Within the context of Kant’s aesthetics, beauty describes a specific context of mediation and reconciliation. It establishes a common ground between our abstract logics-moral selves and our sensible selves. With no sense of compulsion, it demonstrates their potential for agreement. The natural symmetry of a flower, for instance, is beautiful because it corresponds to our inner (a priori) faculties of understanding. In this manner aesthetics works to make the world – and more particularly the Kantian philosophical system – whole. Without wishing to question this broad sense of the role of aesthetics, it is worth observing that Kant’s conception of aesthetics does more than simply reconcile. A close reading of the relevant section in Kant’s Critique of Judgement (1790) indicates that the aesthetic – via the key example of beauty – also plays a vital role in structuring and reinforcing the fundamental antinomies of the Kantian system – the difference between subject and object, the sensible and the thought, etc. The aesthetic is in this sense a profoundly ambivalent concept, providing a bridge between contrary faculties in the interests of a wider unity, while also emphasising the gulf that makes any provisional or ultimate sense of unity untenable.
In the ‘First Moment’ of the ‘First Book of the Analytic of the Beautiful’ Kant argues that the distinctive characteristic of the beautiful, as a form of judgement, is that it does not relate to the sphere of cognition via the faculty of understanding but to the feeling of pleasure and displeasure as mediated by the faculty of imagination (p.35). Things are made slightly complex because Kant also parenthetically acknowledges that understanding and imagination are not utterly distinct and may correspond in ways, but the key distinction is between a mode of engagement that focuses on the object (cognition) and one that focuses on our affective subjective response (aesthetics). This leads Kant to provide the following initial definition of aesthetics:
The judgement of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgement, and so not logical, but is aesthetic – which means that is one whose determining ground cannot be other than subjective. (p.35)
In these terms, the notion of the aesthetic has its constitutive basis in the division between subject and object. Whatever it will ultimately do in terms of reconciling subject and object, it has its foundation in terms of manifesting a pure space of subjectivity and an absolute distance from our ordinary, cognitively engaged and instrumentally inclined relationship to the objective world.
But there is something strange here – a curious reversal. Normally we may be tempted to align the subjective with an interiority that relates closely to the field of the a priori, but this is not the case in the Kantian system. Instead the a priori, which represents the terrain of our inner faculties, is aligned with the sphere of objectivity. Our faculties are what make the world appear and what lend it coherent structure as a field of cognition. So while Kant distinguishes absolutely between the meta-level work of a priori cognition and the sphere of things in themselves (the realm of inaccessible objectivity that lies outside and beyond the scope of human cognition), the two fields are co-extensive in our actual engagement with the world. The a priori provides the world as given to our cognition, which enables the underlying possibility of our experience of space, time and the multitude of related and unrelated things. So while we may be tempted to conceive this in terms of a dimension of ultimate subjectivity, this is not Kant’s approach. He positions the inner space of the a priori as the very condition for the appearance of an objective field of reality.
The aesthetic then is subjective in a different way. It is subjective in a way that both opens up a gulf between subject and object and represents an odd basis of affinity between the two. Cast out from the realm of the intellectual cognitive faculties, aesthetics is associated with a terrain of more direct, sensuous response. It is linked to the experience of pleasure and displeasure. This is how the general conception of aesthetics as the philosophy of sensation links to the more specialised – and prevalent – conception of aesthetics as the philosophy of beauty and art. Beauty has its ground in dimensions of sensible and affective engagement with the world. This is its link to the sphere of objectivity. It is subjective, but in a way that has its basis in the notional exteriority of sense. But straight away, Kant works to introduce a separation, to distinguish the experience of beauty from ordinary sensible interaction with things. Unlike the ordinary interested delight we take in things – as things we desire and wish to make use of – aesthetic delight withdraws from the realm of interested objective interaction. The focus shifts from things to the conditions in which we judge something to be beautiful. Our affective interaction with things is cast within the aesthetic as reflective and formal. It turns away from objectivity itself and develops a metal level concern with the conditions of pleasure. These conditions, while distinct from rational cognitive and ethical forms, nonetheless engage with them. They are, if you like, the objective, intuitive, felt versions of the metaphysical system.
The aesthetic is inclined to and draws away from both subjectivity and objectivity. Its turn away from the object links it to dimensions of reflective consciousness (subjectivity), but its resistance to concepts suspends a simply rational identity and its sensible orientation links it to the otherness of things in themselves. In this manner the aesthetic fashions curious bridges and highlights uncertainties within the overall division of faculties and modes of being. But equally, it only emerges and takes coherent shape in terms of those very same divisions. The Kantian notion of the aesthetic is a chimera that depends upon the larger system that it at once belatedly unites, renders ambiguous and confirms.