Tihomir Arnaudov: The Gaze of Argus. The metaphor of Argus in Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics

1. Introduction

In his Lectures on Aesthetics, Hegel provides us with what is perhaps one of the most haunting metaphors in the whole of philosophy by comparing the work of art to Argus, the hundred-eyed giant of Greek mythology, who is thus said to be gazing at us with every fragment of the painting. The following essay provides a brief overview of the Hegelian concept of art and examines the function of the metaphor in this context, while trying to show how the concept of metaphor is of a much broader logical significance to Hegelian philosophy than previously appreciated. Finally, by a recourse to Wittgenstein’s reflections on aspect perception, I will try to show how thinking in and about metaphors helps make explicit the logical complexity behind concepts.

2. Hegel’s approach to art

Hegelian philosophy breaks with the preceding tradition in many respects, and the question of art is not an exception. Earlier aesthetic theories can hardly be said to be theories of art in the modern sense of the term – they tend to address and revolve around the capacity of objects to produce sensual pleasure and are generally restricted to the ideal of the beautiful: while Edmund Burke marveled at the smoothness of medium-sized objects, Kant made a decisive step forward by theorizing the relative autonomy of the beautiful (its purposiveness without purpose, Zweckmäßigkeit ohne Zweck) but amended the concept of beauty only by adding a transcendental-subjectivist twist concerning our inherent (and apparently trans-historical) conditions of its experience. Hegel deviates from this paradigm by directing our gaze to the actual work of art in its radically cultural and historical context. For him, far from being a simple occasion of sensual pleasure, art is in some way tied to philosophical reflection: »Kunst lädt uns zur denkenden Betrachtung ein«[1].

We can outline what is essential about the Hegelian approach to art by unpacking a single key statement: art is one mode of intelligibility of the absolute. The absolute, this most speculative and feared of concepts, designates two fundamental aspects:

            1) the highest point of the dialectical development of a concept, which is reached by reconciling (i.e. internalizing) the contradiction between its various aspectual determinations (objective and subjective, universal and particular). This concerns primarily the semantic analysis of concepts – for example, recognizing that every meaningful notion of freedom requires as its basis the structures of what are, at least formally, the fundamental unfreedoms of laws, institutions, and customs. This is simply to say that from an absolute standpoint our theoretical understanding of personal freedoms can neither be purely isolated and individualistic nor opposed to people’s actual interactions and responsibilities for others etc.;

            2) the philosophically informed standpoint of human culture and history qua actuality in which the merely semantic aspect of conceptual analysis is ontologized into the really existing agent of that process. That agent is absolute spirit, which is merely Hegel’s name for the self-reflexive collective Us as conceived by our practical and symbolic understanding of the world and ourselves through the domains of religion, art and philosophy (or science) – which are, so conceived, our sources of universal, generic knowledge. Consider for instance Hegel’s staggering claim that from the perspective of the absolute, the Peloponnesian War had to be fought so that Thucydides could write a book about it: what remains as the »absolute« spiritual gain (for us) of that senseless destruction and warfare is this particular book, which alone contributed to advancing our collective (and hence universal) understanding.

Since the absolute is, in the words of the Phenomenology, essentially a result, i.e. Hegel is often credited with founding the history of art,[2] owing to his idea that a work of art is best understood when viewed against its historical context. But Hegel’s claims go quite a bit deeper, especially since the history he is primarily interested in turns out to be logical history. On this view, art is a sensory way of addressing the same domain that philosophy approaches conceptually. While art and philosophy may differ in form, they share a relation to the absolute, which explains Hegel’s view that art invites us to intellectual reflection and his insistence that it is also a source of (self-)knowledge, albeit not necessarily directly conceptual. To simplify without vulgarizing, we can regard the goal of dialectical analysis as consisting primarily in making conceptually explicit the theoretical presuppositions that are already implicitly present in any given stances or practices. It is then the task of philosophical aesthetics to uncover the universal philosophical core of what is manifestly only the singularity of a mere artistic image.

