Sunday, November 27, 2022

Twelve Rounds with Kant (part eleven)

Let's set the tone here with an excerpt.

Since the freedom of the imagination consists precisely in the fact that it schematizes without a concept, the judgement of taste must rest on a mere sensation of the reciprocally animating imagination in its freedom and the understanding with its lawfulness, thus on a feeling that allows the object to be judged in accordance with the purposiveness of the representation (by means of which an object is given) for the promotion of the faculty of cognition in its free play; and taste, as a subjective power of judgement, contains a principle of subsumption, not of intuitions under concepts, but of the faculty of intuitions or presentations (i.e., of the imagination) under the faculty of concepts (i.e., the understanding), insofar as the the former in its freedom is in harmony with the latter in its lawfulness.

One sentence. Who could have written this sentence but Immanuel Kant? And what could occasion wheeling him here but my having finally finished reading The Critique of the Power of Judgement (1790), the final installment of the Kant Trilogy?

(Note: the title most often translated into English as "The Critique of Judgement," but the Cambridge University Press edition I've been reading is titled "The Critique of the Power of Judgement," which is closer to the meaning of the original German (Critik der Urtheilskraft.) Editor and translator Paul Guyer (or perhaps Cambridge University Press) insists on the barbarous spelling "judgment," which I reject and will not reproduce here.)

Since about part six of this exercise I've regretted giving myself an arbitrary framework vis-à-vis the title. Twelve rounds, twelve Kantposts. I spent way too much time at the beginning idly ruminating on the metaphysical implications of the first critique's Transcendental Aesthetic when the Transcendental Dialectic constituted the real meat on the bone. And now here we are on part eleven of twelve, and I've got to somehow synopsize and/or meditate on the Critique of Judgement in just two posts. This bout might have to go on for an extra round. Goodie.

Once again, let me emphasize that I'm doing this strictly for the purpose of engaging with Kant in a way that helps me to better understand the material than I would if I just put the book away and went on with my life. Nothing that follows should be taken as authoritative. I'm writing more or less as a student.

So: the Critique of the Power of Judgement reminds me of Marilyn Manson's album Holy Wood.

I can't believe I just typed that. Let me explain.

Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar of 1996 was a big deal at the time—an epochal tour de force of a gothic-industrial concept album. Two years later, Mechanical Animals was released as its sequel: if "Man That You Fear," Antichrist Superstar's final track, was the end of the world à la David Bowie's "Rock n' Roll Suicide," then Mechanical Animals began with waking up the morning after in "Great Big White World." Otherwise, Mechanical Animals had little in common with Antichrist Superstar. It was glam instead of goth, more synth rock than industrial metal. The transition was a jarring one, let me tell you. If you were to make a Marilyn Manson mixtape of tracks from just Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals, you'd either have to put all the tracks from one on Side A and the other on Side B, or else risk inflicting some minor damage to the listener's thyroid gland.

So then came Holy Wood in 2000. By then the vicious feedback loop between Mr. Warner's monstrous ego and cocaine addiction were bringing whole new meaning to the phrase "high on his own supply." Seeing Eminem usurping his position as pop culture's bête noire and clearly worried that his star was on the wane (even if he couldn't consciously admit it to himself), he hyped Holy Wood in Kanye-esque terms of self-aggrandizement. This was going to be the third and final part of the trilogy, he promised, a synthesis of Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals. It was also going to be the hardest fucking rock album ever, the darkest, his most wrenching and soul-bearing and alchemy and tarot and cutting social commentary blah blah blah and cocaine blah blah.

Holy Wood was a mediocre record, and it's less representative of a marriage of the concepts of Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals than Manson running out of ideas and retreading old territory. So it goes.

How is all this analogous to the Critique of the Power of Judgement? Well. Kant declares in the third critique's introduction that it (or its eponymous subject matter) can in some way unify the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason, whose domains were as far apart as the aesthetics of Antichrist Superstar and Mechanical Animals. Like Holy Wood, the third critique is sometimes (often?) regarded as an inferior effort, or at the very least not worth an additional week's slot in a Philosophy 101 syllabus. To be sure, Kant spends less time striking into unexplored territory within the sweep of his transcendental philosophy than revisiting central concepts from the first two critiques and treating of matters that the sort of people who'd actually read the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason are likely to deem less than indispensable.

