Unit 6: Aesthetics

81 Kant’s Project: A Short Overview

Laura Mueller

Kant’s Critique of Judgment (1790), the first part of which focuses largely on aesthetic judgment, is the last of Kant’s three major “critical works.” The Critique of Judgment was preceded by the Critique of Pure Reason (first edition, 1781; second edition, 1787) and the Critique of Practical Reason (1788). From just reading the book titles, you might notice that “one of these things is not like the others”; the first two Critiques pertain to different types of reason, while the third Critique focuses on judgment. Without even knowing the content of the books, you might be wondering: why did he move from books about reason to a book about judgment? How does judgment pertain to reason? Where does this Critique of Judgment fit into the picture?

One main idea of Kant’s critical works– established in the three Critiques–is that of human autonomy, or a very special kind of human freedom. Auto means “self,” and nomos means “law”; human autonomy, then, means human self-law. The critical works show that it is our own human powers that structure all of our experience, including our knowledge of the world around us, morality, and even our judgments of the beautiful. So, for example, the Critique of Pure Reason (the first Critique) establishes that rather than the world around us impressing itself upon our senses to yield knowledge, we, by virtue of certain mental powers (or faculties)–reason, understanding, judgment, and imagination–structure how we experience the world around us.

Think about it this way: first, look around you, and note what you see, feel, hear, and otherwise sense. For example, right now I am looking at a white door. But my senses alone don’t tell me that this thing that I see is a white door; “white” and “door” are both concepts and they don’t come from the barrage of sensations hitting me. Another creature–perhaps a bat–will also experience what I call a white door, as something totally different. It won’t be white, or a door, to a bat. My mental powers–reason, understanding, judgment, and imagination–work together (with each other, and with sensory input) in very specific ways to yield concepts of “door” and of “white,” that then allow me to judge this particular thing that I see as having both characteristics of whiteness and doorness. And thus, I can conclude that I have knowledge of this particular sensory input as a “white door.”

Now, this argument has two pretty important implications for Kant: 1) humans have a great amount of power in how we structure our experience, and 2) we can’t actually know what the world is like outside of our structuring. We will only ever know what the world of experience is like to humans, just as a bat will only ever know what the world of experience is like to bats. The world as it is “in itself” will always be unknowable.

Similar to the first Critique, the second Critique (Critique of Practical Reason) also demonstrates the power of the human mind. Rather than focusing on knowledge of the world of empirical experience–the laws of nature, what we experience with our senses–though, the second Critique focuses on the world beyond empirical experience: the moral world. In his moral works, Kant establishes that the moral law is provided by human reason. In both Critiques, Kant demonstrates that it is the human power that provides knowledge of the world of experience, and knowledge of the moral world.

There are two things to note at this point in our discussion: 1) the first Critique is about what structures knowledge of the world of nature, while the second Critique concerns knowledge of the world of freedom (the moral world), and 2) in each Critique, the source of knowledge is not empirical. Look back, for a moment, at our example of how we structure our experience of the white door. The powers that provide the categories–and enable us to make a judgment–about this particular object as a white door do not come from experience. Rather, they are what make experience possible! So, rather than an empirical basis for knowledge of experience, the foundations of knowledge and experience must be a priori–they must be independent of experience. The same is true for moral knowledge. If our only basis of moral knowledge was empirical, then we would merely be doing anthropology; we would have no universality or certainty in moral demands. An a priori basis provides certainty in knowledge–of the natural world and of the moral world–and universality, true for all humans. Thus, it delivers us from skepticism and solipsism. And, since the a priori by definition cannot be empirical, it must come from somewhere else: the very structure of the human mind. Thus, in establishing a priori foundations of natural and moral knowledge, Kant also demonstrates human freedom in structuring the fundamental nature of our worlds. We are not just shaped by the world; rather, we are the world-shapers.

