How art can create a new future: Stephen Zepke, Sublime Art

Stephen Zepke's Sublime Art forthcoming in EUP Crosscurrents series

I am delighted to report that Stephen Zepke’s Sublime Art is nearing publication, with the cover now being proofed.

How art can create a new future
Sublime art exceeds the present. It is an undetermined expression that in coming into being creates new universals, new modes of life and new coefficients of freedom.
Stephen Zepke tracks this movement from its beginnings in Kant to its flowering in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. He shows that in the work of Jean-François Lyotard, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Rancière and finally in the recent philosophy of Speculative Realism the idea of sublime art waxes and wanes, and with it a visionary politics of art that seeks to give it the most creative power possible, the power to overcome our conditions and embrace the unknown.


‘Stephen Zepke is already known as a considerable philosopher of the new. In these pages he expertly navigates the inconsistent legacies of Kantian aesthetics with the goal of regaining the political and philosophical potentialities of sublime art and its role in difficult eruptions of the new. Zepke’s analyses range across a continuum of discomfort attributed to the sublime through exquisitely crafted chapters that counterpoise Lyotard, Deleuze, Derrida and Rancière. This book may have absorbed its subject so well that its readers will be left in tatters.’
Gary Genosko, University of Ontario Institute of Technology


‘A remarkable book that explores the reception of Kant’s theory of the sublime in Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, Rancière and Derrida, as well as in more recent philosophical movements such as Speculative Realism and Accelerationism. But Zepke is an equally astute observer of the art world, and he simultaneously examines the role that this “sublime aesthetics” has (or has not) played in contemporary artistic production and political struggles. Sublime Art is not only the definitive analysis of the reception of the Kantian sublime, but a visionary manifesto for the aesthetics of the future.’
Daniel W. Smith, Purdue University


Sublime Art is available for pre-order on Amazon here, and a full list of titles in the Crosscurrents series, as well as instructions on how to submit a proposal, can be found here.

Nicholas Davey, Unfinished Worlds: Hermeneutics, Aesthetics and Gadamer – Introduction PDF

Unfinished WorldsLater this year Crosscurrents will be publishing Nicholas Davey’s important new book Unfinished Worlds: Hermeneutics, Aesthetics and Gadamer

In addition to the blurb below, I am thrilled that Nicholas has kindly agreed for me to post here the complete introductory chapter, which is also available as a PDF.


GadamerHans-Georg Gadamer’s poetics completely overturns the European aesthetic tradition. By concentrating on the experience of meaning, Unfinished Worlds shows how Gadamer’s philosophical hermeneutics transforms aesthetics into a mode of attentive practice. Gadamer’s poetics has deep implications for all of the humanities, and how we can understand the meaning of poetry, art, literature, history and theology. His emphasis on participation promises an approach that will revolutionise aesthetic and hermeneutic practice, and gives us new ways to think about the cultural productivity and social legitimacy of the humanities.



Images of  Movement


If art moves, understanding moves. Schleiermacher and Dilthey showed how within hermeneutics, understanding upholds itself by a constant, irresolvable and inconclusive movement between part and whole. The philosophy of Hans-Georg Gadamer uniquely transfers insights relating to the movement of understanding to the question of aesthetic attentiveness. In his thought, aesthetic contemplation no longer attends to changeless forms but participates in the movement of a work’s constitutive elements. Aesthetic contemplation is no longer passive but an active participant (theoros) in the bringing forth what a work can disclose. Where Dilthey laments the inconclusiveness of understanding, Gadamer celebrates it. The ceaseless movement between  part and whole which for Dilthey  renders understanding incomplete, perpetuates for Gadamer the play of a work’s disclosive elements insuring endless new reconfigurations of a work’s meaning. Such movement is made possible by key communicative elements within a work acting as placeholders in the interplay between the interests of hermeneutic transmission and those of hermeneutic reception. Aesthetic understanding is paradigmatic of this hermeneutic interplay. However, for aesthetic attentiveness to be grasped as a mode of understanding’s movement demands a major shift in how the relations between aesthetics and hermeneutics are conceived. This study reflects on how Gadamer’s thinking achieves such a transposition and explores its theoretical and practical consequences.


This study is the first full length monograph in English to offer a sustained philosophical reflection on Gadamer’s significant conjunction of hermeneutics and aesthetics which has considerable consequences for both disciplines. Tradition has it that hermeneutics is concerned with the apprehension of meaning whilst aesthetics handles the particularities of sensuous experience. Gadamer, we argue, reverses the equation: aesthetics comes to dwell on  the visual apprehension of meaning whilst  hermeneutics starts to reflect on the singularities of experience. Our concern is not just with charting this reversal but also with exploring its consequences. These include an anti-essentialist account of the relational nature of an artwork’s constitution, a thorough-going  revaluation of the theory-practice relationship within art and the humanities, the development of a  remarkable hermeneutics of transformative experience and a major philosophical re-working of the nature of aesthetic attentiveness. Mapping these consequences is of wider philosophical interest. It  suggests how the problem of “excess” meaning which so exercises Derrida and Žižek can expand rather than constrain understanding of the aesthetic.[1] To demonstrate these points demands that we go beyond Gadamer’s own formulations in constructive, probing and critical ways. This, we claim, offers an appropriate practical compliment to his hermeneutical modus operandi. Understanding what is entailed in a philosophy is not a matter of reconstructing or re-experiencing its claims: rather, it is learning how to “think with” a way of reasoning by applying it in new and unanticipated ways. Our concern will be to think through the problems of art and aesthetics in a Gadamerian manner rather than to offer an account of Gadamer’s study of art. His arguments are complex and extended. To do justice to them, we shall concentrate on them alone and leave the matter of comparison with other contemporary aestheticians to another volume.  However, let us lay out the primary presuppositions of positions of this study.

