Notes on Æsthetics

[The following notes are taken from Joseph J. Kockelmans, Heidegger on Art and Art Works, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Dordrecht, 1985. My own additions are in square brackets. See also this essay.]


The first thing to remember is that “Since for Kant there is no essential difference between a judgment of taste concerned with nature and that concerned with works of art, the Critique of Judgment cannot be called a philosophy of art.”

Kant notes that:

  1. “Judgments of taste, unlike theoretical judgments, do not subsume a representation under a concept, but merely state a relation between a representation and a special ’disinterested“ satisfaction which is independent of all desire and personal taste.
  2. “...although judgments of taste are always singular in form... they nevertheless lay claim to universal acceptance; in this they differ thus from a report on mere sensuous pleasure... Yet they do not claim to be supportable by universally acceptable reasons.”
  3. “...æsthetic satisfaction is evoked by an object that is purposeful in its form, although it appears not to have any purpose beyond itself; it is purposiveness without purpose.”
  4. “...if I find myself being moved by a beautiful object, I cannot claim that all other human beings will be equally moved by this object, but I can legitimately claim that they ought to have the same satisfaction as I have.”
When Kant says that an æsthetic response is a ‘delight devoid of all interest’ he does not mean (pace Schopenhauer) that the will is out of action, but that this delight is not in light of something else: “...the beautiful for Kant is that which never can be considered in function of something else (at least as long as it is taken as the beautiful)... When all such interest is suppressed, the object comes to the fore as pure object. Such coming forth into appearance is the beautiful.”

“Thus art is for Kant the beautiful presentation of some form, and through it, the presentation of an æsthetic idea which lies beyond the realm of the concepts and the categories. Through this beautiful presentation of an æsthetic idea the artist infinitely expands a given concept and, thus, encourages the free play of our mental faculties. This implies that art really lies beyond the realm of reason and that the beautiful is conceptually incomprehensible.”

“Every art necessarily presupposes rules by means of which a product, if it is to be artistic, is represented as possible. But in the case of the beautiful arts these rules cannot have a concept as their determining ground... Nature gives the rule to art by means of a special disposition of the artist. The innate mental disposition through which Nature gives the rule of art is genius.”


For Hegel, “In the fine arts there is not mere appearance, but a very special kind of appearance in which art gives actuality to what is inherently true.”

The universal need for art is “man‘s rational need to lift the inner and outer world into his spiritual consciousness as an object in which he recognizes again his own self.”

“...the artistic apprehension consitutes the middle between immediate sensuousness and ideal thought” – namely “the sensuous is used merely as a means to proceed to the spiritual” – so that in art, “sensuousness is spiritualized.” Hegel also refers to the common doctrine of creative genius.

“...the Idea as the beauty of art is [not the Idea as such, but] the Idea which is individual reality.”

It is in this light that one should interpret Hegel‘s statement that there are three basic art forms that have developed over time. Hegel presents the following dialectic:

  1. The symbolic form, in which one “takes shapes of natural things which one then relates to the Idea because of the fact that these objects have a quality by which they indeed can present a universal meaning. [For example,] one paints a lion and claims that strength is meant.” The symbolic form is imperfect because “1) in it the Idea is presented as indeterminate or as only abstractly determined, and thus 2) the correspondence between meaning and shape is defective.”
  2. The classical form, which is Greek, achieves a complete harmony between Idea and sensuous shape “by choosing as its shape which the idea as spiritual is to assume, the human form... [where] first the shape is purified... then, to guarantee the proper non-formal correspondence between content and shape, the content itself must be of such a kind that it can express itself completely in the natural human form... the spirit is here at once determined as particular and human, i.e., not as absolute and eternal.” This is the defect of classical art.
  3. The romantic form, which is essentially Christian, “differentiates and opposes the two again... the subject matter of art is free, concrete spirituality... [art] must work for inner depth, for reflective emotion, for feeling which, as spiritual, strives for freedom in itself, and seeks and finds its reconciliation only in the inner spirit... As in symbolic art, the sensuous externality of shape is presented here as something inessential and transient.” The essential difference from the symbolic form is that “the Idea which in symbolic art itself was presented as indeterminate... has now to appear perfected in itself as spirit and heart.”
To summarize, “...these three main forms of art consist in the striving, the attainment, and the overcoming of the Ideal as the true Idea of beauty.”


According to Heidegger, Nietzsche assets that:
  1. Art is the most perspicuous and familiar configuration of the will-to-power.
  2. Art must be grasped in terms of the artist.
  3. Art is the basic occurrence of all the beings; to the extent that they are, the beings are self-creating.
  4. Art is the distinctive countermovement to nihilism.
  5. Art is worth more than ‘the truth.’
The last because art is in fact the privileged configuration of the will-to-power. Heidegger believes that the first two statements can be grounded, whereas the others cannot.

But Nietzsche also claims that “art can be properly understood only by means of physiology,” namely in terms of rapture, “that state of feeling in man that corresponds to the production and the enjoyment of the beautiful.”

Heidegger would say that this conception of rapture is to be understood from the perspective, not of biology or psychology, but ontologically, in terms of what is referred to in Being and Time as Befindlichkeit, ‘primordial mood’; and rapture is defined in terms of intersubjectivity inasmuch as “rapture implies the capacity to extend beyond oneself to all beings in a relation in which these beings are experienced as being more fully in being than would have been the case without this feeling.”

