Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1935

Throughout the sequence of lectures/chapters in Art and Illusion, Gombrich reiterates that his is the stance of the historian, but it becomes very clear that his historiography is neither simplistic nor neutral. He is at odds with those philosophers (most notably Plato) who have derided the reality of the image and with those (most notably Aristotle) who have affirmed that art imitates nature. Of special worth to him from late classical antiquity is the often-neglected Philostratus, who within his life of Apollonius of Tyana provided a critique of mimesis (imitation) that gives an account of what Gombrich calls “the beholder’s share in the reading of the artist’s image.” Gombrich follows the history of thought through the centuries and divergent cultures against whose background and in whose context specific artistic creations are to be placed.

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It is no surprise that Gombrich’s In Searth of Cultural History (1969), like Art and Illusion, is neither an outline of history nor a program for history. The former is a history of the failure to achieve a cultural history. After the matter of setting out “the term and the thing,” though avoiding “further ’notes toward the definition of culture,”’ Gombrich came to a denunciation of “the Hegelian system,” “Burckhardt’s Hegelianism,” and “Hegelianism without metaphysics,” phrases which he applied to Heinrich Wolfflin, Karl Lamprecht, Wilhelm Dilthey, Alois Riegl, Max Dvorak, and Johan Huizinga. Most of these had come under criticism in the introduction to Art and Illusion, but without this explicit association. Gombrich’s denunciation has both positive and negative dimensions.

Gombrich either rejects outright or at least perceives that Hegelian “cause” is but the surrogate for a dismissed “providence” or “destiny,” neither one of which belongs in the historian’s explanatory vocabulary. Not only is Gombrich anti-Hegelian, but he also appears antievolutionary. Art and Illusion makes that explicit: “Evolutionism is dead.” Gombrich adds, however, “But the facts which gave rise to its myth are still stubbornly there to be accounted for.” There is another notion of Gombrich’s, not without its merit. He says, with apparent intensity of conviction, at both the outset and the conclusion of his very popular The Story of Art that “there really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” What Gombrich was really seeking was an operational mode which preserved not merely the role but indeed the reality of the individual human being.

Some larger perspective is gained by observing the “in-betweenness” of Gombrich’s bilingualism. This oscillation between German and English, on the one hand, gave him his base as a historian of art, in a broad historical sense vis-a-vis the war-torn twentieth century and in the specifically contextual sense vis-a-vis the Warburg Institute. On the other hand, it suggests that his mind remained shaped by its original influences with all their philosophical nuances. His own bibliography bears this out. He may have read David Hume and added Francis Bacon, but aside from a stray quote of Alfred North Whitehead or of John Dewey, he seldom seems to come into philosophical discussion of that twentieth century Franco-American empiricism to which any modern consideration of the philosophy and psychology of sensation would be required to refer. Gombrich had been advised—and he seemed to appreciate the suggestion—that he treat the subject of art “like mathematics.” Yet he remained bound by the tradition of German Idealism, including the positions of its Anglo-American disciples. This is best seen in his consideration of G. W. F. Hegel and Immanuel Kant.

Gombrich came close to fundamentals with respect to criticism of Hegel when in a review (published originally in 1953) related to a divergent history of art, he paused for “a brief methodological digression”:Hegelians believe they have discovered the secret that Socrates, being both mortal and not mortal, “harbours contradictions” and that this, indeed is true of all reality. For Hegel . . . believed that reality was “identical” with the process of reasoning, and that history was nothing but the unfolding of the Absolute Idea in time.

Gombrich would proceed from this analysis to taunt, “Materialists who do not believe that reality is only the thinking process of the Absolute have no such excuse for retaining such ’dialectics,’ ” in his fundamental critique of Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art (1951); thus he defined, as he put it, his “attitude toward the ’Hegelian left.’ ” Yet he also criticized the “Hegelian right,” whom he identified as embracing that perspective of Andre Malraux based on the notion of “expression” as “derived from . . . the expressionist critics most en vogue in Central Europe in the 1920s.” Hegel “had peopled the past with the ’spirits’ of nations and races: the true heroes of art history became what Malraux wittily describes as ’those imaginary superartists we call styles’ who, in their turn, ’expressed’ the spirit of their respective ages.”

It is noteworthy that the prime illustration concerning Socrates, and hence the argument concerning logic used by Gombrich against the Hegelians, came by way of the writing of Karl Popper. Telling leads indicate Gombrich’s dependence upon Popper in areas of epistemology, psychology, and theories of knowledge. More important is Popper’s significance for Art and Illusion:Like K. R. Popper, on whose words in The Poverty of Historicism I cannot improve, “I have not the slightest sympathy with these ’spirits’; neither with their idealistic prototype nor with their dialectical and materialistic incarnations, and I am in full sympathy with those who treat them with contempt. And yet I feel that they indicate, at least, the existence of a vacuum, of a place which it is the task of sociology to fill with something more sensible, such as an analysis of problems arising within a tradition.” Styles, I believe, are instances of such traditions. As long as we have no better hypothesis to offer, the existence of uniform modes of representing the world must invite the facile explanation that such a unity must be due to some supraindividual spirit, the “spirit of the age” or “the spirit of the race.”

