Gadamer the relevance of the beautiful and other essays

As a symbolic host, the artwork holds that which refers beyond itself within itself. What binds us to a tradition, according to Gadamer, is not a misplaced conservatism but the questions a canon or body of work asks of us. It arises because of the way Gadamer establishes individual and collective learning on the acquisition of accrued experiences Bildung and practices, rather than upon any methodological norm. His argument exposes the Enlightenment prejudice against prejudice. The liberating and universalising aspects of reason tend to marginalise and chastise both the culturally different and the historically particular as divisive and irrational.

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Gadamer contends, however, that such an unqualified hypostasisation of reason and its methods has the unfortunate consequence of condemning as methodologically groundless the very valuations that ordinary linguistic and experiential practices are based on. Gadamer is not unsympathetic to Nietzsche, who rejects the claim that humanity is shaped by external necessity.

The relevance of the beautiful: Gadamer on art and play | Visual Art Research

Our existence within the world and our place within it is, metaphysically speaking, utterly contingent. If there is no metaphysical necessity that governs human practices, why should we even ask for a methodological grounding, when language has neither required nor functioned with such a license? Like Wilhelm Dilthey before him, Gadamer insists that nothing justifies and gives meaning to life other than life itself. This is not the invocation of nihilism, for life does not occur in a vacuum.

Creatures such as humans, which have no pre-determined essence, only survive by both remembering what has worked well within a practice and by constantly testing it against contemporary needs and circumstances. There is a constant tension between acquired experience and the need to stabilise its lessons and the need to question and thereby destabilise the tried and the tested. All expressive practices depend upon an inheritance of insight and valuation.

They are dependent upon accrued learning and experience.

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In response to such scepticism, it must be acknowledged that inherited practices can, logically speaking, have negative entailments. However, a commitment to tradition, is not a commitment to remaining the same, and nor is it indicative of a wilful refusal to confront the negative entailments within what is transmitted historically. Traditions which are incapable of changing risk becoming outmoded. Traditions are not founded upon core and fixed identities. As vibrant religious and artistic traditions demonstrate, those which are in constant debate over aim and direction often prove engaging and influential.

Traditions capable of subjecting their self-understanding to critique constitute continuities of conflict. The importance of received understanding for Gadamer is not its historical provenance but how it opens us towards and engages us with issues in a community of debate. The project is implausible since the range and depth of pre-understanding is so extensive as to be untheorisable.

1. Art as Interlocutor

To condemn pre-understanding as unjustifiable because it cannot be methodologically grounded is highly dangerous as it devalues those very insights upon which our initial world-orientation depends. It is not that these insights are instrinsically valuable but that they are essential staging posts in the journeys of understanding they enable. It is the continuous debate and dialogue over practice that enables participants to move on, widen and transform acquired experience.

What a tradition transmits from age to age are questions, problems and issues.


The importance of canonic works is not that they are peerless exemplars of an idiom or style but rather that they raise issues and difficulties in an exemplary way. Traditions can check their self-understanding against their own historical projections. A commitment to tradition is not a commitment to an academic antiquarianism. It is, essentially, a commitment to a field of debate.

It has been argued against Gadamer that his revaluation of tradition does not really bring its content to a point of critical reflection. He acknowledges that like any other temporal phenomenon, not all of its vistas can be adequately thematised or articulated. This does not mean, however, that tradition is beyond critical appraisal. Traditions can, as Pannenberg argues, check their normative assumptions against their self-projections. It does not allow for those radical intrusions or revolutionary interjections which alter the perceptual paradigm of an age.

One must address an absence, fulfil an unseen possibility or a lack, within the other. Cubism, for example, implies a visual orientation quite different from realism, but both idioms belong to a common tradition in that they strive to show us something of the real. Without a degree of continuity with tradition, any radical emergence would have no bearing upon the received and thereby lack the ability to call into question received notions and understanding. It is a conception which is in part modernistic: tradition is presented as being in constant debate with itself.

Its renewal demands change and transformation. Furthermore, a virtue of this dialogical conception of tradition is that it is not culturally specific. Because its main focus is on the subject-matters which different cultural practices address, it offers a model of cognitive engagement that can operate between distinct traditions rather than in just any one. On the one hand, Gadamer stalwartly defends the autonomy of the artwork and, on the other, despite his resistance to any subsumption of art within philosophy, he insists that aesthetics should be absorbed within hermeneutics, which is for the most part understood as a theoretical enterprise.

The Relevance of the Beautiful and Other Essays

This tension replicates aspects of the so-called hermeneutic circle. Conversely, general structures are only intelligible in terms of particular exemplifying utterances. The artwork is initially presented in its singularity. But then, the particular is illuminated by being brought under a subject-matter.

To engage with artworks discursively is to bring generalisations about a work to bear, placing it in a wider context of associations. The movement to the wider level of generalisation also returns the spectator to the particular, since generalisation enables an understanding of what is singular about a work by locating it within a broader background. It recognises that the cognitive dimension of aesthetic experience is like all linguistic experience both centrifugal and centripetal in nature.

