Archive | February, 2015

Kant’s Theory of the Beautiful and Art

21 Feb

Today’s Post is of a philosophical nature. Here I have shared an essay I wrote for the seminar I am currently taking on Aesthetics. It tackles Kant’s book Critique of the Power of Judgment, specifically his theory on how we determine what is beautiful. This class so far is very challenging for me as I have little background in philosophy, but it is very rewarding as I have a very smart professor teaching it and I am learning a lot. I am excited to apply what I learn to art history as well, and throughout the class it has already made me think about the implications that the work of these philosophers might have on museums and museum practice, some of which I discuss in this particular paper. Keep in mind for this paper that Kant was writing in the 18th century, and so it is possible his views might have changed if he were alive today. In some ways this seems less likely for Kant than it might be for other older philosophers however, because Kant’s theory claims to be universally true for all of mankind. I reference three images in the paper, which I will show right below this preface paragraph.

hockney painting for paper



To begin the journey of understanding Kant’s paradoxical view on how we find the beautiful, it’s important to first grasp the cognitive procedure by which Kant believes we can determine what is truly beautiful at once for us individually and for all.

Kant believes that our brains’ system of cognition is constructed with two abilities, which Kant calls imagination and understanding.[1] Imagination involves the work of the five senses in creating a sensory memory bank of sorts, where everything we experience is stored. The way that we are able to catalogue and recognize all the objects we experience is through the second cognitive faculty, understanding. Understanding consists of the concepts and rules we have learned through reason. The way in which we use these faculties to make judgments will create different types of judgments in the process, one of which is the necessary condition for making a pure judgment to identify the beautiful. The judgments we make fall into two categories: determinate and indeterminate. It is only when our judgments are indeterminate that we move towards finding beauty.

Determinate judgments are normal judgments that we make in which we use our imagination to create specifically constructed intuitions, or mental images, and then draw on our understanding to grab concepts and rules fueled by reason, empirical observation and experience in order to identify and classify that intuition. For example, a determinate judgment would be “Today is Monday,” because one cannot reasonably dispute what the day of the week is and it is not a subjective question. We know it is Monday because of our learning to use a calendar and tell time. The key aspect about a determinate judgment that makes it not a pure aesthetic judgment of beauty is that it is focused on identifying and recognizing an object for its personal agreeability or utility.

Reflective, or indeterminate, judgments are subjective and based on the harmonious free play of the two cognitive faculties. What creates an indeterminate judgment as opposed to a determinate judgment is when these two faculties are in harmonious free play. Harmonious free play means that at the time we are using these faculties when we encounter an object towards which we want to employ them, we are not in pursuit of knowledge or have some goal in mind. Instead, we are simply considering the object using our imagination to focus the senses and create an intuition about the object, and our understanding faculties to create a judgment of this intuition, without having the goal of labelling the object or gaining knowledge of it.

When we make an aesthetic reflective judgment, we are making a reflective judgment as described above. We are making a judgment about the object based on the intuition of it that we construct, without connecting it to a particular concept. We are fixedly exploring the object using our imagination and judging it freely. The important factor to ensure that we can make a pure judgment is that we do so with disinterestedness. To be disinterested in an object and thus be able to make an aesthetic reflective judgment is to have no care about the object’s existence. This necessary attitude of indifference means that one probably cannot make such a judgment about a painting that his or her loved one made for him or her because there are emotions invested in the person who made it and, by extension, in the object. Nor can we make an aesthetic reflective judgment about an artist whose work we personally enjoy and whom we want to succeed, because in that case we also desire for that object to exist. Both of these cases are what Kant calls aesthetic judgments of sense.[2] But if one reads a poem and has no attachment to the author or the subject matter the poem presents, then that person will be able to make an aesthetic reflective judgment.

Another way that Kant illustrates the difference between interested aesthetic judgments of sense and disinterested aesthetic judgments of reflection is the order in which thoughts and feelings occur with each type of judgment.[3] In the case of interested aesthetic judgments of sense, we immediately feel pleasure or displeasure towards it via the senses delivering the object to our mind, and only after this do we think our judgment of the object: “This is a painting of an ocean and I love the ocean; I think this is a beautiful painting.” With disinterested aesthetic judgments of reflection, the order of thought and feeling is reversed. Because we are disinterested in the object, we cannot have any immediate feelings upon perceiving it, so we think about it first and make a judgment, then we feel pleasure because we engaged in this exercise. Because our emotions do not influence us in this type of judgment, Kant believes that it “belongs to the higher faculty of cognition and indeed to the power of judgment, under whose subjective but nevertheless still universal conditions the representation of the object is subsumed.”[4]

