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