Edgar Wind: ‘Hume and the Heroic Self-Portrait’

Sir Joshua Reynolds, Triumph of Truth, oil on canvas, 114 x 142 cm, Aberdeen University Collections, ca. 1774. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On 11 July 1931, a young Edgar Wind gave a lecture at the Warburg Library in Hamburg titled “Humanitätsidee und heroisiertes Porträt in der englischen Kultur des 18. Jahrhunderts,” originally published in the Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg in 1932.  Archival records here in London reveal that Wind was uncertain about the lecture’s title, moving between several variations—for instance, “Die Auffassung des Menschen in der englischen Moralphilosophie und Porträtkunst des 18. Jahrhunderts” and “Die englische Humanitätesidee des 18. Jahrhunderts in ihrer Beziehung zum Stil des heroisierten Porträts.” Such alternative titles might help explain why the posthumous English translation of the essay dons yet another name, “Hume and the heroic self-portrait,” and potentially speak to Wind’s awareness of the uncertain relation between his analysis and the historical material he was interpreting. Often understood as a mode of Geistesgeschichte, Wind’s lecture was a pioneering effort to think about canonical works of 18th century British art through the larger philosophical discourse of their time, most notably through the debates aroused by the skeptical arguments of David Hume concerning human nature. How might paintings, Wind asked, have been involved in the period’s questioning and championing of human reason as a trustworthy cognitive capacity that purportedly elevates man above other animals?  Because the British intellectual tradition that Wind was analyzing has often looked askance at this kind of interdisciplinary inquiry as hopelessly speculative, Wind’s interpretive endeavor has long sat in an uneasy relation to scholarship on the period and was not translated into English until 1986. In Wind’s hands, however, Geistesgeschichte is notably different from its more canonical forms, for instance as practiced by Max Dvořák or even by Hegel himself.  Wind’s analysis does not posit a unified cultural parallelism (Parallelismus) according to which cultural expressions like Gainsborough’s painting and Hume’s philosophy unfold, thereby respectively conforming themselves to something like a coherent spirit of the time.  Rather Wind’s essay seeks to tease out the interpenetration (Durchdringung) of philosophy and painting and thereby attempts to make explicit for readers in the present what the veil of history has rendered largely mute. Said another way, Wind’s analysis attempts to reconstruct a historical transaction between painting and philosophy that was well known at the time rather than to substantiate the existence of an unwitting cultural force.

            What makes Wind’s distinctive mode of argument especially interesting to me and a primary reason why it is a fundamental inspiration for my project here as part of the Bilderfahrzeuge group is his particular blending of foundational premises of German idealism and American pragmatism.  As in the former tradition, Wind assumes that the historical interactions of ideas and cultural practices can function to unite and explain seemingly diverse areas of cultural expression. As in the latter tradition, Wind holds that the contingent decisions of individual agents are absolutely essential both for the unfolding of the course of the past itself and for our understanding of it in the present. Though Wind had written his dissertation in Germany and was in many ways trained in the tradition of German philosophical idealism, in the years leading up to his 1931 lecture on British heroic portraiture, Wind had been living and working in New York and North Carolina and had been absorbing the writing of Charles Sanders Peirce, the often evoked “founder” of pragmatism itself. Even though Wind’s habilitation, defended in 1930 and published in 1934, was written under the guidance of broadly idealist supervisors—most notably Ernst Cassirer—its major theses were formed while Wind was in the United States.  After reading his habilitation, in fact, Cassirer himself is known to have described Wind as a mere empiricist, a label that the contrarian Wind wore with pride. Within this context, Wind’s attempt to understand 18th century British painting through the controversies caused by Hume’s writings was all the more appropriate.  Indeed, in several interrelated ways, Wind’s lecture brought together the various strands of his own background: philosophy and art history, idealism and pragmatism.

            But what are the stakes of Wind’s hybrid argument for his actual interpretations of actual paintings? Though Wind’s essay goes through numerous examples of what he posits to be the interaction between painting and philosophy in the period, for the purposes of this blog post, a single example will have to suffice: Joshua Reynolds’s “The Triumph of Truth” of 1774. Now in the collections of the University of Aberdeen, this painting makes explicit, at least when brought into contact with the discourse of its time, just how intimately involved and invested painters could be with the intellectual debates of their philosophical contemporaries.  On the right of this painting we see James Beattie, a professor of moral philosophy and logic and one of David Hume’s most trenchant and persistent critics.  Turned three-quarters towards to the viewer and highlighted in bright red academic dress, Beattie is glowingly illuminated by the light emanating from the breast of a winged personification of truth, powerfully outstretched behind him. With her extended right hand she grips the hair of a shadowy representation of one of Beattie’s philosophical nemeses—one of whom was taken to represent Hume himself—and pushes him down into the painting’s depths while simultaneously holding up a scale in her left hand that is heavily weighted towards Beattie’s side. In the midst of this allegorical action, Beattie himself steadfastly holds a book whose title emerges into the light to clearly display the word truth, itself a common topic of his writing and something that Hume was accused of undercutting.  We know from Reynolds’s published correspondence that he was pleased to have Hume identified in the painting “not much to his credit” and we know from Beattie’s diary that he in turn took Reynolds as the greatest “designer” of his time and to have “an enlarged understanding and truly philosophical mind.”  The resulting mutual reinforcement of Reynolds’s and Beattie’s respective projects, Wind noted, is only fitting as the former’s “grand manner” of painting quite frequently held up the heroic ideals of mankind that were espoused in Beattie’s arguments and questioned in Hume’s. The conclusion is clear; just as 18th century British painters took sides in philosophical debates so too did 18th century British philosophers find artists whose styles resonated with their writing.  Moreover, Wind’s blending of the idealist and pragmatist traditions finds powerful evidence in this example; here the pervasive interpenetration of ideas in the past is caused by the active translation those ideas by discreet historical agents into different forms of cultural expression.


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