The Third Critique as a Bridge Between Worlds

Despite our newly-gained background knowledge of Kant’s project, we haven’t yet answered one of the very first questions we posed: how does the third Critique fit into all of this? The first two Critiques, after all, are about types of reason, but the Critique of Judgment is about, well, judgment. In his opening remarks in the third Critique, Kant tells us that his critique of the power of judgment is going to connect the two different “worlds” that his previous Critiques established: the world of nature, and the world of freedom. In other words, for Kant, judgment mediates between understanding (the power which a priori structures our experience, as established in the Critique of Pure Reason) and reason (the power which a priori yields moral knowledge, as established in the Critique of Practical Reason). Though they both have their a priori origins in common, the “two worlds” seem to otherwise be completely at odds with each other. After all, the “world of nature,” structured by our power of understanding (more on that soon) is a world completely governed by laws of nature, especially cause and effect. But the world of freedom, the moral world, cannot be governed by natural laws of cause and effect. If it were, it wouldn’t be free.

From the perspective of my existence in the world of nature, every action that I partake in has some other cause, and that has a cause, and back into infinity; similarly every action also causes something else, which causes something else, similarly forward into infinity. There is no room for freedom in the world of nature. However, from the perspective of my existence in the moral world, the world of freedom, each moral action that I make is a free action. If it were not, I could not be held responsible (for praise or blame) for that action. When I am determined by nothing other than the dictates of reason alone (remember, the moral law is provided by reason, not by anything empirical, and is thus given a priori), then I am autonomous. While Kant established many important theories for philosophy, he also left us with quite a conundrum: how can we unite the world of nature with the world of freedom?

For Kant, judgment was key to uniting these two worlds; thus, his third major critical work, the Critique of Judgment, does have a place in the system. It resolves the tension between the two domains that he previously established. It is the completion of his system of philosophy! Just as Kant sought to establish a priori principles of the power of understanding (in structuring our experience) and a priori principles of the power of reason (in providing moral knowledge), so too does he seek to establish a priori principles of the power of judgment in dealing with aesthetic judgments. As we will find, the special a priori principles of judgment do link the worlds of nature and freedom, which we see when we analyze our aesthetic experiences of the beautiful.

The key to this unity between nature and freedom lies in the principle of judgment, which, rather than autonomous, is heautonomous. This means that the principle of judgment presides only over judgment, not over any other mental power. In Kant’s first Critique, the power of understanding is the main area of focus. The power of understanding a priori provides various concepts, which Kant refers to as the “categories of understanding.” Every judgment made with regard to knowledge of an object places that particular “thing” we are judging under a universal concept; that is a building block of how our mental powers structure knowledge and experience as such.  Without the categories provided by understanding, we would not have experience or knowledge. So, for example, if I am looking at a white door, and experiencing a white door, I am only doing that because I can make a judgment that this particular thing I am sensing falls under certain kinds of concepts. These concepts–or categories–of the understanding act like rules for judging. They tell judgment what to do. The concepts (or categories, or rules) of understanding also, in structuring experience, therefore apply to other mental powers, such as judgment. In other words, the concepts (or categories) come from understanding and serve as rules for other mental powers to follow. Understanding “rules the roost,” so to speak.

But, in the third Critique, Kant shows us that the a priori principles of judgment does not apply to any other power; they are rules only for judgment itself. Hence, his special term “heautonomy,” rather than “autonomy.” What we eventually find is that this special a priori principle of judgment is what Kant calls a special concept of purpose, also known as “purposeless purposiveness.” While the term seems oxymoronic, it makes sense if we recognize two different meanings to “purpose”–one meaning based on what we might call “determinative judgment,” and another meaning based on “reflective judgment.” As you will see in the excerpt provided in this book, purpose plays a vital role in Kant’s “Analytic of the Beautiful.” So, to understand how judgment, through its special principle of purpose, provides a bridge between nature and freedom, we need to take a bit of a circuitous route and first look at purpose and its relationship to concepts.

Judgment’s Special Concept

Once again, let us refer back to the first Critique. Remember, in the first Critique, the categories of understanding provides the rules for other mental powers (such as judgment) to follow so we can structure experience and so that knowledge can be attained. Judgment works at the behest of understanding and follows its rules (the concepts of understanding). I bring awareness of some particular thing (a soon-to-be-object) under a concept, and from this very complicated a priori procedure, knowledge is yielded. Whatever I was judging is now an object for me to experience and for me to know.