Hegel sees his own philosophical endeavor as an attempt to overcome and reconcile various forms of splits and dualisms. Of the modern predicament, he writes:

Spiritual culture, the modern intellect, produces this opposition [spiritual vs. natural] in man which makes him an amphibious animal, because he now has to live in two worlds which contradict one another.[3]

While he considers the work of art a carrier of ideal contents, it is easy to see that it implies a similar split: the material object with all its physical and representational properties on the one hand, the ideal content which this object projects or reveals in the process of conceptual explication on the other. Adopting the linguistic terms which constitute the spirit of this essay, we can equate the materiality of an artwork with its literal meaning while ascribing its implicit or ideal content to the metaphoric function reserved for thought, in so far as it points to a meaning beyond what is merely present. Akin to the supposed primacy of literal over figurative meaning in linguistics, the existence of an ideal aspect seems to be dependent on the material one. Nevertheless, what a picture re-presents is hardly reducible to this presentation – a painting depicting a pair of cows is unlikely to be a mere expression of bovine life.

Furthermore, the disparity of the two aspects points towards the need for a connective tissue that makes their coexistence into a single object possible. We should thus regard as the fullest determination of a metaphor not so much the non-material content, but rather the very function of capturing the material and ideal within the same entity – it is both that which exceeds the literal and that which ties the literal to the metaphoric. It is in this way that the symbolic comes to dominate the real – the split is closed, sublated (aufgehoben), by going through a process of symbolic idealization of the whole.[4] The work of metaphor, therefore, even in its broadest sense of »the application of a word that belongs to another thing«[5], inadvertently thematizes core features (say, the contradictory character) of Hegel’s understanding of concepts and thoughts in general.

In other words, Hegel’s whole aesthetic framework structurally depends on the metaphoric function:[6] artistic (as opposed to artisan) value is conditioned upon the material-literal aspect, but only arises as an ideal-metaphoric surplus which comes to rewrite its own history. A representation is thus artistic only in so far as it negates what it directly shows (»I see a pissoir in the middle of a gallery, but that cannot be ›it‹, there must be a deeper point.«). To think about art as art, we are forced to take into account the break of thought with representation, i.e. the logical complexity of its constitution, combining levels of determination which don’t go together in ordinary consciousness. In contrast to the presentist Greek techné, which excluded fine art by conflating the artisan with the artist, (modern) art manifests itself as a virtual surplus beyond its purely technical or mimetic aspects, thus introducing a new temporality (beyond the »here« and »now«) to the object. The result of art is thus thought.

3. The metaphor of Argus

The way in which thought colonizes its object is best expressed in a passage from the third chapter of the Aesthetics in which Hegel introduces the eye-covered giant from Greek mythology[7]:

But if we ask in which particular organ the whole soul appears as soul, we will at once name the eye; for in the eye that the soul is concentrated and the soul does not merely see through it but is also seen in it. Now as the pulsating heart shows itself all over the surface of the human, in contrast to the animal body, so in the same sense it is to be asserted of art that it has to convert every shape in all points of its visible surface into an eye, which is the seat of the soul and brings the spirit into appearance. – Or, as Plato cries out to the star in his familiar distich: ›When thou lookest on the stars, my star, oh! would I were the heavens and could see thee with a thousand eyes‹, so, conversely, art makes every one of its productions into a thousand-eyed Argus, whereby the inner soul and spirit is seen at every point.[8]

One thing that strikes the eye is Hegel’s talent for the false quotation – the original[9] which he is citing only talks about »many« stars, while the traditional image of Argus Panoptes in Greek mythology is rumored to have a mere hundred eyes. We ought to keep in mind that rhetoricians have long classified hyperbole as a type of metaphor, for reasons apparent in Hegel’s use of a small lie to illustrate a bigger truth.

Starting from the way in which the comparison to Argus is predicated upon the very classical metaphor of the eye as a window to the soul, i.e. our ability to discern a deeper truth by looking into what is a mere surface, we will first examine what could be called a hermeneutic aspect.