“...we can call beautiful whatever is in correspondence with what we demand of ourselves, and this demanding, in turn, is measured by what we take ourselves to be, what in truth we are able to do, and what we dare as our extreme challenge. The beautiful for Nietszche is thus what determines us, or behavior, our capabilities, to the degree that we can ascend beyond ourselves.” This ascent occurs in rapture.

Nietszche does not oppose form to content, but rather “the comportment of the artist to form is nothing but love of form for its own sake” so that “form... is the only true content of a work... the essence of art can most certainly not be sought in a theory that must appeal to some idea concerning a surplus of meaning which the work never makes present but merely refers to.” [This notion is also central to Heidegger’s conception of the art work.]


Here, in opposition to Hegel’s denial that art is the art of genius, “the concept of genius began to occupy the central position in reflections on art.”.

The neo-Kantian term Erlebnis refers to “the immediate experience of something which is though to be of lasting importance and is in need of interpretation and communication... If something is presented in an Erlebnis, its meaning is presented as one significant whole... [This meaning] can never be fully exhausted by what can be conceptually grasped as its content and by what one can thus say about it.”

Note that this contradicts conceptions of art that prevailed in other ages. In fact, an important implication of this view is that “once æsthetic consciousness has become independent, it is no longer permitted any criterion outside itself... By disregarding everything in which the art work is rooted, i.e. the world in which it originated andthe religious and cultural function which gave it its original significance, the work itself becomes visible as a pure work of art.”


Heidegger, by contrast, conceives of the work of art as inherently belonging to a world; and “the concept of genius is no longer necessay to account for the art work.”

“ is an inherent element in the effort on the part of man to come to genuine self-understanding... art works reveal to us what and how beings are.”

“Each art work opens its own world... A world opens itself, the earth shelters and closes; both are present in the art work. Furthermore, the work does not refer to something else as a sign or a symbol does, but it presents itself in its own Being and invites the beholder to dwell and while with it.”

The art work “gives the earth (materials, color, sound, words) the chance to be present as what it really is. As long as the earth is used for something, it is not present as what it truly is.”

“The truth which the work of art reveals in this way is a finite truth... [it] does not consist in a meaning which lies in the open in an articulated form, but in a meaning which is fathomless and deep. In its essence it is the strife between world and earth, between rising and sheltering.”

Note that “in order for truth to come-to-pass in a work of art, conservation is as essential as invention.” since the fact that truth is at work in the work of art implies the conserver who is “startled and whiles in the openness that pervades the art work.”

[In reading this, one has to bear in mind that the modes of being of both works of art and objects in Nature are not well accounted for in Being and Time; in particular, neither can be regarded as ‘equipment.’

One must also remember that Heidegger’s notion of ‘truth’ is as something ontologically prior to ‘correspondence with reality’; in this context ‘truth’ means aletheia, to be translated as non-concealment, the condition-of-possibility of correspondence, understanding or interpretation.

One might summarize by stating that a work of art is defined to be a man-made thing which embodies, in a specific and concrete case, the tension between interpretation (‘world’) and materials (‘earth’) so that the encounter with the work of art brings forth, in a concrete case, our ability to interpret the work, and at the same time its resistance to interpretation; and (crucially) this expresses the nature of self-interpretation, the potential for which is the defining characteristic of Dasein. See also this essay by Joseph Goguen for a broader context.]


[One of Heidegger’s examples was a painting of Van Gogh’s of a pair of old shoes, which Heidegger asserts expresses the truth of the way of being of the peasant. Based on a correspondence with Heidegger, Meyer Schapiro later argued convincingly that the pair of shoes depicted belonged, in fact, to Van Gogh himself. In “Restitutions”, published in The Truth in Painting, Derrida addresses Schapiro’s criticism of Heidegger’s article.

Following Heidegger, Derrida actually states that “it is not the truth of a relationship (of adequation or attribution) between such-and-such a product and such-and-such an owner... art as ‘putting to work of truth’ is neither an ‘imitation’ nor a ‘description’ copying the ‘real,’ nor a ‘reproduction,’ whether it represents a singular thing or a general essence.”

See also this essay.]

Avenues to explore

[First, note that Heidegger’s conception of art is not confined to representational art but extends not just to music, poetry and architecture but also to abstract art, conceptual art and so on; this should be spelled out.

Second, use this theoretical framework to elaborate on Juliana Engberg’s remark (on hearing that Russell Ferguson was becoming a curator at MoCA) that frequently writers who became curators had difficulty grasping the materiality of the work of art in their curatorial practice.

Third, as recent debates about beauty might oppose a naïve (neo-)Kantianism to alternative, more ‘theory-based’ or ‘political’ conceptions of art, it might be interesting to see where Heidegger’s views fit into these debates.

Fourth, given the probable fact that Heidegger was influenced by Taoism and Zen Buddhism, it would be interesting to explore the relationship between Heidegger’s conception of the work of art and Eastern approaches to æsthetics.

For a discussion of Heidegger, Dada and Surrealism, see this essay.]