>Kant’s Beauty

>This post concerns the selections by Kant in the 2nd edition of the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. The selection is taken from Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, which I understand to be his ‘3rd Critique’. I should say from the gate that I know little or nothing of Kant other than what the editors of this massive compendium have either selected for me to read or mentioned in their introduction to the selection. That is, I suspect that Kant’s first two critiques (those of Pure Reason and Practical Reason) must bear heavily on his third, but what of the former is not specifically referenced or explained in the latter must necessarily (for the purposes of this post) be assumed not to exist.

That said, I have the distinct impression of several limitations to the understanding of beauty in Kant’s Critique. 

The editors suggest that, for Kant and his contemporaries, the aesthetic quality of a natural phenomenon or a work of art “is seen as superior to all others” (406). In his aim to raise beauty to a level of human awareness that he sees as essential to our ‘humanness,’ it seems like Kant risks making his entire argument idealistic, and thus in no way related to what it means to be human.

It might be easier to begin by an exploration of what, for Kant, is explicitly not beauty.  Kant insists in a strict division between what one considers ‘beautiful’ and what one might consider ‘agreeable’ or ‘good.’ The latter two experiences, as described by Kant, are a great deal more familiar to my own interactions with the world, both natural and artistic, and so are a bit easier to explain.

Things that are ‘agreeable’ are things that make us want more. That is to say, if I am hanging out at a park, while there I might think about how beautiful the park is and lament the loss of so much greenspace in today’s society and wish that there were more places like this one. Likewise, and perhaps while at the same park, I might see a beautiful woman and imagine what it would be like to have a relationship with her. For Kant, I made a mistake in calling both the park and the woman beautiful. Because I invested some interest in the park (by wishing that there were more like it) and in the woman (by wishing that I could have more contact with her), I cannot judge the beauty of either thing. I am too involved, so to speak.

Those things that are ‘good,’ according to Kant, are things which I invest some moral or ethical interest in. I might see a documentary about missionary work in Africa, which I might take as a beautiful expression of social justice. Contrarily, I might be repelled by the images from the Holocaust or the symbolic imagery of the Nazi regime. Here again, by investing my (this time moral) interest in the scene before me, in both cases I have precluded myself from being eligible to determine their beauty. 
Kant insists:

“If the question is whether something is beautiful, one does not want to know whether there is anything that is or that could be at stake, for us or for someone else, in the existence of the thing, but rather how we judge it in mere contemplation” (415). 

The ability to make this distinction of beauty is called “taste,” and Kant insists that there is such a thing as good taste and poor taste, and that taste can even be taught.  He doesn’t, however, give any indication of what a curriculum for ‘taste-education’ might look like, except to suggest that we must learn beauty through “exemplars.” It occurs to me that in the idea of exemplars there is a sort of recursive loop of causality.  A begging the question, perhaps,which forever puts the onus of the Decision on a previous generation.  It suggests, I guess, that our current understanding of beauty is determinate solely on some previous historical or personal understanding. 

On a purely psychological level, it is as if to say, that what I find to be beautiful today, and to have that certain–je ne sais quai–is predicated entirely on my own, individual, previous experiences of beauty.  So taste is developed by experiencing a great deal of beauty.  Since Kant seems interested in the education of taste, it would seem a relevant question to ask, who points the way? Who takes on the education of taste to others?  And what effect do the opinions of those teachers have on the opinions of their students?  I suspect, a great deal.

Kant never ventures a guess, though.  He leaves the implication sort of out there, suggesting maybe that the answer is spiritual or religious or, it seems most likely, guisedly political. To deal with the problem, Kant structures a sort of end all, which he calls “subjective universality” (419). Kant wants us to be able to see something that we enjoy, an experience that Kant recognizes is an entirely subjective experience, and to lay claim to that object in a way that can be universal. He does this by creating a space in our mind for “contemplation” which is free from interest.

“Since…the person making the judgment feels himself completely free with regard to the satisfaction that he devotes to the object, he cannot discover as grounds of the satisfaction any private conditions, pertaining to his subject alone, and must therefore regard it as grounded in those that he can also presuppose in everyone else; consequently he must believe himself to have grounds for expecting a similar pleasure for everyone” (418-419).

