In Defense of Interpretation
Essays Culture Philosophy

In Defense of Interpretation

Aaron Cummings

Pippin’s Apology for a Philosophical Reading of Art

Robert B. Pippin, Philosophy by Other Means: The Arts in Philosophy and Philosophy in the Arts. University of Chicago Press, 2021.

Susan Sontag famously argued “against interpretation”; the University of Chicago philosopher Robert B. Pippin, however, has spent a long career arguing for it. In the 1960s, Sontag quarreled with “the very idea of content itself” in art, claiming that “whatever it may have been in the past, the idea of content is today mainly a hindrance, a nuisance, a subtle or not so subtle philistinism,” that “what the overemphasis on the idea of content entails is the perennial, never consummated project of interpretation.”[1] Pippin disputes this approach (and its 21st century legacy) in Philosophy by Other Means: The Arts in Philosophy and Philosophy in the Arts (2021). Here Pippin argues for an updated version of Hegel’s theory that artistic beauty is das sinnliche Scheinen der Idee, “the sensuous appearance [or, ‘shining’] of the idea”—that is, art has a graspable content, which in turn implies that interpretation remains apropos, even needful, and can reveal to the interpreter new dimensions of what is at stake in being an artistic animal (i.e., human).[2] Sontag, in contrast, wanted to “reveal the sensuous surface of art without mucking about in it,” and resisted any reading focused on bringing hidden ideas to the surface.[3]

As an example of the bone of contention between Sontag and Pippin, consider Sontag’s claim in “Against Interpretation” that abstract painting emerged as a deliberate attempt “to avoid interpretation,” as “the attempt to have, in the ordinary sense, no content; since there is no content, there can be no interpretation.”[4] In contrast, Pippin’s take on abstract art in “What Was Abstract Art? (From the Point of View of Hegel)” includes the claim that even the most abstract artwork still has “itself, or painterly possibilities, as its own content” and that each “such stylization represents an independence from a fixed perspective on content that has itself a profound moral meaning: that content.”[5] Sontag’s “interpretation” is the act of claiming “What X is trying to say is . . .” and she thinks any such move is philistine.[6] Pippin thinks the same move is philosophical. He has spent several decades “mucking about” in the philosophic interpretation of painting, novels, and film; core samples of the “content” Pippin purports to have found in art appear in condensed form in Philosophy by Other Means.

Significantly, Pippin labels his book’s opening section not an “introduction” but a “continuation.” He reminds readers of his previous forays into the philosophy of film, novel, and painting: Hollywood Westerns and American Myth (2010), Fatalism in American Film Noir (2012), The Philosophical Hitchcock (2017), Filmed Thought (2019), Henry James and Modern Moral Life (2000), and After the Beautiful (2013).[7] Like Pippin’s previous excursions into aesthetics, Philosophy by Other Means is “an attempt to construct a Hegelian approach to post-Hegelian art, modernism in particular,” inspired by Hegel’s claim in Lectures on Fine Arts that ‘Works of art are all the more excellent in expressing true beauty, and deeper is the inner truth of their content and thought.’”[8] Essential to understanding the stakes of Pippin’s project in Philosophy by Other Means are two books which Pippin, coyly, does not mention: his Modernism as a Philosophical Problem: On the Dissatisfactions of European High Culture (1991) and Idealism as Modernism (1997), in which Pippin ambitiously contextualizes modern literature as a child of the unresolved dilemmas of post-Kantian philosophy, specifically the issues spinning out of the Enlightenment attempt to balance rationality against autonomy. To readers whose interest is primarily philosophical, I would recommend these two more ambitious, unified books over the loose collection of essays in Philosophy by Other Means; conversely, the more artistically inclined will find more in-depth material in the aforementioned books of artistic criticism. A relatively slim volume (275 pages with notes), Philosophy by Other Means has the feel of a late-career sampler, allowing readers to taste morsels of Pippin’s philosophy (Part I) and art criticism (Part II). Those who find something snackable in this limited menu can help themselves to a multi-course feast in the readings above.

Philosophy by Other Means is constructed as a set of essays placed in the form of a mirror image. Opening essays on “art in philosophy” are followed by the reverse procedure, “philosophy in art,” in which Pippin samples philosophical problems posed by a trio of his favorite novelists: Marcel Proust, Henry James, and J.M. Coetzee.[9]

In Part I, Pippin attempts to establish his central claim (against “Against Interpretation”) that art can and should be read for knowledge.[10] In this controversy Pippin takes the side of George Wilson and Alexander Nehamas against Susan Sontag and David Bordwell.[11] Writes Pippin, “critics who have written on the issue of whether literature can be a form of knowledge often cite the difference between ‘understanding’ a text and possessing ‘knowledge.’ But if this claim about the inevitable role of philosophical reflection (in its own critical modality) is correct, that difference cannot be right . . . [B]ut we might do well to remember that long ago when Aristotle distinguished understanding and knowledge, the former was a superior form of knowledge, metaphysics.”[^12]

