6. The serious business of play and jazz


“The structure of play absorbs the player into itself, and thus frees him from the burden of taking the initiative, which constitutes the strain of existence.” 1

Recap – In the last chapter, we were paddling across deep water as Gadamer described the inadequacies of a type of experience called Erlebnis. The first shortcoming being that Erlebnis reduces and simplifies experience to just something possessed by someone. Secondly, the Kantian priority of the subjectivisation of aesthetics, based upon Erlebnis, submerges any notion of self-understanding or self-identity under its enormous weight. For these reasons, and others, Gadamer wanted to reject Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics and explore, instead, how a work of art might possess truth.

Before continuing, though, we should remind ourselves that whenever we describe the engagement with an ‘artwork’ or ‘work of art’ we build a template for how we can engage with one another. This is because, as I mentioned in the last chapter, Gadamer’s work on aesthetics always has an implicit ethical lesson.

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 – As far as Gadamer was concerned, if we can “learn to understand ourselves in and through”2 a work of art then aesthetics and epistemology might not have to operate in isolation from each other. The basis of this assertion, however, resides in a different mode of self-understanding. And this new mode of self-understanding relies upon the continuity of someone through time, the continuity of their history, and the continuity of history itself.

To reach this new mode of self-understanding Gadamer introduced a second manifestation of experience to replace ErlebnisErfahrung is described by his translators, Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, as “something you undergo, so that subjectivity is overcome and drawn into an ‘event’ of meaning.”3 This second form of experience as “something you undergo” is explicitly distinct from Erlebnis as “something you have.” The priority of the subject is taken away, and replaced by the priority of the event. When Gadamer, once again, directed this mode of experience back to the experience of art, the impact of his introduction of Erfahrung becomes clear: “a genuine experience (Erfahrung) [is] induced by the work, which does not leave him who has it unchanged.”4

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Gadamer’s introduction of experience as Erfahrung also enabled a reformulation of his epistemic question concerning art:

“Does not the experience of art contain a claim to truth which is certainly different from that of science, but just as certainly is not inferior to it? And is not the task of aesthetics precisely to ground the fact that the experience (Erfahrung) of art is a mode of knowledge of a unique kind, certainly different from that sensory knowledge which provides science with the ultimate data from which it constructs the knowledge of nature, and certainly different from all moral rational knowledge, and indeed from all conceptual knowledge – but still knowledge, i.e., conveying truth?”5

The re-emergence of the question of art having a claim to truth through the vehicle of Erfahrung, as opposed to the rejected Erlebnis, allowed Gadamer the opportunity to reconsider what it was to experience a work of art and how one might gain truth from such an experience. If Erfahrung is experience as “something you undergo,” with the priority of the subject replaced by the priority of the event and the importance of self-understanding, then Gadamer can genuinely begin to radically re-tune our approach to aesthetics.

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Thus far, Gadamer’s work in the arena of aesthetics has yielded a rejection of the Kantian model of subjectivisation with a clear rationale as to why it has been rejected, courtesy of the comparison between experience as Erlebnis and experience as Erfahrung.

The next step for Gadamer, then, had to be a tangible demonstration of what it means to seek out experience as Erfahrung. And, such a demonstration of Erfahrung needs, of course, to bring its buddy of ‘self-understanding’ along. Now, not to give the game away too much, but possibly to help it get off to a good start Gadamer stated, “understanding belongs to the encounter with the work of art itself.”6 And, it is in this statement where we find the switching of priorities: the priority of the encounter replaces the priority of the subject doing the observing. Rather unhelpfully, though, Gadamer referred to the priority of the encounter in a Heideggerian sounding phase: “the mode of being of the work of art itself.”7

Placing to one side the Heideggerian connotations of such an obscure turn of phrase, and somewhat relying on trust, we need to proceed undaunted in order to appreciate what lies beneath the Heideggerian obscurification. Because, within the concept of “the mode of being of the work of art itself,” Gadamer employed perhaps his most innovative contribution to aesthetics, a re-evaluation of the term ‘play.’

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After first dealing with all the uses of this term employed by previous thinkers, such as Kant and Schiller who gave it a subjective application of course, Gadamer set out his own thinking on play.

When one is solely used to walking sedately from room to room and observing all those around conducting themselves in a like manner, it comes as quite a shock when a confident dancer glides, swoops, spins, and shimmies their way through the same building. The priority given to the subject in ‘pre-Gadamerian’ thought is akin to walking in this illustration. When everyone else around is doing the same thing as you, it reinforces your comfort that you are acting correctly. It is only when a dancer comes along that previous ways of being are shown to be incomplete. Once the dancer arrives all methods of locomotion can be ushered in, from running to cycling to skateboarding. Gadamer, in this instance, is obviously the dancer because he realised that one can distance oneself from subjectively orientated phenomenon and discover other modes of being. One can dance, one can skate, one can hop, skip and jump. One can play. Importantly, as Gadamer explained, such ‘play’ comes about only if the subjective manner of experience is pushed aside: “Play fulfils its purpose only if the player loses himself in play.”8 Now, point to note. This is new.

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Swooping and gliding, Gadamer looked at the world differently from how he was taught and saw the possibility for dancing if only one can let go of the priority of the subject. Letting go is difficult, though, especially if you have the many shackles of philosophical history weighing you down. However, if you can do it, it is fantastically exhilarating and refreshing. Indeed, Gadamer must have felt this as he wrote about the player losing himself or herself in play, because in a way he too was playing with philosophy. Gadamer’s personal enjoyment, though, is not the current topic.