Kant’s explanation of this distanced state relies heavily on what he calls “a free play” of cognition (421).  This seems, for Kant, to end the argument.  This idea of “cognition in general” is the most concrete a definition for the inner workings of our minds that Kant is interested in pursuing.  For someone interested in Pure Reason, this seems like a shallow exploration, and I wonder if perhaps this is what Eagleton means when he calls the Kant’s aesthetic an ideology.

To pursue the issue myself, then: I suspect, based on what I know of the current scientific understanding of brain functioning, that Kant’s disinterested state of mind doesn’t exist.  It seems that on a physical and biological level our minds are in a constant interaction with the world around us.  The act of seeing itself, something that is necessary even for Kant’s “free play” to be set in motion, involves a hugely complex electrical interplay between external world and brain. (If, that is, one is even prepared to accept the dichotomy.) Moreover, the existence of the human subconscious as explained by Freud casts immediate doubt on man’s ability to actually understand, or reason with, the functions of his own mind. When the way that reality is framed in your mind bears only a tentative relationship to the abstract “real,” as Kant’s seems to suggest previously in his discussion of “things-as-they-are”, all Pure Reason seems resigned to the realm of the post hoc.

In the end, Kant is perhaps primarily concerned with preserving the idea of a universal beauty; that is, he believes deeply (one might say a priori) that a concept of beauty must exist that is not influenced by culture or background or context or emotional state.  Kant himself asserts that to say that everyone has their own taste “would be as much as to say that there is no taste at all, i.e., no aesthetic judgment that could make a rightful claim to the assent of everyone” (419-420). Kant wants to preserve this idea of a “rightful claim,” and he goes to great lengths to do so.  

Kant even seems to recognize at times that his theory has severe limitations. These are most notable where Kant seems to allow himself a step outside his a priori assumptions in order to justify them in some way. While Kant insists upon the “universality” of an object’s beauty, he admits that, when a claim to the beautiful is made:

“One wants to submit the object to his own eyes, just as if his satisfaction depended on sensation; and yet, if one then calls the object beautiful, one believes oneself to have a universal voice, and lays claim to the consent of everyone” (420).

The entire communicative value of beauty seems lost in this sentence.  What good is a claim to aesthetic which must constantly be double-checked.  Furthermore, what is suggested but notably left unsaid is the question of what happens when, having submitted what you call beautiful to my eye, I decide that it is, in fact, quite ugly? Which of us has poor taste, and what implications does this have if what you have shown me is an exemplar? If you were the one tasked with training me in Taste, you have either utterly failed (either because of the inadequacy of your system, or the inferiority of my mind) or you must demand that it is I who have poor taste.  Either option seems to imply some degree of interest.

Despite his insistence on avoiding rules or standards for art, Kant (accidentally?) includes some clues as to his own conception of the beautiful.  He includes examples of architecture (a home, a palace), animal and plant life (a flower, a Bird of Paradise, “certain sea animals”), visual art (the drawing) and even (in spite of his later insistence on the distinction between art and handicraft) certain textiles (“the garment”).  To me, these few examples in themselves suggest a certain political understanding of what qualifies for beauty, perhaps more tellingly by what they leave out than by what they include.  For example, what is it about a Bird of Paradise or a flower that makes them beautiful that would not also qualify the vulture and the thistle? what aura of “purposiveness” exists for the former but not for the latter?  Likewise, the suggesting that “certain sea creatures” would be considered beautiful implies in its very phrasing the idea that other sea creatures exist, and are excluded from qualification.  Even the choice of “home” and “garment” over other forms of architecture and textile-craft suggest a certain quality of what is comforting, what Kant might call “charm.” This implication brings with it the entire realm of cultural determinants which Kant seems so eager to do away with.

By his insistence that beauty live up to his high expectations for the Pure human mind, Kant empties the concept of any definitive value whatsoever, leaving the concept of beauty to designate such cliche objects as flowers and palaces.  If those things that are beautiful are simply those things which attain to some veiled trope of what might be called elegance of form, one might ask, who cares about beauty?


About Noah Brewer

I am an English teacher and Debate coach living in Carrollton, GA. I like gardening and critical theory. I like teaching and learning. I like language and technology.
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