Kant’s Examples: brief thoughts on the empirical conditions of aesthetic experience

What if we were to approach Kant’s theory of the beautiful empirically rather than philosophically? What if we were to consider his concrete examples rather than his categorical distinctions and logic? This would enable us to recognise the beautiful as a mode of experience, with specific conditions and features. It would also us enable us to consider the notion of the beautiful not simply as an hermetically sealed philosophical concept but also as a heuristic means of indicating dimensions of experience that are at once evident and indefinable. It takes shape not only as something composed and integral, but also as a question. It both delineates an aspect of experience and emerges in response to the aporia of whatever it is that experience represents. It suggests as well that the experiential field is not simply circumscribed by any given social-historically shaped conceptual system. It includes a surplus, which demonstrates an interplay of underlying constraints and affordances with particular and constantly changing historical conditions.

Before looking at the examples, it is worth noting that the particular problem that Kant addresses is that of common sense – and the common availability of such a sense. What is common in the experience of the beautiful? How can it provide a basis for commonality? How particularly is human commonality to discover a meaningful basis in experience that is cast as disengaged and reflective, that has its basis in contemplative subjective pleasure? And how does this paradoxically oriented sense relate to wider commonality, to our sense of integral relation to the wider world of nature and unthinking things? Kant conceives a form of experience that links the interiority of affective, reflective response to an open, curious relation to being. He discovers this experience not as an exotic elsewhere or as a distant, evolved prospect, but as something already there and available within the texture of ordinary life. But this self-presence is hardly, as we have seen, simple. It is founded on a dynamic relation to things that renders an uncertain relationship between inside and outside, activity and passivity, the sensible and the formal, particularity and universality, and appearance and loss.

Here is a brief summary of the specific examples Kant mentions in the ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’:

Art (‘the concert we hear, the poem submitted to our judgement’ (CJ, p.44), musical ‘fantasias (without a theme), and, indeed, all music that is not set to words’ (CJ, p.60))

Abstract patterns (‘free patterns, lines aimlessly intertwining’ (CJ, p.39))
Architecture, furniture and gardens (‘building’ (CJ, p.35) (CJ, p.44), ‘the palace I see

before me’ (CJ, p.36), ‘house’ (CJ, p.47), ‘a building that would immediately please the eye’ (CJ, p.61), ‘a beautiful garden,’ (CJ, p.63), ‘a beautiful suite of furniture’, ‘a beautiful residence’ (CJ, p.63), ‘in ornamental gardens, in the decoration of rooms, in all kinds of tasteful implements’ (CJ, p.73))

Clothing and personal decoration (‘the dress that person has on’ (CJ, p.44), ‘dress’ (CJ, p.47), ‘New Zealanders with their tattooing’ (CJ, p.61))

Colour (‘A mere colour, such as the green of a plot of grass’ (CJ, p.55), ‘all simple colours are regarded as beautiful inasmuch as they are pure’ (CJ, p.56) but more relevant to taste at the level of ‘design) (CJ, p.56))

General (‘a beautiful view’ (CJ, p.63))

Nature (‘flowers’ (CJ, p.39), ‘the rose at which I am looking’ (CJ, p.35), ‘flower’ (CJ, p.47), ‘If in forest I light upon a plot of grass, round which trees stand in a circle’ (CJ, p.58), ‘Flowers’, ‘Many birds (the parrot, the hummingbird, the bird of paradise) and a number of crustacea’ (CJ, p.60), ‘beautiful flowers’, ‘a beautiful tree’ (CJ, p.63), ‘the free beauties of nature’, ‘nature subject to no constraint of artificial rules, and lavish, as it there Sumatra is, in its luxuriant variety’, ‘a bird’s song’ (CJ, p.73))

Ornamentation (‘the frames of pictures or the drapery on statues, or the colonnades of palaces’, regarded as ‘adjuncts’, ‘but can enter into the composition of the beautiful form’, as long as not merely and extraneously charming ‘finery’ (CJ, p.57) – the complexities and paradoxes here are of course the focus of Jacques Derrida’s The Truth in Painting, ‘designs a la grecque, foliage for framework or on wall-papers’ (CJ, p.60))

Sound (‘a mere tone (as distinguished from sound or noise), like that of violin’ (CJ, p.55) but really only properly subject to the judgement of pure taste at the formal level of ‘composition’ (CJ, p.56))

