Music in Hegel’s Aesthetics: Toward a Phenomenology of the Subject

Boyer College Graduand Student Forum, 24 April 2016

This paper investigates the phenomenological model of subjectivity that undergirds the theoretical descriptions of melody, harmony, and form in G. W. F. Hegel’s Aesthetics. While scholars such as Philip Alperson and Martin Donougho have denounced the Aesthetics for uninformedly devaluing instrumental music, the text’s explicit references to instrumental sonata form provide evidence to the contrary. For Hegel, music “sounds out” the subject, reverberating within the catacombs of the mind to illuminate the depths of the inner self. Considering Hegel invites us to reconsider music in terms of how it organizes events and demarcates the flow of time.

The passages on music reflect two larger motives that Andrew Bowie has observed in the Aesthetics as a whole: the mediation of nature and culture through art, and the integration of contradictions into a unified whole that imbues its components with meaning. Hegel’s anachronistic reference to Pythagorean intervals manifests the Aesthetics’ overarching attempt to order art according to principles of nature. Hegel’s taxonomical method seems at first to isolate music’s components, but the relations that emerge among the partitions establish elaborate interdependencies: melody and harmony are an analog for freedom and necessity, and create sequences of musical themes that enable the subject to perceive rhythm on a plane that transcends repetitious meter and pulse.

Hegelian subjectivity in music depends on the principle of double negation: the mind negates the plurality of things in space, condensing them into a “now”; this “now” negates itself by passing into a new “now,” iterans ad infinitum, which creates a homogeneous flow of time. Subjectivity emerges as music superimposes onto this flow of time an observable pattern of cadenced interjections. In this reading, the Aesthetics forwards a conception of music wherein a sequence of events enables the subject to perceive its endurance through time.