The intellectual effort of intertextuality operates as texts juxtapose in conversation. In the service of post-structuralism, this essay is a brief reflection on three books: Bowie’s Aesthetics and Subjectivity, Karl Marx’s Capital, and Nietzsche’s Gay Science. Conceived as a mediated historical survey of German philosophers from Kant to Nietzsche, Bowie’s text is contemporary. My interpretation will fall into Bowie’s modern framework, with specific primary works of Marx and Nietzsche cross-examined. Assumptions and implications will fashion an understanding of subjective aesthetics, tracing the Romantic dialogical exchanges that tie these thinkers together. Rationalist philosophy, represented by Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, holds that definite objective knowledge is possible through innate mental ideas and reason. Empiricist philosophy, represented by Locke, Berkeley, and Hume, maintains that knowledge is uncertain, subjective, and available only through sensual response to an objective external reality.
Kant attempted a fusion of these traditions with his Transcendental Idealist philosophy. He was interested in establishing a universal subjective mental structure making possible any experience. This positioned sensation as passive and conception as active. Experience synthesizes by grasping sensations with concepts. Some of these concepts are transcendental categories presupposed by experience. Thus, a harmony must be operative between the external objective world (nature) and the subjective but partially universal mind. Nevertheless, things unknowable in themselves (noumena) inexplicably lurk behind appearances (phenomena).
While humankind harbors an insatiable desire for continuous knowledge development, the limits of potential comprehension are intellectually debated. German Idealism, broadly defined as a reactionary development to Kant, stipulates that thoughts or ideas comprise reality thus casting aspersions on an external independent actuality. Thus, the sole thing actually knowable is consciousness, or the contents of consciousness. Depending on the particular flavor of Idealism practiced (Subjective, Transcendental, Objective, Absolute, etc.), external reality ranges from uncertain to imaginary. Properties ascribe to objects depend only on perceiving subject appearance, not on something objects possess in themselves apart from experience. The question of what actually exists autonomous to the mind is accordingly unintelligible for Idealism.
The subject/object relationship ontologically is explained either as dualistic or monistic conceptions of reality. Monism recognizes a range of existing things explainable in terms of a single reality or substance. In this view, all existing things generate from a source that is distinct from them, a sole unifying essence. Idealism places the unifying essence in internal consciousness. Although this would seem to be subjective, it can be universal, eternal, and thus objective. Materialism places this unifying essence in external matter. Although this would seem to be objective, it can be sensually incomplete, contingent, and thus subjective. Dualism posits eternal binary opposition, meaning reality is a system that contains two essential parts. Specifically this view claims that subjective mind and objective matter are irreducible and coexist. Epistemology is dualistic. Knowledge only occurs in consciousness (subject) but must be about something (object). For knowledge to exist at all requires a subject (observer) that knows about separate and distinct external objects (observed) that are knowable. In modern convention, the words objectivity and its antonym subjectivity relate to an aware experiencing subject and a perceived or unperceived exterior object. As an entity that exists independent of an associated subjective perception, the external object must be real regardless of the perceiving subject’s involvement. “The very beginning of modern aesthetics therefore raises the question of the truth which may be attached to individual perceptions” (Bowie 6). Hence, objectivity and subjectivity are necessarily associated with concepts of consistency, reality, and truth. Is reality relatively finite, and/or is truth universally eternal? Bowie contextualizes the contemporary subject/object dialogue by resuscitating the currency of Romantic thought. “It is very clear that the existing stories in the English-speaking world about German Idealism, Romanticism and hermeneutics are still in need of substantial revision” (Bowie 14). This correction involves the subject’s ability to manipulate the objective world through the application of reason. “The modern era is therefore characterized by the subject’s domination of the object world which is achieved by reducing it to general concepts and by manipulating it technologically” (Bowie 8). Nevertheless, one fundamental tenant of Romanticism is its rejection of rationality. Bowie points out that contemporary understanding of subjectivity typically engages Kant, Hegel and Nietzsche, omitting other concurrent philosophers. The Romantic ideas of Schelling, Schleiermacher, Schlegel and Novalis “rarely appear in a serious form in these debates. However, philosophers like these, for whom aesthetics is a central concern, often advanced arguments as to why reason cannot ground itself in subjectivity that are closely related to contemporary arguments” (Bowie 8).
