Philosophy of Wii (ihobo)
Blast from the Past

Kant on Aesthetics (4): Taste

Shell Let us return to Kant’s strange claim that our judgement that something is beautiful involves an assessment of purposiveness in the absence of any tangible concept of purpose. He concludes the first part of the Critique of Judgement by exploring a “dialectic of the aesthetical judgement”, which is to say, by having a logical argument with himself about what kind of thing taste might be.

He begins by looking at everyday discussions of taste:

The first commonplace of taste is contained in the proposition, with which every tasteless person proposes to avoid blame: everyone has his own taste... the determining ground of this judgement is merely subjective (gratification or grief), and that the judgement has no right to the necessary assent of others... The second commonplace invoked even by those who admit for judgements of taste the right to speak with validity for everyone is: there is no disputing about taste.

For Kant, these claims constitute an argument about whether or not “the judgement of taste is based upon concepts” – if it isn't, there can be no controversy (i.e. “everyone has his own taste”), but if it is based upon concepts then “we could not quarrel about it” and we can “claim for our judgement the necessary assent of others” (i.e. “there is no disputing about taste”). Exploring this, Kant concludes that the apparent contradiction will disappear if the concept involved is one for which “nothing can be known and proved” - if it is a kind of concept which is “undeterminable and useless for knowledge”. If taste depended upon such a concept, then it would be possible to make judgements that might have validity for everyone, because “its determining ground lies perhaps in the concept of that which may be regarded as the supersensible substrate of humanity.” If taste relates to something fundamental in our experience as human beings, the problems may disappear.

How does this resolve the conflict between “everyone has his own taste” and “there is no disputing about taste”? Kant claims in the former case that the assertion rests on there being no determinate concepts of taste; there is always a subjective element involved. In the latter case he claims that there is a concept involved, but it is indeterminate (it's part of the background conditions by which we experience existence) – and here the apparent contradiction vanishes, because the absence of a determinate concept is not antithetical to the presence of an indeterminate concept. He thus concludes:

It is absolutely impossible to give a definite objective principle of taste... for then the judgement would not be one of taste at all. The subjective principle, viz. the indefinite Idea of the supersensible in us, can only be put forward as the sole key to the puzzle of this faculty whose sources are hidden from us: it can be made no further intelligible.

What is this “supersensible Idea” that Kant uses to justify the claims to “subjective universality”? It is the idea of the “purposiveness of both Nature and Art as the unique principle of the aesthetical judgement.” He challenges in this regard whether we should treat this “purposiveness” as a matter of realism or idealism – is it part of reality, or part of our minds? Here Kant's philosophical investigation pursues a tack which might be difficult to appreciate from the way we now view the world, and it is important to remember he is writing from the late 18th century.

Kant accedes – at least to begin with – that “the beautiful formations of the aesthetical purposiveness of nature speak loudly for the realism of the aesthetical purposiveness of nature”:

Flowers, blossoms, even the shapes of entire plants; the elegance of animal formations of all kinds, unneeded for their proper use, but, as it were, selected for our taste; especially the charming variety so satisfying to the eye and the harmonious arrangement of colours (in the pheasant, in shell-fish, in insects, even in the commonest flowers), which, as it only concerns the surface and not the figure of these creations... seems to be entirely designed for external inspection; these things give great weight to that mode of explanation which assumes actual purposes of nature for our aesthetical Judgement.

It's hard to imagine from our modern perspective even making such an assertion, but at the time he was writing this was not a difficult claim to make – it would not have seemed strange to suggest that beautiful things in nature might have been made beautiful for the benefit of mankind because of the prevailing theology at the time. The shell depicted above could be seen as made beautiful by God that we might enjoy its beauty. But the ease with which Kant's contemporaries might make such an assumption does not give the philosopher pause. He objects that “Reason [is] opposed to this assumption [because we must aim] to avoid as far as possible unnecessary multiplication of principles” and furthermore Kant recognises that nature relies upon “mechanical tendency” and that this alone can create forms that seem to have an aesthetic value.

He thus rejects the idea that the purposiveness of nature can be attributed to realism, because it this were the case – if beautiful things really were created for us to view them as beautiful – then taste would not function in a manner independent of experience; rather, if this were the case, “we must have learned from nature what we ought to find beautiful, and the aesthetical judgement would be subjected to empirical principles.” Rather than a subjective purposiveness, as Kant suggests, we would find instead objective purposiveness but of course it is “we who receive nature with favour, not nature which shows us favour.”

Kant further claims that it is only in the case of subjective purposiveness that there could be an a priori claim to validity for everyone – if everything was made for us to experience it as beautiful, we would simply be assessing our experiences of the world empirically; there would be no need for anything that transcends this. Therefore the claim to subjective universality that is recognisable in aesthetics (“there is no disputing about taste”) effectively disproves any claim that there is anything objectivity universal in aesthetics. From this conclusion, Kant moves on from the discussion of aesthetical judgement and into his critique of teleological judgement – which in modern terms we might call intelligent design.

