Life as Art: Aesthetics and the Creation of Self

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Kant calls the ground 'common sense', by which he means the a priori principle of our taste, that is of our feeling for the beautiful.


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Note: by 'common sense' is not meant being intelligent about everyday things, as in: 'For a busy restaurant, it's just common sense to reserve a table in advance. Similarly, Kant wants to claim that the universal communicability, the exemplary necessity and the basis in an a priori principle are all different ways of understanding the same subjective condition of possibility of aesthetic judgment that he calls common sense. As we shall see, on the side of the beautiful object, this subjective principle corresponds to the principle of the purposiveness of nature.

Thus Kant can even claim that all four Moments of the Beautiful are summed up in the idea of 'common sense' CJ sect. Kant also suggests that common sense in turn depends upon or is perhaps identical with the same faculties as ordinary cognition , that is, those features of humans which as Kant showed in the Critique of Pure Reason make possible natural, determinative experience. Here, however, the faculties are merely in a harmony rather than forming determinate cognition.

Overview: There are two aspects to Kant's basic answer to the question of how aesthetic judgments happen. First, some of Kant's earlier work seemed to suggest that our faculty or ability to judge consisted of being a mere processor of other, much more fundamental mental presentations.

These were concepts and intuitions 'intuition' being Kant's word for our immediate sensible experiences - see entry on 'Kant's Metaphysics'. Everything interesting and fundamental happened in the formation of concepts, or in the receiving of intuitions. But now Kant argues that judgment itself, as a faculty, has an fundamental principle that governs it. This principle asserts the purposiveness of all phenomena with respect to our judgment. In other words, it assumes in advance that everything we experience can be tackled by our powers of judgment.

Normally, we don't even notice that this assumption is being made, we just apply concepts, and be done with it. But in the case of the beautiful, we do notice. This is because the beautiful draws particular attention to its purposiveness; but also because the beautiful has no concept of a purpose available, so that we cannot just apply a concept and be done with it.

Instead, the beautiful forces us to grope for concepts that we can never find. And yet, nevertheless, the beautiful is not an alien and disturbing experience - on the contrary, it is pleasurable. The principle of purposiveness is satisfied, but in a new and unique way. Asking what this new and unique way is takes us to the second aspect.

Kant argues that the kinds of 'cognition' i. The faculties of the mind are the same: the 'understanding' which is responsible for concepts, and the 'sensibility' including our imagination which is responsible for intuitions. The difference between ordinary and aesthetic cognition is that in the latter case, there is no one 'determinate' concept that pins down an intuition.

Instead, intuition is allowed some 'free play', and rather than being subject to one concept, it instead acts in 'harmony' with the lawfulness in general of the understanding. It is this ability of judgment to bring sensibility and understanding to a mutually reinforcing harmony that Kant calls 'common sense'. This account of common sense explains how the beautiful can be purposive with respect to our ability to judge, and yet have no definite purpose. Kant believes common sense also answers the question of why aesthetic judgments are valid: since aesthetic judgments are a perfectly normal function of the same faculties of cognition involved in ordinary cognition, they will have the same universal validity as such ordinary acts of cognition.

The idea of a harmony between or among the faculties of cognition is turning out to be the key idea. For such a harmony, Kant claims, will be purposive, but without purpose. Moreover, it will be both universal and necessary, because based upon universal common sense, or again, because related to the same cognitive faculties which enable any and all knowledge and experience. Lastly, because of the self-contained nature of this harmony, it must be disinterested. So, what does Kant think is going on in such 'harmony', or in common sense for that matter, and does he have any arguments which make of these idea more than mere metaphors for beauty?

Up to now, we have had no decent argument for the existence of common sense as a principle of taste. At best, common sense was plausible as a possible explanation of, for example, the tendency to universality observed in aesthetic judgments. As Kant admits in sect. Such a demand for universality could be accounted for nicely if we assumed an a priori principle for taste, which might also explain the idea of universal communicability.

This argument, however, is rather weak. Kant believes he has an ingenious route to proving the case with much greater certainty. Throughout the Four Moments of the Beautiful, Kant has dropped many important clues as to the transcendental account of the possibility of aesthetic judgment: in particular, we have talked about communicability, common sense and the harmony of the cognitive sub-faculties.

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Kant then cuts off to turn to the sublime, representing a different problem within aesthetic judgment. He returns to beauty in sect. These transitional passages feel much like a continuation of the Four Moments; we will treat them as such here, since also Kant claims that the sublime does not need a Deduction. The Deduction in fact appears in two versions in Kant's texts sect. Here, we will discuss only the second.


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Both explicitly are attempting to demonstrate the universal communicability and thus intersubjective validity of judgments of taste. Which for Kant is the same as saying that there is a 'common sense' - by which he means that humans all must have a kind of sensing ability which operates the same way. Briefly, the argument begins by asserting that aesthetic judgments must be judgments in some sense; that is, they are mental acts which bring a sensible particular under some universal Kant's Introduction, IV. The four moments of the beautiful are then explicitly seen as being limitations on the conditions under which this judgment can take place no interest, purposive without determining purpose, etc.

