Immanuel Kant, “Critique of the Power of Judgment”


Also called the third critique, this is where Kant lays out his idealist philosophies on the sublime and the beautiful. Following from Burke, Kant’s approach is much more disinterested, depersonalized, categorical, and universalizing. Kant’s a priori knowledge moves more by deduction than experience (Burke’s empiricism). His idea of the sensus communis translates its literal meaning – common sense – from the individual’s total capacity of bound faculties working together to produce judgment into a wider social realm, in which a disinterested and trained public could agree on questions of aesthetic taste.

Kant’s position is certainly one of a bourgeois, middle class individualist. Still, he opens himself for debate by inviting contestation and by asserting the self/social dynamic of the sensus communis. As with the categorical imperative, one cannot act or judge out of political interest – we must act as if a universal law exists. Aesthetics, as in Schiller, is a sort of training, preparatory work that predates political change. Kant thus advocated reform, rather than revolution.

In Kant, the object is always outside our understanding, and the subject of the treatise is the mind itself. Judgment is a sort of negation of the senses – almost an alchemical process like Eliot’s disinterestedness. In cognitive judgment, we transform the objects of the world, through mental representation, into determinate concepts via our highest faculty, reason (this is the sublime). In aesthetic judgment, we create a unified representation from the manifold, but can arrive only at a harmony of the imagination and the understanding, not a determinate concept shaped by reason (this is free beauty).

We move from the manifold (the senses or sensation) to the intuition (representations in the imagination) to the generation of concepts (understanding) to our highest faculty, that of our ides (reason). Our senses are at the level of nature, while our Reason is at the level of freedom, and we move osmotically up and down this ladder of mentality as we order the world around us.

One of the most fascinating subjects of Kant’s inquiry into the beautiful is the crustacean or the rare bird or tropical flower. Kant gives all of these as examples of things that exist as ornament or drawing, not as natural, or having entelec function (recall that Kant prioritized the bounding line of form over the filling color of content – think about this in terms of Blake’s drawings (line filled in later) versus Lily Briscoe’s painting in To the Lighthouse, which engages color before line and strict form, or The Waves, where the female characters see color and the boys see form).

My reading of this fascination is a relation to defamiliarization – free beauty is that which we cannot categorize, a novelty we cannot subsume (Lolita). Whereas adherent beauty seems to unite beauty and cognition, form and function, free beauty lies in an excess of form to its function. This reminds me of Nabokov’s theories on the chance excess of evolution – how butterflies are far more detailed in their colorful trickery of predators than their predators’ senses can sense. This is where Kant’s confusing distinction of “purposiveness without a purpose” might be explicable, at least to an extent.

In contrast to the beautiful, the sublime is a negative, rather than a positive, pleasure in Kant. Unlike Burke, beauty is above the sublime as experience for Kant. Beauty is contemplation, an (in)determinate concept at the realm of (imagination and) understanding, a spatial and static harmony, a purposive form or limitation. On the other hand, the sublime is a toggling between repulsion and attraction, a dynamic narrative of experience, an indeterminate concept at the level of reason, a contra-purposive with a limitless higher purpose. The mind is fitted to the beautiful; it is unsuited, at least initially, to the sublime. Here, the object is a springboard for the mind, which confronts something  either mathematical (a problem of quantity or greatness) or dynamic (a problem of threat or fear).

The experience of the sublime is one of regaining power over experience. In the mathematical, the mind uses what it already knows to overcome the problem, moving from a failure of imagination to a reasoning of the totality by a whole based on comprehensible units (concepts of space time for example. One wonders if, once conquered, such a concept transitions into beauty…) In the dynamic sublime, the solution is narrativization – one moves to a picture of the whole synthesized by the imagination in discourse. As the body is in danger, but not really, one learns that the power of nature does not have dominion over our power of reason. The distinction seems to be one of apprehension vs comprehension. The proper distance is required for the sublime.

Kant is implicitly defending defensive, but not offensive, war. This is bound to the value of Protestant individual/national concerns, rather than Catholic objective idol/ imperialist concerns for Kant. It would be interesting to compare his ideas on “formless” feeling to Bakhtin and the “formless” novel.




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