This essay explores in depth Gadamer’s assertion that artworks address us. This entails the supposition that artworks have a cognitive content and that this content is meaningful. Philosophical hermeneutics contends that meaning is relational. The experience of art addressing us involves a transformative experience which entails the cognitive relations within a spectator’s outlook being transformed by those which constitute the work. This is made possible because of the surplus of meaning attached to visual signs and symbols as well as the images of literature and poetry. Symbols and poetic ideas can serve as placeholders in a variety of discourses such that the meaning of a central term in one’s own framework of understanding can be transformed when that term is met in different deployment within in a foreign horizon. In a transformative encounter the spectator’s horizon is not displaced but achieves a new and significant permutation of its form as a result of its engagement with a different framework of meaning. The transactional capacity of symbols, poetic ideas and what Gadamer terms subject-matters (Sachen) to act as placeholder terms across and between contrasting frameworks of meaning offers not just an insight into how transformative experiences of art are structured but also an understanding of how the transformative capacity of inter-disciplinary study depends precisely upon the movement of shared placeholder terms between different practices. Philosophical hermeneutics suggests an account of aesthetic attentiveness as a practice, a practice not concerned with the passive appreciation of art and its aesthetic qualities in any standard sense but with actively facilitating movement between significant semantic placeholders in the horizons of both the art work and spectator so as to promote the possibility of transformative experience.


This study primarily concerns the relationship between philosophical hermeneutics and visual art: it is not an examination of Gadamer’s analysis of the “poetic word” which has been ably treated by other scholars.[2]  What is attempted here is a Gadamerian “poetics” of the visual, an exploration of the antecedent cultural and historical conditions which allow an image to communicate effectively. Whilst this poetics must uncover analytically the elements at play with a work, it must also consider how they combine to render the work an effective communication. The notable value of  this hermeneutical poetics lies in the answer it offers to a question raised in Heidegger’s essay “On the Origin of the Art Work”; how do art works “work” and how is this “working” to be understood?[3] The answer proposes a response to the riddle at the heart of Gadamer’s aesthetics; how do silent images speak? If the response succeeds, the claim at the heart of his magnum opus can be vindicated; art does indeed have a demonstrable cognitive content. Two motifs guide our reflections: what does it mean to be addressed by a speechless image and what are the formal conditions of receiving that address?


In a post-modern climate, Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics is instructive. Aesthetic experience confronts the spectator with something ineffable. Such experience challenges philosophy’s general ambition of bringing clarity to the objects of its reflection. The complexity of intense experience quickly compromises the adequacy of words. Yet, Gadamer’s position refuses despair: profound experience may elude linguistic capture but instead of insisting on silence before what transcends speech, it demands the seeking out of new words that better approximate and do justice to the complexities of experience. This places Gadamer’s hermeneutical approach to aesthetics at the interstices of experience, language and reflection. Practitioner and theoretician need no longer confront each other as opponents but  as dialogical partners able to draw out, exchange, and mutually realise different aspects of their experience of a work. Because an aesthetic object will formally exceed all interpretation, neither practitioner nor theoretician can monopolise its understanding. Taken together, both approaches enable a greater understanding. As well as offering a make-weight to post-modern scepticism, Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics suggests a dialogic rapprochement between theoretician and practitioner the implications of which have been inexplicably overlooked in contemporary aesthetic education. This study will address this oversight.


In any consideration of aesthetics, confronting the question of subjectivity is unavoidable. Its methodological challenges have shaped the development of modern hermeneutics from Schleiermacher to Ricouer who famously analysed Heidegger’s response to the problem in his ontological turn.[4] Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics relies on the specific tension between his defence of the subjective immediacy of our experience of art and his demand that the cognitive claims such experience be rendered legitimate. Though Gadamer’s thought about aesthetics bravely starts with the reality of subjective experience, he is more concerned with the substantialities that underwrite it. As a mode of consciousness, aesthetic awareness is unknowingly shaped by the objective horizons of language and tradition. The latter form subjectivity’s cognitive content and shape art’s claim to truth. Evidential experience provides the gateway to a phenomenological reflection on the objectivities that sustain it. Though a plausible ploy to rid aesthetics of  “the scandal of subjectivity”, it poses too crude a reversal: overtly emphasising the “objectivities” of transmission underestimates the hermeneutic processes of reception. Michael Kelly implies that in his rush to proclaim the objective element of aesthetic experience, Gadamer’s aversion to aestheticism leads him to underestimate the role of subjectivity in the formation of aesthetically communicated meaning.[5]


This essay explores how subjectivity plays a constructive role in Gadamer’s account of aesthetic experience and the relationality that informs it[6]. Six points are salient. (1) Transformative experience is dependent upon shifts in the objective horizon of a tradition which have no significance in themselves other than in relation to the subjectivities that embrace it. (2) Though Gadamer dismisses Kant’s notion of aesthetic disinterestedness, he has to re-invent it in a phenomenological framework in order to defend the constructive role of subjectivity within aesthetic experience. (3) The role of subjectivity within Gadamer’s aesthetics is pertinent to current debates about art’s alleged displacement of established religion. Aesthetic experience emerges as a way of negotiating what is entailed in being-in-the-world. (4) We shall argue that the spiritual dimension of Gadamer’s position involves an intensity of experience occasioned by an artwork intervening in, changing and thereby inducing a sense expansive movement in understanding. (5) Aesthetic subjectivity is of enormous importance for what it reveals of its objective ground. The ontological pre-conditions of aesthetic experience concern Gadamer the most: what must be assumed as being already in place for an experience of art to be possible?; what are the pre-conditions of art’s effectiveness? and what comes to being within in a work and what does it reveal of Being itself?