How exactly do these aesthetic reflective judgments help us decide what is beautiful? Kant claims that the harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties allows us to determine what is beautiful, and we know that something is beautiful when this pleasure occurs. Judging an object to be beautiful is the exact process that I have discussed above, in which we have engaged in a disinterested harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties with the object. From this exercise we derive a specific, unique pleasure. The harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties produces pleasure because, as Kant puts it, “The consciousness of the merely formal purposiveness in the play of the cognitive powers of the subject in the case of a representation through which an object is given is the pleasure itself, because it contains a determining ground of the activity of the subject with regard to the animation of its cognitive powers, thus an internal causality (which is purposive) with regard to cognition in general, but without being restricted to a particular cognition, hence it contains a mere form of the subjective purposiveness of a representation in an aesthetic judgment.”[5] In other words, the pleasure that occurs from aesthetic reflective judgments, which occur only when the harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties is at work, comes from the result of such a judgment: we find purposiveness in a purposeless object. The purposiveness found in purposelessness refers to the harmony that the two cognitive faculties can achieve. Beardsley describes that “It is the experience of formal purposiveness in a representation that evokes the free harmonious play of the two cognitive faculties…the imagination recognizes an expression of itself in the formally satisfying object…in harmony with the lawfulness (but not any particular law) of understanding.”[6]

When we say something is beautiful, we are saying that it has given us that specific experience pleasure based on the disinterested harmonious free play of our cognitive faculties. In other words, when someone asks whether an object is beautiful, “One only wants to know whether the mere representation of the object is accompanied with satisfaction in me, however indifferent I might be with regard to the existence of the object of this representation.”[7] The determination of the beautiful when disinterest is present as opposed to interest lies in “what I make of this representation in myself, not how I depend on the existence of the object.”[8] Cohen and Guyer make note of an important nuance in what it means to say an object is beautiful in the Kantian sense: “One’s apprehension of x as beautiful is not the detection of some property in x by means of a procedure for recognition. It is, rather, the awareness that x prompts some feeling in oneself.[9]

When we depend on the existence of the object in some way, we have interest in it and it is what Kant calls “agreeable” to us. In agreeable things, our pleasure results from what “pleases the senses in sensation.”[10] It not only pleases us and gains our approval, but it gratifies us, and instills in us a desire for more objects like it and an inclination towards it.[11]

In our experience of the morally good, we also have interest in the object which expresses good. Kant defines the good as that “which pleases by means of reason alone, through the mere concept.”[12] Whether the good is good for some use or good in itself, since both involve the concept of an end, we thus have an interest in the object that is good. What distinguishes the good from the beautiful and the agreeable is that in order for us to perceive an object as good, we “must always know what sort of thing the object is supposed to be” by having a concept of it.[13] While agreeable objects are found to be agreeable based purely on sensation, and beautiful objects depend on indeterminate reflection which can lead to possible (but not cemented or specific) concepts, good objects must be directly linked to some concept that we know, and our views on that concept will determine how we judge the object to be good.

In the end, there is no specific difference in how the experience of the beautiful, the agreeable, or the moral feels to us. But the ways in which the pleasure that results from each of these experiences come about are distinct, and are instrumental in producing each specific experience. Another difference between our experience of the beautiful and of the agreeable is the sequence in which we estimate the object and judge the object. The order in which these occur not only affects when exactly we have pleasure during the experience, but also what kind of judgment we can ultimately claim to be making. And the judgment that we can then claim to be making will determine whether we can say it is true for just ourselves or for everyone.

Eldridge succinctly explains that an estimation (beurtheilung) of an object involves considering an object carefully without making any judgment about it: “one focuses one’s attention on the work, exploring its parts or elements and their interrelations, without setting on any single definitive conceptualization of it as wholly explaining what it is.”[14] We are assessing the work before deciding whether it produces pleasure for us and is therefore beautiful. The judgment (urteil) is the decision that we make regarding whether the object is beautiful. It is important for Kant’s theory of pure aesthetic judgments that the estimation of an object precedes one’s pleasure in it because if the pleasurable sensation came first, then we would not be able to make a truly free, disinterested aesthetic judgment. It would only be able have “private validity” according to Kant since it is based on our own sensory experience and would not be a true example of the harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties.[15] But the goal for aesthetic judgments in Kant’s vision is for them to be true for everyone. This is only possible if the aesthetic judgment occurs through pure cognition (harmonious free play of the cognitive faculties), because cognition is universally communicable and the products of pure cognition will be true for everyone.[16]