3.1 The subjective aspect: the eye as a hermeneutic device

Illustration von filolino

There is a long tradition of regarding eyes as an entrance into the soul, as those privileged objects which reveal something beyond their strictly functional properties. In so far as meaning arises through interpretation and eyes meeting eyes can function as a paradigm of knowledge[10], the eye can be regarded as the body’s principled hermeneutic organ when seeking knowledge of the other. In this first approach, the eyes of Argus are not eyes that see, but eyes that reveal. The hermeneutic side of the metaphor points to the necessity to look beyond the merely material »eye« in order to grasp the properly artistic (and, at least for Hegel, philosophically charged) »soul« of the work of art. As Hegel puts it: »das Innere scheint im Äußeren und gibt durch dasselbe sich zu erkennen, indem das Äußere von sich hinweg auf das Innere hinweist.«[11] It would appear that what is on the outside is covered by the material or sensory aspect, while what remains within (but has to be, in some sense, disclosed by the artistic mastery) is the ideal, spiritual content of the work of art. And yet, the ideal is not some hidden kernel – it appears only on the surface: it is pure appearance.

Even if what was said clarifies the revelatory function ascribed to the eyes, one conspicuous question remains: why a thousand of them?

Where there are multiple eyes, there are multiple perspectives. The visual metaphor thus reaches its greatest scope by implying another one – that of the hermeneutical or historical perspective. Expanding the classical view of the eye as a window to the soul, it is reasonable to surmise that one major source of our anxiety around Argus is that we cannot really look into his soul, since the myriad of eyes overwhelms our limited perceptive capacities and thus precludes knowledge of his spirit. This would seem to imply not only a practical inexhaustibility of interpretations but, more importantly, the apprehension of a meaning perpetually withdrawn.  If the work of art presents us with a thousand ways into its soul, we have to pick and choose while entertaining the possibility that some choices are already pragmatically blocked by our own historical position, while others are a priori privileged by various cultural assumptions.

3.2 The objective aspect: the gaze

One of the advantages of the Argus metaphor is that our inability to grasp all points of interpretation in an artistic object does not mean that they are not present ›objectively‹ – the eyes of Argus are not a mere interpretative projection, they exist all the same, waiting to be engaged with by an observer with the right access, since thought is always already externalized in the object[12]. The phenomenon of what can be properly termed anamorphosis – parts of an artwork being painted or constructed in such a manner as to only reveal themselves or take meaningful shape when observed from a particular angle – introduces a different aspect: that of an objectively present gaze in the painting.

The concept of the gaze[13] requires some explication: why should a painting be staring at us to begin with? It is exactly this notion of the gaze which is the main point of fascination and repulsion in the metaphor – the effort which an observer has to invest in order to find the right angle would suggest that the gaze is already there, and thus has an objective status which precedes the subject and is, in some sense, that part of the painting to which we accommodate ourselves in the process of perception or interpretation. To feel the presence of the gaze is to be made aware of the limitations of one’s own visual field – just like when walking at night through an abandoned park and hearing a noise, the question of what I am able to see becomes fused with its uncanny supplement of what is able to see me. The subject is thus mirrored back onto itself: the gaze is the point at which the subject is already included. As Robert Pippin writes, »die Kunst verdoppelt die Realität nicht und imitiert sie auch nicht, sondern vielmehr verdoppelt der Geist sich selbst in der Kunst«[14]

One way to exemplify this dynamic in art is through an ethical (in the broader sense of  ἔθος) aspect, which we can nicely relate to Hegel’s notion of the absolute content of art: we are watched and judged by the cultural imperatives which art embodies and reveals – the gaze of Argus is not a purely formal feature, but entails a normative content, as exemplified by the expression »Argus-eyed«, which has come to designate extreme vigilance and scrutiny. The thought of going to a gallery so that one can be found guilty by inanimate objects would appear ridiculous, had it not been so often expressed. One entertaining piece of evidence for the experience of spirited objects is recounted by Richard Ellmann in his biography of Oscar Wilde – a believer in aesthetic imperatives if there ever was one – who during his time at Oxford used to bemoan: »From day to day, I am finding it more and more difficult to live up to the high standards of my blue china.«[15] The Hegelian interpretation of this sentiment would be that the aesthetical or ethical ideals revealed in beautiful china both contribute to and challenge my self-understanding as a spiritual being, because they are already spiritual.The point from which I see myself as an object and question myself coincides with the gaze, providing us with an objectified version of the Freudian Ichideal.