The principal value of a hermeneutical aesthetics lies in its participatory account of an experience of art. Gadamer’s dialogism is acknowledged but its consequences for a relational aesthetics are not understood. Focussing on the cognitive content of an artwork, dialogism deprives the theoretician and practitioner of any privileged interpretative power. This is not just because Gadamer’s ontological orientation transfers effective agency from subjective consciousness (the part) to its ground in language and tradition (the whole). Emergence, transformation and transmission demand participation. Aesthetic subjectivity is not dissolved but serves as a catalyst for the reception, mutation and development of the cultural subject-matters that both inform and transcend it. This suggests that intense aesthetic insight does not transcend its informing language but must be interpreted as a transformative variant. Dialogism implies that the content of such insight is expressible in public terms.


Dialogism implies conversation and conversation points to a “mode of living”, “a form of acquaintance or being familiar with” as  in being “conversant with”. A convert assumes that mode of familiarity. Conversation is, in effect, already under way. Its start presupposes a tacit acquaintance with a set of cultural norms and expectancies. Thus conversations have a dual character, assertive and expressive. They involve assertions about their central subject-matters and give indirect expression to aspects of the cultural horizon which ground them. Conversational utterances prompt other insights revealing tacit aspects of the hermeneutical horizons of the interlocutors. The vital point is that without participation in the conversational exchange of assertions or view points, the cognitively expressive aspects of a subject-matter – what Gadamer refers to as its speculative dimension – would not emerge. Participation in cognitive exchange (whether in a conversation or dialogical reflection) focussed upon the content of an artwork is a condition of the spontaneous emergence of what is implicitly or tacitly understood about it. The ‘said’ occasions the emergence of the ‘unsaid’; the ‘seen’ brings forth the ‘unseen’. Gadamer’s dialogism is shaped by a speculative aesthetic the central intuition of which is that words, symbols, and images all point beyond themselves. All mean more than any initial acquaintance suggest. Its hermeneutical logic is easily summarised: in hermeneutics, x = x+. This explains why Gadamer’s aesthetic is dominated by figures of movement especially the passage from first understanding a topic to understanding it better or more. This also reveals why Gadamer’s aesthetics places such emphasis on dwelling with an image, that is, taking the time to allow it to unfold its complexities of  meaning.


Dialogism clearly governs the productive aspect of  Gadamer’s hermeneutic operation: within conversation there is no telling when and where one thought will summons another. Gadamer’s procedure is, in effect, to set our understanding at play, to insert words and images into on-going cultural conversations to induce further reflections to come to the fore. Gadamer’s work should not be judged on its formal argumentation but on what it brings about and its effectiveness in altering our understanding of a subject-matter. This work is not the work of a detached analyst. It demands participation in the conversations between horizons so that further insights can be induced. For Gadamer, remaining in “the outer courtyard of aesthetic neutrality” achieves nothing: what is key is participation, participating in the movement of experience and reflection, for only through such participation can we become reflectively aware of what is performatively at play within our experience of art. Concerning the experience of art, the task Gadamer suggests is to “Begreifen, was uns ergreift”, to grasp what has taken hold of us.[7] This study will debate what is entailed in this claim and consider whether its linguistic analogies are appropriate to the task of understanding the “speechless image”.

The vitality of a tradition can be judged by the degree to which its “continuities of conflict” assert themselves. [8] Aesthetics is certainly “quick”, riven by arguments between those who like Ernst Gombrich regard its alleged subjectivity as a continuing methodological scandal and those who, like Terry Eagleton, value its subjectivity and expressive spontaneity as an important moderation of reason’s singular claim for a universality of method.[9]  The analogical value of aesthetics for hermeneutical reflection immediately asserts itself: twentieth century hermeneutics is almost defined by its epistemological struggle with method. Gadamer’s contribution to this debate within aesthetics and hermeneutics has been considerably underestimated. He is universally recognised as a severe critic of methodological reductivism but by no means is he an iconoclast of anti-method. His thinking offers to both contemporary aesthetic and hermeneutic debate a singular capacity to bring the argument for method and the case for spontaneity into mutual dialectical reflection. On the one hand, Gadamer’s commitment to a speculative theory of meaning undermines the universal claim of method to capture all aspects of an image’s meaning. The majority of commentators on Gadamer fail to note that how this does not undermine the limited use of the methodical within interpretation. To the contrary, recognising the speculative excess of meaning suggests that the knowing deployment of methodical devices can be deliberately employed to probe undisclosed aspects of experienced meaning. Method is not the anti-thesis of aesthetic spontaneity but a potentially disruptive device for prompting established meanings to disclose more of what they contain. This study will accordingly challenge the view that Gadamer’s hermeneutical approach to art is a conservative apologetics for received meaning. On the other hand, his rejection of method does not justify a laissez faire approach to aesthetic interpretation. Whilst rejecting universal method he nevertheless insists on the validity of art’s truth claim. What makes Gadamer’s writing on art compelling for hermeneuticians and aestheticians alike is that it offers a post-modern case study of how art’s cognitive claims might be made on a non-foundational basis. Without this demonstration, the anti-thesis of his challenge to the universality of method amounts to a vapid subjectivism.


