Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Pleasant in Kant's Account of Beauty

This little discussion of the pleasant will be based on the Bernard translation of Kant's Critique of Judgment   What Bernard translates as "pleasant" Meredith translates as "agreeable."  As becomes evidence in #3, where Kant makes much of the distinction between two sense of "sensation" ("of one's state"), the pleasant is to be distinguished from the beautiful.  If everything that pleases were pleasant we would not be able to distinguish between the pleasures that arise out of  1. "impressions of sense which determine the inclination" 2. "fundamental propositions of reason which determine the will" and 3. "mere reflective forms of intuition which determine the judgment," (i.e. between the pleasant, the moral and the beautiful) and we could only estimate the value of things in terms of the gratification they promise, thus allowing no distinction between indiscretion and wickedness.  (This intrusion of a seemingly irrelevant moral distinction takes the breath away.  However, as we shall see, it is the main basis for the overall rigid nature of the distinction between the pleasant and beautiful for Kant.)  So one sense of "sensation" refers to a "determination of the feeling of pleasure or pain" (which is subjective), whereas the other refers to a sensation as "representation of a thing" (which is objective.)  Kant decides to call the former "feeling."  For example, the pleasantness of a green color of a meadow is a subjective sensation, whereas the greenness itself is objective.  If it is pleasant it is an object of desire, the desire directed to "objects of that kind." Such a feeling, Kant believes, presupposes the relation of the existence of the object to my state of mind (presumably my feeling-state), which is what is meant by saying that it not only pleases but gratifies.  I am not merely judging it or assenting to it (as I would be for beauty):  rather, my "inclination is aroused by it."  Indeed, when it is "most lively" there is no judgment of the object at all.  Evidence of this is that people who love enjoyment would "dispense with all judgment."  

Again, as we discover in paragraph #4, the beautiful (the beauty of a flower, for example) does not depend on a definite concept (as would be the case in morality or when talking about something that is good because it is useful) and yet it does "depend on the reflection upon an object" i.e. in relation to an indefinite concept. (Does Kant ever give us an example of such an indefinite concept?)  This distinguishes it from pleasures of mere sensation (i.e. the pleasant.)  Kant admits that the pleasant often seems the same as the good, especially for hedonists, but he quickly rejects that idea, for the pleasant only represents objects in relation to sense and not under "principles of reason" which are required to call them good.  This entire discussion of the distinction between the pleasant and the good seems a bit of a red herring since the point at issue in this book is the distinction between the pleasant and the beautiful (the moral good being discussed at length in the Critique of Practical Reason), but the strategy generally is to show that the pleasant shares some things with the good and some quite different things with the beautiful, and is distinguishable from both.  In any case, it does have an interesting result, which is that Kant says the following:  "Even in common speech men distinguish the pleasant from the good.  Of a dish which stimulates the taste by spices and other condiments we say unhesitatingly that it is pleasant, though it is at the same time admitted not to be good; for though it immediately delights the senses, yet mediately, i.e. considered by reason which looks to the after results, it displeases."  Presumably, the thought is that Indian food might be pleasant, but we know we shouldn't enjoy it, and it displeases us intellectually, because it is unhealthy, according at least to the view held by Prussians of that time.  Think of it as being like a lot of wine drunk at once:  pleasant at first but unpleasant in the consequences, and unpleasant to reason even in the beginning because of this.  

In another attack on hedonism, which Kant seems to (quite extravagantly) hold is believed by everyone (including himself?), he says "in respect of happiness, everyone believes himself entitled to describe the greatest sum of pleasantness of life... as a true, even as the highest, good.  However, reason is opposed to this." (101)  That is, reason is opposed to a belief everyone has.  (This isn't totally absurd, since an evil man may assume that he is entitled to the greatest sum of pleasantness, but he is not so, because of the evil he has done.)   Again, Kant holds that if the pleasant were no different from pleasure based on the good there would be no reason to concern ourselves with the means by which we gained pleasure.  The distinction Kant makes here is between pleasures that are "obtained passively by the bounty of nature" and ones "by our own activity and work."  (101)  A hedonist, of course, would reply that both kinds of pleasures are equally good, and that when one cannot gain the first (which is quite common) one can resort to the second:  or perhaps the second is of higher quality in which case one goes for the second first, but then accepts the first happily when available.  The only reason one should be concerned about the means of obtaining a pleasure is if the means are immoral, i.e. in causing harm to others.  (This would be the position of someone we might call a moral hedonist:  i.e. a hedonist who follows, e.g., the golden rule, and conditions his or her actions thereby.)  In another attack on the hedonist Kant says that "reason can never be persuaded that the existence of a man who merely lives for enjoyment...has a worth in itself" even if he increases the quantity and quality of the enjoyment of others and even shares their enjoyment with them through "sympathy." (This may involve an attack on Hume.)  

This whole notion of nature providing us with passive enjoyments is odd itself, since even enjoying a sunset "passively" usually requires the work that can provide oneself with the leisure and possibly the deck and glass of wine to fully do so.  Even odder is the idea that "only what he does, without reference to enjoyment, in full freedom and independently of what nature can procure for him passively, gives an absolute worth to his presence in the world as the existence of a person" as though it really makes sense to judge a person in terms of "absolute worth" or to do so in terms of what he does when he is not enjoying himself.  I know that the history of this is connected with Calvinism...but it just seems impossible to wrap one's mind around it now in the year 2014 even as an optional way of looking at things, and hence it makes the entire project of a radical separation between the pleasant and the beautiful, and even the distinction between three kinds of pleasure, pretty implausible.  At best we can say that some pleasures are prompted immediately by sensation, some mediated by reflection while using an indeterminate concept of some sort, and some by the thought that something is good, i.e. as useful or as morally good, for example the pleasure we take in admiring Martin Luther King's work for civil rights.  There is a distinction somewhere between the merely pleasant and the beautiful, but it is pretty subtle.  I wouldn't disagree, however, that happiness is far from an unconditioned good, as Kant puts it, for you would not think that the happiness of an evil person is an unconditioned good:  but happiness of a person who deserves to be happy is an unconditioned good, surely.

As I argued in my book, the distinction between these different kinds of pleasures is not a strong one:  the boundaries are soft.  The pleasant often does involve some reflection and some vague concepts, for example.  Kant insists that there is no disputing about taste with respect to the pleasant, but we do dispute about these things all the time:  we argue over how good Indian food is for example, or which Indian dish or restaurant is the best.  Kant says that "pleasantness concerns irrational animals also, but beauty only concerns men" which itself seems another pretty implausible idea, although it is understandable that if beauty requires at least an indistinct concept then the question remains whether other animals use anything like indistinct concepts (recent work with chimps, parrots, dogs, elephants, octopi, and porpoises, seems to so that they do.)  

Perhaps Kant's most compelling case for a real distinction between the pleasant and the beautiful is"  "As regards the interest of inclination in the case of the pleasant, everyone says that hunger is the best sauce, and everything that is eatable is relished by people with a healthy appetite, and thus satisfaction of this sort shows no choice directed by taste."  We are talking about food again, but as opposed to Indian food, where one can talk about subtle differences in spice, or wine, where one can talk about the subtle distinctions Sancho's cousins observe in Hume's essay (although Kant thinks that taste in Canary wine is just a matter of physical taste and hence the pleasant) we are now just talking about what happens when you have a healthy appetite:  then everything tastes good to you...and no judgment is really involved.  I don't think that is true either, although a healthy appetite can make what is tasty more tasty and what is less good somewhat better.  Even with a healthy appetite one can distinguish between finer and lesser cuisines.  It might just enhance one's eating experience without making everything pleasant relative. 


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