From this Pippin draws the pedagogical conclusion that the “interpretation” of a work of art, in the interpretative tradition beginning with Aristotle and continuing through the modernists, “is the most important task of teaching, although it can also provoke defensiveness and a kind of sullen resistance by some students, resentful that they are being told there was something they ‘missed.’ But the injunction that we should ‘stop interpreting’ a work and just ‘experience’ it is like demanding that we just look at the words on a page and not ask what they mean.”[12]

To give this debate its proper historical scope, Pippin sketches two hermeneutical approaches that emerged from the German tradition of the 19th and 20th centuries. On the one hand, the Frankfurt School—Adorno, Lukács, Benjamin, &c.—stood for the broadly Hegelian position that “arts could help us understand what was happening to us in a historical period, could reveal the tensions and even ‘contradictions,’ in general the irrationality or the unbearable pressures created in the way a society organized and regulated itself.”[13] On the other hand, Hegelian idealism triggered a counter-reaction represented by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger. For these souls, metaphysically tormented even when (perhaps especially when) disavowing metaphysics, the best art may offer “a ‘disclosure’ of the real, of being as such, not empirical or social reality, but ‘what there truly is.’”[14] What these two strands of German thought share is the conviction that philosophy without art is dead.

Pippin, a world-renowned scholar of German philosophy, draws on both traditions. From the Frankfurt school he borrows a close attention to the cultural shifts revealed via art history. ”Should it not be a function of philosophy to be able to say that some notion or norm is no longer available to us, has gone dead, that only a very different way of thinking is available to us?” he asks. And yet, Pippin recognizes, philosophers only have access to these shifting winds of Zeitgeist “because of what we can be taught by the arts.”[15] From the Nietzschean-Heideggerean tradition Pippin (and Pippin is no fan of Heidegger) takes the idea that these philosophers were speaking in philosophical language about the crisis of language captured literarily in Hugo von Hofmansthal’s “Lord Chandos Letter.” (If asked for an example of this crisis within the anglophone tradition, I would point to James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.) Pippin’s detective work tries to look for similar links between philosopher and artist, above all in the legacy of German idealism, most often Hegel. “I hope the trajectory of Hegel’s account” implies, writes Pippin, that it would be “possible, for example, to see the modernist novels of James, Proust, Joyce, Woolf, Musil, et al. as presenting a historically distinct representation of human subjectivity, in unprecedented relations of social dependence and independence not capturable by even the greatest ‘realist’ novels and so requiring a distinct aesthetic form, with shifting, unstable and highly provisional points of view and constant experimentation with authorial authority and narrative coherence. Both such an Idee in Hegel’s sense and its sensible form, its Schein, seem to be consistent with and indeed a kind of implication of Hegel’s historical account, especially of social subjectivity. Both embody as art what Hegel’s modern ‘ideal,’ a free life, requires and implies.”[16]

This raises the question of whether what Hegel had in mind when he wrote “art” bears any relation to the connotations the term has for twenty-first century minds. If Hegel ends his Phenomenology quoting Schiller, Slavoj Žižek has gotten a lot of mileage out of, say, Kung Fu Panda. Likewise, contemporary readers of nineteenth-century aesthetics often struggle with references to the “sublime,” a category utterly at odds with the contemporary American imaginary. Pippin concedes the difficulty: “I have only wanted to suggest why Hegel does not regard the beautiful as a credible aesthetic any longer, why he transforms the problem of aesthetic judgment, and why, in good Hegelian fashion, these absences can suggest something about a positive notion of a reflective and experimental art after both the beautiful and romantic inwardness.”[17] Ah, this is what we twenty-first century cynics were looking for! A glance around will swiftly confirm that the “beautiful” is no longer a “credible aesthetic;” I need only consult the Brutalist buildings on the campus of the University of Texas at Dallas in which I am writing this review. Yet, as the zenith (or nadir?) of modernity, these blocky monuments raise precisely the question Pippin is asking. How has the content of art—from Gothic ethereality to Brutalist materiality—been reflected in shifting philosophical self-consciousnesses? What happens to a system of epistemology and ethics when the corresponding aesthetics crumbles beneath mass incredulity?

Pippin asks these questions of Kant (on tragedy), Hegel (on poetry and painting), and Michael Fried (on photography). He wonders why Hegel’s aesthetics lacks aesthetics, and speculates with Adorno about what the contemporary culture industry has done to art. Ultimately, however, the short chapter format does not lend itself to resolving these giant questions. Pippin tends to gesture vaguely elsewhere for the resolutions of the problems he raises; he does philosophy’s role in art better justice in Philosophy as a Philosophical Problem and Idealism as Modernism.

