Thursday, October 9, 2014

Kant's Dialectic of Aesthetic Judgment and a Prelude to Aesthetic Atheism

Students in my aesthetics classes usually balk at the idea that when we set up something as beautiful we demand that others see it as beautiful as well.  I usually try to explain this by softening the word or suggesting that Kant should not have said "demand" and that "expect" would have perhaps been better.  Also, Kant does insist that we can make a mistake in our judgments of beauty, so it is not as though he is setting up anyone as a dictator of taste.  One can say that if two parties disagree then one of them must not be sufficiently disinterested, or perhaps there is a failure of choice of object:  a focus on something that is more properly the object of the pleasant or agreeable than of beauty, for example a simple tone or color, or some other thing that does not have the look of design characteristic of that which has the form of purpose (without our thinking about its actual purpose.)  Or perhaps one just is thinking of the actual purpose without letting the mind go into a free play of the imagination and understanding requisite for the experience of beauty.  Still the question remains:  Why does Kant believe we have a "right to the necessary agreement of others" with respect to taste?  He addresses this issue in his "Dialectic of Aesthetic Judgement" where he finally seeks to address Hume's original problem as set forth in Hume's juxtaposition two species of common sense, one claiming that there is no disputing about taste, and another asserting that there is, since the lover of Ogilby clearly has no taste from the perspective of the good judge.  I do not intend to provide a commentary on Kant here and will avoid worrying about current interpretations by Guyer and others.  I am, rather, mainly interested in a puzzle:  why does Kant believe that appeal to the supersensible substratum actually solves the antinomy of taste?  The end result of his discussion, I believe, lends support to what I have called in previous posts "aesthetic atheism."

So Kant starts out in #56 talking about different commonplaces of taste.  One of these says that every one has his own taste.  He rejects this since he thinks that a judgment of taste does involve a demand that others agree.  The second is that there is no disputing about taste:  that is, no decision in taste can be based on a proof, although we are still able to have a "contention" about taste, i.e. a disagreement that is not resolvable by logical application of a concept.  However, the notion that there may be contention without proof seems to deny the idea that it is impossible to resolve such a debate, and hence the grounds of judgment must not just be "private validity." They are not "merely subjective."  The antinomy is that that the thesis, i.e. the judgment of taste is not based on concepts, is opposed by the antithesis, that the judgment of taste is based on concepts, for otherwise there would be no room for contention.  The resolution to this is fairly obvious, that two different senses of "concept" are being used, and that the reason why contention is possible is because the judgment of taste is based on indeterminate (or, as he puts it sometimes, undetermined or indeterminable) concepts.  Now in section #49 we had been introduced to something very much like indeterminate concepts, namely the aesthetic (or aesthetical) ideas.  So one would think that Kant would now refer to these as the basis in some way for the demand that others see the object as beautiful.  Instead, however, he refers to just once such concept, i.e. "the transcendental rational concept of the supersensible, which lies at the basis of ...sensible intuition..."  (Meredith tr., 207)  So what we are talking about, at least on first sight, is the idea of the world of things-in-themselves, a world that is beyond our senses. (We will see how this "at first sight" is partly wrong later.)  More specifically we are talking about the concept of such a world.  This world is also sometimes identified (whether by Kant himself, or just by some readers is not clear) with the noumenal realm, which contains God, immortality and the soul, and maybe also the essence of things (something like the Platonic Forms).  How this seemingly confused thing (although, perhaps, the noumenal realm does not come in here at all) can provide the basis for our demand that others see an object as beautiful is the question at issue.  The judgment of taste is not merely personal or private, it is not just "for me," because of an "enlarged reference."  But what is that?  It should be mentioned here that the indeterminate concept of the supersensible, which is supposed to do this job, is not only at the basis of the object but also of the judging subject. (Is this a reference to the transcendent soul, or is it rather a reference to the transcendental ego or the transcendental unity of apprehension...I suspect that one of the latter two is more at issue.)  We learn further that this "ground" is "of the subjective finality of nature for the power of judgment" which seems to be saying that the reason we can demand a judgment of beauty from others is that nature has a certain purposiveness of look, an idea already introduced in the Analytic of the Beautiful.  Another hint for explaining the demand of validity for everyone is in the phrase Kant uses: "because its determining ground lies, perhaps, in the concept of what may be regarded as the supersensible substrate of humanity."  The "perhaps" is noteworthy of an unusual caution.  But more important, the "substrate of humanity" indicates that we are not talking about something like a collection of things in the supersensible realm that stand behind the things of experience, as when a chair as the thing-in-itself is behind the chair as experienced.  Rather, we are mainly interested here in something shared by humans.  (Now why this must be in the supersensible realm, i.e. as transcendent, rather than simply being a transcendental principle like the a priori concept of causality, is not clear, at least to me.)  Kant himself seems to throw up his arms in despair of really explaining any of this at this point, when he says, "The subjective principle - that is to say, the indeterminate idea of the supersensible within us - can only be indicated as the unique key to the riddle of this faculty, itself concealed from us in its sources; and there is no means of making it any more intelligible."  (208-9)  However he does not give us, as he continues to give us hints.  For example, he hints that the strategy here, which he also uses in the Critique of Practical Reason, involves compelling us to "look beyond the horizon of the sensible, and to seek in the supersensible the point of union of all our faculties a priori" which, only then, brings "reason into harmony with itself."  (209)  So, something about the union of our faculties (for example, perhaps, when they are in harmony) is the basis for the legitimate demand that others see the object as beautiful.  Perhaps what is being said is something like this:  you have to see it as beautiful because, underneath it all, you are the same as me insofar as your faculties should respond to this thing in a unified way just as mine do.  

