the other—or, more often than not, combining them and extending their explanatory reach. But as in any tradition, they also struggle with the ideas and philosophies of previous thinkers within the tradition itself, making Hammermeister's task more complex. Yet it is one that he handles with adroitness and precision.
The book's overarching argument and structure is triadic. Hammermeister sees the eighteenth century through German Idealism and Romanticism as articulating a set of different paradigms for interpreting art. These are subsequently attacked in post-Hegelian philosophy, and are then revived in different ways in the twentieth century as a reaction to Nietzsche's aestheticization of philosophy. Two paradigms emerge as central for the subsequent unfolding of the tradition. First, there is Immanuel Kant's conception of art as a wholly separate from epistemology and from morality. For Kant, the work of art is centered in the experience of the subject and, in terms of form, exists outside its social context. This Hammermeister calls the "first strong paradigm of aesthetics" (p. 40). Next, there is the position of Friedrich Schiller who sees a connection between the work of art and culture, thought, and morality. Schiller writes that, "the culture of beauty demonstrates the freedom of man to turn himself into whatever being he envisions while remaining under the law of morality" (p. 57). For Schiller, there exists a kind of spillover effect of art into other domains of human thought and action—specifically in morality and politics—and this represents a crucial deviation from Kant's paradigm, and another tendency within the tradition of German aesthetics; that is, the aestheticization of other domains of human existence.
Schelling and Hegel represent two other...