Connecting aesthetic experience with our experience of nature or with other cultural artifacts, Aesthetics as Phenomenology focuses on what art means for cognition, recognition, and affecthow art changes our everyday disposition or behavior. Günter Figal engages in a penetrating analysis of the moment at which, in our contemplation of a work of art, reaction and thought confront each other. For those trained in the visual arts and for more casual viewers, Figal unmasks art as a decentering experience that opens further possibilities for understanding our lives and our world.
About the Author
Günter Figal is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Freiburg in Breisgau, Germany. He is author of Objectivity: Philosophy and the Hermeneutical and editor of The Heidegger Reader (IUP, 2009).
Jerome Veith teaches at Seattle University.
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Aesthetics as Phenomenology
The Appearance of Things
By Gunter Figal, Jerome Veith
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2010 Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Co. KG Tübingen
All rights reserved.
The question that stands at the outset here is sometimes also a reply. In that case, "Why art?" means: Are there not more important themes for philosophy, themes that are more urgent with respect to the understanding of life or for one's orientation in action? When posed in such a way, the question need not be answered; one need not contradict the reply that it already embodies. It suffices to clarify the presupposition that informs it and to see that this presupposition is not at all evident. Philosophy, so the question insinuates, gleans its sense from some utility for life, however this utility is conceived. Philosophy is taken to be subject to the question, as Nietzsche puts it, of "the advantage and disadvantage for life." Yet there are philosophical clarifications that are not calculated toward effects and advantages—indeed, according to the traditional conviction that goes back to Plato and Aristotle, namely that philosophy is primarily theoretical, these clarifications are the most important. [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] means observing, and observing means looking and describing, without further intentions. Observation would be superfluous if what it disclosed were also accessible in something other than observation, as for instance in action.
Even everyday experience attests to the fact that observation is irreplaceable: In our daily life replete with action, there are insights that cannot be won through acting, but instead only in pausing and reflecting, which can only lead to results if they are not subsumed under a purpose. Contrary to acting, observation is not oriented toward aims. The more it corresponds to its essence, the less it is concerned with a result posited beforehand. Observation could only be goal-oriented if one knew ahead of time what one wanted to experience. Yet precisely that remains open; that is why one observes thoroughly and is absorbed in something. Observation is not concerned with an aim but with a matter. The sole aim of observation is that the observed matter come forward as clearly and distinctly as possible. Insofar as action is embedded in states of affairs, this is also true for its realm; the conditions of action—the knowledge of which is required for any adequate action—only have a bearing if one steps back from the situation of action and its demands. One usually only sees this objective side of action, or sees it more clearly, when one relinquishes the pursuit of a goal and attempts to clarify the situation in which one finds oneself—without partiality to one's own interests.
For an observational philosophy concerned with objectively oriented clarification, the question of art is no simple issue among others. It concerns philosophy itself. Art approaches the observational attitude, and thus philosophy, in a peculiar way. Art awakens observation; it even opens up the attitude essential to philosophy in prephilosophical life. If one has any sense for art at all, observation—even in the extended sense that includes listening and reading—arises as if on its own.
An indication of this might be that one tends to dedicate oneself to art outside of one's working hours. One can spend free time in worse ways than with music, painting, and literature. That the occupation with art is typically only possible in one's free time, but is nourished precisely in this time, speaks against the action and purpose-orientation of life as a whole. In dealing with art, one senses another side of life, a side that has meaning for itself and not in relation to action or purposes. The occupation with art is no mere distraction, for it demands concentration. It does not serve the purpose of recreation, insofar as the latter is determined by the aim of recuperating one's capacity for work. The occupation with art is not directed toward the care of one's own abilities, but instead toward artworks; it is not "relaxation," but an activity that is effortlessly intent and thus particularly animated. When one feels vivified by the occupation with an artwork, this results on its own accord, not from the aim of recreation. One has been elsewhere than in the quotidian, and this, it seems, is a complement—as if now life were more complete. One has experienced something that was lacking in the everyday, and now once again feels entirely and encompassingly alive. That which complements is that which allows something to be whole. Art cannot replace action or goal-directed research. But it has a power that, as it seems, reaches and leads beyond these.
If this is the case, then art is part of human life. The history of art supplies further evidence for this. Art exists in all cultures; cave paintings such as those of Altamira and Lascaux demonstrate it in the earliest cultures. Further, the fact that art is part of life is something immediately evident; one senses it as soon as one turns to artworks. How else are we to explain, for instance, the attractive pull that exhibitions of significant paintings exert? Exhibitions that prompt true pilgrimages are rarely experienced as mere sensations. Whoever travels there simply because it is a "must-see" is able to anticipate their disappointment: One just sees pictures. Yet whoever understands what it means to observe will return enriched. It is comparable to literature and the joy of reading, which cannot be forced by anything. It is comparable to music; the excitement for great interpreters—singers as well as instrumentalists and conductors—is an indication of this. It differs quite obviously from the fascination for athletic achievements, as the interpreters of artworks are not admired for their performance, but for the fact that they bring the works to fruition adequately and in particularly astonishing ways.