The priority upon play, Gadamer understood as the players losing themselves in play. However, he also realised that by the players losing themselves in this sense they also enable play to come forward: “play reaches presentation (Darstellung) through the players.”9 Play needs players. Although, when discussing an example of a type of play such as ‘to-and-fro movement’, Gadamer notes that “it makes no difference who or what performs this movement.”10 The subject encountering play, importantly, has no necessary priority in the mode of being of play for Gadamer. Overcoming this priority is quite a challenge because, as Gadamer remarked, we have become “accustomed to relating phenomena such as playing to the sphere of subjectivity.”11 In order over-come this challenge, Gadamer drew attention to another facet of play that complements the loss of subjective priority, the loss of any kind of target for play:

“It is part of play that the movement is not only without goal or purpose but also without effort. It happens, as it were, by itself… The structure of play absorbs the player into itself, and thus frees him from the burden of taking the initiative, which constitutes the strain of existence.”12

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Play, then, if undertaken without a goal, has priority over the subject and incorporates the latter within itself in such a manner as to relieve the subject from existential concerns whilst they are at play. Self-conscious thoughts about whether one is any good at the game become lost, as do minor worries about what to cook for the evening meal, or even major ones such as where is my life going. The player gives himself or herself over to play and becomes part of an event if the game is entered into with commitment and seriousness and not in the mode of a spoilsport. In this way one presents themselves open to the risk of being ‘outplayed’ and the possibility of embarrassment. However, by the same token, one also allows the possibility of new experiences that were not even on the horizon of expected outcomes: “The player experiences the game as a reality that surpasses him.”13

Bringing it back to aesthetics, Gadamer reflected once more on the subjectivisation of aesthetics after Kant and his desire to overcome the priority of the subject, where the aesthetic consciousness fills art objects with unique and special meaning:

“If art is not the variety of changing experiences (Erlebnisse) whose object is filled subjectively with meaning like an empty mold, we must recognise that ‘presentation’ (Darstellung) is the mode of being of the work of art. This was prepared for by deriving the concept of presentation from the concept of play, for self-presentation is the true nature of play – and hence of the work of art also.”14

The concept Gadamer has of play, therefore, creates a framework to re-work aesthetics where one isn’t trapped into following subjectivisation and epistemological separation.

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Because play effects a surpassing of the subject, epistemological prospects become altered, as Gadamer concluded:

“My thesis, then, is that the being of art cannot be defined as an object of an aesthetic consciousness because, on the contrary, the aesthetic attitude is more than it knows of itself. It is part of the event of being that occurs in presentation, and belongs essentially to play as play.”15

The presentation of play makes the “being of art” more than can be known by aesthetic consciousness. Or, said in a slightly different way, aesthetic consciousness is insufficient when attempting to capture the “being of art.” Perhaps we need to step back from the Heideggerian “being of art” for the moment to really grasp what is at stake here?

When looking at a work of art we normally try to understand it, appreciate it, or interpret it. So, we meet with it as ourselves with all of our experience, or inexperience, knowledge and taste, as Kant would argue, to assess the work. Then, after a period of application and potential revelation as to what the work might mean for us we move on. Our aesthetic consciousness has done its job. The issue for Gadamer is that this explanation of an encounter with an artwork is insufficient and misses the point because everything is so wrapped up in the subject, and the subject’s ability to attend to the work. Such a perspective invariable limits the work, reduces its potential, and sucks the life right out of it and kills it, dead. Rushing up, Gadamer performs emergency resuscitation and breathes new life into the work by realising that for art to operate and function as art it must be allowed the opportunity of perplexing the viewer. It must be allowed to penetrate deeper than the viewer could have at first perceived. It must be allowed to be more to the viewer than just another aesthetic judgement or contemplative study. For such a shift to happen, of course, an attitude of play needs to be brought to bear whereby an easy too-ing and fro-ing takes place between the viewer and the work. This way the work will not be subsumed by the viewer’s ability to exercise taste or their desire to assess the object before them.

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Consequently, as well as altering the epistemological prospects of a work of art, by postulating the concept of play as that which forces ‘presentation’ as the mode of being of the artwork, Gadamer also introduced what he regarded as the ‘true’ mode of being for the spectator. If one is to be a Gadamerian spectator then one must participate and be present within the play that surrounds the work of art’s presentation: “being present does not simply mean being there along with something else that is there at the same time. To be present means to participate.”16 Participation is a huge concept for Gadamer and we shall have to work up to it over the next few chapters. Good to know what’s on the horizon, though, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, let us not forget that, as far as Gadamer was concerned, what we are doing is learning “to understand ourselves in and through”17 a work of art so that aesthetics and epistemology might not have to operate in isolation from each other. However, more importantly, residing in this different mode of self-understanding is something new and something vital. A continuity of someone through time begins to surface and make an appearance. By being in play with a work of art we allow ourselves to undergo experiences that help give definition to ourselves beyond the usual two-dimensional descriptions of unconnected snapshot moments in time. We become fuller, richer and more rounded as we play with the artwork and allow that play to take us new unanticipated directions.

Speaking of unanticipated directions…

Sunday, January 16, 1938, is etched into Jazz history. On this momentous day Benny Goodman brought his swing orchestra and several guest soloists in front of a capacity audience of 3,800 expectant Jazz enthusiasts to the concert venue in New York City: Carnegie Hall.

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Jazz was a relatively new introduction to this ‘Holy of Holies’ of classical music. ‘Swing,’ however, had never made an appearance until Benny Goodman’s band played that Sunday night in January.

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The event is especially remembered for the racial harmony in performers and audience that were present in the hall. Black performers from both Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s orchestra, such as Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Walter Page, Freddie Green, Count Basie, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney and Cootie Williams sat side by side with Gene Krupa, Benny Goodman, Harry Goodman, Vernon Brown, Jess Stacey and the other white members of Goodman’s own orchestra. Goodman himself also employed black performers who appeared on the Carnegie Hall roster, such as Lionel Hampton. Numbers and names of the audience members are lost to history, save to say that there was no segregation and not one single problem caused by such integration. Racial discrimination was held in abeyance in New York City for those historic two and a half hours.

