Ezio Gamba, La Legalità’ del Sentimento Puro. L’Estetica di Hermann Cohen come modello di una filosofia della cultura. (The Lawfulness of Pure Feeling. Hermann Cohen’s Aesthetics as Model of a Philosophy of Culture). Mimesis Edizioni, Milan-Udine, 2008
352 pages. Euro 12.

Reviewed by Giacomo Leoni (Boston University)


In his 2008 book on the “lawfulness of pure feeling” (reines Gefühl), Ezio Gamba, Research Fellow at the Università del Piemonte Orientale, aims to demonstrate (as he explains in the introduction) how Cohen not only addressed aesthetic issues as such, but rather considered aesthetics as a foundational element in his theory of culture. Nevertheless, says Gamba, there has not been any study focusing on this aspect of Cohen’s philosophical thought. His study intends to remedy this lacuna in the study of Cohen.

In Chapter I (“Art, Myth and Poetry in the first psychological writings by Hermann Cohen”) Gamba considers the influences on Cohen’s early aesthetic philosophy. He highlights Cohen’s debt to Friedrich Theodor Vischer (1807 - 1887), author of many essays on philosophy of art, as evidenced in Cohen’s writings from 1865 to 1866, and he describes Cohen’s developing of conceptions of poetry as an imitation of the real (a concept of Platonic/Aristotelian origin), as imitation of imagery and as imitation of past poetry. The chapter concludes with a recapitulation of Cohen’s shifting away from Steinthal and Lazarus’s Völkerpsychologie and notes his twenty-year-long silence on aesthetic themes.

Chapter II (“Aesthetic and System”) gives a detailed analysis of the structure of Cohen’s aesthetics and the role of aesthetics in Cohen’s system, as articulated in Kants Begründung der Ästhetik (1889) and Ästhetik des reinen Gefühls (ÄrG, two volumes, 1912, published as the third part in Cohen’s “system of philosophy”).

Aesthetics constitutes a third part in Kantian critical philosophy (after experiential and ethic criticism), but while in Kant criticism is propedeutic to system, in Cohen it becomes the system itself. The purpose is here to create a “validity of different aspects of culture in their a priori principles” (Gamba, pg 55). If art were not part of transcendental philosophy (as it is, thanks to aesthetics), its cultural dimensions would lack all foundation. Cohen’s theory of aesthetics shares with Kant’s its focus on “taste” as a kind of judgment instead of a focus on artistic production or subjective aesthetic experience. This judgment can be about “natural beauty” as much as about “artistic beauty.”

According to Gamba, Cohen’s System der Philosophie is concerned with aesthetics, in fact places major emphasis on its importance, due to the desire to establish transcendental philosophy as a philosophy of culture rather than only of science.

Paul Natorp criticized ÄrG by saying that a transcendental aesthetic ought to be based on a philosophical consideration of the art itself and he accused Cohen of failing to provide this foundation. However, Gamba explains, Cohen can be justified by the idealistic method (i.e. the method of hypothesis) that Cohen uses consistently throughout his system.

In Cohen’s aesthetics, art finds its pre-conditions in the consciousness of nature and in morality. Art, however, must be judged only by aesthetic criteria. This said, the merging of art and morality is realized in culture. Gamba says that the same is true for art and religion, even if the latter, being not an “autonomous direction of culture,” cannot become a pre-condition to art.

In Chapter III (“Lawfulness and Pure Feeling”), Gamba turns to lawfulness (in the sense of the production of laws) in the artistic process. Here Gamba seems to go back and forth between the “code” of an artistic movement or period (artistic laws) and the legal “code” (laws that create legality or lawfulness). Though interesting as a transcendental analysis, the discussion seems somewhat awkward from an analytical point of view, at least to this reader.

The “direction of conscience toward art” cannot be reduced to the conceptual pair of pleasure/displeasure, since they are also related to knowing and willing and not an exclusive peculiarity of one’s relation to art. This insight leads to the notion of feeling (das Fühlen, Gefühl) and to the theory of feeling developed in Cohen’s System der Philosophie. Feeling is “the disposition of knowledge to have a content,” but since it is only a disposition to it, content cannot be fully placed into feeling. Thus, it is the aesthetic function of the transcendental consciousness that is defined as feeling.