Another aesthete, Rainer Maria Rilke, chose to conclude his sonnet Archaïscher Torso Appolos[16] with the verses »denn da ist keine Stelle, / die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern«, exactly reproducing the scopic metaphor while spelling out the imperative of the gaze. Accidentally, Rilke’s poem also demonstrates that the aesthetic appeal of the headless torso has nothing to do with its mimetic qualities or its harmonious physical beauty, since the statue in question lacks both. Its power rather resides in an element which is purely virtual – say, in the understanding that it addresses us directly, on a personal level, from a certain perspective (perhaps the lost ideal of Ancient Greece). The poem makes explicit what is usually only implied in Hegel’s metaphor: the work of art does not only carry a spiritual content – what the metaphor of the gaze directed at us reveals is that this content is already realized in the object and demands of us to recognize ourselves as its addressees: in the words of Horace, de te fabula narratur[17] – this tale is told of you, you must change your life. Or to put it in more pathetic terms: »Thucydides and Shakespeare were writing letters to you – their work is the otherness in which you have to recognize yourself«.

Conversely, a philistine observer who fails to recognize himself as the object of the gaze and refuses to adopt a proper perspective, might indeed only see an ugly piece of stone, confirming the Hegelian view that the aesthetic experience is neither natural nor spontaneous.

4. The absolute

4.1 Concepts in Hegelian philosophy

Before we can move to the philosophical function of metaphor in relation to the absolute, another short detour around Hegel’s ideas about concepts will be needed.

A thesis central to Hegelian philosophy is that concepts are internally contradictory. What this means is that they are not self-contained monades which have an unambiguous and independent meaning, but are instead marked by negativity (or difference, relation to otherness) which needs to be internalized in order to produce what we think of as a self-identical concept – hence his famous definition of the concept as the identity of identity and difference. As Todd McGowan succinctly formulates it, »contradiction is not anathema to thought but what animates both thought and being«[18]. A somewhat simplified modern way to illustrate this idea would be the view popular in semiotics, that a sign only acquires its meaning by reference to a system of other signs – there is a differential process of negativity (other signs, linguistic rules and practices) which has to be presupposed in order to arrive at the meaning of a singular sign, since identity is not the stable starting point of a language but a category which has to be produced by linguistic practices. Furthermore, each sign presents us with the unstable (contradictory) unity of signifier and signified, i.e. the initially contingent relation between names and things which acquires the status of necessity only at a latter conceptual level. Our use of tautologies is perhaps the simplest illustration of internal contradiction: sentences like »Rules are rules« or »Law is law« serve to signify that the rules or law are not self-identical, that the particular contingent and stupid rule which I encounter is at the same time Law itself, the highest universal order – thus making the distance which separates the concept from itself palpable.

Another fundamental tension is the relation between universal meaning and particular use – the latter is never a mere instantiation of the former but adds an additional twist through which we come to relate to that universality. Hegel’s claim is that dialectically understood concepts reveal – on a linguistic level – something about the ontological contradictions of the processes which constitute them. An attitude apparent in his own choice of language is that a properly philosophical concept should, if possible, signal that it is not a stand-alone entity, but rather a result of an underlying logical history marked by oppositions, negativity and internal splits. This is why philosophical utility is said by Hegel to be especially evident in those concepts, which happen to unite in themselves the contradictory aspects of their development – consider for instance Aufhebung, which combines the meanings of »negation«, »elevation« and »preservation« in a single »speculative« (contradictory) word or Hölderlin’s reflections on Urteil[19], which, in addition to its ordinary meaning of »judgment«, also implies an Ur-Teilung, a primordial separation of subject and predicate which makes judgments possible. It is perhaps one of the primary difficulties in reading Hegel that his concepts should be read literally and understood metaphorically. Beyond the concept of the metaphor, there is thus the metaphor of the concept. What first appeared as a relation between concepts turned out to be a relation of the concept to itself. The crux of the matter is that these different aspects are, from the perspective of a well-defined concept, not external references but determinations internally related in the same notion – and this is a point at which some of Wittgenstein’s reflections on aspect perception can be useful to us.

