It's been a long time since we read Kant (see here and here), and folks always like our aesthetics episodes (see here, here, and here), so now you get the best of both worlds: Kant's Critique of Judgment, aka the third critique, which aims to somehow bridge the gap between his epistemology (first critique) and ethics (second critique). If it seems funny to try to do this by talking about art, it might sound even stranger when you learn that the book also contains a big section on teleology, i.e. how in science we interpret data as if there was purpose in it, e.g. in talking about the function of an organ in a body or in describing the tendencies of a particle in physics.
For this episode (recorded 10/28/14 with the full foursome), we read Part I, Book I, i.e. "Analytic of the Beautiful." We've already decided for episode 107 to read Part I, Book II on the sublime.
Kant wants to distinguish finding something beautiful from actually wanting it. If you see a painting of a nude and you like it because it inspires lust, that's not an aesthetic judgment. It's OK if a work does inspire you with lust, or longing, or something else, but a judgment of beauty can't be based on that, according to Kant. You have to be disinterested insofar as you're making an aesthetic judgment. Another way to put it is that if it's representational art, like a picture, you don't care whether the thing exists in reality. In fact, you might not want it to really exist, like a picture of a fearsome monster, but it could still be beautiful.
Judgments of beauty are also not really about the object, but are about our reactions to it. When I say that something is beautiful, what I'm really saying is that it gives me pleasure, but pleasure of the disinterested sort just described (which is a funny sort of pleasure; I could recognize that something is beautiful even if I'm not personally in the mood to enjoy it right now), and, moreover, because I don't think it's some quirk in me that makes me enjoy it (like if I enjoyed spicy food due to my particular palate), then I expect that everyone else should find it beautiful too. So Kant thinks that there's a "common sense" in all of us, i.e. that we can recognize the beautiful because we all react in the same way in the presence of a beautiful object. So even though a judgment of beauty is subjective (meaning it's really about the subjects feeling pleasure), we are justified in speaking as if it were about the object due to this universality.
But Kant recognizes that clearly not everyone will find a beautiful object beautiful, so this universality can't be a matter of actually looking at people's reactions. As with Kant's morality, where the Categorical Imperative was given to us by Reason a priori, judgments of beauty involve the transcendental, i.e. they involve us imposing expectations on experience which Kant also thinks are justified a priori (just like mathematical truths, which we can't learn from the world, because the world could never show us that they're necessarily true).
As with his epistemology, where Kant was trying to come up with a synthesis of insights from rationalists (knowledge is from reason) and empiricists (knowledge is from experience), here he's trying to synthesize and transcend the views that, on the one side, beauty is something in the object that we can understand by analyzing beautiful things (e.g. all beauty involves the golden ratio) and on the other side, that the only way we can talk about matters of beauty is by looking at what people like. Kant denies the rationalists here by saying that beauty is non-conceptual, that you can't put into words what it is. He denies the empiricists by insisting that some people just have bad taste, and we can know what's beautiful even if some people (including us!) might be wrong in particular judgments about it.
So remember that for Kant, the Understanding is the faculty that deals with the phenomenal world, i.e. the world that science studies. It uses the Categories like causality and number to interpret everything we see, to in effect form our experience. Reason, on the other hand, is a higher level faculty that tries to integrate everything, e.g. looking for fundamental laws. Now, Reason likes to reach beyond the phenomenal world to Things-In-Themselves, which is a mistake if you're talking about theoretical reason: we needed the Critique of Pure Reason to tell us that, e.g. causality is a concept that only applies to the world we could potentially experience, and we have no idea if it applies outside of that, so any attempt to use it to, for instance, say that there's a first cause of everything and so prove (or disprove) the existence of God is fundamentally confused. That's a theoretical use of Reason for Kant, which is different than practical Reason, which is what he thinks gives us the Categorical Imperative (and even ends up proving in a very indirect way that we have to assume that God exists; we discussed that in episode 39).
So the field of objects that the Understanding covers is the phenomenal realm. Reason also covers those objects, but tries to extend itself wider to everything, so you can think of the Thing-In-Itself (the noumenal realm) as being the field that's particular to Reason (with the above caveats that Reason tends to screw up and make too many claims about it, which is what all metaphysics amounts to). Well, Judgment is a faculty too, but it doesn't have its own special field of objects. It's used on the one hand in cognition to apply the concepts (the Understanding's transcendental Concepts like causality, but also ordinary empirical concepts like being an apple or being green) to individual things in perception. In doing that, it's bringing the Understanding in contact with particulars. But Judgment also serves to try to figure out new concepts for the particulars we see, which is getting into the realm of Reason's unifying activities. So you might say that Understanding and Reason run in parallel, with Reason operating at a higher level of abstraction, and Judgment then runs vertically to connect the two of them and to connect them to individual sensations.