When a work addresses us its impact is centrifugal: it upsets and transforms what we customarily recognise. It awakens us to the hermeneutical sublime, to what lies beyond but nevertheless shapes our normal range of understanding. Yet this estranging moment initiates a centripetal return, a homecoming. Yet the question remains: is the passage from the immediacy of the given artwork to theoretical contemplations about its subject matter not an instance of moving from the particular givenness of a work to a more abstract level of reflection about its subject-matter?

Does not the contemplative movement away from the work betray its particularity and suggest that the sense of a work lies beyond it, in its concept? Were Gadamer to have fallen into this impasse, an idealist and representationalist account of art would be forced upon him. The vehemence of his resistance to these stances suggests that something other than a simple shift from the particular immediacy of a work to a theoretical contemplation of its content must be at play. The accusation of inconsistency requires the assumption that the aesthetic experience of a work on the one hand and its contemplation on the other, are separable.

Experience endeavours to bring itself into words. These words will by virtue of their semantic associations place the experience in a wider context the centrifugal and at the same time these words will because of their poetic capacity for singularity make the experience clearer and more distinct.

This suggests that Gadamer is not applying a hermeneutic method to aesthetic experience but seeking to expose the hermeneutical movement from part to whole within aesthetic experience. In other words, the claim that aesthetics should be taken up within hermeneutics is not an attempt to reduce aesthetics to another idiom. It announces an endeavour to articulate the hermeneutic dynamic of aesthetic experience itself. Let us briefly recapitulate the argument. Undoubtedly, the weight of argument is on the latter.

In other words, Gadamer switches the status of autonomy from the sensible irreducibility of a work to its hermeneutic autonomy. This entails the argument that a work which challenges our outlook does so because it is enigmatic by nature: it gives rise to difficulties of meaning and interpretation which cannot be explained away by a more fundamental level of understanding. The autonomous work that stands in itself is a work that both presents a meaning and at the same time holds something back. It is in other words always pointing beyond itself but within itself.

However, as has been argued, the transcendent dimensions of meaning which a work speculatively invokes are not outside the work but immanent within it. In other words, we do not need a special hermeneutic method to access the withheld but just a deeper, more attentive contemplative acquaintance. When Gadamer speaks of being attentive to what an artwork says, of discerning its enigmatic quality and of becoming aware of its speculative resonances, he is indeed speaking in a hermeneutical idiom, but this is most clearly not a case of Gadamer submitting aesthetic experience to an externally derived theory.

To the contrary, Gadamer is trying to draw out the hermeneutical dynamics of aesthetic experience itself.

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  • The relevance of the beautiful: Gadamer on art and play.
  • Thus the tension between the immediacy of experience and reflection upon the content of that experience is not a tension between experience on the one hand and theory on the other. It is a tension within aesthetic experience between what an artwork invokes of its subject-matter and how what is invoked changes the character of that which invokes it. What hermeneutical reflection reveals of aesthetic experience is nothing extraneous to such experience but a further disclosure of what is held within it.

    To conclude, if aesthetic experience is hermeneutical in that artworks speculatively illuminate meanings beyond what is immediately disclosed, hermeneutical experience should equally be taken up by aesthetics in that subject-matters only manifest their presence in the singular and particular.

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    • Two Gadamer bibliographies are worthy of note. Gadamer, Hans-Georg Heidegger, Martin hermeneutics phenomenology. His key claims are: Aesthetics is not the study of specific types of subjective pleasures derived from art. It is a study of what objectively informs our subjective awareness of art. Hermeneutical aesthetics seeks to break through the pleasurable distractions of aesthetic consciousness in order to disclose the cultural and linguistic realities that manifest themselves within it.

      Hermeneutical aesthetics presupposes phenomenological involvement with the subject matters of art rather than disinterested detachment. Hermeneutical aesthetics regards aesthetic appearance not as a distraction from the real but as the vehicle through which real subject matters reveal themselves. It overturns the notion that artworks are at one remove from reality. Hermeneutical aesthetics is dialogical in character. The end of hermeneutical aesthetics is not to arrive at a concept of art but to deepen our experience of art.

      In hermeneutical aesthetics, theory is deployed to deepen contemplation of artworks rather than to categorise their nature. It attributes an ethical significance to art as being able to reveal the limitations of fixed cultural expectancy and to open the spectator towards the other and the different. In this entry, we discuss the leading arguments which inform these contentions. Art as Interlocutor 2. The Contemporaneous and Art Experience 4. Play 5. The Festival 6. The Symbol 7. Presentation, Representation and Appearance 8.

      The Issue in Question 9. Art and Language Tradition The Contemporaneous and Art Experience Of all things that speak to us, it is the artwork that does so most directly PH The Festival Conventional accounts of aesthetic experience stress its intense and individuating nature Erlebniss.