If I judge that “This creature is a cat,” then I am subsuming this particular creature under the universal category of “cat” to make a knowledge claim. Judgment, in this role, is the power of determining whether or not something fits under a given rule. If this particular creature is not, in fact, a cat, then I can make that judgment, too. Judgment, in this capacity, follows the rules of understanding; it has concepts already provided, and not-so-simply determines whether or not a particular “fits” under any given universal (concept). The concepts are universal because they are provided a priori by understanding, and thus the same for every human being; they are a fundamental part of the structure of our experience. This kind of judgment is called determinative or determinate judgment; we are trying to “determine” what an object is, and the rule (concept) is already provided a priori by understanding. Judgment just follows the rules already given to it.

But what happens when there is no determinate concept provided for judgment? While judgment’s usual function, under the rule of understanding, is to subsume a particular under a universal, sometimes that universal is not provided! Sometimes, we are judging something for which no concept can be given by understanding. In such cases, judgment must rely on itself, on its own principle.  In certain, special instances, when we are making judgments, but not determinate ones, judgment must work with its own concept, a very special concept. Aesthetic judgments are the ones in which judgment must provide its own concept; it no longer has any other rule to follow but its own (hence, judgment’s heautonomy). Kant refers to these special sorts of judgments as the work of reflective judgment; with no given rule, judgment must reflect on itself.

We can use this brief explanation to analyze the meaning of that seemingly oxymoronic phrase, “purposeless purposiveness” or “purposiveness without purpose.” In the “usual” sense of purpose (determinate judgment), purpose means “the object of a concept, insofar as the concept is regarded as the cause of the object,” (Critique of Judgment, § 10). After all, as we’ve already learned, we don’t get objects without concepts to serve as rules! In this case, concepts truly are the “causes” of objects, insofar as concepts make objects possible. In reflective judgment, since we don’t have such concepts already provided, we find ourselves without purposes (objects caused by concepts), or our judgments are “purposeless.”

However, what we also find in reflective judgments, along with purposelessness, is purposiveness. We think of something as caused by purposes, even if it isn’t. Something can, then, be thought of as having purposes (being purposive) without actually being a given purpose; thus, in reflective judgment, with no given concept from understanding, we end up with “purposeless purposiveness.” For Kant, this special kind of purposiveness is subjective. This doesn’t mean it “depends on the individual,” but rather, by subjective he simply means “belonging to the subject.” Judgment, without guidance from understanding, strives to seek unity on its own. It brings together dissimilar phenomena from nature under a higher law, and then brings those results together under still higher laws. We see nature-as-a-system as ultimately purposive, even if there is no purpose guiding that. When judgment accomplishes this, we feel a harmony between nature and our mental abilities to know nature. We believe that nature is adapted to our mental powers. We experience this harmony as pleasurable.

We can (hopefully) see how, on the one hand, aesthetic judgment is important for the possibility of the world of nature. It allows us to see unity in nature as a whole. On the other hand, aesthetic judgment is also important for the world of freedom. For example, when judgment is engaged reflectively–operating heautonomously–it is free. The harmony we feel between nature and our mental powers is a pleasure that occurs solely from the free play of our mental powers. The purposiveness we experience is the purposiveness that we provide, not determined by anything else, not determined by any concept of understanding for the purposes of cognition. Judgment, imagination, and even understanding are free from the behest of any cognitive or moral goal. There is a clear analogy, then, between reflective judgments and moral freedom. In various other parts of the third Critique, Kant claims that aesthetic judgments prepare us for moral feeling, that the moral law is sublime (sublimity is a special kind of aesthetic judgment), and that beauty is a symbol of morality. The freedom of our mental powers that gives rise to nature as a system of a whole is also the freedom that serves as an analogy for moral freedom. Thus, as heautonomously free, reflective judgment bridges both the natural and the moral worlds.

The Analytic of the Beautiful

Regardless of the success or failure of Kant’s critical project, the third Critique still plays an important role in the history of aesthetic theory. His “Analytic of the Beautiful” establishes that the principles of aesthetic judgment are a priori rather than empirical, thus providing a response to previous aesthetic accounts (such as David Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste”). With an a priori basis, aesthetic judgments thus rise to the rank of universal; judgments of the beautiful are not just a “matter of subjective opinion,” but demand universal assent. However, because aesthetic judgments are also subjective, they are not about any property of the objects themselves; such judgments are universal, but not objective. If you are familiar with the history of Western philosophy, you will see reflected in Kant’s aesthetics his overall position in regard to empiricism and rationalism: neither one nor the other, but a new way forward.

