Aesthetics: Summary of Kant

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I. Aesthetic Judgment

Kant's approach to art emphasizes our interest in it rather than the artwork in itself. The artwork is beautiful insofar as it instigates an intellectual activity termed reflective judgment. For Kant, the viewing of art is anything but a passive activity. It rouses us to an intellectual involvement with the world in which the very sense of order by which the whole world can be articulated as a whole and be kept in balance is brought to light.

Reflective judgment does not determine whether something exists or not. It also does not determine what specific qualities a particular object might actually possess. Such judgments are cognitive and belong to the field of science.

Reflective judgment judges whether something is beautiful. Beauty is never experienced as a determinate thing. We do not experience beauty directly, although it is always implicated in our experiences of the world. Beauty is a feeling induced by our sense of an ordering, a valuing, at work in the world that lies beyond any explicit demonstration.

II. Taste

Taste involves the judgment that a thing is beautiful. Taste is a subjective judgment in which an object is referred by our imagination to our subjective selves, to the feeling of pleasure or displeasure that the object arouses in us. The representation of the object rather than the object itself is what is at issue in this judgment--not the building itself but its manner of being formed would be the matter of an aesthetic judgment.

But aesthetic judgment is not simply a statement about my private feelings. Kant is not interested in whether the object in question strikes me as being beautiful psychologically, simply because it happens to please me. Taste requires an intellectual effort--it is not whimsical nor happenstance. As a result, taste gives an aesthetic judgment which is true of the object although it judges in terms of the objects subjective impact on us. The object is truly beautiful, it truly is justified in arousing the experience of our pleasure in its beauty. But the beauty the object arouses is not the object itself but an ordering, a representation the object is involved in that exceeds any empirical notion we have of objects.

For Kant beauty is a transcendental a priori. It is a possibility given in the very way the world is structured. This aspect of the world's structure cannot be seen, cannot be verified, but is always at work, so to speak, behind the scenes. The feeling it arouses in us, unlike many of our feelings, is not simply private. In fact, what distinguishes beauty is that it can arouse a feeling that is public, that can be shared, although only subjectively. The thunderous applause at the finish of a beautifully performed late Beethoven string quartet does not simply indicate that each of the individuals listening happened to find something pleasurable in the experience, that the performance happened to strike their fancy. The clapping demonstrates that the audience has made a public judgment that this quartet is indeed beautiful and perhaps beautifully performed. The audience claps confident that the judgment each has subjectively made is nevertheless a public judgment. The quartet is indeed beautiful.

III. The Four Aspects of Taste

a) Quality. The judgment is one of disinterested interest. This quality of the judgment keeps it from being merely psychological. Judging a package of hostess twinkies to be beautiful when one has not eaten in three days would not be an example of disinterested interest. Disinterested interest is contemplative and involves a judgment of satisfaction without reference to one's desires or appetites. Thus, the painting of the bowl of fruit is not beautiful because I want to eat it. The nude is not beautiful because I am filled with lust. Nor is the painting beautiful simply because it looks like something that really exists. Nor is the painting beautiful because it pictures something good. Goodness appeals to our moral judgment which is of a different order than taste.

Yet, disinterest should not be taken to mean indifference. Taste involves an interest, a feeling, even an intense feeling, that is inherently disinterested. This allows a "noumenal reality" (i.e. a reality exceeding that given in our everyday sense experience) to break through our normal interests in the every day world.

b) Quantity. Since my judgment is disinterested it does not depend on private factors, on peculiarities of my own psychological constitution. As a result, the judgment of taste is a universal judgment. If a painting is truly beautiful, then all onlookers should find it to be so. This judgment cannot, however, be proven. We can only ask others to look again with more attention. In this manner, the judgment is universal although always referred in an odd way to that which is personal, affective. Put in other words, our judgment claims the assent of others but that assent can only be given on the basis of each individual's feelings and not by means of a concept. We seek universality on the basis of feeling.

The history of art is full of examples of artworks (e.g. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Picasso's The Ladies of Avignon, Joyce's Ulysses) that have provoked public outrage. In these cases, only after a protracted discussion were the works recognized as having aesthetic value. Kant would argue the change in public opinion was not simply arbitrary but the outcome of a reflective process of reasoning, in which the public awareness of what is beautiful grew.

c) Relation of the Purpose. Beauty is the very form of the purposiveness of an object. For example, we feel a purpose in the rose that exceeds any particular purpose. In the words of a famous mystic: "Die Rose is ohne Warum" ("The Rose is without a Why"). For this reason we judge it to be beautiful. The drawing up of a set of rules or purposes that would show aesthetic value would betray the very nature of this judgment. Taste should not be confused with connoisseurship, in which an individual becomes an expert in certain standards or rules by which a judgment of quality it to be made. Thus, the normal way in which flowers are judged to be beautiful in a rose show does not reflect an aesthetic judgment. In such a show the very form of purpose that the rose might hold is not at issue.

Kant argues that insofar as we use concepts (i.e. standards or rules) to judge something, then its goodness is at issue rather than its beauty. We praise it for being what it is suppose to be but not for arousing our pleasure in its beauty.

d) According to satisfaction in the Object. The judgment of taste is a necessary one. Even if we cannot provide the concept by which the judgment is made, the object gives an exemplary necessity. (By exemplary is meant: all objects like this one should also be judged beautiful. We cannot say exactly how the other objects will be like this object (i.e. we cannot give a rule or standard) but we can say that insofar as they are like this object, beauty is the outcome.) Thus, the object necessitates "the assent of all to a judgment which is regarded as an example of a universal rule which one cannot state." For this reason, we often argue aesthetical by way of examples.

Aesthetic judgment involves the development of a common sense.

What is meant here is not a practical sense of how to do things. Common sense means the development of an expectation in how others will concur with our judgments. This sense must be assumed otherwise conversation with others about such matters would not even be possible.

IV. Three Major Themes of Aesthetic Judgment

a) Disinterested interest.

b) Purposiveness without a concept of purpose.

c) Expression of feeling rather than a concept.

V. The Sublime

Like beauty, the sublime: a) causes pleasure and b) provides no determinate conception for its judgment.

The sublime is unlike beauty: Beauty is a quality involving the form of an object, its limitation. The sublime is preeminently a quantity. It suggests the formless, the absence of limitation. In the sublime the imagination is overwhelmed by the immensity of what is to be represented. Instead of a judgment of beauty, wonder and awe are provoked. In this awe, we undergo a momentary checking or repression of our feeling that then rushes outward more strongly and vitally. No object can be said to sublime, since the suggestion of the formless and infinite held in the sublime utterly exceeds what any object can be.

VI. Fine Art

Fine art (as distinguished from merely pleasing art) is "a kind of representation which has its end in itself, but which none-the-less, although it has no purpose external to itself, promotes the culture of the mental powers with a view to social communication."

VII. Genius

Genius is a quality of the artist that is not necessarily shared with her or his public. Genius gives the rule to art but does not devise these rules by means of a concept. Genius involves an inborn mental disposition. Genius is imbued with Geist (Spirit, Soul)--an animating principle of mind so that one presents ideas which occasion much thought although no concept is adequate to the idea presented. Genius formulates rational ideas for which no intuition or representation of the imagination can be adequate. Genius, for this reason, is not fully intelligible. Genius involves an originality of mind. The genius does not learn by imitation. Thus, Genius cannot be taught--it is a gift.

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Source: Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy: Volume Six, Modern Philosophy; Part II, Kant (New York: Image Books, 1964.