Gene Krupka, Benny Goodman, Cootie Williams, Vernon Brown, Johnny Hodges
The importance of the concert for us, though, is in the manner that it allows a multitude of ways to grapple with Gadamer’s idea on the experience of play. We’ll look at the audience of the time and also what one can expect listening to the concert over three-quarters of a century later, but first we shall start with the musicians themselves.

Hard-wired into Jazz is a deep respect and insistence upon improvisation and going with the flow of the music so as not to be rigidly confined by compositional scores. Artists are positively encouraged to give free reign to on-the-spot creative outbursts within the framework of the song they are performing. However, the degree and overall direction of the latitude for such open creativity is given and judged by the bandleader, in this case Benny Goodman. Catherine Tackley, who examined the 1938 concert inside out, quotes Goodman from 1939:

“The most important element is still improvisation, the liberty a soloist has to stand up and play a chorus in the way he feels – sometimes good, sometimes bad, but as an expression of himself, rather than somebody else who wrote something for him. If you want to put it this way, it’s something that is genuinely American, because it’s the expression of an individual – a kind of free speech in music.”18

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Casting aside the pro-American rhetoric, one can sense in Goodman’s words the personal connection that an improvising performer can reach with their art-form if they are allowed to play with it. Two perfect instances of such play come out in the iconographic number by Louis Prima called ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ Both Harry James’ impassioned trumpet solo work and Jess Stacey’s cool hand over his piano solo demonstrate the artistic summits which can be reached when play is allowed to occur.

From the outset of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ there is Gene Krupa’s rumbling, fast and loud, jungle beat on his floor tom, with accompanying bass drum, plus accentuated snare and hi-tom strikes, to set the rhythm alongside his hi-hat pulses and cymbal crashes. Then, after a few seconds, in comes the brass. First, the trombones play a steady triplet hook, and then the trumpets arrive after a couple of seconds with a blaring and deliciously dirty counter line. Next, it’s the saxophones, with a swinging melody that works a smoother phrase to Krupa’s pounding tempo. Goodman’s clarinet, after a minute of pace-setting rhythm from Krupa and the brass section, enters the fray with punchy high notes interspersed with space for the drums to get highlighted in brief breathing spaces where the wind players catch their breath before ploughing through the routine again and again.

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Goodman split the show-stopping tune into two parts. The first delivered the theme, as drawn up by Louis Prima, which in its own right stands as an unforgettable swing standard. However, Goodman’s genius is made apparent in the second section. There is a musical return to the main theme that culminates in a surging groundswell in the trumpets and brass. This broods alongside his clarinet to crank up the tempo and work up the scale to produce a musical invocation of monsters threatening to descend from the shadows in ecstatic dance. Suddenly, a tension release appears when everything pares back leaving just Krupa’s hypnotising floor tom work. However, with a quick roll and flash onto the rest of his kit, Krupa creates space for Harry James to work in a trumpet solo with just the drums and piano in accompaniment. In just over a minute, James performs a solo that flourishes with such virtuosity that, arguably, he can claim the right of achieving the pinnacle moment in the whole concert. His musical brilliance and sense of feeling are both at their peak as he allows his supreme talent loose. The phrases are punched out in harmony with Krupa in such a way that one can almost feel the confidence within James swelling. After scene-setting his command over this section, he slides effortlessly into a pseudo Rimsky-Korsokov moment, where shades of Bumblebees flight are aired, just before belting out a declaration of intent through staccato bursts, that climb ever upwards in an unstoppable run to triumphantly smash through to a new, as yet, unreached level of powerhouse swing that brings the rest of the orchestra back into play. The sensation’s cast in that extended minute are guaranteed never to leave the attentive listener. James reigns majestically and performs to such a level that his life would never be the same again. Less than a year later he would leave Goodman’s orchestra and create his own orchestra on the back of the heights reached at Carnegie Hall.

However, there is a darker side to his performance, which touches on Gadamer’s ideas around play. Tackley quotes James from George T. Simon’s tomb The Big Bands and shows the after-effect that the Carnegie Hall solo had on the trumpeter:

“I don’t think I ever told anybody this, but I was going through a real mental thing, and it was all built around ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ I’d been sick; they gave me some experimental pills… Well, they wigged me out… as I was supposed to get up and play my chorus on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing.’ I just couldn’t make it. I fell back on my chair… It happened again another time, too, so that every time the band played ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ I’d get bugged and scared it would start all over again… I tried to explain it to Benny and I’d even ask him to play ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ earlier in the evening, so I could relax for the rest of the night. But of course, that was his big number, and so I couldn’t blame him for wanting to hold off. Finally, I just left the band. I couldn’t trust myself anymore. At least with my own band I could play the tunes I wanted to play.”19

Tackley interprets James’ obvious psychological problem as “the negative effects of a piece that initially represented collective creativity but had become a standardized arrangement.”20 Thinking this through Gadamer’s idea of play; James in the Carnegie Hall concert had got himself to a pitch where he was in ‘play’ with ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. The techniques and craftsmanship that he had diligently learned over the years of studentship with the trumpet had matured and been absorbed sufficiently so that he could now stop thinking about how to play and could focus wholly, instead, on giving over his fingers and breathing to the music so as to unleash the art. The extent to which he was responding, there and then, to the rhythm and themes of the song, taking risks and improvising on the hoof, allowed him to reach the heights of creative genius. The flow of his talent with the trumpet combining with the energy and raw power of the tune seem to vibrate in his performance giving a whole greater than the sum of the parts. However, subsequently, being asked to capture and repeat such a unique rendition every time the orchestra played ‘Sing Sing, Sing’ – sometimes a daily task – filled him with trepidation. One just can’t be brilliant on demand. Each time he played the solo he would always have the pressure of living up to that one spotlight performance, which was actually given only a few weeks after he joined Goodman’s band. The arrogance of ignorance would have helped him play at Carnegie Hall in a way that he could never emulate again, because that performance would forever be cast in stone as a crowning achievement never to be duplicated or bettered.