In Kant’s preliminary analysis of aesthetic judgments, he presents the “four moments” of taste (quality, quantity, relation, modality). The moments are: disinterested (quality), universal (quantity), purposive (relation), and necessary (modality). Following the excerpt in the text, I will walk you through the first three moments of taste.

First Moment

Kant’s first moment, that of disinterest, does not mean uninterested. Rather, “disinterested” points to the fact that there is no concept of the understanding provided, so we are not making a determinative judgment. Recall that when a concept of the understanding is given, and tells judgment what to do, we are making judgments about objects in the world of nature. Recall, also, that “purpose” means the object that is “caused” by a concept. If there is no concept provided, there is no object that is cognized. This means that aesthetic judgments are not about the object; thus, we are disinterested in the object. Additionally, since aesthetic judgments are not about the object, they are also not empirical. This is what Kant means when he states, “We easily see that in saying it is beautiful and in showing that I have taste, I am concerned, not with that in which I depend on the existence of the object, but with that which I make out of this representation in myself,” (Critique of Judgment, § 2). What is beautiful is not the object at all. Rather, as we will find out, to say “This is beautiful” means that I feel a certain harmony that is pleasurable, and I demand that possible others ought to feel that harmony as well.

Kant distinguishes between the pleasure of aesthetic judgments, the pleasure of that which is satisfactory (or agreeable), and the pleasure that accompanies morality. He writes, “That which GRATIFIES a man is called pleasant; that which merely PLEASES him is beautiful; that which is ESTEEMED [or approved] by him, i.e. that to which he accords an objective worth, is good. Pleasantness concerns irrational animals also; but Beauty only concerns men, i.e. animal, but still rational, beings—not merely quâ rational (e.g. spirits), but quâ animal also; and the Good concerns every rational being in general,” (Critique of Judgment, § 5).  In other words, when something gratifies us (or is satisfactory or agreeable), we feel pleasure in the object that gratifies. We call this object pleasant.  But, in an aesthetic judgment, again, because there is no universal concept of understanding provided, we are not concerned with the object. Thus, the pleasure involved in an aesthetic judgment cannot be the pleasure of satisfaction. Similarly, when we feel a pleasure or approval of something moral, we call that “good.” But here, again, “good” is a moral concept provided by reason, and in aesthetic judgments, no universal concepts are given. Both satisfaction and moral approval are based on interest in an object, whether it is an object that gratifies or an object of which we morally approve.  As Kant states, “for the judgement of taste is not a cognitive judgement (either theoretical or practical), and thus is not based on concepts, nor has it concepts as its purpose,” (Critique of Judgment, § 5). Aesthetic judgments, which are not object-oriented, are thus disinterested.  And so, Kant concludes the first moment of taste, stating, “Taste is the faculty of judging an object or a method of representing it by an entirely disinterested satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The object of such satisfaction is called beautiful,” (Critique of Judgment, § 5).

Second Moment

Since aesthetic judgments are not about the object, they are not objective. Rather, they are about the subject, and thus subjective judgments. However, this does not mean that aesthetic judgments are relative to the individual. In fact, Kant very succinctly states this in his explanation of the beautiful from the second moment: “The beautiful is that which pleases universally, without a concept,” (Critique of Judgment, § 9). Another way Kant speaks of the beautiful is as “subjectively universal.” That which is pleasant is easily claimed as pleasant for me and only me. However, as Kant points out, it is laughable to consider something as beautiful only for me. When we say “This is beautiful,” we mean something  much stronger than “This is beautiful only for me.” We, Kant states, demand that others would assent to this judgment. Thus, when it comes to the beautiful, there is an “oughtness” implied; aesthetic taste is not just a matter of particular tastes. Aesthetic taste is universal.

The subjective universality of an aesthetic judgment of taste marks such judgments as very special, indeed. Consider for a moment previous remarks on concepts of the understanding and how they provide universality. First of all, they are, as we have learned, a priori, and thus are independent of experience and in fact, necessary for any experience at all to be possible. Thus, these concepts of understanding are necessary for all humans to have in order to structure all possible experience. They are universal. But remember, too, that in aesthetic judgment, we have no such concepts! How, then, do we get universality without a concept of the understanding?

