Someone, I seem to recall that it was on OAC, mentioned that Georg Simmel wrote a book about Rembrandt. Now I’m reading Georg Simmel, Rembrandt: An Essay in the Philosophy of Art. It’s being an interesting experience. To me Simmel was, first, the author from whom Lewis Coser took his ideas about the role of conflict in social life. Then he was idol of social network analysts, for whom his essays on the dyad and the triad are the origin of all sorts of notions about such topics as structural holes and brokerage. But here is a new Simmel who suggests a new twist on the old distinction between naturwissenschaft (natural science) and geisteswissenschaft (spiritual science), the latter being the intuitive, interpretive, inside-out understanding that assumes a subjective perspective instead of objective understanding of natural law grounded in scientific method.
But, no, that’s not quite right. Both Max Weber, with his ideal types, and Alfred Schutz in The Phenomenology of the Social World wind up (at least in the straw man versions that pop into my head) saying that there is no direct understanding of the ceaseless flux and flow of reality, the endless becoming that is life. To understand requires concepts, and concepts are at best snapshots that purport to show something timeless while reality is all about time: Parmenides’ infinite solid purporting to explain Heraclitus’ river in which the observer never stands twice.
And here is Simmel making a case that Rembrandt’s paintings, especially his portraits and, in particular, his self-portraits embody an intuitive understanding of becoming that is visibly distinct from the ideal typing of Renaissance portraiture. There the background is fixed and stable; the actors who appear on its stage are portrayed as types, personalities conceived as timeless essences. In Rembrandt’s portraits, the spaces are defined by the interactions of the personalities who, according to Simmel, are captured in moments of becoming, realizing inherent potentials, which are real but not timeless and determined by pre-existing forms.
Part of me wants to write all this off as metaphysical blather; but when I look at the paintings (most are available on line if not via my iPad’s Art Authority app), I can see what he’s talking about. Are his words shaping my perceptions? My perceptions confirming his words? Very unsettling, this; but interesting to think about.