Wholeness no longer a dirty word

The School of Athens (detail) Raphael, 1511

The term ‘aesthetics’ was first ascribed the burgeoning discipline in 1735 when the German student of philosophy Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten coined it in his master’s thesis to mean ‘epistêmê aisthetikê, the science of what is sensed and imagined’. (1)Paul Guyer, “18th Century German Aesthetic”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008). The first book published under its name was by the same philosopher, entitled Aesthetica (1750).

The term nevertheless underwent considerable refinement so that by the time GWF Hegel gave his lectures on Aesthetics at the Berlin University in 1823, 1826 and 1828-9, (2)T. M. Knox, “Translator’s Preface,” in Hegel’s Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1975), vi. he could clarify its ‘proper expression’ as the ‘Philosophy of Art’. (3)Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, trans. T. M. Knox, 2 vols., vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), p. 1.

Integral to Hegel’s aesthetics is the intersubjectivity of conceptual thought as recongised by Immanuel Kant.

While this may be so, well aware as we are of the limits of embodied knowledge, knowledge shaped by our singular perspective on life, how is it possible to go beyond the singularity of our perspective to gain an intersubjective or aperspectival view of art, of life, while our knowledge remains embodied?

We find an answer and an example in the very fact we are conscious of the singular ‘perspectivity of our knowledge’ — its subjectivity, its limitations. For as Paul Redding asks, ‘do we not understand that condition from a point of view free of the perspectivity?’. (4)Paul Redding, Continental Idealism: Leibniz to Nietzsche, Routledge, London, 2009, p. 58.

Conceptual thought — intrinsically connected to sense experience (embodied knowledge), not disconnected (disembodied knowledge) — enables intersubjectivity. As is often quoted of Kant,  ‘thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind’ (A51/B75) — where ‘content’ and ‘intuitions’ are sense experience. (5)Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, tr. Paul Guyer & Allen w. Wood, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1998, p. 193. Through intersubjectivity, the wholeness of a work of art can be perceived.

Wholeness is not, therefore, a dirty word. As Donald Judd writes in his survey essay of contemporary art entitled ‘Specific Objects’ published in 1965, ‘The thing as a whole, its quality as a whole, is what is interesting’. (6)Donald Judd, “Specific Objects,” in Complete Writings 1959-1975, New York University Press 1975, p. 187.

Few, however, are aware Donald Judd said this. For it qualifies something written six sentences earlier in the same paragraph—‘A work needs only to be interesting’ — a sentence condemned at the time and erroneously echoed in academic papers, even now, minus the qualification. Nevertheless what is interesting is the ‘thing as a whole, its quality as a whole’.

It is much for this reason, it would seem, Donald Judd said aesthetics had been irrelevant ‘until now’.

Yet as Donald Judd intimates, the notion of unity intrinsic to a perception of space in art reaches right back to Plato and Aristotle. As Paul Redding writes, ‘Platonism can be contrasted with Aristotelianism in as much as it identifies “unity” rather than “being” as the central concept from which all reasoning begins. “Platonism is … a “henology” (from the Greek to hen, the one) as opposed to an Aristotelian “ontology”’. (7)Paul Redding reiterates a point made by Dieter Henrich; Ibid, p. 57.

Thankfully, given the ancient depths of henology, the only thing one needs in order to engage with the wholeness of a work of art is one’s wits about oneself while in the moment.

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