The way aesthetic judgments are subjectively universal stems from two special features of the judgments: 1) aesthetical universality, as opposed to logical universality, and 2) the kind of pleasure at hand in the judgments. As we stated above, most of the time, universality is a logical universality. When we make a judgment like “X is Y,” we’re making a judgment about a property (Y) that the object (X) has. But, aesthetic judgments are disinterested, insofar as they are not concerned with the object or its properties. This is why aesthetic judgments are subjective. So a “normal logical” judgment cannot be the kind we use here. Another way of stating all of this is that, insofar as we are dealing with the subjective part of an aesthetic judgment, we are making a singular judgment. I can say “This rose is beautiful.” Such a judgment refers only to my feeling of pleasure (or pain). So, as Kant states, “In respect of logical quantity all judgements of taste are singular judgements. For because I must refer the object immediately to my feeling of pleasure and pain, and that not by means of concepts, they cannot have the quantity of objective generally valid judgements,” (Critique of Judgment, § 8).

But here, something very interesting happens; because I’m making an aesthetic judgment of taste–and not a judgment about something being merely agreeable or gratifying–I treat that singular logical judgment as if it were a universal judgment. We can do this because singular and universal judgments operate in the same way. A universal judgment is exhaustive; this means that the predicate holds true of all subjects. If I say “All Xs are Y,” this means that the predicate, Y, is exhaustive of all subjects, Xs. Singular judgments work in the same way, but only for one thing. If I say “This X is Y,” it still means, that for this one, particular X, the predicate, Y, is exhaustive. This is what Kant means when he writes that “Nevertheless if the singular representation of the Object of the judgement of taste in accordance with the conditions determining the latter, were transformed by comparison into a concept, a logically universal judgement could result therefrom,” (Critique of Judgment, § 8). This does not mean that everyone actually has to agree with the judgment. Rather, we compare our singular judgment with the idea of universal agreement from everyone else: “The universal voice is, therefore, only an Idea (we do not yet inquire upon what it rests). It may be uncertain whether or not the man, who believes that he is laying down a judgement of taste, is, as a matter of fact, judging in conformity with that idea; but that he refers his judgement thereto, and, consequently, that it is intended to be a judgement of taste, he announces by the expression ‘beauty,’” (Critique of Judgment, § 8).

Aesthetic judgments of taste, though they are subjective, are also universal. They demand that everyone would assent to the judgment being made. One reason they are subjectively universal is because they treat the aesthetically singular logical judgment as if it were an objectively universal logical judgment. However, we can only make such a logical move because of the peculiar kind of pleasure felt in an aesthetic judgment.

We already know that the pleasure in an aesthetic judgment is not from gratification or from moral approval; rather, the pleasure is disinterested. Because there is no concept of understanding or concept of reason given to determine what the other mental powers must do (or what they must cognize), the mental powers are in what Kant calls a “free play.” In particular, the powers of imagination and understanding are in free play. In cognition (as discussed in the first Critique) understanding provides the rules by which the other powers operate. It tells judgment how to judge and imagination how to pull things together. When there is no rule provided by understanding, though, the powers are “free” and can “play” with one another in harmony. It is this harmony of the free play of imagination and understanding that we experience as pleasurable. Nothing is trying to be accomplished; we aren’t evaluating a moral good or cognizing an object for knowledge. There is no goal, and thus our mental powers can “linger” in this pleasurable free play. Since everyone has these mental powers, and since there is no particular agreeableness of an object at hand here, the pleasure we experience in the beautiful can be demanded as universal. This kind of pleasure in the harmony of free play is thus described as “universally communicable.” And so Kant states, “This state of free play of the cognitive faculties in a representation by which an object is given, must be universally communicable,” and “We are conscious that this subjective relation, suitable for cognition in general, must be valid for every one, and thus must be universally communicable, just as if it were a definite cognition, resting always on that relation as its subjective condition,” (Critique of Judgment, § 9).