Kant uses this weird picture of the mind to try to explain what appreciating beauty amounts to. He says it involves the machinery of cognition, i.e. the faculty (Judgment) that is used to categorize things, but doesn't actually categorize them. So it's all about recognizing orderliness and form in things: admiring the play of the lines in a painting or the notes of a piece of instrumental music as they flow by in time. We recognize that there's form, but we don't conceptualize it. Yes, you can analyze a work and say, e.g. "that was a major scale," but that operation of mind is not why the work is beautiful.
He describes this as the "free play of faculties." We make a judgment that something is beautiful based on feeling pleasure when the Imagination and the Understanding are "in harmony." The Imagination is yet another faculty used for cognition, where whenever we recognize something as an egg, for instance, we have to "imagine" (i.e. remember) the other eggs we've seen, and whenever we even recognize a 3-dimensional object in space as what it is, we have to imagine/remember that it has sides and a back and an inside, etc.: we "synthesize the manifold" by bringing together a bunch of remembered and anticipated experiences (we discussed this a lot on our Husserl episode).
So in a normal perception, Judgment uses Imagination to apply the concepts of the Understanding (like causality and number), and also the concepts that we came up with using Reason (e.g. like calling something an animal or fruit) to identify the thing. In an aesthetic experience, the same mechanisms are all in play, but we don't come to a conceptual judgment: instead, we basically screw around mentally, and feel pleasure from that, and so bam! we call the thing beautiful. Strictly speaking, a judgment of ugliness, then, isn't an aesthetic judgment: it's just the lack of this kind of thing going on.
Note that of course, full-on cognitions can be involved in perception of a beautiful thing. E.g. if you're contemplating a piece of sculpture, you can recognize that it's a sculpture, and so a physical object, and that it's supposed to represent a cow. But at the same time, you're also having the aesthetic experience, and in fact Kant thinks that that experience is more pure if you're not being distracted by so many of such cognitions, e.g. if you're not judging an example of a species. Judging the best-looking cow involves knowing something about cows and what kind of excellence is appropriate to them, and could make a sculpture of a cow much more beautiful if you had more freedom in shaping its curves just so, and not having to worry about it actually looking like a cow.
One way that someone could have bad taste is to confuse beauty with the other kinds of approval: you might say a castle is ugly because you disapprove of the moral excess involved in castles. Wrong! Pay attention to the object itself! Or (more problematically) Kant thinks you might find some of the ornamental flourishes involved charming, and that kind of approval is more like finding food delicious or an image lust-inspiring: it's not properly disinterested. Again, get your mind off the track of your own peccadilloes and on to the object!
This leads Kant to revere purity in aesthetics. He likes instrumental music over something with words, and would find our pop music scene, where you end up connecting to the personality of the singer, absolutely barbaric. Likewise he says that all colors are equally beautiful (even if you might like red better than green) so long as they're pure, and it's the purity that presents the formal beauty (the simplest possible form, i.e. the uniform).
You might also fail to see beauty if you fail in some stage of the cognitive processes involved, like if you just can't follow a melody at all, or are too distracted by the picture being of a naked lady to pay attention to the formal elements, or if you don't understand the metaphors being used in a literary work enough to see the beauty in their use. So there's room and need for eduction about art, even though it's non-conceptual and supposedly universal.
So what does all this have to do with purposefulness, with teleology, as I mentioned at the beginning? Well, this free play of faculties is also described as "purposeless purposiveness." Just as we're using the mechanisms by which we categorize things but not actually categorizing them, recognizing but not naming form is tantamount to recognizing that something looks purposive (i.e. designed intentionally or having some evident function), without actually assigning it some particular purpose. So Judgment in recognizing the beautiful involves some of the same elements as recognizing the orderliness of nature that leads us to look for universal, scientific natural laws.
To conclude, even though beauty can't be put into words on Kant's view, he ends up having a lot he can say about what kinds of things are beautiful, though, typically, he spends next to no time dwelling on actual examples that would help us understand his theory. Nonetheless, Kant's picture of disinterested appreciation was highly influential, setting the tone for a whole era of modern aestheticians who nonetheless did not see the need to involve Kant's whole picture of the psyche.
Buy the book or read it online.