Cohen formulates the transcendental hypothesis that feeling is able to produce a pure content, thus becoming “pure feeeling.” To be pure, its content cannot be an object external to aesthetic conscience. Thus, what pure feeling produces is the possibility of the aesthetic consciousness itself. In a detailed and complex passage, Gamba explains how pure feeling must be identified with love toward the human being. “Cohen identifies this love with Plato’s eros, to distinguish it from any passion of sensibility. [...] Cohen thinks that love, being the foundation of art, should be directed only to its unique proper object, the human being as individual and in this find its ideal realization” [Gamba, pg. 121]

Chapter IV analyses Cohen’s “Idea of Beauty and its moments.” The transcendental concept that gives unity to the manifold expression of the artistic process is the hypothetic concept of beauty. Cohen criticizes Kant for having conceived the beautiful and the sublime as connected and equally fundamental to aesthetic. Cohen instead suggests to reduce the sublime to the role of one of the moments in which beauty expresses itself, the other moment being humor.

As is well kown, Cohen’s philosophy is a philosophy of progress, whereby progress is not limited to the self-evident development of scientific knowledge but also applies to a kind of moral development. How does this apply to aesthetics? Even though art as such is not “in progress” (since according to Cohen every true artwork totalizes the idea of beauty), it can be described as “developing,” since the cultural frame of modern works of art is different from the conditions in which previous works were created; they are not only artistically different, but also morally and scientifically different.

Natural beauty is less emphasized in ÄrG than artistic beauty mainly because the systematic character of philosophy directs transcendental research toward facts of culture. The aesthetic fruition of a natural object is therefore the recreation of the object itself inside the aesthetic consciousness.

In Chapter VI Gamba analyzes how Cohen finds the “systematic unity of art.” Following Konrad Fiedler (1841-1895) Cohen initially accepted the theory of pure visibilism, thus discussing the possibility of recognizing the value of the representation in vision and the individuality of the portrayed self. According to Gamba, Cohen soon abandoned Fiedler’s approach when he affirmed that it is pure feeling, and thus love, what renders this recognition possible, rather than an immediate sensation, as Fiedler thought.

Turning to language (which, in Cohen’s Ethics, was considered as the externalization of will), Gamba describes how, in Cohen’s Aesthetics, it acquires a new transcendental function, namely, an internal and primary linguistic form that precedes the concept of language, even of artistic language. Cohen concludes that poetry, as the middle between concept and feeling, can and must be identified as the foundation of unity in the arts.

Chapter VI deals with Cohen’s discussion of particular form of arts, whereas, in his conclusion, Gamba asks whether lawfulness, pure feeling, and the idea of beauty may still serve as valid foundational elements for a philosophy of contemporary art.

Lawfulness (again, meaning the production of art’s laws within art itself) appears to be not only valid but even more important to modern conceptual art than it was for earlier more representational schools of art. Pure feeling, even if it does not refer to feeling in the common sense of the term, expresses the idea that art is a form of love towards humanity. Even if this is may not always be true in our own time, it is interesting what Gamba highlights: even in Cohen’s time art (such as Impressionism in visual arts and Symbolism in poetry; I am guessing here) could not always be read in this love-perspective. Rather than allowing for his aesthetics to prove inadequate for an analysis of such types of art, Cohen may simply have refused to recognize them as “true Art.”

Beauty, as Schlegel, Hugo and Wagner testified among others, is no longer the declared aim of art. Gamba nevertheless affirms that Cohen’s conception of beauty, by including humor alongside the sublime, incorporates the possibility of an art of the ugly, saved by humor. Connecting this salvation of the ugly to the recognition of contradictions in human experience, Gamba is able to recover even this third element of Cohen’s aesthetics as vital and topical.

Gamba claims (in my opinion with full right) to have demonstrated that

-- without Aesthetic, Cohen’s Philosophy of Culture would be little more than a philosophy of science, failing to address the human experience in its totality; and

-- the structure of Cohen’s aesthetics offers a promising approach to a contemporary philosophy of art—or a philosophy of contemporary art—that aims to provide a non-metaphysical foundation of culture.