How can a fully subjective reflective aesthetic judgment claim universality at the same time?The Transcendental Deduction of judgments of tastes addresses Kant’s paradoxical claim of intersubjective validity: “the pleasure or subjective purposiveness of the representation for the relation of the cognitive faculties in the judging of a sensible object in general can rightly be expected of everyone.”[17] This means that judgments of taste cannot be anything but subjective because it is the result of the awareness that an object reflects onto oneself. Its reflection onto ourselves is what makes it subjective, but it becomes true for everyone and thus intersubjectively valid because it is based on universally communicable cognition.

Does Kant’s theory hold up in real life? I would say that, while it would be difficult for humans to achieve often, or even at all, that it is the best way to determine what is beautiful. Because aesthetic reflective judgments require so much effort to put aside our personal interests and biases, I think it would be quite difficult for us to make these kind of judgments purely. Depending on the person, this could mean that there are very few objects about which one could make truly aesthetic reflective judgments. Assuming that art museums have the job of collecting and curating beautiful objects, Kant’s theory makes me question the credibility of experts in the arts fields to have such a responsibility. Most likely they have a desire for the arts to continue and prosper, and so they have a stake in every art object’s existence. Does this mean if they can’t make aesthetic reflective judgments, they are not the best people to decide what is truly beautiful and thus belongs in a museum? I think that sometimes we do see this happen in museums when they decide to exhibit certain artworks. Since museums often depend on visitors to both keep their doors open and to stay relevant, curators are often pressured to create exhibitions based on more famous artists than lesser known ones, even if the work of the lesser known ones is more beautiful. Perhaps because I do not have the privilege working in a museum yet and being considered one of the experts, I like that Kant’s theory does not elevate these experts to be the only ones who can define the beautiful as Hume’s theory does. Whereas there are only a handful of people who can define art from Hume’s perspective, everyone can find for themselves what is beautiful if they decide they want to do the work it will take to do so. It perhaps would be easier for certain people to make these judgments, but at least in Kant’s theory the power to decide what is beautiful does not belong to an elite few.

Leaving aside the issue of how difficult these judgments would be to carry out, Kant’s description of nature and art being places where we see purposiveness in something purposeless is a lovely, and I think accurate, idea. When one looks at a painting, it is clear that someone did not randomly put paint on a canvas, and that there was intention and purpose behind it. And yet, it is not clear why we actually need the arrangement of paint on a canvas, for it serves no conceivable function in the world. This leaves its only purpose to be beauty, to be a beautiful object for us to contemplate. Our imagination can go multiple directions with our thoughts or sensations in experiencing the painting, while at the same time recognize that there is no mindlessness occurring here. A David Hockney painting is clearly not a random occurrence, and yet it cannot do our laundry, file our taxes, or pump air into our tires. Thus all that is left for us to do is appreciate it for its sake, an exercise that cannot occur when there is interest in the object (in the Kantian sense) or it is for some practical or moral use.

In conceptual art, which is less about the object itself and more about the idea behind it, I wonder if Kant would see these as less than art and simply as political or philosophical manifestos. For works such as the gelatin silver-print C-Ration by Lorna Simpson, there is a clear purpose to make viewers aware of racist and sexist attitudes still prevalent against black women at the time. Similarly, religious paintings such as Caravaggio’s Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy also have specific intentions to imbue viewers with certain feelings about Christianity. I would guess, therefore, that Kant would decide that abstract art is the only art about which we can make aesthetic reflective judgments. Some might find Kant’s removal of the option to judge religious, conceptual, or a number of art genres as beautiful problematic.

Finally, Kant believed that it was only nature which we could truly determine to be beautiful, since art, being a human creation using various media, always requires at least some grasping at concepts in order to define the art object based on what it is made out of, which culture it came from, and who made it. Furthermore, he believed we have no interest in nature’s existence, because we take for granted that it will be there tomorrow and so do not feel the need to protect it. Kant’s view is reflective of a world we sadly no longer live in, where environmental destruction based on human development was not nearly as much of a problem as it is now. When we do get to see a beautiful landscape, we will most likely cherish it more than we might have in Kant’s time because such unfettered vistas of nature are increasingly harder to find, and as a society we are much more aware of the possibility that we could lose nature by our own hand.

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