I highly recommend also taking a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia article on this topic. For a nice, clear presentation, I also recommend listening to the two lectures on this book by James Grant for the University of Oxford Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art lectures (also available via iTunes U).
Wayne Schroeder says
Regarding aesthetic experience: ” We basically screw around mentally.” LOL
Wayne Schroeder says
What a great subject–looking forward to this one.
Heath Benjamin Adams says
Man, I’m so excited about this. About a year ago I was designing a unit of work for a Gifted and Talented English class I teach to 13 year olds. In it, we study a local Indigenous creation myth. I wanted to start with the question, “Why is this story beautiful?” but felt that wasn’t a valid question, at least not anymore (or rather, it’s unfashionable to say this).
Interestingly, I feel it would be okay to say this about, say, a Keats poem, so there’s something political about this. But that’s another (important) matter. What concerned me was that when I asked friends about this, they attacked the concept entirely. A story can’t be beautiful, because beauty was relative was the common reproach. But, while I certainly understood what they meant, I kind of found that position to be not very satisfying.
It’s not that I believe in some sort of transcendental beauty, or I’m even sympathetic to teleological ideas generally. But the idea of harmony discussed above perhaps gets closest to what I’m thinking about. I’m really interested in these readings and the forthcoming podcast. Cheers.
Luke T says
Yes. The previous aesthetics podcasts were very interesting and intellectually challenging. I am really interested to hear PEL’s explanation / interpretation of Kant’s work in this area.
Joshua Hale says
The role played by the need for education towards a “supposedly universal” concept is interesting. Education allows for the formation of a particular set of formal elements that are in no way universal unless each era or school of art is seen as merely reacting for/against a set of formal elements that set an untenable boundary for the artist’s vision(s). I am reminded of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction and the role class/status class/social capital plays in what formal elements we relate to. I am doing my undergrad in sociology and really loving the podcasts and look forward to a greater understanding of the philosophical elements that pervade social theory.
Tom McDonald says
Even Kant couldn’t escape the traditional sense that in natural organisms beauty is manifest where form is in harmony with function. PEL should do more on the reemergence of teleology. Philosophical teleology is making a comeback via the renaissance in modern biology, perhaps most visibly in Steven Pinker’s critique of The Blank Slate. Kant’s Critique of Judgment shows that he — and arguably anyone — could not ultimately think or make sense of the world without the teleological concepts he had tried to dispose of in the essentially Cartesian position of the Critique of Pure Reason. It thus makes sense that Hegel had initially considered “life” (rather than “spirit”) to be the central term in his attempt to overcome Kant and the problems of modern atomism and mechanicalism and to restore teleological reason to its place in understanding the human life-world, if not the natural universe as a whole (where for example, planets and minerals do not exhibit an organic function). Hegel was a kind of precursor to Darwin in this regard, foreshadowing the downfall of the ‘clockwork’ view of man and the return to ‘life’. There is an excellent piece of writing on this at the following link from a writer aligned with the controversial ‘dark enlightenment’, a significant emerging philosophical movement beyond academic philosophy, which tries to ground its views on recent work in modern biological science. But there are deep challenges to our modern, liberal assumptions here, exactly the sort of stuff for philosophical thinking. The controversial views on race emanating from these circles should met soberly and seriously, not simply dismissed because of political incorrectness or by merely asserting the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. PEL would have to think hard about how to handle such a controversial area, but there’s no doubt it is philosophically relevant: https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2013/12/27/teleology-and-the-dark-enlightenment/
Tom McDonald says
Excellent Norwegian documentary examining recent research in gender, comparing the work of social scientists (‘cultural constructivists’) to biologists (‘naturalists’) regarding the causes of characteristic psychological and behavioral differences between males and females: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiJVJ5QRRUE
Tom McDonald says
I would modify my first sentence “Even Kant couldn’t escape the traditional sense that in natural organisms beauty is manifest where form is in harmony with function” by adding that this is despite the modern development of taste for the sublime and negation, manifest for example in the aesthetics of disharmony, distortion, and decay we hear in industrial music, rock, punk, heavy metal, etc. I believe Deleuze, in his short book on Kant’s Critical Philosophy, draws out this point as a significant part of Kant’s modernism, a tendency to the negative, dislocation, alienation, creative deconstruction, which might well be an innate biological disposition more common in men based on the conclusions of the Norwegian documentary posted alongside here.
Phoebe Hill says
Really great article, I am writing coursework on Kant’s aesthetics at university and this really helped me understand his views on disinterestedness in the context of the rest of his work. Cheers!