Thursday, October 20, 2005

Week 09, Kant

General Notes on Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment

Kant’s significance in his own era: a “Copernican Revolution” in Philosophy.

1. Politics: Kant’s Enlightenment-based, philosophical idealist claims about the sufficiency of the mind’s moral and rational powers leads to much grander claims on the part of romantic expressivists and political revolutionaries. Kant is a bit like Banquo in Macbeth—though no political revolutionary or proponent of formalism or art-for-art’s sake, he “gets” such heirs. Kant never traveled beyond his home in Königsberg , East Prussia , but his ideas about humans’ capacity to render themselves and their surroundings intelligible spread throughout Europe and, at least indirectly, went into the making of the French Revolution. Why? Because if the mind is posited as constitutive of reality (not passively receptive of it) and if we are cast as autonomous moral agents, the political implication, at least in the most motivated and optimistic readings, would be democratic revolution against the era’s prevailing monarchism (a kind of determinism by “natural rulers” over the ruled). The French Revolution of 1789 is the dynamic embodiment of this possibility of change.

2. Art: When Kant says that we can know the “phenomenal” world (literally, “that which appears”), his emphasis is on a kind of subjectivism (in the sense that we cannot simply step outside of the perceiving self and know things directly), which nonetheless posits universal faculties or mental capacities. And art, like nature, is part of the phenomenal realm—we see a beautiful object in nature or art and make an aesthetic judgment. So by valorizing and studying it, we are engaging with a realm that has cognitive significance. Kant validates the field of aesthetics as a legitimate branch of philosophy. Further, Kant’s theory of a capacity for disinterested aesthetic judgment—one not based on logic or external moral standards or sensory/sensual gratification, but rather on a felt harmony between the form of natural objects and the mind’s powers—led near-contemporaries to treat art as an autonomous realm of experience, one that could be kept separate from the encroachment of social constraints and corruptive influences like politics and economics. To the romantics, an autonomous realm of art could serve as the basis for societal renewal, with the poets and artists, accessible priests of imagination, as the ones whose claims to speak with authority about human problems should be granted the highest level of authority.

Kant’s significance for 20th-21st century theory.

1. Politics: Kant’s claims about our freedom as rational and moral agents living in a world we ourselves largely render intelligible and livable remain, in one variation or another, central to the argument over the possibility of political consensus and progress implying such assumptions. To what extent, if at all, can humans change themselves and the social and political reality they find around them? Modern theorists can sound cynical about the universality and “freedom” of the mind’s powers, but the questions posed by Kant and other Enlightenment philosophers continue to play a role in shaping contemporary discourse about political consensus and ethics. Is there a common set of human powers and traits that give us some measure of control over our destiny, or is it rather the case that nature or environment or even ideology (our belief systems and institutions, enshrined in social practices and linguistic usage and codification) exercise a determining power over all that we do and think and say, so that moral and intellectual freedom, even political freedom, are little more than humanistic illusions and philosophical sham? Does life boil down to power and ideological determination, to the exclusion of concepts like free will and enlightened, educated humanity? Does insistence on such free agency merely serve repressive political ends, perpetuating distorted views about the way things are?

2. Art: Kant’s positing that there is such a thing as a pure, disinterested, autonomous judgment (as indicated above) implies that art is at least potentially a free and independent realm of human endeavor and experience, and even one with tremendous regenerative power for individuals and societies. Few theorists today would accept that claim directly—they would suggest that art’s production and reception are permeated by ideological imperatives and that the people who make and perceive art are not free in the sense Kant implies they are. Still, none of these criticisms do away with the key questions about art’s social, political, and cognitive value: what is art, can we even ask what art is, what is the social and political significance of such arguments about what art “is”? etc.

Aesthetics has long been a suspect branch of philosophy. The insistence upon an autonomous realm of art is often seen as a form of political escapism into a never-never land free of immediate, real-life consequences; it is seen as implying a naïve model of human subjectivity. In fact, a seemingly escapist doctrine such as “Art for Art’s Sake” owes something to Kant—as manifested in the British Decadent Movement, it shows up as a commodified notion of elitism that can be marketed to the middle class. (That’s true even if we can’t imagine old Immanuel strolling along Piccadilly with a medieval lily in his hand.) But suspicions about aesthetics and aestheticism aside, we should not dismiss all consideration of the central assumptions underlying aesthetics.

