Agnes HELLER, The Concept of the Beautiful, edited with an essay by Marcia Morgan. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012. Pp. lv + 165. $80.00 hardcover. ISBN 978-0-7391-7047-2. Reviewed by Stephen OKEY, Saint Leo University, Saint Leo, FL 33574.
Though she is a significant and well-regarded philosopher in Eastern Europe and her native Hungary, Agnes Heller is not as well-known a figure in Anglo philosophical circles. This text seeks to correct this oversight, offering a challenging and complex inquiry into Heller’s interpretation of aesthetics and the wider question of beauty. Originating from a lecture course given in 1994, The Concept of the Beautiful argues for an understanding of aesthetics that embraces not only art but also the everyday experience of beauty. Heller’s focus is on the “life content” of these experiences, which she claims typical conceptions of beauty tend to lose.
The first four chapters of Heller’s text focus on Platonic, Enlightenment, Kantian, and Hegelian understandings of aesthetics respectively. Of particular note among these are the chapters on Plato and Kant. In the former, Heller wrestles with the distinction between “cold” and “warm” metaphysics of beauty. “Cold beauty” emphasizes contemplation of the Idea of the Beautiful, which is concerned with the notions of perfection, harmony, and justice. According to Heller, traditional interpretations of Plato emphasize this cold aspect, which she describes as “beauty without Eros.” Warm beauty, however, is marked by Eros, Thanatos, and ascent. Heller argues that, for Plato, contemplation must be complemented by the “constant approximation” of beauty in order for humans to be happy.
Heller then pairs this Platonic warm metaphysics of beauty with the Kantian claim that beauty can be experienced anywhere. Heller looks at the Enlightenment turn to taste as a means of conceiving the beautiful, and in particular the egalitarianism of taste. Indeed judgment is not only a faculty which all possess, but one that speaks exclusively for the one who expresses it. Heller connects this notion of taste to the reality of human finitude, as Kant argues that the transience of both the human person and of the experience of the beautiful is essential to delight. For Heller, this Kantian understanding of beauty helps to resist common interpretations of aesthetics that focus exclusively on artistic expression and thus lose the everyday, commonplace experience of beauty.
The text concludes with a chapter on “fragmentation,” which considers the contributions of Kierkegaard, Nietzche, Freud, Benjamin, and Adorno to aesthetics. These five shorter sections are among the best aspects of the text, with each offering an insightful reading of how these figures wrestle with their own understanding of beauty in light of the figures earlier in Heller’s text.
Heller’s text is an impressive interpretation of a very particular slice of aesthetic theory. While the short book is clear that it is not a history of aesthetics, it might benefit from considering medieval and Renaissance notions of beauty. Not only were the metaphysics and aesthetics of Plato central to the aesthetics of those two eras, but the Enlightenment development of aesthetics depends in large part on its immediate predecessors.
This text would probably not be a suitable introduction to the work of Heller for two reasons. One, Heller is better known for her work in political philosophy, and while this text makes many overtures towards that aspect of her career, it is not the primary theme. Two, the text tends to presume both some familiarity with Heller herself as well as a firm grounding in modern and postmodern aesthetics. The introductory essay by Marcia Morgan is very helpful, but it is more of an outline of the specific concerns of this text than of Heller’s work more broadly. Heller’s prose is challenging and at times punishing, and thus readers (including this one) may benefit from repeated attempts to work through it. The text is especially oriented towards specialists in philosophical aesthetics or critical theory, and thus would be a welcome addition to any academic library. Those working in theological aesthetics may also find great value in its presentation, particularly in the introductory essay by Morgan.