When Immanuel Kant discusses his thoughts on the aesthetic experience in his third critique, The Critique of Judgment, he takes a different route than many philosophers have. Kant doesn’t begin with art itself, or even what qualifies art as beautiful. He is interested instead, as the title of his third critique might give away, the experience of the beholder when they are exposed to beauty, and how our judgment of beauty is formulated.
He can’t tell you what is beautiful, but he does offer a method with which to explain the experience of beauty to yourself. He discusses what happens to us when we have the feeling of “this is beautiful”, whether it is inspired by a natural sunset, or a painting of one. Kant believes the beautiful things we experience, whether natural or artistic, exist as evidence that we belong in the world. In a similar sense, our experience of nature’s sublime initially alienates us from the world, but ends up empowering us.
His analysis of the aesthetic experience seems innocent enough at first, but culminates into an explosive conclusion with consequences that seriously challenge many philosophical ideas that extend further than the critique of art or aesthetic experience. For Kant, there are four different dimensions to our aesthetic experience, or judgment of taste, which occur within the experiencer as a unified experience. The first of these dimensions is a quality in what we are experiencing. When we have the experience of something as truly beautiful we possess a disinterested interest in what it is that we’re experiencing.
In his third critique, as referenced in Continental Aesthetics Romanticism to Postmodernism edited by Kearney and Rasmussen, Kant says that a “delight which determines a judgment of taste is independent of all interest” (Kant 6). This means we don’t need or want anything from the object, yet we are interested in it just for what it is, or we are pleased with its existence. We take pleasure in something because we find it beautiful, not the other way around. For example, when we see a beautiful sunset, it can be awe-inspiring and stop us in our tracks at the mercy of its beauty.
At this point, our interest in the sunset isn’t because it cures an appetite we have, nor does it serve our moral agenda. Instead, our interest in the sunset is for just what it is and how it causes us to feel when we experience it, not how it can serve us, or what we can take from it. You have no other attachment or interest in the sunset, other than it is beautiful. Kant says things that we find agreeable, or something that the senses find pleasing is not a disinterested interest, since the pleasure we take from it has a motive.
Similarly, he says that delight we take in things that are good are coupled with our interests, so they are not beautiful for Kant, because they cater to our interest in what we subjectively consider good. The difference between having a disinterested interest in something, or having interest in it because you find it agreeable or good is that our interest “is determined not merely by the representation of the object, but also by the represented bond of connexion between the Subject and the real existence of the object” in those things we find agreeable or good (Kant 8).
This clearly doesn’t qualify as the disinterested interest Kant finds necessary for aesthetic judgment. Ultimately, this first dimension to Kant’s analysis of aesthetic experience shows that humans are able to transcend their own self-interest within the realm of aesthetic experience. It shows that we are able to care about and appreciate things that can offer nothing to us other than its existence. This disinterested interest we have in something beautiful is the feeling of experiencing something as an end in itself, not as merely an instrumental means to an end.
In the presence of beautiful things, we are liberated from our base, human desires, and elevated to disinterested interest in something other than ourselves. Kant’s next dimension of our aesthetic experience is the quantitative dimension. Kant thinks that when we see something that we believe to be beautiful, we believe it to be universally and objectively so. When we experience the beauty of the sunset, our faculties are excited in such a way that we know anyone with the same faculties in the same circumstance would also experience the sunset as beautiful.
Our faculties are freed by our own self-transcendence caused by the disinterested interest we experience in the object, and the pleasure we feel is due to the free-play of our faculties and imagination during the experience. In other words, when we are moved to say, “this is beautiful”, we don’t mean that it is beautiful to us, or beautiful right now. We mean that this is beautiful to everyone who is made like us, and we are willing to defend our belief against someone who claims differently, often with the expectation that we will be able to change the doubter’s mind.
This quantitative dimension of aesthetic experience ties in nicely with another dimension Kant names, which is modality. This is the idea that something you find to be beautiful is necessarily so, and someone who says they don’t find it beautiful isn’t seeing it correctly, or aren’t leaving themselves open to aesthetic experience. Next, Kant’s most important dimension addresses the relation that we try to assign to beautiful things. Objects of beauty cause us to recognize a certain purposive nature of it, yet we are unable to ever pinpoint the exact purpose of it.
With the sunset example, as we see the sun disappear into the horizon, the process appears to be purposefully composed and organized. It is possible that instead of a beautiful sunset, the sky could instead simply change from day to night. Instead, the sun slowly and majestically sinks into the Earth every day as it casts rays of spectacular color and warmth that illuminates the clouds. Because this is how the sun sets, we recognize that things seem to be ordered and purposeful, however, we can’t identify what the purpose is.