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Jess Stacey’s piano solo in ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ is also the epitome of Gadamer’s sense of play, it is wrought with risk too, but has an understated wisdom to it in a way that James’s spectacular solo doesn’t. Which is not to diminish James’s solo but to realise that Stacey brings another dimension entirely to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’. Tackley draws out the difference in a wider comparison of the four major performers:

“Stacy’s approach to ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’ is completely different from many of the other solos in the concert, being reflective not only in mood but in content… Krupa and James use the piece as a vehicle for projecting their Jazz personas, but Goodman and Stacy’s improvisations instead draw the audience in and encourage them to listen.”21

Stacey ‘plays’, though, just as much as James, in his piano solo. Starting with a jaunty bounce, he soon starts weaving different melodic lines which ebb and flow from each other and lead into high octave watery drops splashing softly and delicately, all within a few bars. Drawing in the audience, as Tackley describes, by gently rolling notes in a high register, Stacy effortlessly shifts gears once more and riffs in the mid-range but drops in low minor chords which he then uses to form the next improvised bars before ascending up the piano deftly to return to the high octave once more. It’s a beautiful performance that leaves Goosebumps where James left racing heartbeats.

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Rather interestingly, from a Gadamerian perspective, Tackley spends some time covering the birth pangs of swing before Goodman brought it to Carnegie Hall and identifies a critical element to its reception by audience members. The issue at stake being whether music like Goodman’s was for dancing or listening to.

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In 1934, Goodman began broadcasting on a radio programme entitled Let’s Dance, which obviously swayed the balance at the start towards dance. However, when playing at the Chicago Rhythm Club in 1935, Goodman stated “there was tremendous enthusiasm all through the programme – the few people that tried to dance were booed off the floor.”22 Tackley notes that there was also a shift taking place at this time in preferred venues. Jazz, in its swing variation, started to wander from ballrooms to set up shop in theatres. In so doing, this physically communicated that Jazz was to be listened to and not danced to by its audiences. No more was it background music for dancers. The ‘play’ when the audience experienced swing, by the time of the Carnegie Hall concert, was one that happened aurally not bodily. Notes, melodies, rhythm, riffs and phrases were there to be heard by their audiences who, in turn, gave their full attention and appreciation by listening and allowing the music to ‘play’ with them and take them where they knew not.

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Even today, over three-quarters of a century later, one can listen in the comfort of one’s own Ikea Poäng and be irresistibly carried away. The brilliance of ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’s’ composition in the hands of Goodman, Krupa, James, Stacey and friends is there to be felt, to be heard, but most of all to be played with by every new pair of ears that comes across it. The ‘once in a lifetime’ performance is caught, but not preserved. It is given life. It is given an infinity that it deserves, as it is eternally performed again and again. The ‘play’ engaged by the main orchestra members is forever as fresh as when it was given at Carnegie Hall. Their skill and dexterity when they played with Louis Prima melody and rhythm all those years ago, as they swung and improvised under Goodman’s watchful eye taking risks and yearning to forget all the technicalities of their performance in the pursuit of merging themselves absolutely with the music, will always be there. As individuals they gave themselves up completely to achieving the very best jazz they could that night and that only happened when they let go of the logic in the printed notes on the pages in front of them and started to explore where their fingers, breath and talent could take them. Harry James might have felt that he could never reach the great heights again of his performance whilst he was alive, but in the eternity provided by the recording his ‘never-to-be-repeated’ play has been given immortality.

The only question that remains, of course, is whether we, as listeners, can give that same dedication and really listen and play with their unique creation so as to do justice to their combined achievement. Maybe it’s time, if you haven’t done so already, to switch on ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, close your eyes and allow your ears, mind and body to become filled with the music. Just make sure it’s the Carnegie Hall version, though!

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  1. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 105.
  2. Ibid., 97.
  3. Weinsheimer, J. and Marshall, D. G. ‘Translators’ Preface’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 14.
  4. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 100.
  5. Ibid., 97-98.
  6. Ibid., 100.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., 102.
  9. Ibid., 103.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid., 104.
  12. Ibid., 104-105.
  13. Ibid., 109.
  14. Ibid., 115-116.
  15. Ibid., 116.
  16. Ibid., 124.
  17. Ibid., 97.
  18. Tackley, C. Benny Goodman’s Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert, Oxford University Press, 2012, 150.
  19. Ibid., 153.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 100.
  22. Ibid., 10.


5. The experience of art and Magritte


“The work of art has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it.”1
Hans-Georg Gadamer

OK, so we’re going to need some definitions for this one because, like it or not, we need to refer to Immanuel Kant and this section might be tougher than your driving test or accessing your online account with a utility provider when you have forgotten your password. But, hey, let’s not be pessimistic, in the next section it’ll all be explained with some art.

Aesthetics – is concerned with questions of taste and beauty
A priori – is reasoning that occurs before experience
Epistemology – is the theory of knowledge
Ontology – is the study of being, existence, stuff, or what there is
Subjectivisation –is Kant’s way of saying something relates to a subject and not to truth or facts (objective things)
Universal – is true for anyone

So, when we last saw Gadamer, we left him leaping out of a lake of epistemology into a stream of aesthetics. All because he decided to ask two questions:

“Is it right to reserve the concept of truth for conceptual knowledge?”2

“Must we not also acknowledge that the work of art possesses truth?”3

The tantalising waters of aesthetics have long been found easier to navigate away from epistemological concerns. However, being that wonderful oxymoron that he was, a careful revolutionary, Gadamer decided to abandon such conventions and sail them both. Good for him, I say.