One other point of influence about Kant is that although he describes beauty as something that happens in the perceiver, not in the perceived object itself, his aesthetics lead to later formalist theories such as that of the New Critics of the 1930’s-40’s. This is because he claims that the pattern, or arrangement, or form, of a phenomenally given object is a matter of significance. We judge an object beautiful, at base, because our mental faculties feel a certain pleasurable harmony with the formal arrangement of the object, as if the natural world is giving us a sense of its “it-fits-ness” with our own mental structure. The object accords with our powers of perceiving. Kant expressly says that aesthetic judgments about beauty are not dependent on the innate properties of things. Still, aesthetic judgments are the result of the mind’s ability to construct harmony from its own formal organization of sensory data. So does the New Critics’ brand of concentration on the formal properties of a text that they consider autonomous and coherent or whole.


1. Kant said that the essence of the Enlightenment could be captured in the phrase “Dare to Know.” Humans possess the power of cognition, of reason, and they are responsible for knowing the sources, operational principles, and limits of that power. That is what the three famous Critiques are for: Critique of Pure Reason (how we can perceive and know); Critique of Practical Reason (Ethics); Critique of Judgment (Aesthetics). Kant asserts that we are rational and morally free. We are not determined by our environment or nature but are instead responsible beings who largely render the world intelligible by means of our powerful mental faculties. We give laws to what we call Nature, and our standards derive not from an external source (God) but rather from our own capacity to act morally.

It is important to realize that in Kant’s day much of Europe was split philosophically: Cartesian rationalism asserting that reality is derivable through logical operations or mathematical formulae, Leibnizian claims about a perspectiveless kind of knowledge, dogmatic Idealism asserting that mind alone is real; and the British empiricism of Bacon and Locke, which insists that all knowledge is derived from sensory data acting upon a passive, initially blank mind or “blank slate” (tabula rasa). Kant wanted to find a way to show some relation between human beings and nature without the need to deny the integrity of either. He does not want us to assert blandly that nature doesn’t matter or that we are entirely in the grip of natural laws. The latter option amounts to determinism, and it denies human dignity and free will.

Kant’s solution is ingenious. He says that we cannot indeed know “things in themselves” (the noumenal world, something not accessible through the senses). Ceasing to claim either that we can know noumena or that there simply is no noumenal realm turns out for Kant to be a liberating movement. Why? Without dismissing the possibility of an ultimate reality, Kant works things out so that any alleged ultimate reality ceases to be endowed with determining force over us. Not only is that so, but we can now begin to make a reasonably scientific investigation of the realm that we can know: the phenomenal world, the world of “things as they appear to us through our acts of perception.”

So in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant locates the “reality” he wants to investigate not in things themselves, not in some external realm, but rather in the mind’s own ability to organize sensory data into something intelligible. The most basic way this happens is through the fundamental forms of intuition, space and time. To borrow an analogy from Meyer Abrams and Hazard Adams, those forms are like spectacles we can never remove; we structure the world through them. Kant is implying that at this fundamental level, the mind is constitutive and active; it structures what we call reality. Furthermore, this reality is something we can investigate and come to know; we can know how we construct what we call reality. Kant is no empirical psychologist, but he asks, “how does the mind work?” Objects seem to accord with our perceptions. In that sense, at least, there is harmony between nature and our mental faculties. We are not aliens wandering an earth that we cannot understand or be at home in.

In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant is concerned to establish the grounds of our moral freedom. Our status as rational and moral beings, he says, lifts us above animal nature and even allows us to connect with Infinity, what is beyond our finite perceptions. Our minds have “legislative power” over nature, so we can adopt an at least partly independent stance towards it without dismissing our existence as beings in nature. Similarly, our morality is not an externally derived or determinant force over us; our morality comes from an innate capacity to generate moral standards that bind us as individuals and as a community. Kant’s categorical imperative says that a moral law must be binding for all: I can’t go out and borrow money not intending to pay it back because that renders the whole moral universe meaningless. Who would lend money if there were no universally recognizable expectation that it ought to be paid back? If we make exceptions for ourselves as individuals, he insists, we put the very possibility of acting morally to shame. (See Francis Bacon’s quip that revenge does violence not only to the offender but also to the law itself; revenge, writes Bacon, “puts the law out of office.”) This kind of ethical “subjective universality,” treated as objective and binding reality, means that we can make a world in which we can live according to rules whose force we all recognize. It’s in our nature to do so.

