European Aesthetics
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European Aesthetics

A Critical Introduction from Kant to Derrida

Robert Wicks

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eBook - ePub

European Aesthetics

A Critical Introduction from Kant to Derrida

Robert Wicks

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The only book to cover the evolution of one of the most important areas of philosophy The birth of the Enlightenment heralded a new reverence for the power of reason. But as science flourished in Europe, violence and brutality did not abate. In the French Revolution, thousands were guillotined and the death toll was vast. Philosophers asked whether we had become dehumanised by rationality and abstract political theory. Did art and literature provide a way to rediscover our soul and our compassion? Or could art be corrupted just as easily, used as propaganda to justify abhorrent acts?In this masterful survey of European aesthetics over the last two hundred years, philosopher Robert L. Wicks argues that it is this tension between creativity and rationality that has characterised debate in the subject. Presenting the theories of sixteen seminal thinkers, including Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, and Derrida, European Aesthetics shows how each philosopher's theory of art was motivated by broader topics in their thought, concerning who we are and what a good society should resemble.With colour photographs and written in a lively but objective tone, Wicks analyses important pieces of art, makes critical comparisons between thinkers, and offers a bold conclusion on our contemporary aesthetic situation. In an internet age, where we are presented with endless opportunity, but also startling existential questions, this is the definitive account of the evolution of continental thought in this hugely relevant and exciting area of philosophy.

