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.
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).