The translation of Hegel’s “Aesthetik” or “Philosophy of Fine Art,” which is contained in the four volumes of the present work, is the first complete translation in English of the three volumes devoted to this subject in the collected edition (Berlin, 1835). I know of four partial translations in English of this work and one in French. These are Mr. W. M. Bryant’s translation of Part II , Mr. Kedney’s short analysis of the entire work , Mr. Hastie’s translation of Michelet’s short “Philosophy of Art ,” prefaced by Hegel’s Introduction, partly translated and partly summarized and lastly Professor B. Bosanquet’s complete translation of Hegel’s first Introduction with notes .
The French translation of M. Bénard purports to be more or less a reproduction of the entire work and runs into two large-sized volumes. It also is, however, so far as Hegel’s Introduction and the first two Parts are concerned, merely a compressed summary, and only in particular passages is the translation anything but a very free rendering of the original, though there is a far closer approach to this in Part III.
I have not seen Mr. Bryant’s translation. As any approach to an adequate reproduction of Hegel’s writing Mr. Hastie’s translation of Michelet’s work and Mr. Kedney’s analysis are of very little value .Professor Bosanquet’s translation is admirable within the limits imposed. To that extent I have merely followed, as I was able, in my friend’s footsteps; but this advance covers little more than one sixteenth part of the entire work of 1,600 pages.
With regard to all such analyses I entirely concur with Professor Bosanquet’s view stated in his preface, that such merely mislead if regarded as in any way a reflex of either Hegel himself or the German text. It is true that this work is — as are in their degree other volumes of the collected edition, the “Outlines of the Philosophy of Right” for example — a heterogeneous product, in our own instance not merely lacking the final revision of the author, but rather put together as such a connected treatise by the editor responsible (i) from several autograph MSS. of Hegel , some of which were little more than fragmentary notes for lectures, (ii) supplemented further from notes taken by pupils who attended such lectures, the entire conglomerate being (iii) finally dovetailed together with connecting links by the editorial hand much as, to cite his own illustration, a careful picture restorer might do in order to secure the impression of a unified work, the unity aimed at by himself being rather that of a connected literary treatise than a series of lectures.
It is obvious that a product of this nature will vary considerably throughout in the degree that the personality and unique flavour of Hegel himself, whether viewed as writer or thinker, asserts itself.
Of the greater portion of the work we can merely form our judgment of the nature of its authenticity from the content itself. On the whole I should myself say that the result was more favourable than might under such conditions have been expected. The editor assures us expressly that so far as all illustrations and the substantive content of the work is concerned no attempt has been made whatever to supplement the same. Hegel is throughout here entirely responsible. I think, further, that the endeavour claimed by the editor to preserve the general character and tone (Kolorit) of Hegel’s own diction has attained a degree of success that could only have been within the reach of devoted pupils and friends of the man himself, who for many years both attended his lectures and studied his published works. Whatever opinion, however, we may arrive at on this head there can hardly be two opinions as to the sources in which the main interest consists for a modern reader.
First, I should lay particular stress on the forceful and characteristic manner in which the fundamental philosophical conceptions which underlie the entire fabric are worked into and elaborated explicitly, throughout its detail. The very nature of this unwearied and insistent interfusion (Durchdringung) of positive fact, whether historical, scientific, or aesthetic, with the dialectic movement of the Idea is here as essentially the method of Hegel as it is elsewhere. And this is so despite the fact that it is here presented for the most part in a form less repellent to the ordinary reader and less provocative of hostile criticism. Translators therefore, who, following the example of the French translator , deliberately seek to lighten the burden of their cargo by throwing overboard what they choose to call the “injurious dialectic,” or the “dark labyrinth” of this aspect of our work may reproduce much that is of instruction or interest, but most certainly do not reproduce either the main strength of Hegel as a thinker, or the most characteristic impression — to say nothing of the repetitions — of such style or absence of literary style that he possessed.