In The Critique of Judgment, Kant’s claim is that aesthetic experience gives us a palpable sense of our moral and intellectual freedom; it helps us experience the bridging of the gap between the concepts of nature and freedom. Freedom isn’t just meant to be a truth we can understand through abstract philosophical study. Imagination or sensibility, the function of which is to supply the understanding with data that must be synthesized, arrives at a relation of free play and harmony with the understanding (which usually brings data under concepts with a view to action or knowledge, but which in the case of aesthetic judgments need not refer to any determinate concept like “goodness,” “usefulness,” etc.).

This pleasurable experience of the mind’s faculties in harmony makes us aware of our freedom and convinces us that nature is compatible with the mind’s powers. We cannot be alien to a world that gives us pleasure without making any demands upon us. So Kant’s analysis of aesthetic experience helps him bring home to us the claims made in the other two Critiques about our status as free, intelligent moral beings. As for the sublime, it’s important because although our experience with vast, powerful natural phenomena exceeds the capacity of our imagination and understanding to subsume it, we do not feel threatened by the “beyondness” of the experience. On the contrary, we are reassured in a very palpable way of the power of human faculties. We may not know the infinitely large in the sense of being able to quantify it or bound it determinately, but we still can think infinity in a manner that doesn’t overwhelm us. Our whole sense of self and of stability in the world doesn’t come crashing down upon us, so the mind must be a very powerful thing indeed.

Page-by-Page Notes on Kant’s Critique of Judgment

503. Editorial introduction. Kant is not concerned with the creation of art. Art is not necessarily created to achieve beauty. It may be made for many purposes—most notably ritual or religious. Or perhaps expression might be the goal of the artist; certainly contemporary art is not about beauty. It seems more like a confrontation with unintelligibility, or with the audience’s value system. It is “disturbing and disintegrating” (Wilde’s phrase) with regard to what we have falsely determined to be serene, integrated, unassailable, and unquestionable. Of course, this gesture can be turned into a style, a commodified act of rebellion. Oscar Wilde says that beauty is just such a disturbing element, given what it opposes. The difficulty lies in opposing the world while being immersed in it, working with and against the world’s rules, forms, and prohibitions.

505. Kant defines imagination as “the power of a priori intuitions”—i.e. the power to synthesize the intuitions given by sensibility. It is the power of exhibition. He defines understanding as “the power of concepts.” The point is that the mind is structured in such a way that its faculties can receive and construe sensory data. See Kant’s summary—subjective universality does not mean “merely subjective” in the non-philosophical sense. Taste is the ability to make aesthetic judgments.

506-07. “Interest is what we call the liking we connect with the presentation of an object’s existence.” Disinterestedness implies freedom from bias; it means we must have no immediate relation to the object we are contemplating and no sense that it must have an immediate purpose. The author’s intentions, the social implications of the object, and so forth, do not matter when one speaks of aesthetic judgments.

507. “Agreeable is what the senses like in sensation.” We merely like what is agreeable. Pancakes with maple syrup are not beautiful. They simply gratify our taste buds—we like the flavor. We must abstract from such sensory pleasure when making an aesthetic judgment.
We also take an interest in the good—we desire the existence of the object for its own sake (moral goodness) or because it is useful, as a wheelbarrow is useful to someone who wants to do some gardening. We do not take any interest of that sort in a flower or in a fine design. So whether we say that something is good in itself or good for some purpose, both statements involve an interested judgment; we would have to know a definite purpose. Kant refers here as well to what he will later call “free beauties” such as flowers and arabesque designs.

