Saturday, July 5, 2014

Kant Cant

I just had to write a little bit on some peculiar vocabulary in Kant, if only because I thought of the punny title. (And I’m so sure I’m the first ever to concoct that phrase!) Well, I actually wanted to write more on Kant this year because I think I actually understood what I read this time. His Critique of Aesthetic Judgment says that beauty – just like the space, time, and causality of his Critique of Pure Reason – lies not in the object but in the mind of the observer. I of course wanted to say “in the eye of the beholder,” but that phrase conjures connotations that Kant would not have agreed with. Our common phrase means that no one should expect anyone else to agree with his own assessments of beauty: that, for instance, that anyone is fully justifiable in being the only person on earth to find a certain object beautiful. But Kant says that, even though the judgment of beauty is subjective in the sense that beauty arises only in an observer’s interaction with an object, we have a right to think that everyone should come to the same conclusion. Thus we have a contradiction, just like the contradictions that Kant leads to in all his other critiques, to which Kant offers a solution like all the other solutions.

To be precise, Kant pinpoints the contradiction in the question whether the judgment of beauty is grounded in a concept. But I don’t want to talk about grounding in concepts or contradictions or solutions. What I really want talk about is Kant’s vocabulary. I’m saying “contradiction,” but what I actually read in the book was antinomy. That word may only represent a strange choice on the part of the translator, but I assume its use indicates a strange choice on the part of Kant, since his writing is full of thick prose and long unusual words. I don’t read the word apodeictic anywhere but in Kant. Why couldn’t he just say “certain” or “necessarily true”? And why couldn’t he have used contradiction rather than antinomy? (Not that this means that the words should be banned, but blogspot’s editor doesn’t know either apodeictic or antinomy. Hmm, then again it doesn't know blogspot, either.) As my friend Mike Lee puts it, Kant hurts his own cause more than any other philosopher in history by making the presentation of his innovative ideas so opaque.

Kant makes things even harder by using many familiar words in unusual ways, as well. I think of intuition as meaning a hunch, or the ability to reach a conclusion immediately, without thinking the problem through; Merriam-Webster seems to agree with me. But when Kant uses the term, he means the faculty of thinking an image, whether by sense, memory, or imagination. By sublime, he means, not perfectly beautiful or inspirationally wonderful as I think most people take it to mean, but so frighteningly powerful that the response of puny humans goes beyond fear. For Kant, God or a storm at sea can be sublime, not music or sculpture. I think Kant’s prose is sublime.

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