Turning to art criticism in Part II, Pippin derives case studies from specific novels by Henry James, J.M. Coetzee, and Marcel Proust. In this half, the questions broached fit more comfortably within the confines of an isolated chapter, for the need to delimit the philosophical core from the literary context serves to give each chapter clear parameters. Pippin illustrates how to argue against “against interpretation,” by explicitly drawing a philosophical—perhaps moral—content from a text. In the case of Proust, for example, Pippin probes the author of In Search of Lost Time for insights into the centuries-long crisis of subjectivity in continental philosophy. Schopenhauer and Heidegger, for example, use music and poetry (respectively) to dissolve the subject-object distinction entirely, annihilating a subject-oriented tradition going back to Descartes’s cogito ergo sum. Proust’s dissolves his subjecthood amid the floating madeleine crumbs in his teacup and so represents, in Pippin’s reading, an attempt to speak from the perspective of a subjectivity that is nevertheless blocked: an artist’s attempt to eat the cake of subjectivity and have it, too.

Pippin carries out similar operations on what “jealousy” in Proust can tell us about “moral psychology” in academic philosophy,[18] or what the “self-knowledge problem” in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew (i.e., what it means for protagonist Maisie Farange to “know her own mind”) can tell us about the problems of consciousness.[19] J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello is invoked as an example of “philosophical fiction.” This is not to muddle the genres; Pippin’s point is that precisely because fiction is other than philosophy, fiction challenges philosophy to show what forms of knowledge it has to offer that differ from literature. That is, “if . . . fiction is philosophy by other means, then the emphasis must . . . be on the phrase ‘other means. ’. . . How ‘other’ can such means be, and still be means to philosophy?”[20] Pippin makes the case that knowledge is always of a generality and is formally generalizable (otherwise one just has a data point, a factoid—that is, not yet knowledge). Each type of generalizable knowledge has its own form: mathematics, literary studies, chemistry, and so on. These knowledge types have to do with the content of what is known. Pippin then claims that, insofar as “the form of literary and indeed all artistic knowledge is a form of self-knowledge,” that literary knowing—while distinct—remains a contributor to philosophical knowing, insofar as both literature and philosophy have their unique ways of asking the Socratic question of what it means to “know yourself” (γνῶθι σεαυτόν).

Pippin’s approach will grate on those who cut their teeth in the tradition of Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag. There is no sense of the death of the author; a philosophical hermeneutics, not an “erotics of art,” is in play. However, for those who appreciate speculative reading of classic novels, paintings, and films, Pippin’s book will be just the thing. Likewise, philosophers weary of banal abstraction will find fresh sources of inspiration within Pippin’s poetic importations. More than that, there are certain modes of knowing—especially self-knowledge, Selbstbewusstsein in Hegel’s sense—that are not accessible to philosophy unless a thinker is willing to borrow methods and mind content from the arts. Pippin makes a strong case not only for a philosophic reading of art, but also for an artistic reading of philosophy.

  1. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” in Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966). ↩︎

  2. Previously in the pages of Athwart I have taken up a writer who attacked precisely this Hegelian position, but today I present the other side of the story, a sympathetic portrayal of the German Idealist legacy in modern (I mean to include not only literary high modernism but also postmodernism and whatever has come after that, since in Pippin’s portrayal the period since Kant shares a common grappling with the problem of autonomy versus rationalist determinism). ↩︎

  3. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation.” ↩︎

  4. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation.” ↩︎

  5. Robert B. Pippin, “What Was Abstract Art? (From the Point of View of Hegel)” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 29 (Autumn 2002). ↩︎

  6. Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation.” ↩︎

  7. Robert B. Pippin, Philosophy by Other Means: The Arts in Philosophy and Philosophy in the Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), pp. 3-4. ↩︎

  8. Ibid., p. 6. ↩︎

  9. Ibid., pp. 3-160 and pp. 161-258. ↩︎

  10. Lest this opposition seem ginned up for the sake of an argument, Pippin helpfully signals his allies and enemies in this struggle within a polite footnote: Sontag and David Bordwell enter the lists against Pippin, George Wilson, and Alexander Nehemas. See Pippin, Philosophy by Other Means, p. 10, note 6. ↩︎

  11. Georg Wilson, “Interpretation” in The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Film, ed. Paisley Livingston and Carl Plantinga (New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 162-172. Alexander Nehamas, Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.) Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966). David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989).
    [^12]” Pippin, Philosophy by Other Means, 11. ↩︎

  12. Ibid., p. 9. ↩︎

  13. Ibid., Philosophy by Other Means, p. 10 ↩︎

  14. Ibid., p. 11. ↩︎

  15. Ibid., p. 12. ↩︎

  16. Ibid., p. 76. ↩︎

  17. ibid., p. 78. ↩︎

  18. Ibid., 197-217 ↩︎

  19. Ibid., pp. 161-178. ↩︎

  20. Ibid., p. 240. ↩︎

Featured image: Photo by Diogo Fagundes via Unsplash.

Aaron Cummings is a doctoral candidate in History of Ideas at the University of Texas at Dallas. You can find more of his work at Renaissance Animal. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.