This organisation of the examples is not rigorous. If we were attempting a stricter grouping then it may distinguish between those examples which relate to general features of sensation (vision, colour, sound, abstraction) and those which are more vividly particular (‘Many birds (the parrot, the hummingbird, the bird of paradise) and a number of crustacea’), or place a greater emphasis on the difference between the naturally encountered and the deliberately manufactured, or perhaps between the domestic and the wild. But my aim here is less to categorise Kant’s examples than to emphasise that they draw from wide-ranging aspects of life – from art to the everyday, wild nature to ordinary garden flowers and decorative household things. There is, in this sense, a democratic quality to Kant’s conception. It is not something only available to the wealthy and aesthetically refined. It is generally accessible and everywhere encountered. Nonetheless, it clearly does assume scope for reflection. The experience of the beautiful involves, however briefly, a suspension of ordinary activity – the small luxury of sensitively attending to the world without any aim other than reflective pleasure. In this manner, it plainly inscribes aspects of social difference – between those who have the leisure to observe and take pleasure and those who have no scope to do so. Yet, regarded in less instantly critical terms, this can also be regarded as an effort to acknowledge the general possibility of untoward, distracted and absorbed experience, even for those not permitted this freedom. Aesthetic experience is less an entirely removed thing only available to the special view than something that crops up in the midst of experience – within and against the grain of however experience is organised. Kant sketches a dimension of human freedom that in some respects not even slavery or imprisonment can compromise. While this can be regarded as poor consolation, more positively it can represent an alternative basis of general human value with the capacity to unsettle the oppressive systems that render wider freedom untenable.

What emerges most distinctly from Kant’s examples is a specific affective attitude – a lack of motivated attention and intention. It is not as though Kant’s seeks out the experience of the beautiful or even conceives a straightforward path toward that experience. It is something that simply happens and that almost any aspect of life can summon. The experience of the beautiful entails a lucid passivity, an open, sensible and formally susceptible relation to things. Beauty suddenly, almost unexpectedly appears. Kant writes of ‘the palace I see before me’. There is no account of actively seeking out the palace, of deliberately discovering it, rather the experience of beauty is simply manifest beyond the ordinary exigencies of practical life. The phrase particularly de-emphasises any sense of Kant’s agency. He does not write, ‘I see a palace before me’. Instead he is subject to the palace, although in a relation that entails no determination, that depends at once upon his inner subjectivity and an attentive relation to the world. As though anticipating Heidegger’s notion of the clearing (2010, p.129), Kant writes, ‘If in forest I light upon a plot of grass, round which trees stand in a circle’. The light of the clearing is intimately linked to it being lighted upon – to it framing no specific demand and involving an unpredictable alignment of inner experience and the natural configuration of things. This congruence can never be precisely coordinated, only ever encountered.

The question emerges then whether this mode of experience exists – exists empirically and beyond Kant’s philosophical scheme. Or is it simply a projection of that scheme on to the contours of experience? Could it also have a genesis that extends beyond philosophy, relating somehow to the conditions of modern identity? Does it provide, for instance, a plane of dynamic, diffident reassurance within the context of wider conditions of rapid societal change? Or, more simply, as Bourdieu argues, does it provide a new means of social distinction within a society that is no longer shaped by feudal hierarchy and blood relations? Doubtless the experience of the beautiful has both a philosophical and social-historical genesis, but is that all there is to it? Can it have no other basis whatsoever? I’m wondering whether its broad relevance across different periods and cultural contexts indicates that some aspect of aesthetic experience relates to human consciousness generally? However historically inflected, however differently cast in different circumstance, there may also be something more universal that hinges on the complex human relation between seeing and seen, action and reflection, the distracted immediacy of pleasure and the durational mechanics of survival. Possibly, this may not contribute much to understanding the experience. It may naturalise a mode of experience that more usefully reflects very specific conceptions, values and historically legible orderings of experience,. Yet we need not conceive any hard line between the plane of general human affordance and its historically variable systems of realisation. Allowing some aspect of universality enables us to keep the key issue of commonality central – and to consider continuities and commonalties alongside differences. It also permits the aesthetic to remain an open question – not only philosophically and within the flux of social and historical conditions but also as an unknowable empirical experiential field; as something that constantly prompts us to consider the question of the aesthetic – of its existence or otherwise.

What I’m suggesting is roughly similar to Jacques Ranciere’s insistence on a fundamental human equality that has its basis in a common human intelligence. This equality is not something that can be measured. It is verified only through its constant political reassertion. It has value then less as anything strictly determinable than as an underlying ethical assumption and imperative. In a similar manner, the complex nature of human perception and imagination, with its varied affective and cognitive dimensions, provides a common set of human affordances that can give rise to the aesthetic not only as a named philosophical category and a delineated sphere of experience, but also as something more generally relevant across historical, social and cultural contexts. It can indicate an alternative basis of value that can have critical usefulness in terms of suggesting other ways of organising human identity and social and material relations. This never exists in its simply universality but can still provide a means of conceiving, mobilising and realising worthwhile currents of resistance.

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