To be blunt, the Critique of the Power of Judgement is a bit of mess. Kant divides it into three main sections: the Introduction, the Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, and the Critique of Teleological Judgement. The Introduction deserves to be included as a chapter in its own right, since that's where Kant introduces the terms at the heart of his analysis: reflective judgements and determining judgements. But then he mentions neither, not even once, in the Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, which comprises the majority of the text. Both terms come up during the Critique of Teleological Judgement, which to all appearances has little overlap with the Critique of Aesthetic Judgement's concepts or its conclusions.

The editors' foreword is helpful here. A piece of Kant's correspondence from 1787 refers to his labors composing a "Critique of Taste," which is basically what the Critique of Aesthetic Judgement (particularly its first section, the Analytic of the Beautiful) consists of. He also mentions a surge of inspiration and having made "discoveries [he] had not expected" while working on the piece, which he still expected to have wrapped up within a few months. It took him about another three years to complete.

It really looks like he began writing a treatise on taste, realized that it could be expanded into larger work, and then didn't expend too much effort toward integrating the original material into the reconsidered project. We have an short essay on the power of judgement, followed by a long essay on taste and aesthetics, followed by another long essay on teleology, with only tenuous links between them. Seems like an ill omen for a project whose stated purpose is unification. (I understand that some critics have suggested the Critique of the Power of Judgement evinces the onset of senility in its author.)

Even putting aside the third critique's inconsistencies, we can easily understand why a modern audience (narrow though it might be) might be inclined to regard it as an afterthought to the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason. Epistemology and ethics are timeless concerns, and by virtue of Kant's signature approach of examining the bare formats of knowledge and morality, the first two critiques don't require us to take as given the cultural assumptions and scientific knowledge of the late eighteenth century. Not that they don't show their age, and not that they can't be considered independently of their historical circumstances, but the transcendental deduction and categorical imperative are abstract enough that the advance of some two and a quarter centuries hasn't made either a nonstarter on the grounds of their obvious incompatibility with contemporary practices or understanding. The Critique of the Power of Judgement, on the other hand, presumes to make absolute statements about art based on an eighteenth-century criterion of art, and then advocates a way of understanding the provenance of organic forms at which the author arrived before the birth of Charles Darwin. Neither holds up very well.

But this is still Immanuel goshdarned Kant, and even when he's disorganized, wantonly reifying cognitive activities, and churning out truly awful prose, he's still got interesting shit to say. And the more I reread the passages I've marked and go over my notes, the more cause I find I have for wonder.

David Caspar Friedrich, Monastery Ruins in the Snow (1819?)

(We will be seeing a lot of Davey C Fredrick in the section breaks. Given the reciprocal influence between the Critique of the Power of Judgement and German Romanticism, it's very much on theme.)

Let's just start with the Introduction.

My copy of the Critique of the Power of Judgement contains both the introduction published in 1790 and the more comprehensive "First Introduction" that Kant scrapped after deciding it was too long. And I should mention here that before I picked up the Cambridge edition of the third critique, I purchased the Oxford World Classics edition, and gave up after trying and failing to wrap my mind around what the hell Kant was on about in the introduction. Not the main body of the text, but the "let's outline what this is going to be about before we get into it" part of the book. 

The translation dates back to 1911, so I figured I might have an easier time with an edition from this century—hence the second copy on my shelf. And I did. Kind of. I still had to read the "original" and "first" Introductions the same way I did the A and B Deductions from the Critique of Pure Reason: with a legal pad in my lap, taking notes.

But I digress.

Kant lays it out like this: there are two branches of philosophy, natural and moral. One deals with how we should understand the world, one deals with what we ought to do in the world, and they don't overlap. One universe of discourse revolving around the mechanism of nature, and another that takes free will as a given, can't infringe on the other's business.

Our faculty of understanding presides over natural philosophy, and reason gives the rule to moral philosophy—so Kant tells us. These constitute two of the three "higher" faculties of knowledge that Kant enumerates in the Critique of Pure Reason. The third higher faculty is the power of judgement.

One of the ways Kant synopsizes their relations is by designating the understanding as that which gives us the cognition of the general, reason as the determiner of the particular through the general, and the power of judgement as the faculty by virtue of which the particular is subsumed under the general (or under rules). The understanding and reason "talk" to each other through the power of judgement. The understanding produces unity of appearances (i.e., of material reality) under principles; reason unifies those principles; and none of it works without the power of judgement getting involved to assess whether X ∈ Y.

