Saturday, June 28, 2014

Do I Want More of Kant?

OK, so a week ago I posted that I needed a mental vacation in some literary sea air, and this week I pick up Immanuel Kant?! Thus I did, dear reader. And the funny thing is that I actually understood it – well, understood it as well as I can understand a philosopher that puzzles philosophers.

I shouldn’t be so surprised that I essentially grasped Kant’s message. I’d read The Critique of Judgement (as Irish translator James Creed Meredith spells it) before, and my copy in Mortimer Adler’s Great Books set has my marks and notes in it; so that made it easier. And this work isn’t, I believe, the toughest Kantian nut to crack. Kant explains the place of this book in his grand scheme in this way. The Critique of Pure Reason explains knowledge of things in the world, which, as the Prussian philosopher would have it, are all phenomena: objects of the senses or imagination, not things-in-themselves. His Critique of Practical Reason, on the other hand, pinpoints maxims, which we accept as things in themselves but can never have a sensation of, can never imagine in a mental picture or sound. Imagination without understanding, or understanding without imagination. But the mind, says Kant, also has a mode of operation lying, as it were, in the middle of the other two, one that connects imagination and understanding, and this is the faculty of judgment (as American blogger Ken Stephenson spells it). Now why Kant sometimes equates “reason” with “understanding” and sometimes distinguishes them, I can’t explain. And why in this schematic explanation he associates understanding only with practical reason and not with pure reason, I can’t explain. But Kant describes the act of aesthetic judgment as a free play of imagination and understanding, so he needs those words to go with those other two books in order to present a coherent system.

All right, here’s another connection between imagination and understanding: I can’t imagine how anyone could understand what I just wrote. Maybe this paragraph will be more lucid if I talk about my Kant-influenced view of aesthetic judgment. Like Kant, I begin to define an aesthetic reaction – a judgment that something is beautiful – by separating it from any reaction that involves personal interest. Suppose someone gives me a painting of purple flowers in a vase. If I like it because I think I can get a hundred million dollars for it in an auction, I’m not responding to its beauty in a purely aesthetic way. But if I just like looking at Van Gogh’s Irises, then I respond to it as a work of art: I am exercising aesthetic judgment.

Much clearer.

Like Kant, I also distinguish between liking something beautiful and liking something agreeable. But I don’t know that the dividing line is as clear to me as it is to him. If the pleasure lies in the sensation itself, neither Kant nor I would call the object beautiful. A back rub, for instance, feels great, but I would call it a work of art only in a metaphorical way. On the other hand, I think of it as metaphorical to say a beautiful piece of music soothes the ears. The pleasure isn’t exactly in the sensation of hearing itself. I enjoy music because something in my mind engages the sounds that enter my ears. That might actually even be my way of saying that my pleasure in listening to Chopin is a free play between imagination and understanding.

But Kant distinguishes the beautiful and the agreeable in several more ways that don't all make sense to me. For instance, he claims that agreeable things always come with a desire for more. I can follow him that far; I will always accept another back rub, while I don’t feel any desire for some artist to paint Irises again. But where Kant says that beauty lies only in form – that colors have no beauty but are only agreeable like the back rub – I begin to part ways with him. Take away the color from Irises, and nothing remains to enjoy. It isn’t a line drawing filled in with purple and green that can be taken away. And even if it were, the line drawing would consist of the colors black and white, so I still wouldn’t be able to enjoy the design aesthetically according to Kant.

As I think about it more, I might not even agree with Kant that a desire for more precludes any judgment of beauty. I consider films works of art, yet I deeply desire another Firefly movie.

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