Aesthetics

Having considered in the Critique of Pure Reason how truth claims are to be tested publicly, and having considered in Groundwork, the Critique of Practical Reason, and Metaphysics of Morals how moral claims are to be tested publicly, Kant considered in the Critique of Judgement how claims about beauty and the sublime are to be tested publicly. Like the others, these discussions have a significant relation to, and bearing upon, theological topics.

Drawing on the writings of Burke, Kant was concerned to make sense of judgments of taste, of beauty, and of the sublime. In his earlier thinking, Kant has assumed that judgments of this kind must be purely individual, and not subject to public justification: you have your tastes and I have mine. In the Critique of Judgement, Kant displays a change of view. Judgments of beauty are understood in this later work to express claims that command universal assent in ways that have a strong analogy with moral claims. Kant recognizes that when someone claims, "This is beautiful," he or she may well be expressing an individual judgment, but the latter also invites and expects agreement from others. The claim "This is beautiful" is universal in a way that "I find this agreeable" is not. Kant's investigations into aesthetics concern what this universal dimension might be.

Kant distinguishes between two kinds of judgment. On the one hand, there is the judgment that is familiar from the Critique of Pure Reason. The concept is given, and in the act of judgment I apply that concept to a particular. Kant calls this "determinant judgement." On the other hand, a contrasting type of judgment is identified. The particular is given, and in the act of judgment I seek the concept which applies to it. Kant calls this "reflective judgement."

Questions of beauty and the sublime present an interesting case for Kant. (In what follows I will consider aesthetic responses to the natural world rather than art in order to avoid troublesome questions relating to Kant's different handling of nature and art. These questions deserve detailed consideration, but here it must suffice to say that Kant implies that natural phenomena offer purer experiences of aesthetic judgment than artistic products. This is because art has a humanly contrived purpose, because purposes can be conceived, and because what makes something sublime is precisely that it exceeds what we can conceive.) In judging something beautiful I engage in a strange form of reflective judgment. The particular is given, but instead of finding the concept for it, I practice a form of reflection in which reason engages in a free play. This act of free play - reflective judgment which does not end with the identification of concepts - is the source of pleasure which motivates my claim, "This is beautiful." I see nature as something which has a supremely appropriate form for being judged: it presents an opportunity for the imagination and the understanding to act in harmony. Crucially, for Kant, this claim is nonetheless universal because the quality of reason - the structure of reflective judgment - is identical for all reasoning agents.

Kant contrasts the beautiful with the sublime. Whereas the beautiful is tied to the pleasure of such free play, and the object is found to be suited to judgment, the sublime is tied to a significant quality of displeasure in such free play. The object not only is found ill suited to judgment but also seems actively to defy judgment. It is too vast, too awe inspiring, too overwhelming. Kant identifies such things as volcanoes or sea storms and other extreme natural phenomena. The thought of these things inspires a kind of dread which is also oddly satisfying, rather like the experience of wanting to watch horror movies and be frightened by them. Whereas beauty arises, for Kant, from the satisfying fit of the object with imagination and understanding, the sublime arises from the satisfying lack of fit of the object with reason. Again, judgments of the sublime are universal because the reason with which there is a satisfying lack of fit is invariant. The sublime seems fitted for a lack of fit, if one can express the matter in a suitable contradiction.

It is the next move that is significant for theology. Both the beautiful and the sublime are somehow contained by reason. For Kant, our deepest satisfaction is not in the object but in our response to the object. Our discovery that there is a harmonious relation of imagination and understanding, in the case of beauty, or that there is something like an intention to defy our comprehension, in the case of the sublime, awakens a renewed appreciation for reason. For Kant, the sublime reveals our superiority over nature; it displays our mind's power over sense; it enables us to appreciate our autonomy; we simultaneously see our physical selves as subject to the overwhelming power of nature, and our rational selves as independent of it.

This account of the sublime is most revealing. Two contradictory tendencies are displayed. In one direction, nature's awe overwhelms us. In the other direction, the transformation of fear into delight seems to reveal our autonomous superiority. We are both at the mercy of, and independent of, nature. This reflects a particularly intense form of the opposition of the view of human agency as subject to cause and effect (from the viewpoint of theoretical philosophy) and utterly free (from the viewpoint of practical philosophy). The sublime expresses this opposition simultaneously. What is revealing is the insistence that reason wins out. Even the most violent, majestic, crushing magnitude of nature is finally contained by reason's contemplation. It is tempting to wonder if the sublime represents Kant's fantasy of reason's invulnerability in the face of the incalculably great. The idea that even "that than which nothing greater can be thought" can be contained by reason is the most astonishing triumph of human subjectivity. Kant explicitly considers the claim that we should interpret natural phenomena as signs of a divine might to which we ought to submit. He rejects this with contempt. Instead, we are to be conscious of our upright, God-pleasing disposition and understand ourselves as sublimely suited to conform to God's will. For Kant, it is not God's greatness that should inspire or awe us; it is the harmony of rational nature and divine will.

This account is also revealing in another way. It is not the particular object -the particular natural phenomenon, the particular earthquake, or the particular storm - that is marvelous in the end. It is ourselves. The storm is merely the occasion for a display to ourselves of our autonomy. It does not much matter whether it is a storm or a volcano, or whether it is this storm or that storm. Insofar as they are occasions, they are indistinguishable. We certainly transfer this self-respect to some natural object. Indeed, this transfer is what provides the occasion for the intuition that our rationality is superior to nature. But in the end what we respect, in our respect for that which overwhelms us, is ourselves. This argument has perhaps the single most important theological resonance in the whole of Kant's philosophy. It has a similar shape to Ludwig Feuerbach's argument in The Essence of Christianity that human speech about God is, in the end, merely a projection of human self-understanding. Kant's claim "The feeling of the sublime in nature is respect for our own vocation" is close to Feuerbach's "In the consciousness of the infinite, the conscious subject has for his object the infinity of his own nature." Kant does not go so far, of course: his remarks in § 27 of the Critique of Judgement are solely concerned with nature, not God. Moreover we just saw that Kant refuses in § 28 to interpret natural phenomena as signs of God's agency. Nonetheless, it is striking that Kant shows a strong tendency to see in the apparent greatness of what lies outside us an expression of authentic human superiority over it.

In his aesthetics, especially his account of the sublime, Kant presents a triple challenge for orthodox theological reasoning: (a) reason subdues all that appears superior to it; (b) our respect for sublime nature is in fact more deeply a form of self-respect; and (c) particulars are, at the deepest level, of no consequence. Kant's habits of thought present some tall hurdles to any attempt theologically to make sense of the particularity of Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice both calls for human self-dispossession and surpasses human understanding.

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