The first two critiques were basically about the legislative domains of two of the three higher cognitive faculties: the Critique of Pure Reason addressed the understanding, and the Critique of Practical Reason addressed reason. But the power of judgement? What's there to say? Kant says that it's "not at all provides neither concepts, like the understanding, or ideas, like reason, of any object at all, since since it is a faculty merely for subsuming under concepts given from elsewhere." Kant characterizes it as something of a mental bureaucrat, merely facilitating the productions of the other two faculties.

But, as he writes in the third critique's Introduction, he came to suspect that he might have short-shrifted the power of judgement. If that faculty mediates the connection between the understanding and reason, could it conceivably do the same for the two branches of philosophy over which each presides?

Here's how Kant frames the possibility:

Now although there is an incalculable gulf between the domain of the concept of nature, as the sensible, and the domain of the concept of freedom, as the supersensible, so that from the former to the latter (thus by means of the theoretical use of reason) no transition is possible, just as if there were so many different worlds, the first of which can have no influence on the second: yet the latter should have an influence on the former, namely the concept of freedom should make the end that is imposed by its laws real in the sensible world; and nature must consequently also be able to be conceived in such a way that the lawfulness of its form is at least in agreement with the possibility of the ends that are to be realized in it in accordance with the laws of freedom. —— Thus there must still be a ground of the unity of the supersensible that grounds nature with that which the concept of freedom contains practically, the concept of which, even if it does not suffice for cognition of it either theoretically or practically, and thus has no proper domain of its own, nevertheless makes possible the transition from the manner of thinking in accordance with the principles of the one to that in accordance with the principles of the other.

How would the power of judgement go about doing this?

But to ask that is to get ahead of ourselves. Kant needs to figure out the specifics of the power of judgement's operations before he can determine the way in which it might stake out a sort of border town where theoretical and practical philosophy intermingle.

Kant hypothesizes that the power of judgement should, like its counterparts,

...contain in itself a priori, if not exactly its own legislation, then still a proper principle of its own for seeking laws, although a merely subjective one; which, even though it can claim no field of objects as its domain, can nevertheless have some territory and a certain constitution of it, for which precisely this principle only might be valid.

Once again, Kant intends to guide us through an examination of the structures of experience: that's what he means by a "principle" of the power of judgement. It's got to have some fundamental procedure that it observes regardless of the particulars of a given occasion. As far as the subjectivity of that principle is concerned, what he's implying is that this procedure doesn't furnish material facts or concrete ideas in and of itself, but rather influences the way in which we make sense of what's before us.

Kant identifies that principle as purposiveness, and defines it thus:

...since universal laws of nature have their ground in the understanding, which prescribes them to nature (although only in accordance with the universal concept of it as nature), the particular empirical laws, in regard to that which is left undetermined in them by the former, must be considered in terms of the sort of unity they would have if an understanding (even if not ours) had likewise given them for the sake of our faculty of cognition, in order to make possible a system of experience in accordance with particular laws of nature. Not as if in this way such an understanding must really be assumed (for it is only the reflecting power of judgement for which this idea serves as a principle, for reflecting, and not determining); rather this faculty thereby gives a law only to itself, and not to nature.

Before we get any farther ahead of ourselves: Kant divides the operations of the power of judgement under two heads: determining and reflecting judgements. In a determining judgement, the universal (the genre, the rule, or whatever the case may be) is already at hand. For example, I have a concept of "bird" as a feathered biped with wings. I see a robin—bird! I see a vulture—bird! I visit Ireland and see some twittering fella with a beak I don't recognize—bird! These are determining judgements.

In a reflecting (or reflective) judgement, we confront a particular for which a universal is lacking. Kant cryptically describes the procedure that follows as one where we "compare and...hold together given representations either with others or with one's faculty of cognition, in relation to a concept that is thereby made possible." It seems like he's saying that the power of judgement can conjure concepts in its reflective mode—and his elucidations on this point tend to be frustratingly abstruse. Let's just skip it, but emphasize that the kind of judgements that most interest Kant throughout the third critique are of the reflective sort.

The gist of all this is that the reflective power of judgement gives us a built-in heuristic for understanding the world. We assume an intelligent ordering principle in nature, that there's a reason for the way things are. It's subjective in the sense that even if we don't definitely ascribe a design to any objects or processes, we act as though there is insofar as we presuppose that it's possible to come to an understanding of anything we encounter in the world, or that it can at least be made to fit within our conception of the world's organization. "Purposiveness" (Zweckmässigkeit), as Kant uses the term, implies both intent (an eye towards an end) and design.

