1902 Encyclopedia > Aesthetics > Kant on Aesthetics

(Part 13)



The next original philosophical scheme of aesthetics is that of Kant. His system of knowledge falls into three branches -- the critique of pure reason, which has to determine what are the a priori elements in the knowledge of objects; the critique of practical reason, which inquires into the a priori determinations of the will; and the critique of judgment, which he regards as a connecting link between the other two, and which has to do with any a priori principles of emotion (pleasure and pain), as the middle term between cognition and volition.

This judgment Kant divides into the aesthetic, when pleasure or pain is felt immediately on presentation of an object; and the teleological, which implies a pre-existing notion, to which the object is expected to conform. He attempts, in a some what strained manner, to define the Beautiful by help of his four categories. In quality beauty is that which pleases without interest or pleasure in the existence of the object. This distinguishes it from the simply Agreeable and the Good, the former stimulating desire, and the latter giving motive to the will. In quantity it is a universal pleasure. Under the aspect of relation, the Beautiful is the form of adaptation (Zweckmässigkeit) without any end being conceived. Finally, in modality it is a necessary satisfaction, pleasing not by a universal rule, this being unassignable, but by a sensus communis, or agreement of taste.

Kant is not very consistent in carrying out these distinctions. Thus, for example, he recognizes in fitness a particular species of beauty, namely, "adhering" as distinguished from "free" or intrinsic beauty, without recognizing that this implies the presence of a notion. So, in discussing the objective validity of our aesthetic impression, he decides that the highest meaning of beauty is to symbolize moral good; and, in even a more fanciful manner than that of Mr. Ruskin, he attaches moral ideas, as modesty, frankness, courage, &c., to the seven primary colours of the Newtonian system. Yet he does not admit that the perception of this symbolic function involves any notion. Once more, he attributes beauty to a single colour or tone by reason of its purity. But such a definition of the form of the Beautiful clearly involves some notion in the percipient mind.

Kant further applies his four categories, with still less of fruitful suggestion, to the Sublime. The satisfaction of the Sublime is a kind of negative pleasure created through the feeling of a momentary restraint (Hemmung) of vital force, and of a subsequent outpouring of the same in greater intensity. The feeling of the inadequacy of the imagination is succeeded by a consciousness of the superiority of reason to imagination. The sentiment is thus a kind of wonder or awe. Sublimity is either mathematical, that of magnitude, or dynamical, that of nature’s might. He allows no sublimity to passion, as rage or revenge.

Kant has, too, a theory of the Ridiculous, the effect of which he lays, oddly enough in respect to the rest of his doctrine, in a grateful action of the body, the muscles of the diaphragm, &c., giving a sense of health. This action takes place on the sudden relaxation of the understanding when kept in a state of tension by expectation. The cause of laughter, or the Ridiculous, may hence be defined as "the sudden transformation of a tense expectation into nothing."

He placed the beauty of nature above that of art, which can be of value only mediately, not as an end in itself. He classifies the arts according as they express the aesthetic idea -- whatever this may mean after his exclusion of all definite conception from the perception of beauty. Just as expression in speech consists of articulation, gesticulation, and modulation, answering to thought, intuition (Anschauung), and feeling, so we have three kinds of art -- (1.) Those proceeding orally (redende), oratory and poetry; (2.) Those of visible image (bildende), plastic art and painting; and (3.) "the art of the play of feelings," namely, music and "colour art," which last is not defined.

Kant’s system is very defective, and some of its inconsistencies were pointed out by Herder in his Kalligone, who lacked, however, philosophic accuracy. Herder denied Kant’s distinctions between the Beautiful, the good, and the Agreeable, saying that the first must be desired as well as satisfying, and the second be loved as well as prized. Yet herein Kant is decidedly superior to his critic. Herder held, in opposition to Kant, that all beauty includes significance (Bedeutsamkeit), and cannot affect us apart from a notion of perfection. But here, too, Kant is to be preferred, since his theory does not assume all beautiful objects to contain some one element of form capable of being detected. Kant’s real additions to aesthetic theory consist in the better separation of the Beautiful from the Good and Agreeable, in the prominence given to the emotional side of aesthetic impressions, and in the partial recognition of the relativity of aesthetic judgment, more especially in the case of the Sublime.

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