1. Essences and Imagination.
Plato thought that the Forms were apprehended only by reason and that we need to escape the world of sensation to enter the world of essence. Essences belong to an invisible world very different from the visible world. This is partially true, although it is hard to tease that part out while sticking to anti-dualism, as we here wish. Essences belong to our world and they are perceived in the world (the world as we experience it), but they are invisible (i.e., non-evident) usually. They are not invisible in being something else than what is seen. Rather, they are something normally not seen in the seen.
Essences can be seen in things as giving rise to a kind of aura: when we see something in its essentiality it emerges from everyday being as with intense aesthetic quality, as participating in Beauty (as Plato would put it).
So essences are not objects of a special faculty called “reason” (unless, of course, “reason” were redefined to mean something more like the kind of activity and perception I will be describing here… something I would favor.) Essences, rather, are objects of a process that might be best described as the activity of a kind of imagination. We are not talking about any sort of imagination, not about, for example, creating images in the mind from adding elements not previously seen together, such as horns to horses, but the capacity to “see as.” In particular, this is a “seeing something as” in which we see something as what it essentially is. (As we shall see, this often takes the form of metaphorical seeing: seeing something as it essentially is by way of seeing it as something it is not.) And this process inevitably is involved with searching out of essence through dialogue and dialectic. Change of perception comes with change of language.
Plato almost saw this. For example, when he spoke of “recollection” he stressed that something perceptual in the world stimulates mental perception of the Forms, and elsewhere that this is a matter of attending to the meanings of words in dialogue. These two things do in fact work together except that essences are revealed in experiential being.
Moreover, essences are models tied to words. Before, I said they are between concept and Form, but it is more accurate to say they are between perception, concept and Form. Hence Plato’s specific denial of the body and sensual experience is overcome, rejected. Essences are not just in a private mind: they emerge in a shared world through philosophical dialogue and through other dialogue-like engagements.
Essences are models, or model-like (in that the perceived thing becomes a model, a paradigm), and they are real and true to the extent that they work. And they are manifested both in enhanced creative activity and in the experience of aura. So, as indicated above, they are and are not seen. In effect, to see something in essentiality is to truly see it. Essences are only not seen in the sense of being unavailable outside the activity of philosophical or other similar dialectic of the spirit (as in the arts).
Thus, the world of essences is, unlike the world of Forms, just an aspect of our dynamic phenomenological space that emergences from out interaction with the environment as living beings trying to solve problems and live life. It can be seen as a special realm since one can seem as if in a special transcendent realm when perceiving the world in terms of essences
The word “imagination” may not always be helpful here. It is not as though there were a separate faculty of the mind called “imagination.” Rather, essences are perceived with the same faculties that we use to perceive things in more practical contexts. But essences emerge in a special kind of perception.
Plato, again, is oddly right that entering this state of being is like entering another realm, especially insofar as these things are as if unchanging. And it is also as if we were eternal and unchanging, as if we were perceiving all of these with eternal unchanging souls. Soul emerges as essences emerge: they emerge in tandem. But whereas Plato saw this as escaping the world of the senses, of perception, the current view is that in essences perception is intensified, as words, through dialectic, interact with things seen. In a sense it could be said, perhaps Vico saw this, that essences are created by the imagination: again, this just means that we, as fully embodied beings, interact with the world in such a way that aura and essentiality emerge together.
Perhaps all of this is what Plato was pointing towards when he spoke of a method that was hypothetical, the hypotheses being the Forms. Essences are hypotheses taken as first principles, and tested. But unlike Plato, the proof is in the effectiveness of this emergence, in what is generated.
It could be argued that Plato even saw this too when he spoke of the proof of grasping of the Form of the Good being in terms of the creative products that emerge.
2. The Essence of Art and Dialectics.
The essence of art is emergent upon art works, the institutions of the artworld, and the various debates surrounding the question "what is the essence of art?" and related questions. Traditionally, we think of these debates as philosophical. Yet there are also dialectical developments within other modes of what Hegel called Spirit, for example within art and within religion. Within art, there are debates that are not verbal. The essence of art is emergent mostly upon debates, both verbal and nonverbal, within the world or worlds of art, just as the essence of religion is emergent upon such debates (call them dialectics) within the world or worlds of religion. A nonverbal debate may be exemplified by Picasso responding to a painting by Matisse with a painting of his own that indirectly expresses a different conception of the essence of art. However, the essence of art is also, in part, emergent upon a dialectics not limited to art itself: first, upon the dialectic within the philosophy of art, and second, upon a dialectical interaction between the philosophy, art criticism, and art practice, and finally upon dialectics between classes, nations, political philosophy and economics. There is a layering of dialectic, although this is also interactional.
Much of the value of art comes from the way its form and content resonates with moments in these other dialectics.
There are canonical definitions, canonical works, and canonical debates (with competing positions accepted as at least viable or living) at any particular time in history…place too. The search for essences takes place within the background of these.
3. Philosophy of Art not Parasitic.
Although it is sometimes tempting to think otherwise, philosophy of art is not parasitic upon art practice. It is not merely a reflection on art practice or on the use of concepts within the world(s) of art. Nor should we judge it merely in terms of whether it meets the needs of artists, although it might well meet some of those needs. Neither is it parasitic on criticism: it is not simply meta-criticism. Thinking about criticism is useful for philosophers in the same way thinking about philosophy is useful for critics. Spirit manifests itself in these different ways. That is, the spirit of the age and culture can be found in philosophy, religion, art and science of a particular place and time. Of course in the history of the philosophy of art certain critics have attained the status of philosophers of art insofar as they participate in or contribute to philosophical debates.
Philosophy of art is dynamically interactive and symbiotically related to both art practice and art criticism. The claim that it is meta-criticism is a false modesty hiding an improper inferiority complex. Sometimes philosophy of art is portrayed meanly from the standpoint of a hostile critic or from that of the currently dominant "core" of philosophy. These characterizations need to be countered by all who care about philosophy and about art.
Philosophy of art is primarily philosophy. It is concerned with meeting the needs of the philosophical side of our culture (i.e. by way of answering the central or burning questions of philosophy, which themselves are grounded on the burning questions of the culture and of current humanity). Thus philosophy of art (allied with its close associate, aesthetics) it is in competition and dialectical tension with the so-called or current "core" areas of philosophy, for example metaphysics, epistemology and ethics. As we shall see, philosophy of art/aesthetics poses some significant challenges to these core areas.