Another example is when we experience abstract art as beautiful, we can often tell that the lines, color, and figure of the painting has been thoughtfully organized and placed, yet we can’t identify what the order is, or the purpose behind the picture. This idea of perceived purposivity without apparent purpose closely relates back to Kant’s second dimension concerning the disinterested interest we must have in something to find it truly beautiful. If we could identify the purpose behind beautiful things, we could potentially lose our disinterested interest in the object, and our experience of it as beautiful.
For Kant, it is exactly this experience of purposivity without apparent purpose, combined with the other dimensions of aesthetic experience, which shows us that we belong in the world. The fact that we see things as beautiful without being instrumental, the way in which we objectively and necessarily believe in the beauty of things, and the purposivity we recognize in a beautiful thing without an apparent purpose, all come together in one unified aesthetic experience that shows us we belong in the world. It does this this through giving us the pleasure of being surrounded by nature that is truly beautiful, not just useful.
Kant relates human experience of natural beauty with moral goodness when he says that the ability to find natural things beautiful without being instrumental is “always the mark of a good soul; and that where this interest is habitual, it is at least indicative of a temper of mind favourable to the moral feeling that it should readily associate itself with the contemplation of nature” (Kant 30). Kant also mentions an example of someone seeing a beautiful bird and following it through nature out of admiration and love, even at risk to themselves.
Kant says “this means that he is not alone pleased in nature’s product in respect of its form, but is also pleased at its existence, and is so without any charm of sense having a share in the matter, or without his associating it with any end whatsoever” (Kant 31). The fact that nature exists in such a way that we can enjoy and find it beautiful for just its existence is proof, for Kant, that we do belong in this world. Kant’s view of the sublime ends up with a similar realization as his view of beauty, that it empowers and shows us we belong in the world, but it takes a more indirect path to the conclusion.
To understand Kant’s view on the effects of the sublime, you must begin with understanding his rules for experiencing the sublime, and how he defines what exactly the sublime is. Kant believes we experience the sublime in nature when we are in the presence of, or witness the effects of, something bigger, mightier, and more powerful than us. The power of the sublime as it compares to us is unfathomable and infinite, and no object can be said to be sublime since the nature of sublimity exceeds any qualities of an object. We feel small, powerless, and alienated in the presence of the sublime.
So, Kant says, the experience of the sublime only truly occurs in nature. These encounters induce fear in us, but not a fear of immediate danger, but a fear of what nature could do to you if it wanted to. For example, those who visited New Orleans during the aftermath of hurricane Katrina didn’t experience immediate fear or danger since the storm already passed, but they did experience the sublime. What they felt is the fear of what the hurricane had the power to do to them if they had been there, and how little control they have over nature’s will.
Kant thinks our brain literally short circuits as it tries to balance reason and imagination in the presence of the sublime. Our reason tries to grasp and understand its vastness in totality, but is at odds with our imagination, which has the ability to at least try and imagine the infinite power of the sublime. The indirect fear we feel as we experience the sublime pushes us to feel that we don’t belong in the world. Although our experience of the sublime initially causes us to feel at danger in the world, it doesn’t end here, for Kant.
At first, Kant’s view that the sublime causes us to feel that we don’t belong in the world seems to be quite the opposite of Kant’s view of beauty’s effect on us, but the two still relate. Kant thinks that in the face of the sublime we not only recognize how fragile life can be, but we also have a sense of the untouchable freedom that lies within us. Although nature has the power to absolutely destroy you, it can never touch your freedom. We are still free to confront the sublime in nature, even knowing its power over us.
In the experience of our smallness, we are enlightened as to how great we really are. The realization of our own freedom lifts us up above this world that can decimate us at any moment, but can not touch our intellect and personal freedom. It is liberating to know that there is a certain dignity inside of us that isn’t threatened by the sublime, although it threatens our physical existence. Although we may often feel alone, unsafe, or out of place in the world, it can never rob us of our own freedom.
Experiencing the sublime is an opportunity for us to recognize a certain dignity we have that can’t be taken away from us by nature’s might. And, for every ravenous tornado, there is an intrinsically beautiful flower that reminds of us our own ability to self-transcend our own selfish interests, and reassures us that we do belong in this world, alongside nature’s delicacies, as well as nature’s life threatening sublime.
Kearney, Richard, and David Rasmussen. Continental Aesthetics: Romanticism to Postmodernism. 1st ed. Malden: Blackwell Publishers Ltd. , 2001. 5-42. Print.