Kant adduces the act of generalization itself to justify his reasoning. The first critique listed a set of pre-loaded laws (the categories and their schema) that bring coherence to our experience of reality—the fundamental perceptions of causal connection, the perception of intensive and extensive magnitudes, etc. Beyond these, we find a material world that's obviously governed by physical laws and in which we clearly identify systemic relations between its constituents, in spite of the infinite diversity of actual occasions in which they participate. Kant finds the obviousness worth investigating: how can we extrapolate general rules, a sense of unity, from the sheer multitudinousness of experience? 

Kant says:

...such a unity must...necessarily be presupposed and assumed, for otherwise no thoroughgoing interconnection of cognitions into a whole of experience would take place, because the universal laws of nature yield such an interconnection among things with respect to their genera, as things of nature in general, but not specifically, as such and such particular beings in nature, the power of judgement must thus assume it as an a priori principle for its own use that what is contingent for human insight in the particular (empirical) laws of nature...contains a lawful unity, not fathomable to us but still thinkable, in the combination of its manifold into one experience possible in itself. Consequently, since the lawful unity of in a combination that we recognize as in accordance with a necessary aim (a need) of the understanding but yet at the same time contingent in itself is regarded as a purposiveness of the objects (in this case, of nature), thus the power of judgement, which with regard to things under possible (still to be discovered) empirical laws is merely reflecting, must think of nature with regarded to the latter in accordance with a principle of purposiveness for our faculty of cognition...

Kant's parenthetical "still to be discovered" remark refers to an early mention of some old aphorisms of natural philosophy emphasizing parsimony in physical laws—for example, principia praeter necessitatem non sunt multiplicanda, or "principles are not to be multiplied beyond necessity." (Thank you, footnotes.) The assumption is that a designed world would exhibit the acumen of a good geometer who begins with an appropriately minimal number of axioms.

And there's something to this. If you read the popular literature about science, you'll notice that some of the brightest minds in the fields of physics and mathematics put a premium on elegance. The dream of the contemporary theoretical physicist is to concoct a theory that unifies the entire field under consistent (but still unknown) laws.

Mind you, Kant doesn't presume to assert the definite, objective existence of any creator deity here. He's only saying that we're unable to investigate nature unless we implicitly believe we're capable of discovering in it an order that's comprehensible to us, as though a rational mind arranged it to be so:

Now this transcendental concept of a purposiveness of nature is neither a concept of nature nor a concept of freedom [i.e., it doesn't properly belong to either natural or moral philosophy], since it attributes nothing at all to an object (of nature), but rather only represents the unique way in which we must proceed in reflection on the objects of nature with the aim of a thoroughly interconnected experience, consequently it is a subjective principle of the power of judgement... 

Good stuff.

And then Kant goes off on a tangent that lasts for more than half the book.

We've already gone over Kant's designations of "higher" faculties of knowledge. Of mind, Kant likewise enumerates three faculties: those of cognition, desire, and pleasure/displeasure.

Since we're talking about the mind, everything is mediated by cognition, so the principles of the higher faculties of knowledge correspond to and impose their principles on the faculties of mind. Cognition adheres to the understanding, as per the first critique. The faculty of desire is presided over by reason—which might sound a bit goofy unless you've read the second critique. That leaves the power of judgement as the arbiter of pleasure and displeasure.

When the form of purposiveness in perception is the grounds for a feeling of pleasure that's not determined by any definite cognition, what we're experiencing is beauty. Kant's attempts to articulate a mechanism of action are, well, a bit iffy at best. (The excerpt at the very top of this entry gives us an example of how he tries to explain it.) But here he justifies the demarcation of the Critique of the Power of Judgement into its two separate parts: one that deals with formal purposiveness (judgements through feeling of pleasure/displeasure and of taste—which are contingent on feelings, not concepts, hence the importance of the reflecting mode) and one that deals with objective purposiveness (judged through understanding and reason).

Hence we get two critiques in one book: a Critique of Aesthetic Judgements and a Critique of Teleological Judgements. Again, neither has much to say about the other.

This is a strange and messy book, but I fear it's one I'm growing to love. More on that next time.

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