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Starting by addressing his own questions, a standard philosophical technique, Gadamer posited the following statements and by doing so encapsulated his revolutionary fusion of aesthetics and epistemology:

“The work of art has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it. The ‘subject’ of the experience of art, that which remains and endures, is not the subjectivity of the person who experiences it but the work itself.”4

Excusing the fact that the translation has managed to provide us with the word ‘experience’ four times in two sentences, there are three neat mini-revolutions contained within this terse prose:

  • First, there is the explicit challenge to accepted models of understanding in both aesthetics and epistemology. In both disciplines, the standard criteria for the experiential subject is to be static and stable, and not as Gadamer proposes dynamic and changeable.
  • Second, the statement regarding the work of art’s ‘true being,’ the attainment of which is predicated upon its ability to alter the spectator, acts to license the judgement of the work in a radical manner. The judgement being determined by whether or not there is a perceivable effect upon the viewer.
  • Finally, the third mini-revolution, in contrast to the malleable spectator, sees the work itself remaining constant. Which opposes those who like to see art changing according to the circumstances or time period in which it is viewed, listened to, or read.

Isolated into their separate constitutive parts all can be investigated within their own debates. From the dynamic spectator, to judging an artwork by its ability to produce a change in the spectator, or the work remaining constant, each will undoubtedly provide a lucrative boon to any researcher so inclined to separate, split down and analyse them. For Gadamer, though, they all strode together to act as a central thesis. A thesis with no sense of shame as it threw the contents of its glass into the face of the most important dignitary at the party: Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics.

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Gadamer, being the diligent philosopher that he was, didn’t randomly throw his wine in the general direction of Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics; he first undertook reconnaissance in order to assess the true nature of his target:

“In his critique of aesthetic judgement what Kant sought to and did legitimate was the subjective universality of aesthetic taste in which there is no longer any knowledge of the object.”5

The effective result of such legitimisation removed any possibility for knowledge, and consequently truth, from aesthetic objects and dictated that they be bound together with the empire of the subjective. The whim and fancy of the individual subject was emperor and beauty, in its standard resident position, would be forever in the eye of the beholder.

Hence, Gadamer conceived Kant’s third critique as that which separated aesthetics from epistemology. Taste, beauty and the sublime were divorced from truth as far as Kant was concerned. This, of course, would be of minor concern if Kant were just an everyday down-at-heel philosopher trying to make an honest buck. However, Kant was no such mortal, because as Gadamer knew all too well, “The radical subjectivisation involved in Kant’s new way of grounding aesthetics was truly epoch-making.”6 Epoch-making because every succeeding generation studying aesthetics was left with the legacy of Kant’s subjectivisation, and they either had to adopt it or at the very least address it. As Jean Grondin, a close chum of Gadamer’s wrote, the subjectivisation of aesthetics, for Gadamer, was “the great impasse of aesthetics, if not the whole of modernism.”7 Such an impasse, however, made Gadamer doubt its authority and decide to confront the yawning problem of an epistemological absence.

By asking his two initial questions, Gadamer stood up to his full height, rolled up his sleeves, and held Kant squarely in his sights as he set about dismantling the subjectivisation of aesthetics.

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Armed with a monkey wrench and set of spanners, Gadamer took to his task and began investigating Kant’s work on aesthetics by examining what he called Kant’s Doctrine of Taste and Genius:

“In taste nothing is known of the objects judged to be beautiful, but it is stated only that there is a feeling of pleasure connected with them a priori in the subjective consciousness.”8

Aesthetically then, nothing can be said to be a ‘truth’ about a beautiful object; there are no objective aesthetic ‘facts’ to be agreed upon as to why the object is beautiful. All that can be said is that the object appeals to an individual’s sense of taste. This feeling, as Gadamer acknowledged, however, is not wholly ring-fenced to the subjective individual per se, because it can be communicated universally and as such gain validity. By looking at a piece of Edwardian furniture I might get a feeling of pleasure in my ‘taste’ zone which you would also make sense of and understand because my love of Edwardian furniture is ‘universalisable’ to everyone.

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Consequently, Gadamer believed that Kant situated taste between the merely sensory and universal rational rules: “it imports no knowledge of the object, but neither is it simply a question of a subjective reaction.”9 Ultimately, however, because the universal element to taste is only in its communicability and not in the form of epistemic certainty, taste falls short of the requirements for objectivity and truth, and is relegated to the default status of the subjective. For Gadamer with his screwdriver in hand, having just stripped down this first component of Kant’s authority, it certainly appeared “impossible to do justice to art if aesthetics is founded on the ‘pure judgement of taste.’”10

Working ever onwards, Gadamer took out his oxy-acetylene torch and applied it to Kant’s doctrine of genius, and speedily discovered problems due to the interconnections that Kant drew between the two concepts of taste and genius. Without going into detail, Gadamer was left in no doubt that Kant’s mechanically designed aesthetics was constituted inadequately and by default found itself rooted in subjectivisation; a complete category error as far as Gadamer was concerned.

Fundamentally, then, it appeared that the justices Kant and Gadamer sought to bestow upon aesthetics were at odds. According to Michael Podro, one of Kant’s epoch respondees, “Kant’s primary purpose” was to indicate an “alternative mode of perceptual fulfilment.”11 The focus for Kant was not to find truths within aesthetics, as it was for Gadamer, but to understand a different mode of perception. This was because Kant followed up his previous two critiques on Pure Reason and Practical Reason with a third, on Judgement, that held at its core the same notions regarding a priori conditions – our mental hardwiring. The first critique was concerned with uncovering a priori conditions for “making objective, universally valid empirical judgements, both ordinary and scientific.”12 The second critique then “discovered a priori conditions for making objective, universally valid moral judgements.”13 The third critique, Gadamer’s current chosen critique of choice, then followed by finding a priori conditions for creating judgements based on pleasure, which are obviously subjective.

