on kant’s aesthetics
August 29, 2009 § 9 Comments
Joachim Koester The Kant Walk #6, 2003-2004, framed color photograph, 81cm x 69cm
…now a few notes on three sections (§) from Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Keep in mind that we’ll be speaking of Kant’s ideas in terms of aesthetic judgments concerning art (broadly & generally coloring outside the lines), rather than natural beauty per se. It is clear that he made distinctions between art & natural beauty & their respective judgments, those refinements will not be examined.
(§ 1) “The judgment of taste is aesthetical: …The judgment of taste is therefore not a judgment of cognition, and is consequently not logical but aesthetical, by which we understand that whose determining ground can be none other than subjective.”
Here we have from Kant that an aesthetic judgment of beauty is not only subjective, but that it also cannot be understood cognitively (hence it cannot be defined by concepts as he states later). The subjective manner by which we apprehend beauty is a revelation. Beauty itself relaxes the subject from the responsibility to have to justify their aesthetic judgment. The subject is released, allowing the feeling of beauty to be contained within our experience, within a feeling of pleasure. Kant’s notion of the subjectivity of the beautiful, relinquishes one from the boundaries of cultural taste & its oppressive taste-dictums. It is made clear (by Kant) that a judgment of taste is purely subjective (we’ll look at why this is problematic when speaking of his idea of subjective-universality). Sometimes we’ll revel in the beautiful, saying it is this or that, detailing its every feature, explaining its intricacies. These explanations of the beautiful are not always what beauty is. Kant repeats over & over, that beauty cannot be summed up with concepts. Yes, we can speak of its features, but we can never define it, we can never fully understand it. Beauty itself cannot be defined.
Nehemas said that “there can be no experts on beauty.” Although this is presumably true, there are no lack of experts, connoisseurs, critics, taste-purveyors & aesthetes who will claim their authority in matters of beauty. It should be clear that we will need to consult an expert from time to time & we can also rely on experts to enhance our own appreciation of beauty (but not to define it). We can simply start with the beautiful & move from there to the critic &/or connoisseur (when looking at art) to help us understand the object more in depth. At the same time we can see that it is our own subjective desire to enhance understanding & learning about that which we find beautiful. An expert can give us a historical perspective, or he can speak to the object’s uniqueness, or its ingenuity, or even to why he finds the object beautiful & worthy of attention. The critic shouldn’t be ignored either. She too can give us a position that we didn’t see before, or a vantage that is not readily apparent. Just be aware that they can’t tell you what beauty is, that’s your job, and they’re there to help.
(§ 17) “Of the Ideal of beauty: There can be no objective rule of taste which shall determine by means of concepts what is beautiful. For every judgment from this source is aesthetical; i.e. the feeling of the subject, and not a concept of the Object, is its determining ground. To seek for a principle of taste which shall furnish, by means of definite concepts, a universal criterion of the beautiful is fruitless trouble; because what is sought is impossible and self-contradictory…”
Kant must be saying & reaffirming that we cannot pin-point beauty with a theorem, an equation, nor a concept. When we claim a particular object is beautiful, we can’t explain exactly why. As much as we may think there are laws governing taste & the appreciation for the beautiful, Kant reveals this to be false & without presumed or real authority. Once we see the choice (of what we see as beautiful) as our own & truly without presupposed concepts—we’ll start to (& should) loosen the tyranny on what others find beautiful & worthy of aesthetic judgment. If we don’t understand this we’ll continue to claim aesthetic authority over others (deemed as having poor-taste or some other presumed taste deficit) & vice-versa we’ll allow the aesthetic taste of others to infiltrate our own whether they know better or not. Again, this is not to say that one cannot speak with expertise on a given object, your own taste will determine who you listen to & who you’ll disregard.
(§ 22) “The necessity of the universal agreement that is thought in a judgment of taste is a subjective necessity, which is represented as objective under the presupposition of a common sense: In all judgments by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion; without however grounding our judgment on concepts but only on our feeling, which we therefore place at its basis not as a private, but as a communal feeling. Now this common sense cannot be grounded on experience; for it aims at justifying judgments which contain an ought. It does not say that every one will agree with my judgment, but that he ought…”
This will be referred to as Kant’s aesthetic theory of subjective universality. How this is understood is debatable. We’ll take it to mean that when a sombody finds a particular object beautiful, she places this feeling (of beauty) into a supposition of universal agreement. Basically if you find something beautiful, within that aesthetic judgment is a desire to universalize that judgment, i.e. everyone “should/ought to” agree with your sense of the beautiful. How often do we feel that taste is foisted upon us by others? Have you ever tried to convince someone that you find something beautiful, when they just can’t see it? This is a common problem of aesthetics. The assumption usually is that: What I find beautiful, everyone must find beautiful.
The acknowledgment of this notion presents a great insight. Kant is suggesting that with our aesthetic judgment of beauty, we appeal to the taste of others to also find the same thing beautiful. As it is laid-out, the conflict arises: not everyone agrees on what is beautiful & what is not. Now we can see each other as different with differing tastes & not always in agreement. Here we can come to terms with our own differences with respect to others. Once I respect that your taste is just as irrational as my own, then we’ll be moving toward understanding & we’ll allow each other to find beauty wherever we can, whatever it is… Understand that everyone’s concept of beauty has at it base a universalizing quality & you’ll be less inclined to bicker & squabble over an argument with no clear winners. There is no accounting for taste.
Thank you Kant,