The dialectical dexterity of Gadamer’s philosophy is indicated by the fact that method and spontaneity are not treated as opposites but as reflections of each other. His hermeneutical thought is characteristically speculative. Thesis and anti-thesis are not regarded as formal opposites but as speculative modes of one another. Hermeneutical engagement allows each position to re-describe itself in the language of its other. The being of a subject is moderated when another reveals how it can effectively reflect on its own being by using the language of the other. This is not a case of a subject assimilating its other but of a subject becoming-other-to-itself as a consequence of learning how, in Peter Duerr’s terms, to walk on the wild-side, to think of itself in the other’s terms.[10] We shall argue that Gadamer’s speculative thinking outlines a distinctive doubled hermeneutic for aestheticians, art theoreticians and  practitioners alike in which the self-understanding of each party is moderated by a subtle ex-change: the process of becoming different to oneself by learning to think of oneself in the language of one’s other.[11] Transformation, not translation, is the issue.[12] The aesthetician or art theorist is not rendered a practitioner but brought to understand that theory can be as spontaneous and playful in its interventions as art practice. Gadamer’s doubled hermeneutic suggest that theory’s credibility relies upon what is, in a certain sense, its opposite; the ability to disclose itself in practical instances.   Nor is the practitioner translated into the theoretician. Practice is not theory’s opposite but displays a reasonableness of its own. Elements in Gadamer’s hermeneutics suggest how this reasonableness might be articulated. This asserts the value of Gadamer’s hermeneutics for aesthetic education: it demonstrates the in-forming and guiding of practice by the theoretical components of its environment. The operational force of this doubled hermeneutic shapes the character of his Gadamer’s quest: to determine art’s cognitive claims on a non-foundational basis.


Wolfgang Iser eloquently describes hermeneutic doubling as a function of recursive looping within hermeneutical reasoning.[13] He emphasises that it is not the multiplication of opposite positions per se that is hermeneutically effective but the cognitive and experiential movement of doubling-back between them. Active doubling-back is a figure of thought in Schleiermacher’s and Dilthey’s hermeneutics, activated to achieve a movement of understanding within classic part-whole relationships. For Schleiermacher, to understand a particular linguistic expression requires a broader understanding of the linguistic forms within which the expression is made. Similarly, access to linguistic forms is only possible through particular expressions.[14] For Dilthey, the particularities of experience presuppose the generalities of understanding whilst understanding presupposes experience. For both thinkers it is the movement between part and whole that is crucial. This announces a leading theme of our study: the way aesthetics, in particular, exhibits understanding and its movement.         Gadamer’s predecessors bring attention to a related recursive figure in his own thought which we will  identify as a doubled hermeneutic in an additional sense: to understand what a work is saying is also to understand how it is able to say what it says.


What a work says and how it is able to say what it does are not opposing concerns reflecting a sterile opposition between fine art practice and art criticism. Gadamer’s doubled hermeneutic claims that to understand the truth claim of a work is also to understand how the enabling conditions of a work are manifest in its claim. This offers a significant ontological re-working of the part-whole relationship within hermeneutics. Whilst Gadamer offers sensitive “readings” of the paintings of  Paul Klee and the writings of  Paul Celan, his thought also offers a “poetics” of aesthetic communication.[15] This entails the claim that to understand what a work is saying is also to understand how it works as a work of art. Indeed, Gadamer’s discussion of the hermeneutical context of art tables a significant response to an issue raised by Heidegger in his essay ”On the Origin of the Artwork”: what work does an artwork do?


The doubling effect within Gadamer’s hermeneutics involves the continuous interplay between two levels of hermeneutical operation, grasping what a work asserts or claims and understanding what the assertion indicates or signifies. This is a distinction between what a work expresses (or states) and what comes to expression in it (what it discloses). Grasping the first requires a hermeneutical analytics whilst the second demands participation in a speculative hermeneutics. (1) Understanding what a work asserts demands an analytical or grammatical approach: demonstrating how the meaning of a literary or visual statement arises from the interplay of the components within a constituent discourse. An analytics of artistic assertion endeavours to demonstrate how what a work is “saying” is configured by different part-whole relationships within a given expressive language whether verbal or visual. (2) A speculative hermeneutic approach to the same declarative meaning is also required because despite their singular force, literary or painterly statements lack autonomy: they arise in broader hermeneutical fields upon which their significance depends. The latter operate as the enabling conditions of aesthetic statements, transcending the utterances they enable and  enabling them to communicate more than they state. The symbol exemplifies this exchange between the analytic and speculative dimensions of meaning. Though a functioning symbol may be attributed a determinate meaning within a work, its broad meaning remains indeterminate. Nuance, allusion and profundity depend on this excess. It permits artists to subvert or undermine a particular meaning by invoking its other determinations. The double-entendre, intended or not, exemplifies what is within philosophical hermeneutics a crucial interplay between analytic and speculative aspects of meaning.


