Philosophy Weekend: Kant on Beauty

(Today’s blog post is by a guest philosopher, Tim Hawken, who lives in Western Australia and is the author of two novels, ‘I Am Satan‘ and ‘Hellbound‘. Tim holds a Bachelor of Arts from Deakins University with a triple major in Philosophy, Literature and Journalism.

The image of an Immanuel Kant tattoo is by Aron Dubois.)

Picture yourself walking into a bookstore with a friend. You pick a copy of Les Misérables off the shelf, party because of the shiny ‘movie edition’ cover, party because you’re curious to see what all the fuss is about. Turning to a random page you read the quote:

When love has fused and mingled two beings in a sacred and angelic unity, the secret of life has been discovered so far as they are concerned; they are no longer anything more than the two boundaries of the same destiny; they are no longer anything but the two wings of the same spirit. Love, soar.

Stunned by the beauty of the words you read them out loud to your companion. He snorts in derision and picks up Ann Coulter’s latest book. Running his fingers across the jacket photo, he says to you, without a hint of sarcasm: “Now, she’s beautiful.”

How could you both be so convinced that you’re right, yet be so wrong in the other’s opinion? More importantly, how can you argue your case that ‘NO, this is beauty; you’re just confused.’ At this point, the trite phrase ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ might spring to mind. But, when something is repeated ad nauseum it just loses all meaning, becoming nothing more than postcard fodder for the brain-dead. We need to think for ourselves, or at least enquire into what great minds thought before us, so we can better form a real case of our own.

The ancient Greek philosophers spoke at length about Beauty, waxing lyrical ridiculous things, like there being a perfection of beauty in the Forms – that there is such a thing as Beauty with a capital B that exists, and that all beautiful things strive toward being like it, but can never be anything but a poor substitute. Again, this lands us with a steaming pile of nothing in our hands. It’s not until the great Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant developed his version of aesthetics that we could start to really talk about what Beauty is in any meaningful way (or at least to argue properly that he was barking up the wrong tree as well).

The first thing you need to know about Kant is that he loved making up his own scientific terms for things. This means that reading his work often leads to gathering a bunch of jargon and trying to figure out what he’s saying. Never fear, however — it is possible to break down what Kant is getting at, without resorting to big words that only obfuscate things (cue canned laughter).

In The Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, Kant explores the notion of beauty and how it relates to the human experience. This work is broken into four separate ‘moments’, each of which gives an explanation of beauty in a different, yet connected way.

In the first moment, Kant states that beholding beauty is a subjective experience felt directly within the person’s mind. He holds it is much like a taste, in that we pass judgment immediately and without thinking. For example, if we eat tub of chocolate ice cream, we feel the pleasure of its taste automatically. If we see something beautiful, we feel a similar internal burst of pleasure immediately upon viewing the object. However, unlike ice cream, when it comes to beauty we do not have an interest in the object. In other words we don’t care whether the beautiful object is real or not, just that it is beautiful. When it comes back to the ice cream, we cannot say its flavor is beautiful, because it is linked to our bodily desire of hunger. It is here that Kant makes an important distinction between what is agreeable, what is good and what is beautiful:

The agreeable is what GRATIFIES a man; the beautiful what simply PLEASES him; the good what is ESTEEMED (approved), i.e., that on which he sets an objective worth.

In other words, when something is agreeable it is linked with some kind of desire, such as hunger or lust, and when something is good, it is linked to our sense of moral judgment, i.e. whether something is good or bad. Beauty on the other hand is free of these ties and is therefore more pure — it lies between our desires and our morality. We are disinterested in the object itself.

Now, alarm bells might be ringing already. This would mean that in terms of beauty to Kant, Ann Coulter must be struck off the list. Shocking, right? More protests might come when we realize that people like Scarlett Johansson or Channing Tatum could only be described as agreeable, because of our bodily desires to rub up against them in dirty ways. Nietzsche would be the first to object to this, saying:

When our aestheticians never weary of maintaining, in favour of Kant, that under the spell of beauty one can view even undraped female statues “without interest”, we may laugh a little at their expense.

