Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Kant and Imagination and aesthetic atheism too

This is not going to be an effort to enter into any of the debates between Kant scholars over the true meaning of Kant's Critique of Judgment.  I am more interested in elucidating some comments I made today in explicating a selection from Kant's great work to my Introduction to Aesthetics students.  It seems to me that the key to Kant's aesthetics and its greatness is the idea of imagination, an idea that does not play an important positive role in Plato's aesthetics, in Aristotle's theory of tragedy, or in Hume's theory of taste.  (Here, we are talking about what Kant calls the "productive imagination" and not the reproductive imagination, which merely situates things in space and time and is more like Hume's associative notion of imagination.  The productive imagination is more like what we today refer to as the creative imagination and its key mark is originality.)  Kant demands that a person of taste be disinterested because only then can imagination be allowed to play freely.  Imagination does not function importantly in what Kant calls "the agreeable" or in appreciation of the good, but it is essential to beauty.  We mean many different things by "imagination" but one thing quite imaginative in the first moment of the "Analytic of the Beautiful" is Kant's idea that we should not be concerned with the existence of the thing represented.  That is, if the palace I perceive turns out to be just an illusion, or if the idea that I have inherited this palace turns out to be false, this will not matter with respect to its beauty.  Imagination places the object in a world of its own independent of relations to myself and to other things.   Being disinterested is an example of thinking imaginatively:  it is a type of imaginative thinking.  Moreover, imagination is a matter of "giving meaning" to the representation:  "in order to say that the object is beautiful, and to show that I have taste, everything turns on the meaning which I can give to this representation."  A good judge on Kant's view is distinguished from Hume's good judge in that the only important ingredient is disinterestedness (or disinterested attention to an object's look of purpose).  Kant does talk about the need for practice and comparison (i.e. of academic training) for the artist, but delicacy of imagination in Hume's sense of the word does not play a significant role in his thinking.  Rather, he takes Hume's idea of "lack of prejudice" and expands it to involve not thinking about a host of matters, not just things that are of practical personal interest (where prejudice would be most at issue) but also not thinking of concepts, for example not thinking of the concept of "church" and what would make a good church, when appreciating the church one is perceiving.  Here, Kant is almost the opposite of Plato.  Plato would probably insist that in order to adequately perceive beauty one must perceive it under science (episteme), by which he would mean under proper understanding of the eternal Forms.  (I think there is another Plato hidden behind the dialogues who would contest this standard view of him...but no need to discuss that here.)  Plato wants to get us as far away from imagination as possible.  Allen Carlson is like Plato in that he would insist that to appreciate a flower appropriately one should have the knowledge of a botanist with respect to that flower.  (There is one important problem internal to Carlson's overall view:  if his belief that all pristine nature is beautiful [his "positive aesthetics"] implies that we should not find a diseased flower less beautiful than a healthy one then functionality would have to fall out of the picture with regards to aesthetic appreciation, and yet I don't think he wants to allow this.)  Kant, by contrast thinks that one should not focus on the actual purpose of the flower's parts or whether the flower serves its function well but rather focus on its "form of finality":  we should focus on the look of purposiveness, i.e. its look of being designed.   It is a strange operation, admittedly:  we are supposed to not think about what it may actually be designed to do but look at and attend to its design as we would at an abstract pattern in wallpaper.  Imaginatively perceiving it is a matter, I would venture, of allowing the object to immediately stimulate our thoughts by way of its designed look in such a way as to make the object an aesthetic idea, i.e. a symbol, something that seems greater than itself.  We should allow this design to work on our imaginations, giving us a sense of contemplative detachment that is also pleasurable. Why focus on the object's look of purpose?  To allow the free play of the imagination.  Although I have been critical of Carlson on this point in the past, here I do not want to take sides.  It would seem better rather to favor what Peggy Brand and Ted Gracyk have called the toggle method of aesthetic appreciation.  We should toggle between disinterested and scientific knowledge in appreciating the flower.  This would be on one level to just toggle between Carlson's and Kant's approach.  But this might be unfair to Kant, for promoting the toggle idea is perhaps what Kant was trying to do himself unwittingly when he introduced the otherwise incoherent (because inconsistent with his broader theory) notion of dependent beauty.  Dependent beauty brings in the very concepts of the object and its purpose that were supposed to be excluded from any appreciation of beauty.  But what dependent beauty really is is toggled beauty:  beauty in which we shift back and forth from pure beauty to recognition of functional adequacy, enhancing the overall beauty as we go.  Dependent beauty could not be beauty at all if it were just recognition of functional adequacy.  Dependent beauty contains pure beauty as an aspect.  We can better understand this if we realize that Kant is arbitrary in his classification of flowers and free beauties and horses as dependent beauties:  we can avoid this embarrassment by seeing both horses and flowers as perceivable in the fully disinterested fashion as free beauties and perceivable in a functional way.  They are only dependent beauties (in this revised version of Kant) if they are toggled between the functional and the pure.  Imagination frees us from the world of experience which is governed by the categories of the understanding and cognized through the laws of science. 

The existence of experiences of pure beauty itself is training however for something higher, which is the development of what Kant calls aesthetic ideas. (See my book for further discussion of this.) "Aesthetic ideas" are products of the the imagination at even a higher level in which the artist genius creates his/her own world, a world which follows its own rules.  (By the way, despite what many authors have said, and despite some sexist things he says in an early work, Kant cannot logically exclude women from the category of genius.  He is deeply committed to the idea that all humans are equal.)  The genius creates his object "by virtue of the harmony of his faculties" by which is meant specifically the faculties of the understanding and the imagination.  The products of genius are works of art and hence dependent beauties and hence approachable through toggling.  They have a pure beauty side which is allied with the imagination, and the impure side which is allied with the understanding.  In the end, Kant believes that the Critique of Judgment will provide us with a bridge from the world of experience to the supersensible realm.  The way this happens is through the aesthetic ideas.  The aesthetic ideas provide us with an intimation of a transcendent realm.  They give us unending thoughts, which is to say that, when we experience a work of art as an aesthetic idea (as a symbol in this rich sense of the word), we experience it as freeing us from ordinary experience, as a moment of self-transcendence, as a moment that is sublime in both its fearsomeness and its delight.  We feel as if totally free, and this is as good as it gets:  hence aesthetic atheism.

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