Though an artist may mean something specific by a word or image, it can  by virtue of belonging to spoken or visual language, come to mean something more. Gadamer’s deployment of the speculative depends upon a part-whole structure but not in any fixed sense. As any word or image arises ontologically speaking from language as a whole, each reflects differently the (changing) totality of meaning it is inflected with. This gives a word or image its centrifugal force: pushing us towards wider semantic frameworks. Images and words function as place-holders for such pluralities of meanings setting into play more meanings than an artist might intend. The place-holder function of words and images also has a centripetal capacity which allows pluralities of meaning beyond what an artist intends to flow back into a work deconstructing its initially intended meaning. A practised artist will know how to deploy the speculative charge or “excess” of a given image allowing it to bring forth nuances of meaning which transcend those initially articulated. Such a work can hold various meanings in creative tension and interplay. A less accomplished practitioner who cannot control the hermeneutic interplay which placeholder images allow, will suffer their communicative intentions becoming overwhelmed by the force of contrary meanings. The consequence is a work that will appear incoherent, confused or inconsistent. In conclusion, what comes to expression in  a work are those speculatively revealed dimensions of historical and cultural meaning which transcend (yet enable) any individual artistic statement.


This study argues that the key contribution philosophical hermeneutics makes to understanding “how an artwork works” concerns its articulation of the interplay between the analytic and the speculative dimensions of meaning. Exposing the elements of that interplay offers an intelligible account of what a work expresses and how it does so. The interplay offers a two-fold revelation: how an art work communicates effectively beyond what a writer or visual artist intends and how dimensions of historical cultural meaning which transcend any individual artistic statement nevertheless come to expression with it.


A “poetics” of how artworks effectively work may properly identify the analytic and speculative components of an artistic discourse but these should not be considered as opposing but rather as different reflections of the doubled nature of all meaning. The analytic dimension of assertions cannot, as Pannenberg has effectively shown, be understood other than in relation to the wider unstated dimensions of linguistic practice that inform them.[16] His argument reflects a maxim of classical hermeneutics: it is not possible to understand the part (the particular expression or idiom) apart from the whole field of expression of which it is a part. Mutandis mutandis, though that whole (what Gadamer calls a totality of meaning) cannot be brought to statement without contradiction, its existence is made discernible in the particular statements it informs. The argument pre-supposes a major ontological assumption the consequences of which will dominate this study: the existence of the whole is not independent from the totality of its parts. Understanding involves thinking of the enabled part and the enabling whole as the reversed doubles of each other. Were this all to Gadamer’s position, it would amount to be little more than a reworking of the analogical hermeneutics of William Blake and Johann Goethe: to discern the universal in each particular; and to see in each particular the universal particularised. By contrast, it is the continual doubling back and forth between the analytic and the speculative that is crucial to Gadamer’s account of the meaningful within the experience of art. Such experiences subject us to the further effects of such interplay.


Confronting a written or visual statement initiates such interplay but is not its beginning. The formal grounds of an experience of art’s effects lies in the condition of existential throwness which casts each and every individual adrift on already formed currents of meaning. These pre-reflective historical and cultural horizons form an individual’s expectancies influencing what might and might not be perceived as an artwork. Such pre-reflective horizons are far from static. They are acquired and adapted through processes of acculturation providing individuals with the hodological maps to navigate their experienced environment. The extent of this pre-reflective stock outstrips what we are conscious of. Its signs and symbols whose significances we are vulnerable to have a content greater than any moment of reflection can capture. Such “excess” of meaning establishes the effective ontological base for an experience of art’s address. The task of Gadamer’s doubled hermeneutics is to reveal how the enabling speculative horizon becomes effective within the customary analytic of everyday meanings.


In the pursuit everyday tasks, the operation of signs and symbols is constrained to render the communication of instructions and guidance as uncomplicated as possible. The most important thing, as Wittgenstein would say, is knowing how to go on.[17] Though the execution of ordinary tasks demands that the language of a given practice be highly circumscribed, their constituent signs and symbols do not lose their intrinsic hermeneutical excess. The meaning of an instruction depends upon a prior understanding of the figure-ground relationship for key terms in any given practice. Acquaintance with the contextual frame of that practice, grounds the appropriate foreground determinations of a word’s or image’s meaning. The risk of any slippage of meaning or contamination from hermeneutic excess is marginalised. A practice’s conventions establish an analytics of control over its key signs and symbols. The experience of art, however, occasions a return to the foreground of awareness, the speculative dimensions of meaning.


Gadamer’s interest in visual art neither lies in the formalities of aesthetic object nor with analysing how an artist manipulates a figure-ground relationship in order to bring an image or symbol to the centre of a visual field. He emphasises above all the experience of art. The experience of art is when an art work “speaks to us” and this, he insists, is the event of art, the occasion when it makes a claim upon us irrespective of our willing and doing. This is effected when an established analytic of meaning is disrupted by its speculative entailments.


The importance of Gadamer’s hermeneutical aesthetics lies in the suggestion that the power of an artwork resides not in-itself as an autonomous aesthetic object but in its dialogical capacity to “effect” change in a spectator’s field of understanding. We might appreciate a work for its painterly confidence and compositional strength but, Gadamer claims, we value it not for its aesthetic effects but for what it has to “say” to us. A novel configuration of hidden or overlooked elements in a symbol’s horizon of  speculative meaning can impose an unaccustomed penumbra of significance, forcing us to re-think and re-value its customary expressive deployment. Art shocks and illuminates because it draws from a word’s or an image’s speculative excess, provocative re-alignments of meaning which disrupt the conventional status of a sign or symbol. Gadamer’s aesthetics establishes that his doubled hermeneutics is not a logic of assertion and counter-assertion. The power of art does not reside in its ability to displace one field of meaning with another but in its capacity to effect a transformative engagement, that is, enabling us to grasp a familiar field of meaning in unfamiliar ways. This is not to be grasped as an artwork translating commonplace fields of meaning into its terms but rather as its language transfiguring the ordinary so that we see it as extraordinary. Gadamer’s aesthetics provides a hermeneutical economy whereby the effective relations that achieve what Danto calls the transfiguration of the commonplace can be understood.[18]


Gadamer’s doubled hermeneutics indicates that the key to the effective relationality that constitutes the “event” of an art work speaking to us, lies in the placeholder status accorded to words and symbols by virtue of their operating in several speculative horizons. This means that the field of meaning in which a placeholder term appears, can effect other fields of meaning in which it operates. Clever associations of meaning, amusing juxtaposition of terms, visual puns, literary double-entendres or surreal alignments of images require that an artwork make a spectator conscious of being positioned between different fields (horizons) of meaning in such a way as to facilitate the doubled reading of one framework in the language of its other. The emergence of such a doubled reading within experience indicates, as we have argued, the return of the speculative dimensions of meaning to the foreground of a spectator’s awareness. How is the hermeneutical exchange which drives such doubling to be articulated?