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In a virtually blasphemous nutshell then, Kant’s project was locked into an enquiry that prioritised the workings of the mind in terms of sensibilities, intuitions, imagination and the understanding. The Gadamerian question of a work of art possessing truth simply was of no interest to Kant. A situation that left Gadamer very frustrated, as a chap called Kai Hammermeister neatly expresses when thinking about ontology (what there is):

“Kantian aesthetics leaves us strangely unsatisfied when viewed from a different perspective, namely, when questioned about the ontological status of the work of art… Kant does not answer the ontological question at all. The aesthetic judgement does not relate to the object, but is merely the expression of the pleasurable subjective state of the free play of imagination and understanding.”14 (The ‘free play’ stuff being the whim or fancy of the individual again).

The separation is absolute, aesthetic judgements have no ontological status for Kant. As Hammermeister notes, “matters of art and matters of knowledge must not be confused.”15 An erroneous position, of course, for Gadamer who was deeply convinced that art can possess truth and can also be discussed in terms of knowledge.

Going head-to-head against Kant and his three critiques, though, was never going to be an easy task. So, even having established that Kant’s legacy was problematic and one-sided. Due to the ontological question being omitted and the priority given to the subjectivisation of aesthetics. Gadamer still had to find a way of demonstrating the profound wrong-headedness of such a legacy and, of course, clearly identifying his recommended alternative.

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Returning to his more natural habitat, tangential modes of thought, Gadamer pursued the task by focusing his attention on the form of experience of those in an aesthetic encounter. Gadamer sought a way forward by applying his mind to the actual term ‘experience,’ which he discovered was once almost solely determined by one particular manifestation called Erlebnis:

“what is experienced is always what one has experienced oneself.”16

The translators of Truth and Method usefully pitch in at this point to aid Gadamer by describing the concept of Erlebnis as “something you have,” and stating that it is always “connected with a subject.”17

Armed with the knowledge that Gadamer was almost certain to dislike this mode of experience it should come as no small surprise that he pitilessly set out how he thought an aesthetic experience of a work of art would operate under Erlebnis:

“What it ignores are the extra-aesthetic elements that cling to it, such as purpose, function, the significance of its content. These elements may be significant enough inasmuch as they situate the work in its world and thus determine the whole meaningfulness that it originally possessed.”18

For Gadamer, these ignored and distinctly ontological elements could start to give the work meaning and possibly truth. But as art, in the traditional (or Kantian) sense, “the work [of art] must be distinguished from all that.”19

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An aesthetic experience based on Erlebnis, therefore, differentiates the ‘purely’ aesthetic from that which surrounds the artwork; a separation that Gadamer could not endorse. As a process, he designated it as the adoption of an ‘aesthetic consciousness.’ Such a stance isolates the experience of the artwork, as Erlebnis, from what it regards as incidental circumstance with no influence upon the aesthetic experience. As far as Gadamer was concerned, the consequent outcome of such “aesthetic differentiation” was two-fold. On one hand, “the work loses it place in the world to which it belongs insofar as it belongs instead to aesthetic consciousnesses,”20 And, on the other, the artist loses their place in the world because they are peripheral to the aesthetic experience based on Erlebnis. Hence, aesthetic consciousness, as a direct result of the subjectivisation of aesthetics, subsumes all works of art and artists: “Aesthetic consciousness has unlimited sovereignty over everything.”21

As well as the fault of establishing a false hierarchy, Gadamer also took issue with the resulting destructiveness of the Erlebnis-driven aesthetic consciousness. Following a very simple progression, if the aesthetics of a work are only significant in terms of the spectator’s experience, in the manner of aesthetic consciousness, then there is no aesthetic unity to the work because the aesthetic content resides solely in the variety of spectators who view it. However, not only is the aesthetic unity of the object destroyed, so too is the identity of the spectator employing aesthetic consciousness. Citing Kierkegaard’s work on the aesthetic stage of existence, Gadamer reminds us that a life led in the “pure immediacy” of aesthetic pleasure is “untenable.”22 By continually ignoring the non-aesthetic elements to a work of art, as a method of experiencing and pursuing a policy of aesthetic consciousness, one is doomed to a fragmentary life without continuity or coherence. One floats meaninglessly from one aesthetic experience to another.

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Ultimately, because of the destructive nature of the aesthetic consciousness, Gadamer regarded its position as unviable, to the point where he realised an imperative:

“Since the aesthetic stage of existence proves itself untenable, we recognise that even the phenomenon of art imposes an ineluctable task on existence, namely to achieve that continuity of self-understanding which alone can support human existence.”23

For Gadamer, then, the legacy of Kant’s subjectivisation of aesthetics was built upon quicksand, with its core principle of aesthetic consciousness comprehensively destroying all the components within the experience of art: the aesthetic unity of the object, the artist’s place in the world, and even the identity of the spectator. By working through the problems of aesthetic consciousness, in particular the disintegration of the spectator’s identity, Gadamer realised the necessity for an experience of art that allowed a development of one’s identity, not its destruction. This realisation produced the imperative that one should achieve “continuity of self-understanding.”24 One’s experience of art, then, should perpetuate this self-understanding and keep one’s identity alive:

“Self-understanding always occurs through understanding something other than the self, and includes the integrity of the other. Since we meet the individual artwork in the world and encounter a world in the individual artwork, the work of art is not some alien universe into which we are magically transported for a time. Rather, we learn to understand ourselves in and through it.”25

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Gadamer is taking us into deep waters here, which we shall have to continue exploring another time, but only after we have looked at some paintings that just might make everything a little clearer.

One hundred and fifty years before Kant wrote his Critique of Judgement, Diego Velázquez painted his portrait of ‘Pope Innocent X’. Ever since, art connoisseurs have revered the work. For example, Hippolyte Taine described it as “the masterpiece amongst all portraits.”26 If Kant had wanted to ingratiate himself with the Pamphili family, Innocent X’s descendants, and viewed the portrait, perhaps he might have had much to say. Switching between thoughts on how beautiful the work was and how his subjective taste was entranced, I’m sure he would have rhapsodised and seen Velázquez’s work as consummate proof of his ideas on the subjectivisation of aesthetics. Undoubtedly, Kant would have regarded Velázquez as a genius, if pushed to make a comment. He would have also certainly added, “Genius is a talent for producing something for which no determinate rule can be given.”27 Thus reminding us of his separation of rules from aesthetics.