It is in looking for the application by Gombrich of “style” to history that one comes upon further indications of what Popper had taught him: “the links between Aristotelian Essentialism and the Hegelian myth of Historicism.” The exact significance of this point to Popper is not at issue; what is important is the direction in which it took Gombrich. He went on to single out an illustrative example involving the use of the concept das Kunstwollen (the will-to-form), whose coinage by Riegl had arisen “in a polemic against the explanation prevalent in his time that patterns are always the result of techniques.”

Gombrich tried to suggest and to explore concepts appropriate to the real needs of intellectual disciplines, without saddling a discipline with them or stifling creativity by using them. This aim lead him to a reflection upon Aby Warburg as one of the first “to break through this magic circle of the mutually reinforcing historical cliche” by a procedure of originality which has led admirers and critics alike to speak as though there were such a thing as “the Warburg method.” To this assumption Gombrich retorted: “The only method which would deserve this name is that willing suspension of belief.” In this context, Gombrich came close to enunciating a procedural principle: “The only escape from this danger lies in that outward spiralling movement I have described, the attempt to draw in new evidence from ever-widening circles, which may offer new vistas onto the particular.”

What can be learned from this analysis of Gombrich against Hegel is not so much that he rejected Hegel outright (since concepts involved are often most Hegelian in character) as that he sought a procedural model which finds meaning in the process of application of this conceptualization, only to find subsequently that the resultant runs the risk of wearing out its continuing applicability.

There does remain one final, rather infrequently mentioned, name, the pointing to whom might help one see through this “riddle” of Gombrich. Why does he say in Art and Illusion, “The psychology of representation alone cannot solve the riddle of style”? There are few direct references to Kant in the published works of Gombrich; several times there are vague citations. In Gombrich’s intellectual biography of Warburg, however, there are indications that, as alternative to Warburg’s own base in the Hegelian Lamprecht, he had attended lectures on the philosophy of Kant under Theobald Ziegler and had read in the seminar a paper wherein the concept Umfangsbestimmung (literally “delineation of circumference or contour”; in application, “determination of the extension of a class,” hence “conceptual image”) figured prominently. In addition in those many snippets of Warburg’s thought with which Gombrich had worked, Kant’s name is evoked in connection with Johann Winckelmann, and, at least in Gombrich’s mind, over against Hegel in connection with Jakob Burckhardt. Kant’s thought does not elicit from Gombrich the backlash that he launched against Hegel, precisely because it comes so smoothly and subtly through those he prefers to emulate.

A focal illustration occurs in Gombrich’s comments on Warburg’s 1926 lecture on Rembrandt:Instead of seeing styles as evolving according to predetermined laws, he saw individuals involved in situations of choice and of conflict. In giving life to a traditional theme, religious or pagan, they had to look for a language, a vocabulary fit to express their vision, and it was this choice that was symptomatic of their personality, its strength or its weakness.

These ideas are Gombrich’s as well as Warburg’s, and they reflect the former’s antievolutionary bent.

Where was he to find an antievolutionary psychology but in a preevolutionary philosophical environment? The matter was crucial to his argument for Art and Illusion: “In a study of illusion I could not very well do without a theory of perception.” For this theory he found what he required worked out by Popper in response to the psychological assumption that “all cognitive processes, whether they take the form of perceiving, thinking, or recalling, represent ’hypotheses’ which the organism set up. . . . They require ’answers’ in the form of some further experience, answers that will either confirm or disprove them.” Popper showed to Gombrich’s satisfaction that “confirmations of these ’hypotheses’ can never be more than provisional, while their refutation will be final. There is no rigid distinction, therefore, between perception and illusion.”

Herein lies the route to Gombrich’s fundamental notion for Art and Illusion. In 1972, he made the point even more explicit:Perception always stands in need of universals. We could not perceive and recognize our fellow creatures if we could not pick out the essential and separate it from the accidental—in whatever language we may want to formulate this distinction. . . . Consider what is involved in this perceptual feat of visually recognizing an individual member of a species out of the herd, the flock, or the crowd. Not only will the light and the angle of vision change as it does with all objects, the whole configuration of the face is in perpetual movement, a movement which somehow does not affect the experience of physiognomic identity, or, as I propose to call it, physiognomic constancy.

Here, then, is Gombrich at his base with his “preconceived idea.” It is that ancient philosophical issue of individuality in the presence of the universal, of change or novelty in the presence of changelessness or identity. This perspective, according to Gombrich, is still Kantian essentialism, though it might be labeled “emergent essentialism,” for it is propped up with the notions of a semirejected, yet necessarily considered, evolutionary theory.

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Critical Context