Above all else, Hegel can be said to be the master of context, the philosopher who insisted that properly understanding anything involves putting it in its full context, reconstructing its development and its relation to all that is around it. From the beginning of his career, Hegel did not hesitate to put into its place the work of his fellow philosophers; his analysis, critique, and supersession of them occurred all at once, and culminated when he located them within his Phenomenology of Spirit and the final system of his Encyclopedia. Long after Hegel's own era, and even after the sharp decline in the appeal of his specific system and of ambitious systematic philosophy in general, a looser form of Hegel's contextual approach remains very popular, and with good reason. Without giving in entirely to this approach, it is hard to resist the temptation to turn the tables on Hegel himself a bit. Hence, in casting a philosophical glance at the specific phenomenon of Hegel's own aesthetics, in an attempt to begin to evaluate just a few of its most distinctive characteristics (in part 2), I will proceed by first offering a sketch of how I believe his philosophy as a whole should be situated in the context of its own age and the development of German philosophy in general (in part 1).
Of course, my own interpretive perspective has its own context, external and internal. The external context is furnished by two other accounts providing slants on Hegel's aesthetics, slants that I believe are very understandable but in the end inadequate. The first of these slants is given by what I will call the “standard account,” which buys into most of Hegel's own characterization of his aesthetics (like his philosophy in general) as largely a welcome “objective” corrective to the supposedly “subjective” approach of Kant and the allegedly even more radically “subjectivistic” and arbitrary approach of the German Romantics. The second slant is to be found in Jean-Marie Schaeffer's recent book, Art of the Modern Age: Philosophy of Art from Kant to Heidegger. Schaeffer accepts much of the standard account, but he goes on to argue in an original way that the main aesthetic tradition of Germany — after Kant, from the early Romantics to Hegel and others until Heidegger — shares a large set of influential and highly questionable “speculative” presumptions, and that the sharing of this speculative approach is far more significant — and unfortunate — than whatever incidental differences can be found between various figures within this tradition.