Friday, January 6, 2023

Twelve Rounds with Kant (part fourteen)

Wassily Kandinsky, Circles in a Circle (1923)

I've ran out of steam. Between the business of living, the time I'm allotting to other sorts of writing (some of it is more pop culture gibberish you can look forward to reading on here; some of it is fiction which may or may not ever see the light of day), and Kant fatigue, I don't have energy enough to grapple with the Critique of the Power of Judgement with much vigor. I think this is going to be the last Kantpost for a while.

I'll do at least one more later; for all its faults and glitches, the third critique is an embarrassment of riches. It's the kind of book you could write at least two books about.

Anyway, let's talk about...


I am out of my depth here.

Here is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's list of interpretive issues with the Critique of Aesthetic Judgement. Have a look.

That's a professional's take, and I won't pretend I'm on that level. Stress-testing Kant's analysis of taste and beauty on its own terms is more appropriate to a graduate student writing a dissertation, not a dilettante's blog post. And I can't in good faith attack Kant's theory of beauty when I don't have a comprehensive alternative to recommend in its place. I'm agnostic on the subject.

I respect anyone with the stones and the self-confidence to attempt a systematic definition of beauty. If the what is art? conversation typically leads to a quagmire, what is beauty? ends up in some spatially impossible MC Escher painting. We're all of us convinced we understand what beauty means, but struggle to articulate it in objective terms that stand up to scrutiny. In this we're like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart explaining his legal criterion for obscenity: I know it when I see it.

 Nominating purposiveness as the fundamental basis of beauty is more than a good beginning on Kant's part. It's brilliant. Years ago, when I first read Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading, his pronouncement that "beauty is aptness to purpose" blew my mind. Little did I suspect he may have been boiling down a entire book by an eighteenth-century philosopher into a five-word aphorism.

As Kant says, we witness the instantiation of beauty through purposive forms most clearly in organic life—in the body of a dragonfly, "built" to be a swift and astonishingly agile predator; in the singular flower of a dandelion, which closer inspection discloses as dozens of composite florets; in the whorl of a snail shell; and so on. He does not err, I think, in requiring that a form in nature which arouses admiration must do so independently of any material interest in it. Appreciating a bird for the wonderful quiddities of its being is a very different thing than appreciating it as a candidate for your dinner's main course.

It's when the topic moves from natural objects to artifacts of human design and manufacture that the conversation about beauty ends up in the Lost Woods. Right away, Kant says that the beauty of an object is judged immediately, before its use-value (how well it fulfills its purpose) comes into consideration; if he's to be believed, we can't properly call a shoe or a piece of silverware beautiful. They can be well-made, charming, attractive, etc., but none of these are grounds for beauty in and of themselves, and Kant gets salty about the confusion between "agreeable" and "beautiful."

Later on, he draws a distinction between capital-A art and handicraft, which he also calls liberal art and remunerative art:

The first is regarded as if it could turn out purposively (be successful) only as play, i.e., an occupation that is agreeable in itself; the second is regarded as labor, i.e., an occupation that is disagreeable (burdensome) in itself and is attractive only because of its effect (e.g., the remuneration), and hence as something that can be compulsorily imposed.

Hah. Given the economy of the art world, the phrase "regarded as if" does a lot of heavy lifting here. A few sentences later he conscientiously defers from deciding whether the clockmaker deserves to be called an artist or an artisan, which suggests his system isn't so precise as to prevent fringe cases.

Further ahead comes the division of liberal art into the agreeable or the beautiful—the first is aimed "merely at enjoyment," and includes "all games that involve no interest beyond that of making time pass unnoticed." (Guess we know where Kant would have stood on the 'are video games Art?' question.) Beautiful art is "purposive in itself," though it lacks an end, and "promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication."

This is what I want to dwell on for a minute: the social and private dimensions of beauty. 

According to Kant, The pleasure of beauty...

...must necessarily rest on the same conditions in everyone, since they are subjective conditions of the possibility of a cognition in general, and the proportion of these cognitive faculties that is required for taste is also requisite for the common and healthy understanding that one may presuppose in everyone. 

