The Relevance of the Beautiful in Martin Heidegger

Open Access
Balay, Joey Michael
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
October 30, 2013
Committee Members:
  • Dennis Schmidt, Dissertation Advisor
  • Leonard Richard Lawlor, Committee Member
  • Veronique Marion Foti, Committee Member
  • Daniel Leonhard Purdy, Committee Member
  • Aesthetics
  • Art
  • Beauty
  • Being
  • Heidegger
This dissertation attempts to elucidate the relevance of the beautiful in Western society today by appealing to Martin Heidegger's historical interrogation of the relationship between being, truth, and beauty. The motivation for this inquiry is two-fold. First, it departs from the characterization of beauty at present as a subjective and critically defunct value, noting that such a perspective is made problematic when one considers beauty's more universal status in mass culture. Second, it is observed that while Heidegger has often been recognized as one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, his critique of Western aesthetics has prompted many critics to suggest that he is not a thinker of the beautiful. In response to these observations, I argue that Heidegger helps elucidate the deeper significance of beauty today by showing how it belongs to the illuminating and erotic experience of understanding. More specifically, I contend that while Heidegger's philosophical project is typically understood in light of its interrogation of the question of being, this inquiry is situated in a wider retrieval of the early Greek and Christian unity of the Transcendentals - those basic concepts such as truth, beauty, and goodness that help support being’s disclosure. In particular, through his reading of figures like Heraclitus, Sophocles, and Plato, Heidegger indicates that beauty belongs to the ancient Greek notion of alētheia or unconcealment. For Heidegger, this broader notion of disclosure shows that beings do not simply lay around as already present entities or ideas, but come into being in generative events of understanding, events that erotically draw us into their claim and illuminate the world anew. In considering the role of beauty in this experience more carefully, Heidegger suggests that it belongs to both the in-apparent generation of a given appearance, as well as the radiant quality of the resulting appearance. He argues, however, that this complex character of beauty is effaced in the ensuing Western tradition of aesthetics. For beginning with Plato, and continuing into modernity with figures like Kant and Hegel, beauty becomes associated simply with the sensuous world of appearances and the feeling that it produces in the human subject. This development comes to a head, however, in Heidegger's reading of Nietzsche and the will to power of modern technology. For Heidegger shows that it is precisely the historical development of the aesthetic interpretation of beauty that helps motivate the uncontrollable production of new forms and appearances today, and that threatens to turn natural and human life into aesthetic resources. Over against this dangerous consolidation of the aesthetic interpretation of beauty, I conclude by examining Heidegger's claim that a re-interrogation of art, and particularly of figures like Hölderlin, Cézanne, and Klee, may help show beauty's more originary unity with truth and being. Significantly, however, in this suggestion there is also a potential recovery of the good. For I propose that in the recognition of beauty's more significant role within the experience of understanding, there is the possibility for a more concerned attunement toward the various appeals made upon us by mass culture.