508-09. “For the good is the object of the will (a power of desire that is determined by reason).” Simply put, we want a “good” object to exist. But then Kant moves towards the three sorts of liking and to what constitutes a judgment of taste proper. “A judgment of taste ... considers the character of the object only by holding it up to our feeling of pleasure and displeasure.” We do not care about the existence of such an object, and taste is the ability to judge objects by means of a liking that contains no interest. Notice that towards the bottom of the page, Kant provides a straightforward summary after all the complex analysis he has offered—”we call agreeable what gratifies us, beautiful what we just like, good what we esteem....” Agreeable / beautiful / good; gratify / like / esteem; incline / favor / respect. So a judgment of the beautiful is “disinterested and free,” as Kant says at the top of 509.

510. “A judgment of taste must involve a claim to subjective universality.” Freedom from interest makes us say that our judgment of beauty is universal and valid.

510. “If he says that canary wine is agreeable he is quite content if someone else corrects his terms and reminds him to say instead: it is agreeable to me.” My example is passionfruit fudge. It would be boorish to insist that others should like strange flavors or particular baseball teams just because we do.

510. “But if he proclaims something to be beautiful, then he requires the same liking from others.” We demand that there be a universal faculty of taste. We assume that an unbiased mind’s judgments will be the same for everyone, or that they ought to be the same for everyone. An unimpaired, free judgment would indicate that this particular painting or this particular flower is beautiful. Kant assumes a universal model of how the mind is structured and how it works, and says (see below) that failure to reach universal consensus in actual life need not destroy our faith in this assumption.

510-11. “There can be no rule by which someone could be compelled to acknowledge that something is beautiful. No one can use reasons or principles to talk us into a judgment on whether some garment, house, or flower is beautiful.” Can we prove that our judgment is correct? What if somebody contradicts us? Well, so what? We are not reasoning about the point; we are positing a universal voice, a capacity to make universally binding judgments: “nothing is postulated in a judgment of taste except such a universal voice about a liking unmediated by concepts.”

512-13. “If the pleasure in the given object came first....” Pleasure does not arise from mere sensation. What causes the pleasure is a certain set of occurrences in the mind. These result in a “universally communicable mental state” that allows us to say, for example, “this rose is beautiful for everyone.”

513. “Now this merely subjective (aesthetic) judging of the object, or of the presentation by which it is given, precedes the pleasure in the object and is the basis of this pleasure, [a pleasure] in the harmony of the cognitive powers.” So pleasure arises from the free play of the imagination and understanding working together harmoniously towards no determinate purpose. We judge an object beautiful before taking pleasure in it—the pleasure comes from harmony between the mind’s powers. The mind engages freely with objects in the phenomenal world, and we feel harmony, a correspondence between mind and nature. Aesthetic encounters offer us a pleasant and easy way to experience our potential freedom. Ethics and philosophy are more difficult, and ordinary perception does not yield us free pleasure—it is too busy, too self-interested.

In aesthetic judgment, our ordinary faculties (the ones that let us construe the world as intelligible) operate in a special way. Beautiful objects of any sort are an oasis; they provide a contemplative encounter that gives pure pleasure. That is, imagination and understanding must work for even general cognition to take place, but in aesthetic experience, they play freely, so we experience our subjective, universally communicable freedom in the presence of an object given us from nature or art. We take pleasure from experiencing our freedom. To borrow from the high-serious realm of gaming, how about a pinball image? Experiencing beauty in nature or art sends us into a recursive scoring loop, racking up pleasure-points. A terminology issue: at the bottom of 513, Kant defines presentation as “the presentation by which an object is given us.” A “presentation” is that “by which an object is given us.” (Bottom of page.)

514-15. “A pure judgment of taste is one that is not influenced by charm or emotion…and whose determining basis is therefore merely the purposiveness of the form.” Kant defines “form” as shape or play on 515 top. Form is the design or pattern of presentations (not things themselves, but phenomenal “presentations” to our senses).

“Empirical aesthetic judgments are judgments of sense (material aesthetic judgments); only pure aesthetic judgments … are properly judgments of taste.” Color, musical instrument tones, and so forth, are charms. They please our senses and are agreeable, but they aren’t beautiful. They may even get in our way if we aren’t sophisticated or measured enough in our taste. (Notice the Hellenist term “barbaric” on 515.) Sensation is only the matter or raw material, the facilitator, for pure aesthetic judgment. Form is the determining element: “Design is what is essential” (515). Formalists will later pick up on this claim.