Marx supports the importance of the subject/object problem with his Hegelian dialectic oriented to materialism. This form of philosophical monism insists on matter as the essential substance in existence. Thus all phenomena, including consciousness, result from material exchanges. “A commodity is, in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another” (Marx 26). For Marx the subsistence requirements of life, and how society organizes these primary needs, controls subjectivity. In this relationship, industrialism and economic growth interfere with personal liberty, and the underprivileged possess great virtue. With wide-ranging disdain for commercialism and capitalist practices, Marx stipulates human life be best experienced when individuals rely on the produce of their own creative labor. However, when “the laborer consumes his disposable time for himself, he robs the capitalist” (Marx 160). “This tension between the cognitive and the aesthetic relation to the object plays a vital role in the culture of modern capitalism” (Bowie 61). An imperative attitude of an inclusive Romantic Movement is subjective instincts revolting against restrictive social bonds. Added to this is the romantic idea that a return to nature is an advantageous path to subjective harmony.
Nietzsche attempted to reposition subjective vitality, not merely as coherent judgment, but as the sensitive, acting, living individual. Thus, Nietzsche is a visionary precursor to the modern philosophical movements of existentialism and postmodernism. Nevertheless, even if he denied it, Nietzsche expresses Romantic thought in reaction to unemotional rationalism, exalting vigorous and passionate aspirations. Like Marx, he lamented an increasingly complex regimented society, draining us of hope and life. He therefore embraced the primacy of the natural world with a passionate aesthetic experience. This he punctuated by disorientation and confusion in an apparently meaningless absurd world. To this pointless existence, art has the potential to provide meaning and thus overcome nihilism. “Every art, every philosophy can be considered a cure and aid in the service of growing, struggling life” (Nietzsche 234). A reassertion of solitary nature, by casting off societal restraints, imagination becomes a fertile ecstasy of independence. “We possess art lest we perish of the truth” (Nietzsche xix). More inclusive than reason, imagination becomes the mediating and unifying power, with art elevated to human’s highest expression.
Persistent searching for certainty and organization in an ambiguous and confused existence shows the way to self-alienation. “One limit encountered by the pursuit of objectivity appears when it turns back on the self and tries to encompass subjectivity in its conception of the real. The recalcitrance of this material to objective understanding requires both a modification of the form of objectivity and a recognition that it cannot by itself provide a complete picture of the world, or a complete stance toward it” (Bowie 12). Clinging to fragments of coherence, a nebulous boundary must be established between one’s self and everything else. The recognition of the position of this tenuous frontier forces the formulation of self-identity. Yet, the observer cannot become the object observed, but rather must be what is but is not. Perpetually positioned outside of things, humans seem unable to penetrate into their inner nature. We are structurally restricted to sensation, perception, and cognition when seeking objective knowledge. Thus advancing beyond phenomenon is near impossible. The only potential mechanism of knowing what things-are-in-themselves is through creative imagination and its sibling intuition, which is pre-aware imagination.
Romanticism expresses contempt for conventional restrictions, where complacency and conformity fuel belief in a certain truth alleviating the subject from further inquisition, permitting adequate functionality in a world of appearance. At variance with a phenomena noumena divergence, Romantics expand on Kant’s strict delineation between the known and the unknowable. Situating nature as the primary fact and force, Romanticism refines articulation of Absolute Idealism. Rejecting reason while privileging emotional responsiveness, Fichte desired to reconcile Kantian duality by positing an absolute consciousness systematically unifying a multiplicity of experience, “to give the subject itself the ‘unconditioned’ role in determining how nature is to be understood” (Bowie 27). As this unity manifests itself in human consciousness, the harmony of mind and nature stimulates aesthetic contemplation. Promoting Kantian-Fichtean Romanticism, Schelling further eliminates discontinuity between the subjective mind and an objective nature by seeing “art as the ‘organ of philosophy,’ precisely because it is supposed to make the highest point of philosophy available to intuition” (Bowie 39). For Schelling the corridor of absolute idealism, in due course, guides art to where human consciousness finds integrated expression in sensuous form. In this process, imagination fuels exploration of the unknowable unfolding in aesthetic experience.
As I have established, the nature of the human condition relative to reality remains a key philosophical problem. A constant point of artistic contention is the relationship of subjectivity versus objectivity. This quandary interrogates an eternal unknown, staunchly refusing to resolve what is real/true. “Unknown to folks, yet useful to the crowd, I drift along my way, now sun, now cloud and always I'm above this crowd!” (Nietzsche 20). The interpretation and understanding of human aesthetic and intellectual work seeks to ascribe meaning to the essence of these modalities through unification, as an inner visual life confronts its existential veracity. The insistence on the sovereignty of imagination eventually culminates in a contemporary art authentically seeking answers.
Bowie, Andrew. Aesthetics and Subjectivity: From Kant to Nietzsche. Manchester [u.a.: Manchester University Press, 2003. Print.
Marx, Karl, and Ben Fowkes. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy Volume 1. New York: Penguin Books in association with New Left Review, 1990. Print.
Williams, Bernard A. O, and Josefine Nauckhoff. Nietzsche: The Gay Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.