What speaks for art, therefore, is more than pleasure. One should rather speak of delight. Even the most serious of artworks, in all that they demand of their viewers, can exhilarate in such a deep way that dealing with them affects one's entire life-attunement. The experience of these works can even provide energy; one carries one's burdens more lightly, one feels newly adequate to the demands of life, if anything because one has experienced that there is something beyond these demands.
But there must be more involved. The interest in art is, in its essence, an interest in the variety of artworks. Each work is different and new; no work is simply an example of something general that could be called "art." One only looks or listens attentively, extensively, precisely, and repeatedly if there is something to be experienced that is only shown in this one work. Despite being bound to actual perception, artworks are not reducible to it. They have residual effects, engaging our reflection, and demanding a conceptually articulated account. Thus, the interest in art reveals a desire to understand, and it must be eminently important what artworks give us to understand. Why else would we turn, ever again, to a poem, a musical piece, or a painting?
That which is there to be understood in art is the work itself, and yet at the same time not just the work. In understanding an artwork, one understands something with it, in it, or through it. The understanding of artworks is not simply geared toward these alone, but discovers in them the possibility of also understanding other things. With respect to these other things, however, artworks are no mere means of understanding with the help of which one arrives somewhere and which, as soon as one arrives, one can relinquish. It seems that artworks mediate something that, through them, becomes accessible in a special and irreplaceable way. Every artwork mediates that which it alone can mediate. Otherwise, a novel like Tolstoy's War and Peace could be replaced with any other historical novel, or even by an arbitrary historical representation of Napoleon's campaign in Russia; a sociology of French bourgeois life would be as illuminating as Flaubert's Madame Bovary.
Yet this comparison and the competition it insinuates are alienating. Artworks can indeed be researched with a clarifying intention from a historical, sociological, psychological, or other angle, but they are not essentially historical or sociological sources, nor symptoms of social or psychological states. It is not to be denied that one can glean information from images, buildings, novels, poems, or musical pieces, but this has nothing to do with their character as artworks. To become involved with artworks is not to be informed of something, but to be touched in an originary way and displaced into a state of elemental openness: art provokes wonder—in all forms that wonder can take—from joy to irritation. If it is so, then art displaces one into that attitude that Aristotle described as the origin of philosophical observation. Art, like all astonishing things, is wondrous in its lack of self-evidence. With artworks, something is revealed that was not known without them. They displace one into wonder because they allow an ignorance to appear.
In the experience of art, this is an ignorance of a special sort. It has nothing to do with ignorance about states of affairs that one could learn about in a myriad of ways. With every work, one experiences something that one did not know before and that one could not anticipate in the way that it is experienceable in this work. An artwork cannot be "expected," and this not only in one's initial experience of it, but anew in every instance. One can think one knows an image; one has read a text several times or heard a musical piece countless times, and yet it will always again seem as if one encounters what is to be seen, read, or heard for the first time. Every experience that one has already had with the artwork thereby enters anew into the context of the present experience. It is as if, despite everything one already knows, one did not know the most important aspect about the work and needed to explore the work in an entirely new manner. But this ignorance—the suspension of all supposedly secure prior knowledge—is in turn rescinded by the work itself; it reveals, and does so anew each time. Art is insight. It is a relation to the states of affairs and things of the world, and aims to make these accessible in a way that is different from the manner that we are accustomed to: it makes them accessible in the work alone.
From the beginning, philosophy has viewed art, more specifically poetry, under the guise of insight. Philosophy's claim to knowledge was formulated in competition with poetry, and that only makes sense ifpoetry is either knowledge or at least counts as knowledge. Only then can poetry be shown to be insufficient in comparison to philosophy; only then can one argue whether poetry is truly knowledge, such that philosophy gains in profile through comparison with it. It is with this intention that Heraclitus speaks of "knowing-much" [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] that does not teach one to have reason. He names Hesiod, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Hekataios as those who know much; they are not knowers in the sense of knowing those structures and orders that Heraclitus articulates around the term [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Heraclitus claims that Homer deserves to be thrown out of the competitions and thrashed, presumably for the same reason.
What remains overbearing contempt in Heraclitus is developed much more soberly in Plato—though not without an ironic polemicism. Among other things, Plato criticizes the inability of poets to give accounts concerning that which they write about. They merely tell myths, stories, and in this way even the early natural philosophers were still poets who treat their readers or listeners as if they were children. To be sure, as the Apology attests, the poets bring forth much that is beautiful. Yet this does not occur through established knowledge [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], but by virtue of nature [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and in enthusiasm [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; poems are like the statements of soothsayers and oracle singers. Thus, almost all others speak better than poets themselves about that which they have brought forth.