"One could even define taste," he says, "as the faculty for judging that which makes our feeling in a given representation universally communicable without the mediation of a concept."

This is derived from Kant's peculiar definition of the sensus communis (communal sense). All of us our human beings; your mental apparatus works essentially the same way as everyone else's, and can "hold its judgement up to human reason as a whole." This relates to Kant's exposition of the second moment of judgements of taste, where he observes that we expect or demand conformity of other's aesthetic judgments with ours.

Kant performs a delicate balancing act throughout the Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgement, striving to maintain the transcendental, a priori grounds of our perception of beauty, while ignoring neither the role socialization plays in inculcating taste nor the social function of aesthetics:

The beautiful interests empirically only in society; and if the drive to society is admitted to be natural to human beings, while the suitability and tendency toward it, i.e., sociability, are admitted to be necessary for human beings as creatures destined for society, and thus as a property belonging to humanity, then it cannot fail that taste should also be regarded as a faculty for judging everything by means of which one can communicate even his feeling to everyone else, and hence as a means for promoting what is demanded by an inclination natural to everyone.

Aesthetics are a trellis around which group-oriented behavior expands and concentrates. Historically, art traditions were precisely that: artists in ancient Egypt, India, Mesoamerica, etc., were trained to perpetuate a particular style from which they were not to deviate. Their work both perpetuated and crystallized their societies' values and worldviews; it strengthened pre-modern intimations of a cyclical passage of time wherein past, present, and future all looked remarkably alike, and naturalized the institutions and way of life at a given moment of that society's lifespan.

I'm old enough to remember when subcultural kiddies formed themselves into cliques that dressed similarly, eschewed all but their chosen musical genres, and looked warily at members of other tribes. As a goth kid, the sartorial fashions I followed and the music I listened to was both a way of consolidating my identity in terms of a group and making it known to other members of that group that I shared their values. (Yes, yes, and we all prided ourselves as nonconformists.) Now that social life has evidently migrated onto the internet, social media avatars, emoji and acronyms in one's bio, memes, slang, etc. serve the same purpose that fishnet sleeves, UFO pants, liberty spikes, etc. did in "meatspace."

Then and now, any consensus about art and beauty is typically both result and reinforcer of corporate values. (I mean corporate in the old sense of "a body of people.")

The skeptic would say this proves that beauty is an entirely subjective matter, and our perception of it hinges completely on whatever arbitrary cultural conditions we were reared in. Kant doesn't think so: though the perception of beauty is subjective, he asserts that meaningful lines can be drawn between good and bad taste, and glitzy tripe and beautiful art, and explores such concepts as spirit, genius, aesthetic ideas, intellectual interest, and so on.

But let's back up.

Kant is certainly correct in his assertion that beauty consists of our response to an object, as opposed to inhering in the object itself. But for all his intellectualizing and categorization of responses to objects of perception and experience, his explanatory mechanism of aesthetic pleasure consists of the "free play" that occurs between our faculties of imagination and understanding during judgements of taste. This is frustratingly opaque, and can't even be called wrong because it defies examination.

Like the Transcendental Deduction of the first critique, it is meant to stand partially on experiential ground, but his exposition of taste also assumes, and depends on, our capability of knowing the subjective experience of other people. Remember: the feeling of beauty, whatever causes it within us, is "universally communicable without the mediation of a concept."

BF Skinner describes the problem of communicating private sensations as one of inherently defective conditioning. Training a speaker to identify an object as "red" or "square" or "hot" is relatively simple. All of these properties confront us in the world outside the skin, their dimensions are fairly unambiguous, and exemplars abound. Teaching someone to discern "hot" as opposed to "warm" or "lukewarm," or "red" from "orange," "purple," or "brown," is achieved through differential reinforcements which a verbal community can apply with a high degree of consistency, given the nonarbitrary character of the relevant properties. Virtually everyone can agree that a ball is round and a box is square, or that the sky is blue and grass is green.