515. “Even what we call ornaments (parerga), i.e. what does not belong to the whole presentation of the object as an intrinsic constituent….” There is ornament and there is mere finery. Kant goes on to say that emotion isn’t involved in an aesthetic judgment; neither is sensation part of an aesthetic judgment: “Hence a pure judgment of taste has as its determining basis neither charm nor emotion, in other words, no sensation, which is [merely] the matter of an aesthetic judgment.

516. On Free Beauty: flowers and designs. “Flowers are free natural beauties.” And “Thus designs à la grecque, the foliage on borders or on wallpaper, etc., mean nothing on their own….” Kant will need to deal with the issue of imitation when he discusses art as distinct from natural beauty. Below, he writes that “When we judge free beauty … we presuppose no concept of any purpose for which the manifold is to serve the given object, and hence no concept [as to] what the object is [meant] to represent….” Here is the idea of play that Schiller will recast as a fundamental drive, a Spieltreib.

517. At the end of this section, Kant defines imagination as “the power of exhibition.”

518. “We solicit everyone else’s assent because we have a basis for it that is common to all.” The common basis for judgment is the sameness of each mind’s powers, at least the potential sameness.

518. “[I]s taste an original and natural ability, or is taste only the idea of an ability yet to be acquired and [therefore] artificial….? It will be interesting to see how Kant responds to this question. It’s an important one—either taste is innate, or it depends purely on cultural acquirement, or some mixture of the two.

519. “It seems, therefore, that only a lawfulness without a law….” Kant refers here to “purposiveness without a purpose.” If your judgment were referred to a standard such as the original of a portrait, or a firm idea about the object, the judgment of taste would not be pure.

520. “But some significant differences between the beautiful and the sublime are also readily apparent.” Sublimity and its quality of “unboundedness” suggest the possible incommensurateness between mind and nature. Perhaps objects don’t pre-accord with our capacities, and perhaps, as a corollary, nature is not purposive like art, but rather mechanical or simply chaotic. The sublime is reassuring because it “indeterminately” confirms reason’s superiority over sense and imagination, the “power of exhibition” or impregnating intuitions with concepts. What was a threat becomes a hosanna to the highest—Reason. Humanity, like honor, goes before everything. Current theory exploits the same possibility with regard to language and nature, intentionality, and so forth. The sublime suggests some violence to our imagination, underscoring a seeming disjunction between mind and nature. But in the end, the sublime is very important because it leads us towards at least some sense that there's a transcendental order beyond anything to which experience can give us access. What it leads us towards, Kant implies, is faith that there is an order of this sort and a God. Those who go back to Kant from a post-modern perspective are probably more apt to emphasize the unsettling initial moment of the sublime. And those who are interested in aesthetics may be most captivated by Kant's notions about how we judge an object in nature or art beautiful.

520. “[N]atural beauty carries with it a purposiveness in its form, by which the object seems as it were predetermined for our power of judgment….” The sublime, Kant goes on to write, suggests that the object of sublimity is “contrapurposive for our power of judgment, incommensurate with our power of exhibition, and as it were violent to our imagination….” (Be sure to read this passage. Refer also to the note at bottom about reason and understanding.) When Wordsworth writes in his “Immortality Ode,” “to me the meanest flower that blows / can give thoughts that too often lie too deep for tears,” might we call that an expressive version of sublimity?

521. “For what is sublime…cannot be contained in any sensible form….” A stormy ocean, or indeed any object in itself, is not per se sublime. Rather, we would have to refer this sight to “ideas of reason, which, though they cannot be exhibited adequately, are aroused and called to mind by this very inadequacy….”

521. “Independent natural beauty reveals to us a technic of nature that allows us to present nature as a system in terms of laws whose principle we do not find anywhere in our understanding….” Aesthetic judgment leads us to analogize nature and “purposive” art.

521. “However, in what we usually call sublime in nature there is such an utter lack of anything leading to particular objective principles and to forms of nature conforming to them….” The sublime does not suggest harmony between objects of nature and our powers of perception, so it isn’t as important as the beautiful. Of course, some will later say that this threat of disjunctiveness is very important! (Tentatively, we might say that contemporary theorists interested in aporia and so forth are pursuing a variant of sublime experience, only this time it’s an experience with language.)

