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Kant on Aesthetics (2): The Beautiful

BeautifulFlower Kant begins by analysing the concept of the beautiful, and attempts to resolve the apparent paradox that subjective experience might include anything universal. He gives the example of “the green colour of the meadows” and states that this is an objective sensation – i.e. everyone will see it as green – but recognises that the pleasantness induced by this is a subjective sensation. Kant makes the claim that when we call something beautiful, it is because our faculty of Taste produces an “entirely disinterested satisfaction”, and because of this disinterest it “must claim validity for everyone… that is, there must be bound up with it a title to subjective universality”.

The claim for ‘disinterest’ here may need some explanation. If we see a delicious doughnut in front of us, we may desire to eat the doughnut. We would not in this situation (under usual circumstances at least!) call the doughnut beautiful. We desire to posses and consume the doughnut. But when we see a pastoral meadow scene and find pleasure in it, there is in this no explicit desire to possess the field. We take pleasure in its beauty without needing to make it ours. It is this “entirely disinterested satisfaction” which Kant ascribes to beautiful things, and notes that it occurs without any specific concept.

Why should the issue of concepts matter in aesthetics? Kant’s view is that some beauty is dependent upon a concept of what something is, because our assessment of such beauty requires us to know the kind of thing it is. For instance:

…human beauty (i.e. of a man, a woman, or a child), the beauty of a horse, or a building (be it church, palace, arsenal, or summer-house) presupposes a concept of the purpose which determines what the thing is to be, and consequently a concept of its perfection; it is therefore [dependent] beauty.

Kant therefore claims that while we may say that such-and-such a person is beautiful, such a judgement is conditioned by our previous experiences of people and need not be universal. People in one nation may judge different people beautiful to those of another nation, because of the different conditions of prior experience that apply. But crucial to Kant’s claims in respect of aesthetics is the claim that there are some “free beauties”, for which we don’t need to know anything conceptually in order to experience pleasure in apprehending them:

Flowers are free beauties of nature. Hardly anyone but a botanist knows the true nature of a flower, and even he, while recognizing in the flower the reproductive organ of the plant, pays no attention to this natural end when using his taste to judge of its beauty.

This allows Kant to claim that certain disputes about taste can be resolved by showing that some such claims refer to free beauty while others are concerned with dependent beauty, and acknowledges the subjective element of taste by saying “there can be no objective rule of taste which shall determine by means of concepts what is beautiful.” Note that he is not saying that there can be no objective beauty – only that such a thing cannot come about by means of a concept. Our judgement that Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie are ‘beautiful’, for instance, depends upon our concepts either of Hollywood stars or of people in general – neither person can be considered beautiful in any universal sense.

Because our assessment of dependent beauty appears to be linked to an assessment of purpose – a beautiful Hollywood star is expected to look a particular way, a beautiful cathedral has certain expected traits – Kant concludes that “Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, so far as this is perceived in it without any representation of a purpose.” Thus, free beauty – universal beauty – is to find pleasure in an appearance of purpose without any conception of what that purpose might be. This is perhaps the most controversial claim in Kant’s aesthetic account, since it is far from intuitive that our experiences of natural beauty involve any appeal to purpose.

Another objection that might be raised is that the kind of things that Kant claims are universally beautiful – such as flowers – might not seem beautiful to everyone. Kant’s reply to this would be firstly that someone who did not share in this experience of beauty would need to have been conditioned away from their native response (imagine someone who had received shock therapy while being shown flowers as per A Clockwork Orange, for instance) and secondly that the shared sense by which we make an appeal to universal beauty “aims at justifying judgements which contain an ought. It does not say that everyone will agree with my judgement, but that he ought.” Thus even if you don’t find flowers beautiful you ought to find them beautiful, according to Kant, because there is an objective beauty to them in their concept-free purposefulness.

This does not mean that Kant denies subjective pleasures – he simply considers them in different terms:

…we must represent men as differing in respect of the pleasantness or unpleasantness involved in the sensation from the same object of sense; and it is absolutely not to be required that every man should take pleasure in the same objects. Pleasure of this kind, because it comes into the mind through the sense, in respect of which therefore we are passive, we may call the pleasure of enjoyment.