Velasquez Pope Inocencent X
Kant becomes gloriously unstuck, though, when one imagines him looking at a different painting altogether. Three hundred years after Velázquez, Francis Bacon painted several variations on Velázquez’s original work and managed to create a total reformation and a new icon within the history of art. ‘The Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X,’ affectionately known as the ‘Screaming Pope’, is a work that Kant would have surely dismissed as devoid of any aesthetic quality whatsoever. However, the tide has turned on Kant because, as we know, there are many respected art critics and aestheticians who venerate Bacon’s work and consider it a triumph of genius. Robert Hughes said, “once you have seen two or three of Bacon’s screaming popes, you can’t get them out of your mind.”28 And this is it. This is Gadamer’s point. Some art “has its true being in the fact it becomes an experience that changes the person who experiences it.”29

Bacon After Velazquez 1953
Perhaps, it’s as well now to make clear and bring completely in focus that whenever we describe the engagement with an ‘artwork’ or ‘work of art’ we are building a template for how we could engage with one another. Make no mistake, all Gadamer’s work on aesthetics has an implicit ethical lesson. Sometimes when trying to understand one thing we need to look at another and critically examine how we are actually undertaking the looking.

Dare I say that, possibly, Bacon’s portrait of a screaming Innocent X is unforgettable in a way that Velázquez’s might be? The power of each to haunt us is palpably present, however, Bacon’s shocks, disturbs and engages us intellectually as we are caught staring at it trying to comprehend what on earth is happening. It seduces us and, at the same time, imprints itself on our minds causing a shift in our way of understanding what art can be. When one sees the ‘Screaming Pope’ for the first time one comes away changed. The experience of it alters our perception of what painting is. Somehow the work invades our mind, sets up shop, and makes us slightly different from who we were before. And this power, Gadamer understood, is the “true being” of art: the power to change “the person who experiences it.”

Bacon’s visceral and shocking image produces an emotional outcry from some as they see the silent scream of a forever-transfixed pope. However, one can also experience the mental outcry that yearns to understand and make sense of what it is seeing. Explanations zip rapidly across our minds as we filter information surrounding the painting, such as when it was produced, in case a clue might be gleaned. Or, if we know that Bacon was a lifelong atheist and beaten by his father to try and rid him of his homosexuality, we start conjecturing and pontificating. Desperate attempts to quantify the work come thick and fast. It’s a visual representation of the death of God, a reflection upon the Nuremberg trials where Nazis were questioned inside a glass box, or the ultimate figure of authority suffering the retribution of tortured son. Bacon himself was keen to always avoid and evade any such explanations in order to allow the visual to represent itself rather than being overlaid or smothered by words. Consequently, because of his evasion and the work’s internal resistance to categorisation it blocks neat definitions and ensures that the gaze of the spectator is held and never really released as it continues to linger in the mind as an ever-present visual question that cannot be answered.

700 Aldolf Eichmann - Nazi War Criminal on trial in Nuremberg after capture
Whilst Bacon’s work scorches and sears our mind, another artist working at the same time was doing something similar. Although both would have strenuously denied any cohesion between their activities beyond that they were painters.

Rene Magritte, working in Belgium, but with strong intellectual ties to Surrealism, had been pursuing an artistic project that sought to disrupt traditional notions of how art may be perceived and, indeed, what it may provide. In stark contrast to Bacon, Magritte’s temperature was cooler and somehow more distant. Arguably, too, Magritte’s painterly ability was in a minor key compared to Bacon’s absolute, but always disrupted, major one. Magritte’s style was more along the lines of the illustrative as opposed to the grand master. His work was always about the idea rather than the display of artistic virtuosity. However, let’s us get back to the theme.

In 1868, Édouard Manet painted one of his iconographic scenes of the bourgeoisie at rest, ‘The Balcony’, containing friends and family as the main figures in an homage to Francisco Goya’s ‘The Majas at the Balcony’. The work’s reception at the 1869 Paris salon was, typically for Manet, far from appreciative, with his work being described as “discordant.”30 Maybe, because he didn’t insert female nudes into ‘The Balcony’ as he did with his 1863 and 1865 salon entries ‘The Luncheon on the Grass’ and ‘Olympia’, the criticism was more restrained than outraged. Possibly of more interest is that, wittingly or not, Manet establishes an unusual aura in the figures of ‘The Balcony’, as they each seem to be wholly isolated and independent from each other. I say, “possibly,” because there is an argument that Magritte in his ‘homage’ to ‘The Balcony’ manages to unify them.

A confident and self-assured Magritte painted ‘Perspective II. Manet’s Balcony’ in 1950. The work is an exact reproduction of ‘The Balcony’, except that each of the figures is replaced, or encased, by a coffin shaped to match their posture as depicted by Manet. Unified by death, the figures have been resolved under Magritte’s hand – is how a possible art historical analysis could begin. However, what interests me is the evidence of the same power to shock and disturb as we saw with Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’.

Perpective II- Manet-s-balcony-1950(1)[1]
Viewing Magritte’s work alters one’s understanding of what a work of art can be and how we are to engage with it. Again, as with the ‘Screaming Pope’, Kant would have dismissed ‘Perspective II. Manet’s Balcony’ as some kind of nonsense, because his understanding of aesthetics is simply short-circuited by Magritte. Magritte forestalls Kantian notions of beauty and taste, because he was not interested in merely replicating nature on canvas, his priorities lay outside of such a restrictive view of aesthetics. However, as always, we must keep to our topic and in this instance look to Gadamer.