Third Moment

We know, at this point, that a purpose is a concept of an object, but that, since aesthetic judgments have no given concept from reason or understanding, such judgments are purposeless. That does not mean, however, that they are not purposive. Purposiveness, normally, refers to the causality of a concept (with respect to an object). Obviously, in aesthetic judgments, that is not the kind of purposiveness we are dealing with. Rather, in aesthetic judgments, the purposiveness we feel is not from the object but rather from the “representation of the object without any purpose,” or in other words the “mere form of purposiveness . . . by which an object is given to us,” (Critique of Judgment, § 11). By “form of purposiveness,” Kant means the free play activity of imagination and understanding with each other and with the object. In other words, we feel as if the object and our mental powers were made for each other; we feel as if there is a purpose, even if there is not one.  When judgment must rely solely on its own principle we feel purposiveness. What we find is a freedom in judgment–freedom from being at the behest of any other mental power. When neither understanding nor reason are determining the mental powers, when we are cognizing neither the natural or the moral worlds, the mental powers find themselves in a free play. This free play is pleasurable to us, and feels purposiveness even if there is no purpose given.

Such purposiveness is distinct from the purposes that stem from concepts of perfection, or from agreeable emotions or charm. Perfection is based on what Kant calls objective purposiveness, which is either what a thing does, or what a thing is meant to be. Either notion of purposiveness determines an object based on a concept, so clearly aesthetic purposiveness cannot be objective. Or, as Kant states, subjective purposiveness “simply refers the representation, by which an Object is given, to the subject; and brings to our notice no characteristic of the object, but only the purposive form in the determination of the representative powers which are occupying themselves therewith. The judgement is called aesthetical just because its determining ground is not a concept, but the feeling (of internal sense) of that harmony in the play of the mental powers . . .”  (Critique of Judgment, § 15).

Thus, any judgment of the beautiful which is based on some objective concept is an “impure” judgement. We cannot have a concept of what the object ought to be (perfection) and, based on that concept, call the judgment a pure judgment of the beautiful. What we do find in pure judgments of the beautiful is a special kind of freedom of judgment. Since we are not concerned with moral approval, agreeable sensations, what the object ought to be or ought to do, but are only concerned with the pleasure in the subjective (but universal!) harmony of our own mental powers, we also find a freedom to linger. Aesthetic judgment, seeking to accomplish nothing–nothing practical (moral), nothing theoretical (cognitive)–is, in its own special way, free. The pleasure of aesthetic judgments does nothing other than reproduce itself; it has what Kant calls an “inner causality.” As we noted from the first moment of taste: “But this contemplation itself is not directed to concepts; for the judgement of taste is not a cognitive judgement (either theoretical or practical), and thus is not based on concepts, nor has it concepts as its purpose,” (Critique of Judgment, § 5).

Concluding Thoughts

Kant’s philosophical works–stemming epistemology, morality, political thought, and aesthetics–are notoriously difficult. If you find this short introduction to his works difficult, you are certainly not alone. Kant’s aesthetic works are part of a much larger and more comprehensive system of thought that interweaves knowledge, morality, and aesthetic experience to account for how we know, perceive, believe, and act in the world and among each other. On the one hand, then, we can see that to truly understand Kant’s aesthetic philosophy, you must also strive to understand knowledge, logic, and morality.

On the other hand, one must not be overwhelmed or intimidated by Kant’s works. Like any system, it can be broken down into smaller steps until we can see how they each fit together. Hopefully this introduction helps you see the larger context of his Critique of Judgment, and some of the steps into which it can be broken down. Furthermore, even without the context, we can see the import of Kant’s aesthetic theory. For example, by showing the principle of judgment as a priori, Kant has claimed universality and necessity for aesthetic judgments; no longer are we confined to the simplistic retort “everyone has his own taste.” However, this also does not mean that aesthetic judgments are solely objective; they are not, as we have seen, about any property the object might have that we discover. Rather, such judgments are uniquely subjectively universal, and encourage us to look at the structure of human experience itself.

 

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What does Kant mean by purposeless purposiveness?
  2. What does it mean to you to say that something “has a purpose”? Is that really part of the pleasure we feel in judging something as beautiful?
  3. Do you agree that aesthetic judgments of the beautiful are universally necessary? Why or why not? What are some consequences of your position?
  4. Do you think there is a link between morality and beauty? If so, what is it? If not, why not?

Key words

Determinate judgment

Reflective judgment

A priori

Heautonomy

Autonomy

Understanding

Judgment

Purpose

Purposiveness

Aesthetic

World of nature

World of freedom

Disinterested

Beautiful

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