Kant and Hegel: Aesthetics

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, oil on canvas, Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818, oil on canvas, Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany

The sublime in art is the attempt to express the infinite without finding in the realm of phenomena any object which proves itself fitting for this representation.

-Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The enlightenment of the 18th century was a period of radical idealism, a period in which science, intellectualism, skepticism  and reason began to shape every aspect of life, from religion and politics to technology and art. In the midst of this, two German idealists, Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, began to radically reexamine nature of art, beauty, taste, and genius, reshaping the philosophical field known as Aesthetics.

Kant and Hegel applied their philosophical structure to the study of art and beauty in their respective works The Critique of Judgment and Lectures on Aesthetics, covering topics such as sensory knowledge,  aesthetic judgement, universal taste , pleasure and displeasure in relation to the beautiful, and, perhaps most influentially, the sublime accomplishment of art.

For Kant, this concept of the sublime was the expression of something supernatural, something  that, being beyond the scope of human reason,  was an object deserving fear and reverence. lying outside the boundaries of limited human metaphysics, such art was necessarily the product of a faculty of genius, a unique talent for recognizing and expressing concepts that reside beyond words. For Hegel, the sublime was the sensual representation of the Absolute itself.  Hegelian idealism dictated that the highest accomplish art of was the realization of pure concepts in perfect conjunction with form, a feat he saw accomplished most perfectly in the Christian art of his day.

In the above image, Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, the feeling of the sublime is palpable, one cannot help but take in the unbelievable vastness and beauty of nature, and the human spirit willing to view it. This painting inspires, as Kant would put it, an appropriate sense of fear and trembling.


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