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Part I



Immanuel Kant
Consider this scenario: intending to strike up some friendly conversation at a dinner gathering, one mentions casually how a vase of brightly colored flowers so pleasantly enhances the table’s appearance. Not everyone agrees. Someone mumbles the word “garish,” and a mildly devilish voice at the end of the table quotes a poem about the “faint, sickening scent of irises.” Steering away from the conflict, one praises the chef’s talents to draw attention to the excellent food. Some people report, unfortunately, that the vegetables are soggy and the meat tough. With tensions on the rise, one then, having noted the wine’s rarity, extols its virtues, imagining how heads will nod in an easy-going accord. This is met with a remark about the wine’s insipid taste. Only a short step from submitting that, indeed, there is no disputing about tastes, one mentions the intriguing spiral designs on the nearby wallpaper, almost in jest. The group turns, and a strange silence settles as each person quietly reflects upon the geometrical patterns ... It is exactly here, in the playfully aimless formal designs, so suggestively intelligent, that Kant’s aesthetics offers some hope for agreement.
Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) expresses an interest in beauty and sublimity in his Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime as early as the 1760s, but his reputation as the father of modern aesthetics resides in his Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) – a work composed and published almost three decades later. This is the third of his highly influential Critiques, all of which reflect and develop Kant’s intellectual breakthrough in the early 1780s that defines the philosophical tenor of his mature writings. These three Critiques, namely, the Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787), the Critique of Practical Reason (1788) and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) are shaped by an assumption that runs contrary to the British empiricist views of the late 1600s and early 1700s. Kant maintains that when our minds passively receive sensations, those sensations do not simply and immediately reflect the world’s physical objects, as if the mind were a mirror or blank sheet of paper.
Our knowledge may begin with sensory experience, Kant acknowledges, but our mind does not compare well to a blank sheet of paper upon which sensory experience writes its messages or impresses its information. We have additionally, so he observes, a set of fixed intellectual capacities through which we actively transform those raw sensations, such as tiny bits of color, texture, sound, odor, and taste, into comprehensible objects of awareness, such as tables and chairs. Sensations may vary in quality from person to person and from circumstance to circumstance, but they are processed and organized according to mechanisms that he believes operate identically in everyone. Kant’s theory of beauty draws our attention to those shared mechanisms and, importantly, to the universal feelings they emit during their operations.
This conception of the human mind may seem obvious, for it is difficult to deny that a cat must think like a cat, a dog like a dog, a bird like a bird, and a human like a human. The originality and radicality of Kant’s theory of knowledge resides not exactly here, but in his inventory of the mechanisms that supposedly define our human nature and according to which we organize our sensations. His view is innovative, although he remains in perfect line with the history of Western philosophy that defines human beings as rational animals.
For instance, humans apprehend natural events in logical, causal terms: when experiencing two events in close sequence, we imagine that one causes the other, and until proven otherwise, we suppose that the events are causally related, even if the exact pathways are unclear. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how any event could lack a cause, although as an abstract possibility it is not impossible to hypothesize that some event could happen spontaneously, out of nowhere. It is not inconsistent to think so, but the possibility remains intellectually bewildering. Kant believes that with respect to our logical nature, we have no choice but to interpret our experience in terms of the principle that every event has a cause, which implies that we cannot but expect our experience to be scientifically understandable and predictable. This is a point about how we are constituted to think about things, rather than how those things are in themselves.
More radical than the proposition that for us, every event must have a cause, is Kant’s innovative and hallmark position that space and time are among the forms we use to organize our sensations, and, most extremely, that space and time are nothing more. This is not to deny that there is a mind-independent reality. There is a reality beyond our ken, but Kant insists that our experience of it as being spatio-temporal tells us nothing about its true nature. We can only know how this mind-independent reality appears to us humans, not how it is in itself.
Strange-sounding at first, Kant’s idea is not as alien to our common conceptions as it might seem. Supposing that God is a being that in itself is beyond space and time, then if God were to communicate with humans, this communication would need to occur within the parameters of our finite human world. It must at least occur at some time. To relate to us, God’s presence would have to assume a temporal aspect, and perhaps a spatial one as well, even though neither aspect would characterize what God is like in itself. Kant accordingly maintains that we have a public, spatio-temporal experience of a mind-independent reality that is beyond time and space.
Kant’s philosophical position that space and time are merely subjective forms of sensory awareness, common to all humans, is attractive for a reason that bears on his aesthetic theory: when experiencing any given object, these spatio-temporal features are identical for everyone. For a crowd of people watching the final seconds of a sports event, the dramatic movement and location of the time-clock is objectively the same for everyone in the crowd. The universally shared quality of time and space establishes an agreement among our experiences, unlike the situation where the group of people at our dinner party all taste the same wine and food, and yet disagree about whether the food or drink is pleasurable to their palate.