Gadamer’s ideas, as we know, rotate upon a new axis of engagement: one that demands we consider the spectator as a malleable figure. The work of art has its “true being” or, switching things around, the work can truly be said to be art, if it changes the person who experiences it. When regarding Magritte’s work do we not come away altered? Are our sensibilities and understanding of aesthetics not dashed to the floor? Or, at least mildly jostled, when we stack ‘Perspective II. Manet’s Balcony’ against the long line of ‘traditional’ art with its litany of landscapes, portraits and figurative permutations upon religious tales of yore? The sight of coffins so obviously taking the place of figures, even if we were ignorant of Manet’s original, forces a pictorial confrontation that seems to wilfully disobey the very text of how we should refer to death. It instantly unsettles and provokes us so that the question to ask becomes, ‘do we ever come away from something that has unsettled us the same as we were before?’ I suspect not, but then I would, wouldn’t I? After all, I’m a Gadamerian rather than a Kantian.

Let’s look at some more Magritte’s and see if we can further grasp what Gadamer is trying to tell us.



Some works like ‘Clairvoyance’ or ‘Day and Night’ are cunning creations that appear to be almost visual gags. They appear as visual incarnations of ‘what if’ ideas. However, other works impact in a more profound way.

‘The Great War,’ for example, works to continually irritate us because the hydrangea is precisely in the way of where we want to look – the Edwardian lady’s face. We don’t cope too well when faces are covered up, obscured or removed entirely. Perhaps instinctively we are upset and disturbed by this? The face is after all where we direct our gaze when regarding each other and it is always our first port of call when examining portraits, the surroundings are forever secondary.

In ‘Not to be Reproduced’, Magritte plays further with this unsettling theme by giving the work the sub-title – Portrait of Edward James – a device he repeats in ‘The Pleasure Principle.’

Both works deepen our sense of being unsettled because the solitary protagonist is actually named and the work is expressly presented as a ‘portrait’. Our expectations, therefore, become visually and textually distressed.

Magritte continues throughout his work to explore the idea of stunning our expectations with yet more ways of interrupting our usual ease of regarding portraits. ‘The Rape’ and ‘The Lovers’ both continue to disturb our gaze by removing or altering our understanding of what we expect to see.

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As with all of Magritte’s work, each painting has its own semantic and interpretive possibilities. However, when seen together from ‘The Great War’ onwards, there is a vein of deliberateness that seeks to strike at the very foundation of what we want to see when admiring a portrait. The strike in each case leaves an indelible impression on our minds that, once seen, cannot be erased. Just like Robert Hughes’ description of Bacon’s ‘Screaming Pope’ you can’t get Magritte’s works out of your head. Working with an un-masterful painterly technique or not, Magritte’s art hits home and does its Gadamerian work: the spectator walks away changed by the experience.

Incidentally, as one opens oneself up more to the work of Magritte, one starts to see a language taking shape through the re-working of different yet similar ideas. However, it is not an objective language, because we each establish with Magritte’s works a unique understanding that functions as a ‘common language’ solely between the works and us. What I see and understand is going to be different to what you see and understand. There might be some shared cross-over points. However, if we are to truly engage with the works and allow them to ‘speak’ to us, rather than be ‘translated’ by a third party, we need to direct ourselves to the works themselves. When conversing with Susan we don’t really want Nigel to interlope and speak on Susan’s behalf. Likewise, when ‘conversing’ with Magritte go to the primary source, his works, not to your friend, an art historian or Daily Mail columnist.

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Finally, though, we need to understand that Magritte can be a cypher for how to relate to an artwork or an artist’s oeuvre. His work demonstrates the power that any art can have on us, in that we can be changed by it, if we let it. The question is can we let ourselves be affected by a work of art? Are we able to stand in front of something that we know could push us, change us, re-shape our boundaries, redefine our customs, and tinker with our deepest thoughts and emotions? Because what I hope to have shown with Magritte and Bacon can be found, and should be found, in the whole gamut of art. After all, one person’s Magritte is another person’s Miró, Picasso, Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Goya, or even Velázquez or Manet.


  1. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 102.
  2. Ibid., 41-42.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid., 102.
  5. Ibid., 41.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Grondin, J. The Philosophy of Gadamer. Translated by Kathryn Plant, Acumen, 2003, 39.
  8. Ibid., 43.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid., 45.
  11. Podro, M. ‘Kant and the Aesthetic Imagination’ included in Art and Thought, edited by Dana Arnold and Margaret Iverson, Blackwell, 2003, 63.
  12. Crawford, D. W. ‘Kant’ included in The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, edited by Berys Gaut and Dominic M. Lopes, London, 2002, 52.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Hammermeister, K. The German Aesthetic Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 39.
  15. Ibid., 40.
  16. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 61.
  17. Weinsheimer, J. and Marshall, D. G. ‘Translators’ Preface’ included in Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second edition, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 13-14.
  18. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 85.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid., 87.
  21. Ibid., 89.
  22. Ibid., 95.
  23. Ibid., 96.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., 97.
  26. Bosky, B. L. “Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine”, Cyclopedia of World Authors, Vol. 5, Salem Press, fourth rev., 2003, 1971.
  27. Kant, I. Critique of Judgement, Section 46, translated by Werner S. Pluhar, Hackett Publishing Company Inc., Indianapolis, Indiana, 1987, 175.
  28. Hughes, R. Francis Bacon: Horrible, The Guardian, 30th August 2008, [viewed 20 January 2018]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2008/aug/30/bacon.art
  29. Gadamer, H-G. Truth and Method, second edition. Translated by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall, Sheed and Ward, London, 2001, 102.
  30. See Castagnary, J.-A. “Balcon (Le)”in Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe siecle,Vol. 16, 1877, 281. (Actual phrase is more like, “This contradictory attitude disconcerts me”).