Next week, First Part of the Second Division: Intelligent Design

Comments

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This is fascinating stuff, but I'm not sure I have a solid grasp of Kant's ideas. It seems that Kant is saying:

0. Beauty is entirely separate from utility (as a product of "entirely disinterested satisfaction")

1. We are all born with an innate sense of aesthetics. (We all "ought" to agree that certain things possess a "free beauty")
I. This innate sense can be unlearned with experience
II. This innate sense stems from some "supersensible substrate of humanity"
a. We cannot understand this "substrate" since it is an "undeterminable concept". This concept is undeterminable because it is a fundamental element of how we perceive reality, and so we cannot perceive this concept without having that very concept shape our perceptions

2. When one gains a unique set of life experiences, one also gains new and unique senses of aesthetics ("dependent beauty")

3. The "sublime" is like "beauty" only even more totally awesome

Thus, objective aesthetic taste is impossible to define, because -- although we all begin life with the same taste -- the source of this innate sense is inherently unknowable, as it is bound up in our very perception of reality. Further, this innate aesthetic taste is inevitably modified through experience.


Assuming I have a reasonable understanding of Kant's ideas (and please correct me where I don't), I largely agree, though I have the following problems:

0. Must the "entirely disinterested satisfaction" sensation evoked by a beautiful thing be entirely separate from all other (utilitarian) forms of satisfaction one derives from that beautiful thing?
EX0: If I view a painting and feel pleasure, must I separate out the (utilitarian) pleasures of learning about color, form, composition, as well as the enjoyment derived from thinking about concepts the painting suggests, along with any other enjoyment that could possibly be even indirectly useful to me -- and whatever pleasure remains (if any) is the "entirely disinterested satisfaction" of the painting's "free beauty"?
EX1: Similarly, if I simplify a practically useful mathematical equation to a more elegant form, must I separate out the (utilitarian) pleasures of furthering my understanding of practically useful mathematics and finding a way to more effectively explain these mathematics to others along with any other enjoyment that could possibly be even indirectly useful to me, and whatever pleasure remains (if any) is the "entirely disinterested satisfaction" of the simplified equation's "free beauty"?

If this is true, I conclude that I perceive very little "free beauty", since the vast majority of pleasure I experience has some utility, though that utility is often very abstract.


1. I have the vague sense that there might be some way of effectively studying concepts that are fundamental elements of how we perceive reality, but I don't think I know the right things to mount a coherent argument.


Great stuff, Chris! Thanks for writing it. :)

Nathan: thanks for your kind words! I haven't looked at the first part of this serial for a while as I've been adapting the second part into a book, but I think I remember enough of Kant's comments on beauty to respond to your comments.

You seem to have understood his position well enough (although I'm not sure he specifically says the innate sense of beauty is 'unlearned' so much as supplemented by certain specific forms).

"3. The "sublime" is like "beauty" only even more totally awesome"

This is, actually, pretty much what Kant does say. :) Although 'sublime' for Kant is beyond beauty by having an element of awe and majesty to it - beauty moves you, but the sublime moves you with a sense of fear or trepedation as well.

"Thus, objective aesthetic taste is impossible to define, because -- although we all begin life with the same taste -- the source of this innate sense is inherently unknowable, as it is bound up in our very perception of reality. Further, this innate aesthetic taste is inevitably modified through experience."

Not necessarily impossible to define, but difficult to disentangle from what is learned. It is in the appreciation of nature that Kant suggests we come face to face with our innate aesthetic sense.

"0. Must the "entirely disinterested satisfaction" sensation evoked by a beautiful thing be entirely separate from all other (utilitarian) forms of satisfaction one derives from that beautiful thing?"

This question about separating out elements of pleasure is a very contemporary way of looking at this - since pragmatically you simply cannot decompose experience so neatly into separate boxes. While Kant certainly says that the beauty of a painting is seperate (for instance) from the pleasures of understanding its technical and formal composition, this doesn't necessarily mean you need to subtract these other pleasures to recognise the experience of beauty. I suspect Kant would view this other layer of pleasure as being closer to dependent beauty, but practically any experience of human-made art is going to collide these two experiences of beauty to some degree.

"EX1: Similarly, if I simplify a practically useful mathematical equation to a more elegant form..."

I'm uncertain Kant would recognise beauty in the case of the mathematical equation, but it's tricky since Kant seems to have a deep connection with mathematics - but not one he expressly deems aesthetic. I think you might need a better Kant scholar than myself to answer this one! :)

Glad you enjoyed this serial!

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