However, despite this objection, there is something to be learned in Kant’s distinction of beauty as an aesthetic taste. We do feel beauty immediately upon witnessing it, and there is something special in this feeling that is apart from other desires and the like. But, Kant isn’t done yet! He continues to narrow his definition of beauty.

In the second moment, Kant proposes that if something is to be deemed beautiful, it must also be free of any logical ideas. He refers to these as ‘concepts’. This means, for Kant, that there can be ‘no personal conditions’ that can be placed by logic upon the object. I cannot, therefore, talk my friend into thinking Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel roof is beautiful because it represents the wonder of God. It must simply be self-evident that it is beautiful to both of us because of its aesthetic form without reason. In this way, Kant displays that a sense of beauty must be universal:

For where any one is conscious that his delight in an object is with him independent of interest, it is inevitable that he should look on the object as one containing a ground of delight for all.

That is to say if I were to feel something is beautiful within myself, it is because it is devoid of any relation to a thought. Therefore, I would pronounce confidently to anyone else ‘this is beautiful’, knowing in myself they must feel the same way; the object does not rely on my personal experience, but one that is universal to anyone else beholding the same thing. I would hence be incredulous if someone were to disagree with me, because I am not pronouncing this thing is beautiful ‘to me’, but that it is beautiful to everybody.

It is here that I have the most problem with Kant’s theory. Much in the same way as Nietzsche condemns Kant for saying we should be indifferent to our desires and emotions when it comes to beauty, I would say we cannot possibly separate our thought totally from an aesthetic experience. For example, we ask: Is a sunrise beautiful? Of course we must answer with a resounding yes! It is universal enough that anyone experiencing the golden strands of light of a new day being born into the world, with its dusty shades of pink pushing back the dark blue of night, would have to feel its intrinsic beauty. However, it is impossible to separate ourselves firstly from the emotion that we feel when seeing the sun, but also with the idea that it is shedding light and safety onto our world, that it brings life to the planet and that it brings warmth to the cold. Don’t these emotions and thoughts pervade the purity of the beauty? Knox would agree with me whole-heartedly:

To break the continuity in man from the natural to the ideal, and between man and his environment is to shatter the unity of the self with its emotional, cognitive, and volitional phases and to demolish the possibility of interaction between man and this world.

We cannot be asked to simply amputate ourselves from our emotional and logical reality just to figure out if something is truly beautiful. This is asking too much.

To be fair, I don’t think Kant is saying we always need to shut off our thoughts and emotion, but that there is something unique about the beautiful that doesn’t depend on these things. However, I would counter that beauty is deepened by these additional elements. In addition, there are many things in this world that I would deem beautiful that do depend on concepts.

Take our previous passage from Les Misérables. The reason you might find it beautiful is that it relates to your experience and seems to expose a reality that would be felt by everyone in the same situation. Kant, however, would say that because Victor Hugo’s statement depends on a concept of both companionship and also on a command of language (which in itself is a concept), that it couldn’t be beautiful, but rather simply ‘good.’ Again, he may have a point, but what if we take this example a step further into poetry? Surely poetry must be deemed beautiful! Jacques Derrida, who described poetry as ‘the highest of the liberal arts’ would agree, as would Heidegger, who also placed a strong importance on the power of the purity of poetry. The greatest poetry also speaks to us on a deep level personally about life’s experience within a cultural setting. If we have no concept of this culture then we do not understand it, therefore poetry cannot be either universal or without a dependence of concept.

In his third moment Kant provides the extra definition:

Beauty is the form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from the representation of an end.

What he means here is that when we experience a beautiful object, it can only be beautiful as a complete thing its totality of form. We cannot say a valley is beautiful simply because of its lustrous green color, but rather because of the entire way the green interacts with how the ground slopes, how the trees sway and how it gives us pleasure to view it. Further, this pleasure must be free from our comprehension of the purpose of the object. For example, a car cannot be beautiful in relation to how it drives, only in how it looks. However, to be purely beautiful the concept of the end use of the object must not even enter our minds because:

Just as it is a clog on the purity of the purity of the judgement of taste to have the agreeable (of sensation) joined with beauty to which properly only the form is relevant, so to combine the good with beauty (the good, namely, of the manifold to the thing itself according to its end) mars its purity.