So different people enjoy different things, and they find dependent beauty in different ways, but there remains (Kant claims) some things which afford a universal subjective experience of Beauty, and the pleasure bound up in such an experience is such that we expect and require other people to share that pleasure if we are not to consider them as being in some way deficient. Free beauty is universal, and if it is not, then at the very least our experience of such beauty commits us to feeling that it should be universal and that everyone should be able to share in the satisfaction we feel in experiencing a flower, a meadow, or a sunset.

Next week: Nature versus Art

Comments

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So I'll ask three questions (and possibly foreshadow a bit - apologies if so).

1) Can a piece of abstract art be beautiful?

I have to say that I've encountered only one piece that I'd put into that category - and I was introduced to it as a young child and given an "It's like ships" as a representational hook for it.

2) Can a young child appreciate beauty? If not, at what age can one appreciate it?

3) Can a mathematical proof or equation be beautiful? To whom?

These are both obvious questions if appreciation of beauty is related to comprehension of purpose.

"Kant’s reply to this would be firstly that someone who did not share in this experience of beauty would need to have been conditioned away from their native response"

It seems that Kant is appealing to the universality of human visual cortices rather than the universality of beauty per se.


As to Kant's free beauties, I would like to bring up the sublime beauty of physics. Not the equations that attempt to express physics, but physics itself. I personally needed years of study to understand the structure of physics, which would seem to make it unfree, and yet the it also cannot depend on the conception of the purpose of physics. For example, to the extent society gives us expectations of physics, the thing itself is very different, to the point of being entirely orthogonal to those concepts.


"1) Can a piece of abstract art be beautiful?"

I'm a bad artist, but when forced, my preferred style is abstract. A good piece of abstract is about the play of colour and shape for its own sake, not necessarily tending to represent anything, although it can if it wants.

Good abstract still needs to bow to the general laws of aesthetics - it can still be accused of being too busy, of choosing clashing colours, and so forth.

The fractal image Circle of Life gracing the virtual/real post is abstract, and I'm quite taken with it.

Peter:

"Can a piece of abstract art be beautiful?"

Kant would allow this; abstract art, although not common in his time, falls under what he calls "the play of sensations", of which music is the paradigm case. He recognises that one can do with colour what one does with music, and he would allow that it is possible to find beauty in it - certainly dependent beauty, at the very least.

"Can a young child appreciate beauty? If not, at what age can one appreciate it?"

I have no basis for deriving Kant's opinion herein, but I imagine as soon as one has the cognitive apparatus to perceive a scene, one has the capacity to recognise beauty. The recognition of beauty in Kant's terms does not require intellect, only judgement, and this is certainly available in some form to children.

"Can a mathematical proof or equation be beautiful? To whom?"

Kant recognises rhetoric as potentially beautiful (at least dependently), therefore I believe he might be open to mathematical beauty, but I believe it might always be a dependent beauty, since once must be able to comprehend the form from prior experience in order to appreciate it.


Alrenous:

"It seems that Kant is appealing to the universality of human visual cortices rather than the universality of beauty per se."

Kant's idealism places mind above 'reality'. Your statement here takes his idealism and reinterprets it on materialist and reductionist grounds. Kant would not do this. Therefore, the appeal is not Kant's, but rather yours in your interpretation of Kant in these terms. ;)

"Not the equations that attempt to express physics, but physics itself. I personally needed years of study to understand the structure of physics, which would seem to make it unfree, and yet the it also cannot depend on the conception of the purpose of physics."

This seems to me to be another case of dependent beauty, parallel to the case of mathematics I mentioned above. Since it is not accessible without study, I do not believe it can attain the status of Kant's free beauty.

The case can be made, which I suspect you are gesturing at here, that the purposefulness of physics could be beautiful in the free sense - purposefulness without representation of purpose. Yet still, this is not accessible by the judgement alone - it requires the faculty of reason. Kant allows some things that the reason deals with to parallel beauty (in particular, ethics) therefore I believe he might have been open to this kind of appeal.

"The fractal image Circle of Life gracing the virtual/real post is abstract, and I'm quite taken with it."

Vitor will be pleased! :) I frequently enjoy his work, and enjoy using his images as front-pieces.

It took me a long time to get to appreciating abstract art, but these days I favour it over strict depiction. Impressionism, however, is perhaps my favourite artistic form - the use of abstract techniques to create depictions that have a certain *feel* has especial appeal to me.

Thanks for the comments!

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