(p.478) Appendix III: Kant on Art and Natural Beauty
(p.478) Appendix III: Kant on Art and Natural Beauty
I argued in A Third Concept of Liberty that Kant’s “play of the faculties” must be interpreted in an “inter-conceptual” rather than a “pre-conceptual” way. I now think that some aspects of Kant’s aesthetic theory favor the pre-conceptual interpretation instead. The inter-conceptual reading is too talky, too directed to conversation, to get the phenomenology of our response to natural beauty right, however well it may work for our experience of art. We are not inspired by an hour’s snorkeling in a great coral reef, or a view of a rich jungle, to engage in endless interpretation of what we have seen. We do not try out new concepts on the shapes in the reef or jungle in a never-ending attempt to make sense of what it is “saying.” Rather, if we appreciate its beauty we fall into mute wonder, delighting in the rich array of sensory material without being inclined to talk about it at all. But natural beauty is Kant’s official paradigm of all beauty, so if silent wonder is appropriate there, it may be appropriate to beauty in general.
I can incorporate something of the pre-conceptual approach to beauty into my own view. Not only in front of the jungle landscape, but also in front of a Pollock or Rothko, surely a part of the right reaction is to stand in silent admiration. The person who talks incessantly at operas and in museums is not a person who really loves art. But the kind of silence we have in front of the Pollock or Rothko is a silence that comes from, and eventually bursts forth into, a torrent of words. We are stumped, awed, by the mystery of the work; it tantalizes us by hovering just beyond what we think we understand; it holds out a promise that we will be able to grasp it, to make good sense of it, while ever deferring that promise. So if we are wise, we will hold our tongue to let it sink in before we try to get some sort of grip on it. The mystery in it is addressed to our understanding; it engages our understandings, even while eluding them. That is why this is a play of the faculties, a body of richly sensuous material that we do not merely sink into, but try to reflect upon, that calls upon our capacity for reflection and not just our joy in certain kinds of sensation. It makes sense that a pre-conceptual moment is part of this reflection. If there is an inter-conceptual space, part of occupying that space will involve not knowing, at moments, what concepts to employ, feeling temporarily freed from the hold of any concept. But the pre-conceptual moment will be part of a larger inter-conceptual play, not the mark, on its own, of an experience of artistic beauty. Silent wonder, on its own, may be the appropriate response only to natural beauty.
I am, however, inclined to reject the aspects of Kant’s view that favor natural beauty over the beauty in art. As it happens, there are independent reasons to question these aspects of Kant. First, the basic intuition driving Kant’s account—that beauty is both subjective and something on which we demand agreement from others—seems not to hold in the case of natural beauty. Kant presents that intuition, toward the beginning of CJ (§ 7), by imagining two conversations. In one the first speaker says, “Canary wine is pleasant,” and the second reminds him that he ought to say, “…is pleasant to me,” while in the other, the first speaker says “This object [Kant’s examples are a house, a coat, a concert, and a poem] is beautiful,” and Kant says that it would be ridiculous in that case to end the sentence “… to me”: the word “beautiful” demands the agreement of all (p.479) other speakers. We should note that all Kant’s examples here are of “art” of some kind, not of natural scenes. And in fact, in ordinary speech at least, exclamations of aesthetic delight about natural scenes fit the pattern of the first, not the second conversation. If I say that I love the jungles of Sumatra (an example Kant discusses in the remark following CJ § 22), you will feel free to say that you prefer desert landscapes, and I am unlikely to accuse you of bad taste. If I describe a certain flower as beautiful—another of Kant’s own examples of natural beauty—I will not be shocked or think you lack taste if you disagree. It is only in the presence of certain artworks—Sophocles and Shakespeare, Bach and Beethoven—that I am likely to suppose you lacking in some way if you fail to share my taste.
Moreover, the general argument Kant gives for the normativity of beauty supports the priority of artistic over natural beauty. However one understands the play of the faculties, it is clear that it is supposed to be useful or even necessary for cognition. It is not a cognitive state, but it must foster cognition, else we could not see it as satisfying a need that any being with cognitive faculties like ours must have. But the impression that some kinds of natural scenes foster cognition better than others has got to be an illusion. Any natural object presents plenty of material onto which our cognitive faculties can fasten themselves, and no natural object is in itself more suited for cognition than any other. The shapes before us in a jungle, however variegated they may be, will not elude our concepts more than the shapes we see in a desert. We come to jungle and desert alike with a multitude of concepts intact, and know, even if the scene is very new to us, that we can in principle classify and explain practically everything we see. While we may have an immediate feeling, before some natural scenes, of a manifold that precedes and transcends all our skills at ordering, we know on reflection that this feeling is misleading. But the demand that others join us in hailing a scene as particularly conducive to the play of the faculties can surely not rest on a misleading feeling.
Kant wanted a unified account of beauty, explaining what we admire both in art and in the natural world and connecting these two kinds of beauty with one another. Unified accounts make sense in many philosophical areas, but here I think attention to our language about beauty militates against a unified account. What leads us to call a man or woman beautiful is quite different from what leads us to call a coral reef or desert landscape beautiful, and that is different again from what leads us to call a Rothko or Pollock beautiful. Perhaps there are further distinctions to be drawn—I suspect that what we find beautiful in art alone is a composite of many different factors—but in any case it seems an error to bring natural beauty and the beauty of art together. There are different kinds of beauty, and some either lack the normative element that Kant stresses or have it to a much lesser degree than others. (p.480)