2. The Aesthetic Judgment of Beauty

2.1 A Less Restricted Mode of Thinking

            There are two ways for a merely reflecting judgment to bring experience into a purposive unity. The first is through the cognition of a form, which allows experience to be unified in the guise of a finite self-enclosed object. The second is through the idea of totality, which allows experience to be unified under the general idea of a whole. As the latter can only be understood in light of the former, we will first be discussing the former in this section.

In a merely reflecting judgment where we cognize through form, a self-enclosed object (i.e. an object with spatial or temporal shape) is presented before the mind, albeit in a completely indeterminate manner. This indeterminacy of the presented object enables a mode of thinking that is freer than those found in determining judgments: since the presented object is here not chained to any determinate content of thought (be it empirical or ethical), there is no rule to be applied to the intuited object. As such, the imagination (i.e. the faculty of cognition that presents us with a manifold of sensible representations) is allowed to visualize the object freely, without any external pressure from the understanding (i.e. the faculty of cognition that tries to unify the manifold under a concept); the understanding, in turn, is able to unify the manifold of sensible representations given in the intuition freely, without having to force any rule upon the imagination. There is thus a harmonious relationship between the imagination and the understanding in this type of judgment, a relationship which Kant characterizes as a “free play” of the mind:

The powers of cognition that are set into play by [the representation of an object in a merely reflective judgment] are hereby in a free play, since no determinate concept restricts them to a particular rule of cognition. (Kant, p. 102)

Now, this “free play” of the mind is not just an interesting feature of a merely reflecting judgment – for Kant, it is a source of aesthetic pleasure and the basis for his notion of the beautiful.

2.2 Pleasure in the Beautiful

Tulip When the imagination and the understanding are in free play with one another, we experience a feeling of pleasure. Kant gives us two reasons for this. First, he says that the awareness of a purposive unity in a merely reflective judgment is pleasurable in general, since we are “delighted (strictly speaking, relieved of a need) when we encounter such a systematic unity among merely empirical laws, just as if it were a happy accident which happened to favor our aim.” (p. 71) Second, he says that the free play of the imagination and the understanding (in the cognition of an indeterminate object with form) results in a “feeling of life” [Lebensgefühl] brought about by an awareness of the mind as being in a state of “animation” [Belebung]. In other words, the harmonious relationship between the imagination and the understanding makes the mind feel active and alive: it feels good because it is able to cognize the object in intuition freely, without constraint from determinate rules.

This feeling of life brought about by our intuition of an indeterminate object with form is the feeling of pleasure that Kant associates with the beautiful. The feeling of pleasure we get when we encounter a beautiful object, says Kant, is nothing other than “a feeling of the free play of the powers of representation in a given representation for cognition in general.” (Kant, p. 102) When we judge an object in a merely reflecting way, we feel pleased in the awareness of the “animation of both faculties (the imagination and the understanding).” (Kant, p. 103) This animation is what makes us judge the object to be beautiful. For Kant, an object is considered beautiful if and only if it is an indeterminate self-enclosed object, which allows itself to be contemplated freely, without any constraint from empirical or ethical concepts.

Thus the beautiful, for Kant, is neither a feeling of agreeableness in the senses (the empiricist model), nor the perception of perfection in an object (the rationalist model). The beautiful, for Kant, is the result of a merely reflecting judgment which, in refusing to attribute any determinate content to the object at hand, enables a pleasurable mode of thinking, where the imagination and the understanding are in a free and harmonious relation to one another.



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