So, if we know what something is intended for when we look at it, then we cannot conceive of it as purely beautiful. It would then follow that when we see a painting and know that it’s a painting, which might be looked at or sold for gain, then we cannot say it is purely beautiful, but only ‘dependently beautiful.’ This is something that seems to defy what many feel defines art: It is beautiful for beauty’s sake.

Kant does try to provide some kind of recompense to this, when at the end of The Critique of Aesthetic Judgement he makes a distinction between mere art and ‘fine-art.’ But really, he’s just confusing himself, confusing us and being a snob all at the same time.

So, where does this leave us?

Kant defines beauty as being judged through an aesthetic experience of taste. This experience must be devoid of any concept, emotion or any interest in the object we are describing as beautiful. Most of all, the experience of beauty is something that we feel. Whether you think this definition is too narrow, too wide or completely bat-shit crazy, you now have at least something to think about and come up with your own ideas. The most redeeming feature, I think, in Kant’s definition is that beauty is universal: It is the only experience on this earth that can be felt by all of us, without a need for communication. In this way it gives humanity a ‘sensus communis’ or a sense of harmony, because of common feelings that transcend race, religion or politics when we see something purely beautiful.

If we truly recognize this one aspect (rather than over-intellectualize the subject entirely) maybe we can find a way to maintain peace with each other through the beauty of art. But that is another topic all in itself: What is art?

7 Responses

  1. What do you philosophers
    What do you philosophers think about the scientific inquiries in to beauty, such as those that have found symmetry related to perception of beauty and what’s now called neuroesthetics, which is described in its Wikipedia entry as:

    “a relatively recent sub-discipline of empirical aesthetics. Empirical aesthetics takes a scientific approach to the study of aesthetic perceptions of art and music.”

  2. Hi TKG — I don’t know what
    Hi TKG — I don’t know what Tim Hawken (or Immanuel Kant) thinks of it, but I find these studies fairly intriguing. I’ve heard the one about facial symmetry being a key component in the notion of personal beauty. I’ve often wondered why we respond so strongly to, for instance, the sound of a major or minor chord, or a 7th chord. I wonder if a scientific explanation will ever be found. And what do you think about this?

  3. If I deem something beautiful
    If I deem something beautiful, I don’t need confirmation from anybody else. Did I read this correctly? Is Kant saying for something to be beautiful it must be universally agreed upon? If so, he’s speaking bullshit. If I think of something as beautiful, I don’t need any validation. If that’s not what he’s saying I apologize for probing–I have a thick, Polish skull.

    Great read!

  4. Also, if something is true
    Also, if something is true (beauty is in the eye of the beholder), it doesn’t matter how many times it gets repeated nor how cliche it becomes. These do not take anything away from the truth, rather, they stand as testaments to its truth. I don’t think I am brain dead just because I know that what I feel is beautiful somebody else might not feel the same. Why should I be such an asshole to think that what is beautiful to me must be beautiful to you or else it can’t be beautiful at all?

  5. I absolutely find the science
    I absolutely find the science of proportion fascinating as well. I often wonder what purpose that serves, to be ingrained so strongly into our DNA. Even with architecture certain measures are more ‘pleasing to the eye’. There is method to beauty sometimes, but sometimes not. That’s what makes it so wonderful and allusive to me.

  6. You’re right, Wojciech,
    You’re right, Wojciech, repeating something doesn’t lessen it’s truth. The problem comes when it’s repeated without thinking of its meaning and simply becomes a vacuous catch cry used to explain something the speaker hasn’t really thought about themselves. You’re right too about beauty being universal. I don’t think it always have to be, but it certainly can. Kant would say that if its a matter of opinion then something is merely ‘agreeable’, because it’s about judgement. That’s simplifying it a bit, but that’s the general take on what he’s trying to get across.

  7. No, it does not need to be
    No, it does not need to be universally agreed upon. If you deem something beautiful it’s intuitively felt and devoid of cognition. If you think something is beautiful then you wholeheartedly and unquestionably believe so, hence the surprise at someone not agreeing with you.

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