on kant’s aesthetics

kant walk

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,

Aurelio Madrid

9 thoughts on “on kant’s aesthetics

  1. Aurelio, it seems that you’ve made a bit of a mistake in your interpretation here, and while I don’t want to be confrontational, I think I ought to explain why I disagree with you.

    I think the basic problem rests in your understanding of the word “subjective.” In common parlance today, we use that word to describe things that are not universalizable, which applies most frequently to the common view of aesthetic judgment. But this is not what Kant means by the word. For Kant, beauty is “subjective” in that it does not exist in the object itself, it is a feature of our judgment about objects. This doesn’t translate to “there is no accounting for taste,” though.

    In fact, in the Critique of Judgment, Kant goes to great lengths to account for taste and to prove the “intersubjective validity” of aesthetic judgments. Just because beauty is not in the object doesn’t mean it isn’t valid for me to judge a thing as beautiful, and it doesn’t mean that all aesthetic “judgments” are equally valid.

    The full exposition of this is in sections 30-40 of the Critique of Judgment. The argument is commonly called the “Deduction of Taste.” Without going into much detail, the basic thrust of it is that we all have the same cognitive faculties of judgment, so when we make aesthetic judgments we are relying on a sense that everyone has. Kant calls this “common sense” (also different from the way we usually use that phrase). Since everyone has that sense, valid aesthetic judgments are valid for everyone, or universalizable as long as we don’t try to say that beauty exists in things themselves.

    I agree that this is not really a satisfactory account of taste, but at any rate, I think it’s clear enough that Kant says there IS accounting for taste, and that the beautiful is in fact NOT “subjective” in the way that we usually mean it.

    Of course, Kant agrees with you that it’s pointless to try to argue about beauty and expect the argument to get anywhere using concepts, so perhaps your basic point is unchanged by all this.

    1. the curator,

      …it would be fun to carry-out more dialogue with you, as you are so familiar with Kant.

      I was not making the the claim that because a judgment of beauty is subjective (i.e. of the subject, that which is felt by the subject) that there is no accounting for taste. I meant that there is no accounting for taste [concerning the beautiful] because as Kant illustrates it cannot be proven by concepts. Kant does, as you say “account” for taste in great detail, but he does say that a judgement of beauty cannot be proven, is subjective, & that it claims universality. Am I really that far off?

      ..again, I’d love to pick your brain on the subject anytime. I make no claim of expertise on Kant & finding willing participant would be nice.


      thank you,

      p.s. …I’ll start keeping an eye on you blog too!

  2. I once knew a guy who told me I didn’t really like Van Gogh – I had been conditioned by society, he claimed, to believe that Van Gogh’s paintings were great, so I unthinkingly went along. Apparently John Cage said something similar about Beethoven. This was of course ridiculous because I’m quite confident in what I like. Even so, something in me hesitates from embracing your phrase “without presupposed concepts.” I think there may be factors which, although not necessarily presuppositions, may influence what we find beautiful. Can a person be completely free from the opinions of others? There may also be genetic things which cause us to favor some things over others. These could be very broad, like preferring balance to a lack of it, or smooth to jagged (it’s commonsense, really – wouldn’t you want to run your hand over smooth skin?) – and who’s to say but that an individual’s unique environmental circumstances play a part in causing them to go against the grain and say, ‘No! Jaggedness is more beautiful than smoothness.’

    Somewhere a neuroscientist is trying to objectify beauty. If I’m not mistaken , they’ve already shown that people who can’t “carry a tune” don’t realize this – those people singing horribly in the American Idol auditions often think they can really sing. So there’s probably more than just subjective stuff going on in a person’s view of beauty.

    The poet John Ashbery, who was not known to write about his personal life, said, “I don’t want to bore people with my version of their own experiences.” And I have a similar feeling when I write about art. What I like or don’t like doesn’t really matter; people have their own likes and dislikes.

    I hear your call to “loosen the tyranny” loud and clear. If we had more loosening, there’d be less pushiness, less childish hurt feelings, and more sharing af actual information. Instead of simply saying, ‘I love this!’ one would do better to say something intelligent and informative about it.

    1. Mark,

      Thank you too for the comment. Kant speaks of the judgement of beauty as that which cannot be proven with concepts. I didn’t say that this was without people trying to do so. We certainly can find people who will try to define beauty–I believe this is a common problem that is connected to Kant’s (paradoxical) idea of subjective-universality.

      “…to say you like a particular artwork only says something about yourself.” As you state, the goal should be to say something intelligent & informative. My wish is to say anything at all.

      …your insightful views are always welcome!
      Thanks again,

  3. Aurelio,

    I look forward to you publishing an article on Taste for Escape into Life, employing some of these research materials and writings.

    Great work!!!!


    1. Lethe,

      Thanks for the comment! I’ll give the nice invitaion serious consideration. Give me a little time to sort out my thoughts.


  4. I’m intrigued by your liberating vision of Kant’s aesthetics, but I am unsure about certain points in your analysis.

    First, I enjoyed Beauty as Anti-Concept,as the release of the subject from justifying their pleasure. As you put it, we are opened to the beauty without needing certain discursive apparatuses, outside of knowledge/power dynamics. However, I think this takes an altogether too forgiving view of the Kantian subject as his self-described universal. Instead, the Heideggerian in me asserts that any universal is necessarily constructed, either implicitly or explicitly, with an exclusion in mind. Thus, if all people who are rational conceive of this as beautiful, then not conceiving it as beautiful either marks me as not rational or the object as not beautiful, despite what happens in every other head and at the level of other measurements of humanness, Dasein, DNA, etc. Only by Kant’s exclusions, yes they’re too trite to repeat, sex, race, irrational, etc., can we conceive of transcendence.

    I will admit, I am drawn to the liberatory function that Beauty removed from power can serve. I think the power can be negated, but only by drawing on the common notion of “subjective” and eliminating all assertions to transcendental beauty, something as banal as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder, each eye is different in a way currently unquantifiable.” I think this gets us to the democratic element pretty quickly, but is of course surrender. A more nuanced notion would be Bourdieu’s spheres of cultural capital, where a discursively derived notion of verifiable taste is established, but membership in the group is fluid and can create sub-systems to the more dominant forms of social organization. This way subjects, insofar as we accept that designation, can move toward those systems in which their internally constructed desires are validated, or their idiosyncrasies are valued as a counter to a totalized and decayed determination. In this way, democratic desires for non-domination are established, while defending against the totalizations to which Kant is blind.

  5. I am supposed to be doing an essay on ‘is the notion of beauty relevant to contemporary art?’ using kant as reference. I just cannot get my head around the way he explains things. Im thinking about just giving up. Would anyone be able to describe in dummies terms. would be much appreciated 🙂

    1. …thanks for dropping by. I’d recommend reading through some of reinaert de v’s blog posts where he covers plenty of kant’s ideas. idehttp://reinaertdev.wordpress.com/tag/immanuel-kant/
      …the trick with understanding philosophy is knowing that there are no tricks, just the many hours of hard work doing the reading, till you ‘get it’.

      …go to a well stocked library & find the kant section & start looking for anything about the parts you don’t understand. read about him online & basically start to get the ball rolling to grasp what he’s doing. his critique of judgement is where he really works on explaining his aesthetics. so when you’re doing your research always start with his aesthetics & wrap you head around everything you can about that…the sublime, taste, the beautiful &c.

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