4.2 Wittgenstein on aspect perception

So far, we have established two aspects of the Argus-metaphor: on the one hand, we have the eye as a window to the soul, in which case we are in the position of an active observer who tries to decode the »soul« depicted in the observed eye. On the other hand, we are faced with the gaze which reverses that position by observing and judging us. The work of art can clearly be both – but the philosophical task consists in bringing the two together.

This is where Wittgenstein’s ideas about »seeing-as«, also known as aspect perception, can be useful to provide some conceptual clarity. What interested Wittgenstein about the problem of seeing-as is that it implies the existence of an alternative mode of perception which is not present in the ordinary sensory judgment of simple seeing. This difference led him to the conclusion that there must be an additional faculty at work in the former case – indeed, the same tension Hegel observed in art between the aesthetic and the intellectual is to be found in Wittgenstein’s seeing-as, which can be described both in terms of »seeing« and in terms of »thinking«: »It is almost as if seeing the sign in this context were an echo of a thought. ›The echo of a thought in sight‹ – one would like to say.«[20]

This remark could equally well be re-translated as an echo of Hegel’s conception of the artwork in sight, especially when considering that Wittgenstein himself performs the reversal of sight into gaze: »Every word has […] a single physiognomy. It looks at us.«[21] Remembering that the Hegelian concept of art is defined by its »invitation to reflection«, it is easy to see that the tension present in aspect perception is also the one which animates the dialectical concept of art: »das Kunstwerk steht in der Mitte zwischen der unmittelbaren Sinnlichkeit und dem ideellen Gedanken.«[22]

The metaphor of Argus reveals the structural interconnection of two domains – that of seeing (and interpreting) and that of being seen (and interpreted). The former bears a strong relation to understanding, the latter – to self-understanding. Indeed, this whole essay has been, in a sense, an exercise in aspect perception: by taking the hermeneutic reading of the metaphor, we are describing one set of relations; by choosing the one of the gaze, we are addressing another set. The way in which the contradiction is affirmed resides precisely in the shock value of the figurative image, which cannot be replaced by any length of literal-minded prose. This uncanny feeling of eyes gazing back from what is observed, of contradictory aspects coming together, or of one aspect evolving into another and simultaneously preserving itself is nicely expressed by Wittgenstein apropos of the rabbit-duck illusion: »But the change produces a surprise [Staunen] not produced by the recognition.«[23] What this means is that the recognition of a single object (say, first as a duck, at a different time as a rabbit) does not produce the powerful affect which results from the realization that contradictory aspects belong to (and, in a deeper sense, sustain) the same entity.It is for this reason that Staunen can be said to be the primary philosophical attitude, which becomes once again visible in the wonder produced by the work of art. As Hegel quite unambiguously puts it:

The man who does not yet wonder at anything still lives in obtuseness and stupidity. Nothing interests him and nothing confronts him because he has not yet separated himself on his own account, and cut himself free, from objects and their immediate individual existence.[24]

And yet, we are surprised to find that at the deepest level of an artwork, we discover nothing but what we ourselves have put there – the enigma on show is nothing but our own collective knowledge, the objective form of the concept itself.

4.3 Reconciliation

The ultimate point of development of Hegelian concepts is the level where the choice between subjective and objective or particular and universal aspects is not a forced either-or, but the split between the two is internalized in a conceptual unity. As we have already noted, this is precisely the labour performed by the metaphoric function in merging oppositional determinations – from the real and the ideal, to the eye and the gaze. A decision for one or the other meaning or aspect is therefore a false choice: dialectical truth resides in being able to think the two together, which means, naturally, to think the metaphoric process itself.[25] 

By forcing us to keep conflicting aspects in mind, the evocative nature of the metaphor provides a shortcut to the philosophical analysis of the concept. The gaze of Argus reminds us that art is an irreducibly inter-subjective practice which brings together the one and the many, individuals and cultures, materials and ideals, feeling and thought, theory and practice… In brief, the metaphoric function is one of reconciliation.

