The Place of Art in the Phenomenology

Sven-Olov Wallenstein

Södertörn University College


In Hegel’s many varying statements on art, beginning with the earliest texts, moving through the Phenomenology and up through the last lectures on aesthetics, art appears to hold two positions. On the one hand, it is an object of analysis, and its role is circumscribed within the logic of a historical narrative that treats it in terms of its capacity to provide us with an adequate presentation of the movement of the concept. In the Phenomenology, art thus gradually emerges from out of its intertwining with religion until it reaches the state of “absolute art”—and this is where it ends, in Greek comedy and a momentary state of happiness, both unprecedented and without sequel, where man feels completely at home in the world, but at the price of his own substance. In this, the Phenomenology can be taken to already prefigure the later theses on art that hold it to be a “thing of the past,” something that must be superseded by philosophy as an adequate way of grasping the concept in the medium of thought itself.

On the other hand, artworks often seem to function as what we could call “operators.” In this respect, they operate as models for thought that appear at strategically located junctures in the text, halfway between conceptual articulations, which as such would be indispensable, and illustrations, which would be merely sensuous and particular representations of properly conceptual structures. Drawing mainly on examples from the Phenomenology, I will argue that such use of art as a philosophical tool, which in fact draws Hegel close to some of Schelling’s ideas about art as an “organon,” while not simply contradicting the theses on art as a thing of the past with respect to its “highest aim,” nevertheless opens up the possibility of a different type of exchange between art and philosophy that constitutes one of the most vital aspects of the Hegelian heritage in contemporary philosophy of art.



Sven-Olov Wallenstein teaches philosophy and aesthetics at the University College of Södertörn in Stockholm, and is the editor-in-chief of Site. He is the translator of works by Winckelmann, Kant, Hegel, Frege, Husserl, Heidegger, Levinas, Derrida, Deleuze, and Agamben, as well as the co-translator of Hegel’s Phenomenology into Swedish. He is also the author of numerous books on contemporary philosophy, art, and architecture. Recent publications include Essays, Lectures; Thinking Worlds: The Moscow Conference on Art, Philosophy and Politics (co-ed. with Daniel Birnbaum and Joseph Backstein), The Silences of Mies, and Biopolitics and the Emergence of Modern Architecture.