In the "Remark 1" that follows we get another hint to the solution in that Kant refers again to aesthetic ideas, which are "referred to an intuition, in accordance with a merely subjective principle of the harmony of the cognitive faculties (imagination and understanding)" (210)  Perhaps the reference to the supersensible in the Dialectic of Aesthetic Judgment is entirely or at least mainly a reference to aesthetic ideas, or the faculty of producing and/or appreciation aesthetic ideas, as the ground of the validity of taste and of the concept of beauty (as opposed to the merely agreeable.)  As we already know, an aesthetic idea is "an intuition (of the imagination) for which an adequate concept can never be found." (210)  Unlike a rational idea the aesthetic idea is not transcendent.  Now, rational ideas "involve a concept (of the supersensible), for which the commensurate intuition can never be given."  Aesthetic ideas, however, involve no concept of the supersensible:  they are, rather, intuitions or products of imagination in which the supersensible is, rather, intimated.  

Further, by connecting the notion of aesthetic ideas to that of genius, which is the "faculty of aesthetic ideas," Kant argues that nature in the genius "gives the rule to art" in producing beauty, for, he says, "the beautiful must not be estimated according to concepts, but by the final mode in which the imagination is attuned so as to accord with the faculty of concepts generally..."  It follows from this that "rule and precept are incapable of serving as the requisite subjective standard for that aesthetic and unconditioned finality in fine art which has to make a warranted claim to being bound to please every one." (212)  The claim is based rather on the atunement of the imagination with faculty of concepts.  So the standard (the standard of taste?) is "sought in the element of mere nature in the Subject....the supersensible substrate of all the Subject's faculties...and consequently in that which forms the point of reference for the harmonious accord of all our faculties of cognition..."  He even further sates that the production of this accord is "the ultimate end set by the intelligible basis of our nature." (212)   