We have spoken about Kant’s views on space and time, because the public quality and invariant structure of space and time are at the heart of his aesthetics. By focusing our attention on an object’s spatial and temporal configuration, he establishes a ground for universal agreement in some important kinds of aesthetic judgments, namely, those concerning pure, or truth-oriented, beauty. Establishing the theoretical grounds for this universal agreement is one of his leading philosophical interests. Having argued in his Critique of Pure Reason that geometrical relationships express the qualities of space, and that mathematical relationships express the qualities of time, he invokes these relationships to ground the universal agreement that is attainable in judgments of pure beauty.
These objective considerations inform Kant’s aesthetic theory, since he regards geometry and mathematics as formal specifications of space and time, and since he argues that space and time are invariant forms of human experience. The result is this: if someone attends purely and exclusively to the geometrical relationships and/or mathematical relationships in an object – whether the object happens to be a snowflake, tulip, painting, sculpture, or wallpaper design – that person can be sure that in principle, other people can apprehend the same formal relationships and, as Kant argues, feel exactly the same way about the object’s design. By referring to this special kind of universal feeling, Kant’s aesthetics concerns itself primarily with establishing the basis for universal agreement in judgments of beauty, along with a conception of beauty that corresponds to empirical truth.
Writing in the late 1700s, Kant is captivated by a rigorous conception of knowledge that he inherited from René Descartes (1596–1650). Descartes had been frustrated by the tensions between his Roman Catholicism and the newly emerging sciences of his day, and he aimed to settle their differences through a valiant attempt to set aside all of his prior beliefs, hoping to discover a fresh and unprejudiced foundation for his philosophizing. To this end, he prescribed a “method of doubt” in his Meditations on First Philosophy (1641) through which he presumed to be false, any belief that could be subject to the slightest uncertainty, even if he had to introduce wild conjectures to discern this doubt. At one extreme point, he wondered what, if anything, would remain indubitable if a powerful evil demon were trying to confound his reasoning at every possible turn.
Descartes sought a belief that could resist this relentlessly skeptical attitude, and, realizing that sometimes his senses deceived him, he set aside all beliefs based on sensation. This led him to imagine the entire physical world as possibly illusory, and himself as perhaps nothing more than a disembodied spirit. Realizing further that he sometimes made errors in reasoning, he set aside all beliefs based on methodical, step-by-step thought-sequences as well, which include elementary mathematical truths such as 2 + 2 = 4. After having thus eliminated – so he believed – all of his sensation-based and logic-based beliefs, it dawned on him that although he now found himself with almost nothing left in which to believe, he could not doubt that he was then actively engaged in the process of doubting, as he observed himself setting aside all of these common beliefs, type by type. That very awareness confirmed his presence to himself. Descartes concluded that whenever he stated it, the proposition “I think, I exist” is certain, and he proceeded to rest his positive philosophy upon this foundational act of self-awareness, as if it were unshakeable bedrock.
By the time we reach Kant’s philosophy almost 150 years later, this unyielding Cartesian quest for certainty had been transformed into a search for propositions that are universal and necessary. Here, mere probability will not suffice: if the subject under consideration lacks a necessary foundation, then we must conclude that there is no genuine knowledge of that subject. Different types of necessity nonetheless can be distinguished. There is the conceptual or logical necessity that if someone is a bachelor, then the person is male and unmarried. There is the psychological necessity of feeling pain, if boiling water splashes onto one’s normally functioning hand. There is the mathematical necessity that 2 + 2 = 4, not to mention the geometrical necessity that the angles in a Euclidean triangle add up to 180 degrees. Yet another type of necessity – and the one central to our discussion of Kant’s aesthetics – is the necessity of having to be consistent with the kind of being one is. An apple tree necessarily produces apples, and not oranges.
If we assume with Kant and most of the Western philosophical tradition that human beings are essentially rational animals, then our rational quality cannot be set aside. Given his historical position, Kant characterizes our rationality in reference to the elements of Aristotelian logic, and maintains that as rational animals, we are logical beings who organize our sensations according to basic logical patterns (for example, “If A, then B” or “This individual S has some general quality P”). As finite beings, as noted above, we also organize our sensations in accord with spatial and temporal patterns. That our knowledge must adhere to these forms of space, time, and logic is an epistemological necessity, that is, a necessity relative to how we are constituted to know things. Our condition compares to the apple tree that, if it produces fruit, it must necessarily produce apples.
It took Kant some time to discern how the epistemological necessity of space, time, and Aristotelian logic could be reflected in aesthetic judgments, which he defined as judgments based entirely on feeling. Having been influenced by the eighteenth-century British empiricist tradition in aesthetics, as we find in the writings of the Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper) (1671–1713), Joseph Addison (1672–1719), Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), Alexander Gerard (1728–95), Edmund Burke (1729–97), Archibald Alison (1757–1839), and David Hume (1711–76), aesthetic judgments had always appeared to Kant to have a contingent foundation in sensory feeling that varies inevitably from individual to individual, not to mention very little connection to scientific truth. Depending upon how a person’s eyes, ears, nose, tongue, or basic skin sensitivity happens to be structured, a person’s feelings and aesthetic judgments will differ. Some people will enjoy the smell of roses, some will not; some people will delight in the taste of wine, others will not; some will take pleasure in the sound of a flute, while others will love trumpets, and so on. In light of such examples, and at first believing that sensory feelings encompassed all aesthetic judgments, Kant assumed for decades that it is pointless to dispute about tastes – and also not much point in philosophizing about them – since it is absurd to expect someone whose tongue, nose, eye, or ear is structured differently from one’s own to feel and enjoy exactly the same foods, drinks, aromas, paintings and music as oneself. On this conception, judgments of beauty are not referring to what is objectively “out there” for everyone to appreciate.