Secondly, if there is one feature more striking than any other in this work, which is bound at least to surprise anyone who still harbours the obsolete notion that this philosopher moved in an exclusively abstract region of idea remote from the concrete experience of life and scientific or artistic knowledge, it is the wealth and extraordinary range of the illustrations in these volumes no less than the vigour and freshness of their application. In this respect two translations which merely amount to a summary of theoretical content simply omit the vital or at least the most attractive heart of the interest.
As to the present claim of this laborious work to recognition and study, its historical significance is, I think, admitted by the most acknowledged authorities on the subject. As Schasler has called it, it is the first complete system of a philosophy of Art. The nature of its importance to our own most able and learned historian of the Philosophy of Fine Art may not only be deduced from his own summary of its contents and significance in his invaluable historical survey ,but is further illustrated by the fact that he has reproduced the concluding portion of Hegel’s Introduction in extenso in an Appendix to this work.
Other writers have been less judicious both as hostile critics and in the degree of their praise or enthusiasm. One German authority has called it Hegel’s masterpiece. Such a title is, apart from any other ground, sufficiently excluded by its history alone. Whether Hegel might have made it his masterpiece had he lived is of course another question.
Other admirers, such as the late Professor Caird , have more legitimately accepted such a distinction for the “Phenomenologie des Geistes.” Mr. Hastie will even have it that throughout “All is clear, radiant, harmonious and dim with the things that are a joy for ever.” Such an effusive display of abstract Vorstellung reminds one little of either the dour temper of the Swabian philosopher, or the concrete intelligence which most distinguishes him from his rivals now and in his lifetime. I can promise no such garden of Hesperides, or even Platonic banquet, to any of my readers. It is true that we have here, the work being primarily built upon lectures intended to instruct the ordinary student, no such parade of the dialectic method in its formal structure such as constitutes the root of offence in some other works of Hegel. But if we approach it with the belief that all is therefore the plain sailing we meet with in the world of journalistic art criticism and the commonsense conceptions of everyday life, or with the assurance that the work is, or can be, intelligible without some real attempt to grapple with the fundamental ideas of Hegelian metaphysic, we may find our disappointment very considerable. As a humble translator I am bound to say that in a very large number of passages I have by no means discovered immediacy of intelligibility or radiance to be a conspicuous feature of the original. Radiance is indeed, I should say, not an attribute emphatically characteristic of any kind of Teutonic literature, and least of all of its scientific and philosophical literature. The present work is certainly no exception. With its untiring, not to say remorseless, effort to press home in repeated expression, often but slightly varied, the same fundamental points, its dogged and endless persistence in the careful explication through rational definition of every kind of positive material that presents itself from the nature of the divine in man, or the soul of living beast to the accurate determination in the terms of expressed thought of a musical sound or an epigram or simile, with its well-nigh total disregard of the beauty of literary style, and its by no means unfrequent disregard of all principle of proportion in the co-ordination of its varied subject-matter — whatever else such a product may be it is most assuredly not, at least to English apprehension, reminiscent of the radiance either of Homer or Apollo.
But though even sincere admiration may smile over such a description, it does unquestionably reflect to a remarkable extent the thoroughness, tenacity of purpose, the absence of superficial rhetoric, the wide range, the extraordinary combination of constructive idea and detailed knowledge and research we rightly associate with the most valued works of German science and philosophy. It has never been more needful than at this time of day to draw attention to such qualities, when the national bias is to ignore or belittle their presence. It is, moreover, not without passages which attain to a very real elevation of eloquence, eloquence marked by the profoundest earnestness and entirely free from the least flavour of bombast or sentimentalism. To the right kind of reader it can hardly fail to convey a certain fascination which is not merely due to the presence of a powerful and original intellect, but is equally inseparable from the product of a human soul intent upon getting at the heart of its subject, and keeping its vision throughout fixed on that. Nor is the mere breadth of the canvas and the depth of its content its only attraction. The work is indeed full of digressions of exceptional interest to the general reader, and as such bears the indelible stamp of Hegel’s manner as a lecturer, which his editor maintains stood out in such marked contrast to his more concise style as an author, drawing as he did when lecturing so largely on his encyclopaedic stores of knowledge.