Remark 2 takes me to a place that I never expected, and shows that I had mainly misunderstood Kant previously.  He tells us that the three antinomies of pure reason all lead us to "abandon the otherwise very natural assumption which takes the objects of sense for thing-in-themselves, and to regard them, instead merely as phenomena, and to lay at their basis an intelligible substrate (something supersensible, the concept of which is only an idea and affords no proper knowledge.)"  That is, the supersensible has nothing to do with things-in-themselves (which are now abandoned?) and everything to do with the transcendental ground of our experience in the harmony of the cognitive faculties.  Again, the sensible, "instead of being regarded as inherently appurtenant to things-in-themselves, is treated as a mere phenomenon, and, as such, being made to rest upon something supersensible (the intelligible substrate of external and internal nature) as the thing-in-itself." (213)  That is, the things-in-themselves are replaced by the thing-in-itself, which is the supersensible.  This leads me to think, more and more, that the main strategy here is to replace the transcendent realm with the transcendental, which itself is the true supersensible.  The result, in Kant's thinking, is that the same supersensible that is "substrate of nature" is also "principle of the subjective finality of nature for our cognitive faculties" and also the principle of the "ends of freedom...and...freedom in the moral sphere" which ties the three critiques and the entire system together, rather too neatly.

But what leaves me completely puzzled, and also fascinated at the same time, is the relation between the supersensible (now seen more as the ground of a harmony of faculties perhaps also harmoniously responding to the phenomenal objects insofar as they has purposiveness of look) and the aesthetic ideas, which, as we know from #49, cause our thoughts to go on unendingly, acting as ineffable symbols.  If the supersensible just is the aesthetic ideas (or whatever is their ground) then the ground of taste is not just a matter of the kind of free play that gives us beauty but rather of the kind of super free play (of the imagination and the understanding, and, contra Kant, of the sensuous as well) that gives us the sublime, for example in the works of genius, i.e. in fine art.  The result of this pretty hypothetical thinking would be that the demand that others see something beautiful/sublime (as the two concepts seem to fuse at this point!) is based on something transcendental and a priori (like causality, and I think, contra Kant, God), basically the possibility to experience something as an aesthetic idea.  Since the supersensible is invisible, and yet is perceived in particular phenomena, i.e. through intuition, what we get is the idea that there is some nimbus of heightened significance, what I called in my book, aura, that makes objects aesthetic.  It is still hard to see however how I can demand that others join in my auratic perception.  I can only say here that since the assumption of the supersensible is transcendental like the assumption of causality then it is not empirical but part of the transcendental ground of experience, something even the atheist cannot avoid, a kind of necessary illusion.  So aesthetic contest is based on a necessary illusion but one that is fruitful because it gives rise to richer and deeper experience, as dialogue and dialectic do generally.  

Kant gives one final hint concerning the basis of universal validity of judgments of taste in #58:  "the judgment is not directed theoretically, nor, therefore, logically, the perfection of the object, but only aesthetically to the harmonizing of its representation in the imagination with the essential principles of judgment generally in the Subject."  (216)   I will perhaps save for another time a discussion of the truly bizarre continuation of #58 in its discussion of "free formations of nature" and "crystalline figures" although I think that this is an intimation of a Darwinian materialist approach to life and an attempt to provide what Kant ironically and confusingly calls a form of "idealism" but which in fact is the basis for an aesthetic form of atheism.  Instead of having an "objective finality" on the part of nature (which would indicate a creator God) we have "subjective finality resting on the play of imagination in its freedom, where it is we who receive nature with favor, and not nature that does us a favor."  (220)  This seems to me a kind of secular humanism where the noumenal realm recedes and is replaced by the ideal of human freedom.  When we consider nature, what is important is "how we receive it." (220)  "That nature affords us an opportunity for perceiving the inner finality as arising from a supersensible basis is to be pronounced necessary and of universal validity, is a property of nature which cannot belong to it as its end, or rather, cannot be estimated by us to be such an end"  -- for, otherwise. the end would be founded on heteronomy rather than on our own autonomy.  Similarly the delight in aesthetic ideas in fine art "must not be made dependent upon the successful attainment of determinate ends" thus indicating that the ends should be ideal in the sense that fine art must derive its rules from aesthetic ideas, these created by the genius artist using his/her productive imagination in the constitution of a second world out of the material of our world (referring once again to the all-important #49).

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