Kant’s original view that judgments of taste have an exclusively sensory basis is evident in his critical assessment of his German rationalist predecessor, Alexander Baumgarten (1714–62), the theorist who first used the term “aesthetics” to refer to the study of beauty in relation to a “science of perception”:
The Germans are the only ones who presently use the word “aesthetics” to refer to what others call the critique of taste. This stems from a failed hope, held by Baumgarten, that excellent analytical thinker, of bringing the critical treatment of beauty under rational principles, and raising its rules to a science. But this effort is fruitless. The rules or criteria in mind here are, as far as their main sources are concerned, merely empirical, and therefore can never serve as determinate a priori laws, according to which our judgment of taste must be directed. To the contrary, our judgment is the true test of the correctness of the rules.2
Assuming that aesthetic judgments are about how something makes us feel, and acknowledging that feelings about roses, beer, flute sounds, and the like depend upon the structure of a person’s sense organs, and hence vary from person to person, Kant believed that if all aesthetic judgments are based on sensory feelings, then disputing about tastes is pointless, since the judgments lack universality, necessity, or any kind of scientific basis. He never departed from this position, from this “if.” Qualifying his view, however, was a crucial realization in 1787 that a special group of aesthetic judgments are not based on sensory feelings.3 Prior to attaining this realization relatively late in life – he was sixty-three at the time – he focused his philosophizing on more productive subject matters such as science and morality that do, in fact, yield judgments that are universal and necessary, and he set aesthetics into the background. The results were his Critique of Pure Reason (1781/1787) and his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), mentioned above. When he published the Critique of the Power of Judgment in 1790, he was sixty-six years old.
Before Kant developed his more innovative views about how some aesthetic judgments are based on a kind of non-sensory feeling, he had succeeded in characterizing a different kind of non-sensory feeling at the basis of moral judgments, namely, the feeling of self-respect that we have for ourselves as rational beings. This is not a sensory feeling, for it is grounded solely in our intellect. It thus carries a necessity that sensory feelings lack, and it is a superior feeling for this reason. For instance, if there are conflicting demands between moral feelings and sensory feelings, the moral feelings always have the power to prevail, since (for Kant) they derive from our unconditional, rational qualities, whereas the sensory feelings derive from our variable physical conditions.
Sensory feelings do not entail any activities that we ought to engage in unconditionally, and, to illustrate this weakness, Kant offers the following example in his second Critique: although an intimidating death threat might easily persuade someone to stop engaging in extraneous sensory pleasures, the threat might be powerless to coerce someone into telling a lie that would deliver an innocent neighbor fatally to corrupt authorities. A person subject to such bullying might choose rationally to sacrifice himself, rather than send an innocent neighbor to his death.4
Since moral feelings require us to know what sort of object or situation we are judging, they are not feelings of beauty. When Kant reflects upon the nature of beauty, he discerns that to find something purely beautiful, we need not know what kind of thing it is, for the judgment requires merely registering how the thing’s abstract design – whatever sort of thing it happens to be – makes us feel. This leads him to appreciate that whatever the nature of the feelings that ground judgments of beauty happen to be, they differ from the non-sensory feelings that ground moral judgments. Only two possibilities follow: either judgments of beauty are based on a kind of non-sensory feeling that is distinct from moral feeling, or they are based on sensory feelings such as pleasant scents, textures, and tastes.
Kant’s theories of science and morality define the intellectual mood of his philosophy, given how they rest upon universal and necessary principles. We can appreciate this atmosphere in the conclusion of his second Critique, the Critique of Practical Reason, where he mentions how two things constantly fill his mind with admiration and awe, the more and more he thinks of them: the starry heavens above (that is, the laws of nature) and the moral law within. Kant is awed by the existence of two distinct realms of law, one outer and one inner. Science follows the mechanical laws of cause and effect; morality respects the more generally rational, but nonetheless unconditional (or categorical) imperative to act such that the rule under which one’s action falls can be a universal law for everyone. The Kantian philosophy’s supreme task is to reveal the possibility of perfect cooperation between these two realms of law, and his aesthetic theory serves this purpose of integrating what is, with what ought to be.
Having identified a non-sensory, universal and necessary feeling at the basis of morality, we would expect Kant to search for a corresponding non-sensory, universal, and necessary feeling at the basis of scientific inquiry. This is the feeling of pure, or truth-oriented, beauty that he discerns in 1787, which is based on the apprehension of spatio-temporal configurations that are, in principle, publicly accessible to everyone. The feeling of pure beauty arises at a higher level of generality than is required for the formulation of any spe...

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