This exchange is not a matter of replacing one’s customary way of seeing with another. Such abandonment jettisons the initial motivation, as Nietzsche once put it, to see around one’s own corner.[19] Nor does it involve the ubiquity of “cultural exchanges” which claim to show how other art traditions render common subject-matters in their distinct ways. Seeing the English Lake District depicted by a Chinese watercolourist presents a curio to the European eye and as such it is hermeneutically speaking, ineffective. Hermeneutic doubling is not a logic of substitution. To the contrary, in the experience of art  the mode of relations that constitute an alien artwork come to permeate those that form a customary way of seeing in such a way as not to displace it but rather to achieve a new and significant permutation of it, permanently altering its initial configuration.[20] This exchange or doubling should be understood as the deep inflection of one framework with the terms of another. This study suggests that hermeneutic doubling is a productive engagement the success of which is marked by the generation of  the permutation as a third element. This entails an obversion of form in which because of its engagement with a set of foreign relations, the home framework effectively becomes a qualitively different world. The emergence of this third term reveals itself as the transfiguration of what the exchange has left behind (the original framework). Hermeneutic doubling opens a space between “the once understood” and “the now understood”. The difference is articulated by what the emergence itself achieves; a distinction between the transformed framework and the prior untransformed framework of which the transformed framework emerges as a permutation. The emergence of a traversable, conceptually differentiated space between a transfigured and an untransfigured framework of meaning provides the spectator with a means to gage the extent of a change in understanding.


Gadamer’s aesthetics are, indeed speculative. The discussion of art and aesthetics in Part One of Truth and Method points to so much more than is initially stated. Aesthetic experience is presented as a counter-foil to the cognitive claims of scientific and, yet, though Gadamer carefully identifies in tradition the formal pre-conditions of aesthetic experience, he does little to articulate how the spectator’s horizon is permeated transformatively by the artwork. Thinking with Gadamer rather than against him, this study develops what his hermeneutical aesthetics suggests but does not state. The justification for this lies in the application of his own claim that to understand a thinker or artist is to think with him or her even when entering unknown territory. [21]


Gadamer’s approach to art is known primarily for its rehabilitation of tradition but it merits philosophical attention for so much more. His aesthetics reveals that philosophical hermeneutics offers not only a study of the philosophical pre-conditions of aesthetic experience but also an acute insight into the educative processes operating within hermeneutic transmission and reception. The transformative nature of these processes relies on what we have described as Gadamer’s doubled hermeneutic which merits serious attention by all in the theory communities of aesthetics, art and hermeneutics. This doubled hermeneutic expands into an account of the following.


(1)   It suggests that the cognitive value of art depends upon a conception of a work as a body of significant relations which interact-with and affect other sets of significant relations in its cultural environment.

(2)   The role of words and images as placeholders within such frameworks promises a “poetics” able to address how art works “work”.

(3)   Such a “poetics” suggests a non-metaphorical account of Gadamer’s key claim that art “speaks” and an explanation of what the “effectiveness” of art’s historical reception resides in. We shall argue that the address of art is its “effect”: it is the experience of one framework being transformatively inflected by another.

(4)   The deployment of hermeneutical excess within speculative reasoning establishes a principle of incommensurability which explains why the movement of understanding is both never-ending and self-perpetuating. Within the constraints of appropriacy, any work or interpretation can legitimately deploy a symbol but neither may claim to exhaust its meaning. There is always an incommensurability between what a symbol says and what it is capable of saying (its excess). This differential offers a two-fold procedural guarantee of both creative optimism (no matter the power of a given meaning deployment, there is always more to be said) and interpretive  modesty (whatever the confidence placed in an interpretation, it is formally subject to being adjusted by alternative readings deriving from the hermeneutical excess of its subject-matter). Either way, the principle of hermeneutic incommensurability upholds the movement of understanding. The more an interpretation seeks to diminish the differential between an image and its speculative horizon, the more it drives other possibilities for understanding into the open.

(5)   The presence of a speculative totality of meaning attached to a word or image is invoked through the particular expression or utterance. This places artistic and hermeneutic practice at the interstices between what is in play in a speculative horizon and what that horizon facilitates in the way of particular readings or expressions. The originality of Gadamer’s position lies in the suggestion that the creation of new art works is not an end-in-itself but a means of soliciting from the unspoken horizons that enable and inform them, other as yet unrealised possibilities for meaning. Artistic practice becomes a means of keeping the transformative movement between horizons of meaning in play.