More to the point, we have the general consensus that a baseball, a frisbee, and an inflated pufferfish are all round (though we would more precisely say that baseball is "spherical" and a frisbee "circular"), and grass, dollar bills, and lime juice are all green (though we can also find words for more specific shades of green). Language may be arbitrary, but these properties are not. "Roundness" and "sphericity" can be described in the objective language of geometry, and the difference between pine green, sea green, and lime green in terms of wavelengths or photon energy.

If we arrange a set of stimuli—say, a Mark Rothko painting, a recording of a Bach concerto, an orchid, Michelangelo's David, and a Walt Whitman poem—and state that their common property is "beauty," it would be extremely difficult to identify where precisely that property resides.

Even if we managed to discover some highly abstract characteristic definitely and demonstrably shared by the painting, the flower, and the sculpture, finding that same physical property in the evanescent event of the audio recording or the self-generated verbal behavior occasioned by scanning a poem in print would be an impossibility, except perhaps by way of analogy.

We can only teach somebody to produce the verbal response "beautiful" in the presence of a stimulus through exemplar training. In theory, if the painting, the recording, the flower, the sculpture, and the poem are all designated as "beautiful," whatever property (or properties) common to objects and/or in her response to them will be the yardstick by which the learner judges something as beautiful or not-beautiful. Since we can't know exactly which physical properties determine her response, or what that (private) response consists of, we're equally incapable of ascertaining the consonance of her definition of "beautiful" with yours and mine.

As a consequence of the way in which we're constrained to condition responses to private events in terms of public ones (another example would be the way we train a child to identify and report her emotional state based on the typical outward signs of anger, sadness, worry, etc.), precise terms for aesthetic experience are lacking. Most of the ones we use rely on associations with public objects and events, and these are imprecise at best. For example: attempt to accurately and completely communicate how your favorite song of all time makes you feel, without resorting to comparisons, metaphors, memories, actions, etc. It isn't easy. 

If we can't differentiate between the pleasures of contemplating the painting, admiring the flower, drifting away on the recording, or thrilling ourselves with the poem, we may have little recourse but to call them "beautiful" in the same sense that we describe the distinct flavors of a strawberry, a Jolly Rancher, chocolate ice cream, and honey as "sweet," though none of these actually taste the same.

It's not hard to appreciate why gustatory sensation became the West's dominant metaphor for aesthetic judgement. The literal and analogical varieties of taste both describe the relation of a private feeling to an object; the feeling's most salient aspect is either pleasure or displeasure, and in either case, the object's visual and tactile properties are irrelevant. The observation that different people can agree that a dish is "bitter," "sweet," "minty," etc., and yet disagree as to whether it tastes good or bad, transfers naturally to aesthetics, where a gaggle of critics can judge the same artwork and judge it variously as "stunning" and "trash."

But all metaphors have their limits. If I enjoy a particular dessert which you execrate, we're still likely to agree on what it tastes like—it's nutty, it's fruity, it's creamy, it's tart, etc.—and any of these might be identified as the immediate sensory basis of our liking or disliking the dish. With a piece of visual art, the relation between stimulus and response is more obscure. Of all our sensory faculties, that of sight is the most detached. We touch a needle and we recoil; we smell a durian and gag; we hear glass break on our kitchen titles and jump; but the sight of a needle, a durian, or a bottle shattering ordinarily don't entail such instantaneous or emphatic responses.

This is to say that our cerebral or emotional responses to a piece of visual art very probably have much less to do with the object's nonarbitrary characteristics per se than with the idiosyncrasies of the individual's organism. 

If, when we look upon a Kandinsky painting together, you're fascinated and I'm bored, how are we to know which of its physicals aspects either of us is responding to, and what causes our respective responses? Even if both of us like it, how do we account for my feeling that it's soothing, and your sense that it's energetic? Does our agreement that the painting is beautiful conceal the dissonance in our responses to it, or does it speak to some fundamental harmony between them?

Kant believes the latter—although, if I understand him correctly, he would say that what you and I both feel is the pleasure resulting from our mental faculties in harmonious free play. This explanation supposes that your private response and mine are identical in some essential way, regardless of the variances in our personal histories that determine what each of us discerns upon the canvas.

To put the question in the most obnoxious way possible: is beauty a social construct?