522. “[N]othing that can be an object of the senses is to be called sublime.” Reason demands something that imagination is not able to deal with.

523. “[I]f we are to give an example of it that is fully appropriate for the critique of aesthetic judgment, then we must point to the sublime not in products of art…but rather in crude nature….” So the sublime is a matter of raw nature, not art.

524. “If the human mind is nonetheless to be able even to think the given infinite without contradiction, it must have within itself a power that is supersensible….” We can think of the world as a totality, but imagination cannot represent it.

525. “[I]n judging a thing sublime it [the aesthetic power of judgment] refers the imagination to reason so that it will harmonize subjectively with reason’s ideas….” Kant writes that “[T]he mind feels elevated in its own judgment of itself when it contemplates these without concern for their form and abandons itself to the imagination and to a reason that has come to be connected with it….” Here on this page is the key to the reassuring quality of the sublime: reason’s ideas are greater than imagination, the power of exhibition. The sublime experience exalts our sense of reason’s power. We can think infinity even if we can’t see it or count it or bound it. That is a very special thing to be able to do!

526. “In presenting the sublime in nature the mind feels agitated….” This is the opposite of the experience of beauty, where the mind is restful.

527. “Just as we cannot pass judgment on the beautiful if we are seized by inclination and appetite, so we cannot pass judgment at all on the sublime in nature if we are afraid.” The sublime requires safety—you can’t be standing on the edge of a cliff.

527. [The sublime] reveals in us a superiority over nature that is the basis of a self-preservation quite different in kind from the one that can be assailed and endangered by nature outside us.” The sublime shows our superiority over nature. Reason is higher than sensibility in Kant’s scheme, but he seems careful in his praise at this point for the sublime because he doesn’t want us to become arrogant about our powers—self-sufficient and mature, willing to be responsible for our actions, yes, but not arrogant and withdrawn from nature. As mentioned above, though (see comment about pg. 520), this doesn't diminish the value of the sublime.

529. “[T]he fact that a judgment about the sublime in nature requires culture … still in no way implies that it was initially produced by culture….” The sublime, Kant goes on to say, has its foundation in moral feeling. Also, “taste we demand unhesitatingly from everyone, because here judgment refers the imagination merely to the understanding, our power of concepts; in the case of feeling, on the other hand, judgment refers the imagination to reason, our power of ideas….” Reason ranks higher—it is the “power of ideas.” Understanding is only the “power of concepts.” That is, understanding has to do with the ordinary capacity to perceive things.

Perhaps we can see Coleridge and Shelley here—the world of sense is chaotic, and for Shelly, imagination takes on some Kantian functions; it harmonizes sensory input. Faculty psychology seems to get sucked into “imagination” as if it were a philosophical black hole. See also Coleridge’s idea about Primary Imagination, which works like the Understanding, only tinged with the divine. Secondary Imagination is the capacity the poet employs; it is the creative power at work in the making of art.

530. “[W]e must [here] take sensus communis to mean the idea of a sense shared [by all of us], i.e., a power to judge that in reflecting takes account…of everyone else’s way of presenting….” This is a key passage on sensus communis. Read also the following: “[W]e compare our judgment not so much with the actual as rather with the merely possible judgments of others….”
530. “[Let us compare with this sensus communis] the common human understanding, even though the latter is not being included here….” Then Kant makes the fundamental claims of the Enlightenment: “(1) to think for oneself; (2) to think from the standpoint of everyone else; and (3) to think always consistently.” The main thing is to be liberated from superstition. Being human, by definition, involves being able to think beyond the senses. Nietzsche says that consistency is admirable, but false. (One might profitably relate Nietzsche to Kant, Schiller, and Freud on the task of civilization.)

531. But Kant elevates the term sensus communis by saying that taste is more properly called a sensus communis than is common human understanding. He writes further that “We could even define taste as the ability to judge something that makes our feeling in a given presentation universally communicable without mediation by a concept.” The judgment of beauty doesn’t require a college degree—all it requires is that our basic capacities aren’t impaired; it demonstrates the mind’s freedom and nature’s accordance with our primary capacities: the free play of the imagination with the understanding. The sublime has more to do with reason and, to an extent, culture. Yet, the sublime tends to make us arrogant and rationalistic. It withdraws us from nature rather than making us feel at home in its proximity and harmony for us. We are not “aliens” on earth, as the medieval Church says. Yes, the romantics will like Kant—he keeps us rather close to nature.