The significant merit of Gadamer’s doubled hermeneutics for philosopher and practitioner alike is that by placing the subjective experience of art within the objective horizons and mechanisms of dialogical exchange, it promises an objective ontologically based account of what takes place within subjectivity i.e. the transmission, reception and transformation of aesthetic meaning. If  the vitality of a tradition can be judged by the degree to which its “continuities of conflict” assert themselves, Gadamer’s principles of hermeneutical excess and incommensurability offer a perceptive account of how such continuities of conflict maintain themselves and productively so. It is these principles that justify what this study offers; a rethinking of aesthetic experience in hermeneutic terms.


Much has been made of the enigmatic quality of art, that an artwork always seems to promise more than it discloses. Gadamer, following Heidegger, is acutely aware of what a work “withholds” from a spectator and how it makes the presence of that absence felt. This gives to a work in the words of Joanna McGregor, a “quality of mystery and melancholy, of shadows pauses and memory”.[22] In formal terms, her statement re-iterates the axiom of hermeneutic incommensurability; x = x+  i.e. that how a work is interpreted or self-interprets itself can never be rendered commensurate with what the work might yet mean (the withheld). The statement presages an important ontological claim. On the assumption that the artwork has no pre-defined essence or meaning but is a specific set of part-whole relationships, what that work can be understood as yet meaning depends upon the spectator achieving or witnessing new a significant movement in the relations that embody the work. We argue that it is the principle of incommensurability that draws a spectator further into a work and its “yet-to-be-disclosed” elements and that it is this which sets in motion, once again, the part-whole relations upon which the possibility of transformed understanding rests. Developing such reasoning requires thinking well beyond Gadamer’s arguments but to them go the credit for opening the way to a hermeneutical aesthetics capable of altering our understanding of the workings not just of art but of the humanities generally. This essay seeks to extend the conversation about art that Gadamer started.


Chapter One considers the intellectual context informing Gadamer’s hermeneneutical reformation of aesthetics. It introduces the concepts appearance, presentation, and language. We claim that rather than avoiding aesthetic subjectivism, Gadamer needs a reconstructed account of subjectivity as an inter-active agency in the event of aesthetic experience in order to secure the effectiveness of his doubled hermeneutic.


Chapter Two examines Gadamer’s broad reflections on the nature of the experience of art and explores the speculative dimension of his thinking in particular. The broad debate of these early chapters sets the context for what follows; a detailed examination of the philosophical specifics of Gadamer’s stated and implied arguments with regard to the experience of art.


Chapter Three addresses the defining paradox of Gadamer’s aesthetics; how to reconcile the alleged distinterestedness of aesthetics with the cognitive interests of a phenomenological analysis of experience. We shall argue that Gadamer’s implied approach to aesthetic attentiveness offers a persuasive reconciliation of the interested and the disinterested. The reconciliation is one of Gadamer’s greatest unremarked contributions to contemporary aesthetics. Aesthetics attentiveness is no unthinking receptiveness but a complex reflective practice capable of transforming understanding.


Chapter Four concerns itself with the notions of  theoros, aesthetic spectatorship and participation. Gadamer’s reconstruction of aesthetic experience as a participatory act adds a new valence to the part-whole relationship within hermeneutics. Hermeneutical part-whole structures cannot be understood from the “outside”, as it were, but only by being participated in. This implies that an understanding of a given element within an artwork requires a sense of its whole. A grasp of the latter is conditional upon where in a field of relationships an observing  subject stands. To understand more of both part and whole requires a shift of spectorial position within its nexus. This insight contributes to one of the greatest achievements of philosophical hermeneutics within aesthetic education; the deconstruction of the theory/practice divide the consequences of which we shall discuss in detail. Once again, the argument depends upon abandoning the notion of a detached aesthetic observer. To understand the dynamics of aesthetic experience, phenomenalist indifference must be replaced with phenomenological involvement.


Chapter Five develops the consequences of Gadamer’s critique of aesthetic subjectivity. If, phenomenologically speaking, an involvement with art’s subject-matters demonstrates that the experience of meaning has primacy over the experience of aesthetic properties, the communication of meaning emanates from the conveyance of significance within bodies of semantic relations: meaning’s mode of being whether visual or literary is presentational. With characteristic restraint, this simple move in Gadamer’s aesthetics prompts a major ontological shift in thinking about the ancient but none the less contentious question of art’s relation to reality. Establishing “appearance” as the ontological mode of a subject-matter grounds Gadamer’s argument that temporal appearances add to rather than detract from the reality of their subject concerns. This argument prompts a revaluation of the ontological status of both “likeness” and image as potentially transforming the part-whole relationships from which they spring. Likenesses become visualisations of future possibilities held within a part-whole relationship whilst images in art assume a cognitive significance by allowing their objects “to become more what they are” (Werden zum Sein). Such arguments  re-work the classical distinctions between mimesis and imitation.. They culminate in a novel re-appraisal of the part-whole relationship in hermeneutics which suggests that what art discloses is not the actual per se but analogous patterns of reasoning which intimate different readings of how the actual might be understood.     


Chapter Six attends to the signature claim of Gadamer’s aesthetics: art addresses us. What does Gadamer mean by this argument? An answer requires expanding the conventional meaning of language as tied to just the spoken and written. Gadamer’s conception of linguisticality extends provocatively the notion of language so as to include any set of communicative relations whether visual or musical. Our argument develops a hermeneutic conception of the artwork as a body or “measure” of relations. This broader conception of linguisticality allows art to be considered as language: like all sets of  the communicative relations, those that constitute art have a speculative capacity to refer beyond themselves. This capacity is central to what Gadamer means by “art addressing us”. The speculative dimensions central to the experience of art’s address clarify how the “truth” of art’s cognitive content can be grasped. The relationship between art and language allows Gadamer’s aesthetics to revitalise a hermeneutical conception of truth based upon plausibility rather than formal demonstration.