Nobody can honestly question the role socialization plays in the perception of beauty. We're taken to an art museum or a symphony hall and make ourselves find something to enjoy in the experience so as to conform with the group, to earn the approval of a teacher, and so on, and we do it again later in a different milieu, or when nobody else is around. Don't like a particular kind of music? Hang out with people who do. Get drunk, have fun, form bonds, make memories with them while that music's playing nearby. After enough nights, you'll probably develop a taste for it. Or, if being with people isn't your jam, get really invested in a video game whose soundtrack consists exclusively of that genre. Play enough Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 and that smooth jazz stops sounding so dull after a while. Your hippie art teacher droning on about Jackson Pollock's splatters and Ellsworth Kelly's unicolor canvasses may have confused you when you were eight years old—but later on, when you were in college, visiting the museum after eating a couple of weed brownies with the art student you were dating, and listening to him explain Pollock and Kelly's genius, perhaps you began to understand the hype.

But: is there something more elementary to the perception of beauty than mere associationism?

If one of us were raised by wolves from childhood and had no contact with other humans, is it possible that we'd still linger with wonder and pleasure at the sight of newly fallen snow in the moonlight, a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, or raindrops glistening on water lilies in the summer sun?

I'm not sure, but I would guess that the answer is "not likely."

Kant's beliefs on the social provenance of aesthetic values reminds me of Thomas Hobbes' remarks on the "laws of nature" in Leviathan. England's most famous pessimist maintained that human beings have a disposition towards peaceful, sociable behavior, but it tends to wither on the vine in the conditions of "war of all against all" in his (theoretical) state of nature. Under the right circumstances, the potential for prosocial behavior can bring about peaceful relations between persons and families, setting in motion the germination of civil society.

Kant's remarks about taste and the development of society run along similar lines:

For himself alone a human being abandoned on a desert island would not adorn either his hut or himself, nor seek out or still less plant flowers in order to decorate himself; rather, only in society does it occur to him to to be not merely a human being but also, in his own way, a refined human being...Further, each expects and requires of everyone else a regard to universal communication, as if from an original contract dictated by humanity itself; and thus, at first to be sure only charms, e.g., colors for painting oneself...or flowers, mussel shells, beautifully colored birds' feathers, but with time also beautiful forms (as on canoes, clothes, etc.) that do not in themselves provided any gratification, i.e., satisfaction of enjoyment, become important in society and combined with great interest, until finally civilization that has reach the highest point makes of this almost the chief work of refined inclination, and sensations have value only to the extent that they may be universally communicated...

I'm prepared to provisionally guess that aesthetic pleasure is as uniquely human as language mathematical understanding, and must be learned. The famous double rainbow video is proof enough in itself that human beings have the capacity to be emotionally and intellectually moved by objects and events that don't feed them, impress potential mates, increase their social standing, or have any practical use whatsoever, and its significance is not diminished by our not being equipped to do so in the absence of a social environment that values aesthetic experience.

If the social incentive to communicate our experiences and feelings to one another (the obverse of which is the incentive to search for and have experiences and feelings to communicate) is a necessary prerequisite to the discrimination and appreciation of those things we learn to call beautiful, then sure—beauty is a social construct. Aesthetic standards are in many respects arbitrary, dependent on the histories of individual persons and of groups, but the ubiquity of art traditions across the world and throughout history suggests the social utility of art and our proclivity for ascribing value to things independently of their usefulness to us are like Kant's conception of freedom and morality: the one must entail the other, and there isn't necessarily an egg that preceded the chicken or a chicken that laid the egg.

Even if Kant's proposed mechanism for the phenomenon of aesthetic experience is a purely explanatory fiction, I feel like there's a lot he gets right in spite of it.

For your reading pleasure (and perhaps as a resource for anyone who's running google searches for "kant intellectual beauty" or "kant beauty nature"), I'm going to transcribe the section "On the Intellectual Interest in the Beautiful" in the next day or two. It's one of my favorite sections of the Critique of the the Power of Judgement, and is reasonably easy to understand, even if you aren't versed in Kant's jargon.

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