531. “Art is distinguished from nature as doing…is from acting or operating in general….” Regarding “On Art in General,” we might refer to Coleridge’s statement that the secondary imagination “coexists with the conscious will.”

532. Art is a product of deliberation—the artist intends to make art. But that isn’t the same thing as saying precisely what the characteristics of the finished work will be. Art is a kind of play, so the viewer is able to deal with it as “beautiful” much as with a flower in nature. There is no need to refer it to a definite idea or preconceived conception. The artist needs rules to provide “body” for spirit. The material is the medium for spirit.

532. “Art is likewise distinguished from craft.” Art is not the same as labor. But Kant also says that “there is yet a need for something in the order of a constraint….” Art requires constraints, just as Wordsworth says poetry, while it mustn’t be reduced to meter, requires meter and other constraints.

533-34. “[G]enius is the exemplary originality of a subject’s natural endowment in the free use of his cognitive powers.” Genius consists in being highly endowed with the free use of mental powers—especially imagination. If I am sculpting a bird, for instance, a free imagination may play with or develop the concept, tease out its possibilities.

Moreover, spirit is transmissible; the artist can express the “mental state” involved in the creative act. That is, the artist can embody the harmony of creation or passion in an image or an idea. Kant is not interested in the claim that art is imitation. He’s close to the Coleridgean remark that genius provides its own intrinsic rules.

534. On imitation—artists shouldn’t strive to imitate genius’ example; the point is to follow genius by way of emulation. Some concluding questions about the difference between art and natural objects: the form of a painting can be beautiful, as can the form of a flower. But what if the painting is an imitation or representation of an object? What if it is a portrait of which, as Aristotle would say, we know the original? Or even if it is only claimed to be a portrait of Lady So-and-So, 1784? Wouldn’t this amount to accessory beauty—adhaerens—something that we would refer to an original? Can a portrait or an image of a flower be matter for a pure judgment of taste?

See the Werner Pluhar edition of Critique of Judgment, page 173, paragraph 45. The fine arts, as opposed to the mechanical arts, seem like nature. We do not think about the artist’s intention to copy something—a face, a rule, etc. As for genius, Kant says, it gives the rule to art. Genius is natural endowment, and it operates like nature. We suspend our consideration of the artist’s intent. Finally, Kant does not capture the entire range of possible values in an encounter with art. He emphasizes the one that allows him to demonstrate our freedom from determination by nature. Notice the contrast here with Aristotle, who pays a great deal of attention to the emotional side of our response to art.

New note for 2005 session: the first page of our selection is a summary of Kant’s aesthetics, so it’s a good passage to analyze in straightforward language. At bottom, Kant is positing an experience that is universally communicable and (at least potentially) valid for all. As individuals, we get a pleasurable, even “easy,” sense of our own mind’s power, and we also might derive from this experience at least the possibility of a universal human community rooted in pleasure—rooted, that is, not just in cold reason or logic, but in feeling. Kant’s notion of humanity is itself based on his faith in the power of enlightenment—we all have a tremendous amount of potential, so we can develop ourselves into fuller human beings and develop communities in which everyone, both together and individually, takes full responsibility for his or her actions. It is well to investigate the mind’s logical and intellectual powers (Critique of Pure Reason), and well also to investigate what is meant by duty (Critique of Practical Reason). But a vital part of Kant’s philosophy is his concern for aesthetics, for the experience of beauty. This experience is, in his view, liberating—we sense our powers in a way that doesn’t leave us enslaved to nature (the world of objects), or cast us as mere thinking machines, or as a set of imperious duties and responsibilities always to be carried out. In a way—and in spite of the difficult vocabulary in Critique of Judgment, Kant is playing Philip Sidney’s “right popular philosopher” when he writes about aesthetic judgment: he is embracing the realm of pleasure and feeling, rather than bracketing it out in favor of absolute philosophical coherence.

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York : Norton, 2001. ISBN 0393974294.