Chapter Seven offers a summary of the principal arguments of this study. It suggests that Gadamer’s deconstruction of traditional aesthetics culminates in a threefold redemptive revaluation of the discipline. First, the endeavour to redeem aesthetics by absorbing it within hermeneutics depends upon prioritising the question of meaning within the experience of art. This shifts aesthetic experience into a participatory mode and in consequence re-vitalises the importance of the part-whole relationship in aesthetic reasoning. Second, aesthetic attentiveness returns us not to an original way of seeing but to way of seeing which facilitates origination within and amongst the aesthetic ideas and subject-matters which shape any experience of art. Third, we suggest that the aesthetic image has a two fold redemptive function in relation to the complexities of human experience. Like the doubled hermeneutic operating within Gadamer’s thinking, the image has both summative and projective aspects. The poignant image brings to summative resolution strands of meaning already at play within our environment and suggests, controversially, how our unfinished and incomplete understanding of actuality might be transformed by projective visions of the impossible i.e. meaning made whole. The fiction of completed meaning in art is redeemed not by its vision of a different actuality but because it offers a different way of envisioning this actuality.  The principal claim of a hermeneutically orientated aesthetics is that we are vulnerable to art’s address precisely because our experience of both of ourselves and our world is unfinished.

[1]  See Colin Davis, Critical Excess, Overreading in Derrida, Deleuze, Levinas etc, Stanford University Press, 2011, and my review in  Screen, DOI  10.1093/HJSO15

[2]  See in particular John Arthos, The Inner Word in Gadamer’s Hermeneutics. Notre Dame, University of Indiana Press, 2009, p.1 -30, 335-362.

[3] Martin Heidegger, “On the Origin of the Art Work “, in Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. A. Hofstadter, New York, Harper, 1975, p. 39.

[4] See Paul Ricouer, Hermeneutics and the Human Sciences,London, CambridgeUniversity Press, 1981, p. 54-59.

[5] Michael Kelly, “A Critique of Gadamer’s Aesthetics,” in Bruce Krajewski, Gadamer’s Repercussions, University of California Press, 2005, p. 103.

[6] This theme is discussed at length in the Chapter 6.

[7] Hans-Georg Gadamer, “Classical and Philosophical Hermeneutics”, The Gadamer Reader, ed. R. Palmer, Evanston, Northwestern University Press, 2007, pp. 61.

[8] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, London, Duckworth, 1993, p. 222

[9] Ernst Gombrich speaks of the subjectivity which vitiates to establish a plausible aesthetics, ( see The Sense of Order, Oxford, Phaidon, 1984, p. 117 and Terry Eagleton refers to the political importance of aesthetics in that “the work of art can gather the unruly materials of everyday life into a shapely whole without losing anything of their vitality. If it is a riposte to political absolutism, it is also an argument against anarchy,” (Holy Terror, London, Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 87.

[10] Peter Duerr, Dreamtime, Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilisation,London, Blackwell, 1985, Chapt. 12.

[11] Anthony Giddens coined the phrase “double hermeneutic” referring to the process where categories which are part of a life-world are appealed to in a description of that life world: see his New Rules of Sociological Method, London, Hutchinson, 1987, p. 162. Gadamer’s position implies that a doubled hermeneutic has a speculative or mirroring element: a subject comes to think of its initial self-understanding differently when it meets it doubled in the language of an opposing party.

[12] Peter Duerr Dreamtime, Concerning the Boundary Between Wilderness and Civilisation,London, Blackwell, 1985, Chapt. 12. p.129

[13] Wolfgang Iser, The Range of Interpretation, New York, ColumbiaUniversity Press, 2000, Chapter 4.

[14] Friedrich  Schleiermacher argues, “The understanding of the whole is not only conditioned by that of the particular, but also, vice versa, that of the particular by the whole. Fir if the particular is to be understood as a member of the sequence, the exponent, the tendency, the manner of the whole must be known; and if {it is to be known as ] a product of language, then it must already be known what linguistic usage one is actually dealing with”: see Schleiermacher, Hermeneutics and Criticism and Other Writings, ed. A.Bowie, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 231-2. Dilthey contends that  “the whole must be understood in terms of its individual parts, individual parts in terms of the whole…So understanding of the whole and of the individual parts are interdependent.” Selected Writings, ed. P. Rickman, London, Cambridge, 1976, p.262.

[15] See Hans-Georg Gadamer, , Literature and Philosophy in Dialogue, Essays in German Literary Theory, Albany, StateUniversity of New York Press, 1994.


[16] See Wolfhart Pannenberg, Theology and The Philosophy of Science, London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1976, p. 178-179.

[17] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, London, Blackwell, 1953,  sections  151,179.

[18] A.C.Danto, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, Cambridge, Massachusetts, HarvardUniversity Press, 1981.

[19] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science,New York, Vintage, 1974, sec.374.

[20] Any one who knows the British National Anthem will have their perception of it quite altered after listening to Charles Ives variations on the hymn tune “America”.

[21] This is not to be thought of as re-constructing an agent’s thoughts so as to understand the motivations of his or her actions pace Collingwood but of  following their thoughts and developing into forms that surpass the achievement of their original thinker. See R.J.Collingwood, The Idea of History, London, Oxford University Press, 1961, p.170-176.

[22] Joanna McGregor, “On the Pleasures of Harrison Birtwistle’s ‘difficult music’ ”, The Guardian, Manchester, May 22, 2009.