By this, he means that although the judgment is a judgment of the presentation of a particular singular object, no particular determination of either sensible intuition, or understanding forms a necessary part of the judgment. In ordinary cognition of the world, this lack of restriction would be entirely out of place. It would be nonsense to judge whether a particular thing was a sofa without restricting my judgment to that particular thing, and to the concept of a sofa.

However, considered in general that is, in their essence as sub-faculties the faculties of imagination and understanding are likewise not restricted to any presentation or kind of sense, or any concept. This means that Kant is describing the 'proportion' between understanding and intuition as something like the always present possibility of the faculties being freed to mutually enact their essence.

Because such faculties in general are required for all theoretical cognition whatsoever, regardless of its object as Kant claims to have proven in the first Critique , they can be assumed present a priori, in the same form and in the same way, in all human beings. The presence of the cognitive sub-faculties in their various relations is equivalent with the principle of the universal communicability and validity i. Therefore, an aesthetic judgment must be seen to be an expression of this principle. The key move is obviously to claim that the aesthetic judgment rests upon the same unique conditions as ordinary cognition, and thus that the former must have the same universal communicability and validity as the latter.

It is just that, presented with the beautiful, our cognitive faculties are released from the limitations that characterize ordinary thought, and produce what above we called a cascade of thoughts and feelings.

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It is difficult to know what to make of this argument with the various other versions of it scattered throughout the text and the hypothesis it purports to prove. For one thing, Kant's work here is so heavily reliant upon the results of the first Critique as to not really be able to stand on its own, while at the same time it is not clear at several points whether the first and third Critiques are fully compatible. For another, does not all this talk about the faculties 'in general' seem as if Kant is hypostatising these faculties, as really existent things in the mind that act, rather than simply as an expression for certain capacities?

However, there is no doubting the fascinating and profound implications of what Kant is proposing.

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For example, the notions of common sense and communicability are closely akin to key political ideas, leading several commentators to propose that what Kant is really writing about are the foundations of any just politics see e. Or again, the 'freedom' of the imagination is explicitly linked by Kant to the freedom characteristic of the moral will, allowing Kant to construct a deeply rooted link between beauty and the moral sect. Finally, of course, there is K.

Overview: For Kant, the other basic type of aesthetic experience is the sublime. The sublime names experiences like violent storms or huge buildings which seem to overwhelm us; that is, we feel we 'cannot get our head around them'. This is either mainly 'mathematical' - if our ability to intuit is overwhelmed by size the huge building - or 'dynamical' - if our ability to will or resist is overwhelmed by force e. The problem for Kant here is that this experience seems to directly contradict the principle of the purposiveness of nature for our judgment. And yet, Kant notes, one would expect the feeling of being overwhelmed to also be accompanied by a feeling of fear or at least discomfort.

Whereas, the sublime can be a pleasurable experience. All this raises the question of what is going on in the sublime. Kant's solution is that, in fact, the storm or the building is not the real object of the sublime at all. Instead, what is properly sublime are ideas of reason: namely, the ideas of absolute totality or absolute freedom. However huge the building, we know it is puny compared to absolute totality; however powerful the storm, it is nothing compared to absolute freedom.

The sublime feeling is therefore a kind of 'rapid alternation' between the fear of the overwhelming and the peculiar pleasure of seeing that overwhelming overwhelmed. Thus, it turns out that the sublime experience is purposive after all - that we can, in some way, 'get our head around it'. Since the ideas of reason particularly freedom are also important for Kant's moral theory, there seems to be an interesting connection between the sublime and morality.

This Kant discusses under the heading of 'moral culture', arguing for example that the whole sublime experience would not be possible if humans had not received a moral training that taught them to recognize the importance of their own faculty of reason. Three in particular are of note. First, that while the beautiful is concerned with form, the sublime may even be or even especially be formless. Second, that while the beautiful indicates at least for judgment a purposiveness of nature that may have profound implications, the sublime appears to be 'counter-purposive'.

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That is, the object appears ill-matched to, does 'violence' to, our faculties of sense and cognition. Finally, although from the above one might expect the sublime experience to be painful in some way, in fact the sublime does still involve pleasure - the question is 'how? Kant divides the sublime into the 'mathematical' concerned with things that have a great magnitude in and of themselves and the 'dynamically' things that have a magnitude of force in relation to us, particularly our will. The mathematical sublime is defined as something ' absolutely large ' that is, ' large beyond all comparison ' sect.

Usually, we apply some kind of standard of comparison, although this need not be explicit e. Blanc is large' usually means 'compared with other mountains or perhaps, with more familiar objects , Mt.