Does this imply a final harmony? Is metaphor, of all things, going to provide artists with a happy end? Just like Hegel’s famous »Spirit is a bone«[26], we should read »Eye is gaze« not as the direct identity of one with the other, but as the failure of totalization internal to the One itself – gaze is the bone as the indivisible remainder of a symbolic process which fails to fully sublate reality. The higher unity which we achieve is thus not that of a harmonious whole, but merely the privileged point from which we can grasp the constitutive character of contradictory determinations and the finitude of every symbolic representation. And if we are lucky, perhaps we will find that we have come one step closer to understanding what the actual concept is.

[1] G.W.F. Hegel: Vorlesungen über die Ästhetik. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag 1986, p. 26.

[2] See Ernst H. Gombrich:»The Father of Art History.« In: Tributes: Interpreters of Cultural Tradition. Ed. by Gombrich. Oxford: Phaidon 1984, p. 51-70. Here p. 9.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel: Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art. Vol. 1. Translated by T. M. Knox. Oxford: Oxford University Press 1975, p. 54.

[4] This is what Hegel’s infamous double negation is all about: in metaphor, we negate the difference between real and ideal, i.e. we treat them as the same.

[5] Aristotle: Poetics. 1457b6-9.

[6] At least in the way I have presented it, equating it with Hegelian Aufhebung – although Hegel’s own thoughts on metaphors are worthy of an independent examination, the Hegelian reading I am presenting does not necessarily coincide with Hegel’s own understanding of this concept.

[7] An example too striking to omit is the really existing counterpart to Argus, the chiton – a marine mollusk which boasts up to a thousand eyes. Its tiny eyes, acting together to function as a huge compound eye, were aptly enough named (by a group of Hegelian marine biologists, no doubt) »aesthetes«.

[8] G.W.F. Hegel: Aesthetics. p. 153 f. Emphasis added.

[9] Hegel is quoting Diogenes Laertius: Vitae philosophorum, Book III. Plato. § 29.

[10] A knowledge of the other which, Hegel is aware, needs not to be directly conceptual.

[11] G.W.F. Hegel: Ästhetik. p. 37.

[12] In Hegel’s view, for the simple reason that categories of understanding are not located in our heads but in the objects: if we want to think about thought, we have to think about its objects.

[13] Jean Paul Sartre contributed a significant amount to the concept of the gaze, but it was Jacques Lacan (in his Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis) who first insisted on a relatively autonomous objective aspect distinguishing it from the subjective perspective of the eye. Lacan’s favourite example of the gaze is Holbein’s The Ambassadors, depicting a stain, which, when viewed askance, takes the shape of a human skull. In this case we can see how the (subjective) eye or look accommodates itself to the (objective) gaze.

[14] Robert B. Pippin: Kunst als Philosophie. Hegel und die moderne Bildkunst. Translated by Wiebke Meier. Berlin: Suhrkamp 2012, p. 53.

[15] See Richard Ellmann: Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1988.

[16] Rainer Maria Rilke: »Archaïscher Torso Apollos.« In: Sämtliche Werke. Vol. 1. Ed. by Ruth Sieber-Rilke a. Ernst Zinn. Frankfurt am Main: Insel Verlag 1955, p. 557.

[17] Horace: Satires. I. 1. line 69.

[18] Todd McGowan: Emancipation after Hegel. Achieving a Contradictory Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press 2019, p. 6.

[19] See for example his short text Urteil und Sein.

[20] Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations. Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1986, §212e.

[21] Ibid., 181e.

[22] G.W.F. Hegel: Ästhetik. p. 60.

[23] Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosophical Investigations. §199e.

[24] G.W.F. Hegel: Aesthetics. p. 315

[25] Topologically speaking, dialectical concepts are Möbius strips and metaphors are the short circuits (or wormholes) which connect opposite sides of the loop.

[26] See G.W.F. Hegel: Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller. New York: Oxford University Press 1977. §336-343.