There are relevant elaborations in the second, third, and tenth books of the Republic that remain similar in tendency but are more extensive and oriented more by poetry itself. There, works of poetry are determined as "illusions"—not because they are fundamentally false, but because they present something in such a way that one cannot inquire as to its true nature and composition. Works of poetry do not owe their existence to clear, generally identifiable knowledge. That is also why they cannot be matter-of-factly evident, but rather only suggestive;" if one does not scrutinize their problematic character, one takes them at face value and does not ask questions. The question concerning the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] of a matter, of its true determination, remains foreign to the poets. This question can therefore only be brought to bear on their works as if from the outside.
The Platonic determination of the poet and of poetry continues to have an effect. When Kant, in the Critique of Judgment, determines "fine art" as the "art of genius" and says of this genius that it is "the inborn disposition (ingenium) through which nature [gives] the rule to art," this is not far removed from the Socratic-Platonic characterization of the poet by means of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. With Kant, the divine power that works through the poet has simply been replaced with nature, yet not in the sense of a world that obeys laws and is therefore knowable by science. Rather, nature is here meant in the sense of the inaccessible, that which occurs on its own, and that which allows a talent to be present or not. Since the talent, "as an artist's inborn, productive capacity, belongs to nature," it is not a form of knowledge that could be clearly articulated and passed on. The material that a scientist like Newton compiled is, as Kant articulates, clearly structured according to rules and can be learned accordingly. Yet no poet, according to Kant, could "show how his ideas, rich in fancy and yet also in thought, arise and meet in his mind"; he does not know it himself, and thus "cannot teach it to anyone else."
The inaccessibility and unteachability of art, however, only count as a disadvantage if one takes an identifiable and thus teachable knowledge to be possible. Accordingly, any doubt concerning the possibility of such knowledge ushers in an appreciation of the poet and, finally, an identification of knowledge and poetry. If all knowledge arises from sources that remain opaque, then it has the character of poetry even if it is not "inspired." In this sense, Nietzsche took his task "to see science from the perspective of the artist, but to see art from the perspective of life"—for art is a reality of self-sustaining and increasing vitality. Within the philosopher, the "theoretical human" (116) whose archetype is Socrates, Nietzsche discovers the inhibited, indeed the corrupted artist. Whereas "in all productive humans the instinct [is] precisely the creative-affirmative power," in Socrates "the instinct [becomes] the critic, consciousness becomes the creator—a true monstrosity per defectum" Socrates' "logical drive" (90) in its "uninhibited sweep" evinces "a force of nature, the likes of which we only meet, to our shuddering surprise, in the greatest of instinctive powers" (91). In Socrates, there is a logical and therefore no longer recognizable ingenium; even the knowledge of philosophical and later of scientific theory, seemingly so clear and controlled, is a force of nature, inaccessible as an "instinct" and not transparent.
With his critique of Socrates, Nietzsche reverses the valuation established by Plato. If the author of the Republic wanted to demonstrate the superiority of philosophy and situate his philosophical hero in Homer's place so Nietzsche replaces the central figure of philosophy with that of the artist. And just as Plato redetermined myth (and poetry as such) under the sign of philosophy, so Nietzsche understands philosophy as a special case of poetry, such that there are no longer any boundaries between philosophy or science and art. If purported knowledge is, in truth, art, then every knower proves to be an artist. The knower, especially the philosopher, misjudges himself if he conceives of himself as an observer, that is, if he understands himself theoretically. What he takes to be observation is actually a bringing-forth, such that the philosopher merely thinks he is "placed as an observer and listener before the great play of sights and sounds that is life." As Nietzsche, describing this "delusion," continues, the knower calls "his nature a contemplative one and overlooks the fact that he himself is also the actual poet and poetizer of life": "We, the thinking-feeling ones, are those that really and evermore make something that is not yet there: the entire ever-growing world of estimations, colors, weights, perspectives, stepladders, affirmations and negations."
Excerpted from Aesthetics as Phenomenology by Gunter Figal, Jerome Veith. Copyright © 2010 Mohr Siebeck GmbH & Co. KG Tübingen. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents
Translator's Foreword, xi,
1. Art, Philosophically, 7,
2. Beauty, 42,
3. Art Forms, 97,
4. Nature, 140,
5. Space, 183,
Index of Names, 263,
Index of Subjects, 267,
Index of Terms, 273,
What People are Saying About This
Carefully wrought and consummately presented, Günter Figal promises a rehabilitation of aesthetics against philosophical approaches that would detach the significance of art from the question of beauty.