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Kant's Aesthetics: The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Aesthetic Ideas

Lecturer: Nanda Jarosz

Originally Taught: Summer School 2019

The term “aesthetics” was first used by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in 1735 to mean epistêmê aisthetikê, or the science of what is sensed and imagined (Baumgarten, Meditationes §CXVI, pp. 86–7). Since that time, the term has been modified, re-conceputalised, and even entirely altered to mean everything from a philosophical study of art, to a theory of our appreciation of nature. The German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant is arguably the most well-known aesthetic theorist of the eighteenth-century. His work on the subject spanned his whole life, and culminated in the work of his third Critique, The Critique of the Power of Judgment published in 1790. In this work, Kant delivers his own theory of fine art posed in relationship to his two separate theories of our experience of the sublime and the beautiful in nature. His conceptualisation of aesthetic experience has since exerted an enormous influence on later theories of aesthetics, right up to the present.In this course, students will be introduced to the key concepts of Kant’s aesthetics, with a focus on his third Critique. In addition to discovering the differences between concepts such as the beautiful and the sublime, students will also learn of the place of Kant’s third Critique in the rest of his work, and will encounter some contemporary theories which take their bearings from this text. Students will also gain a sense of the evolution of Kant’s own thinking on aesthetics. We will inquire, for instance, into the differences between Kant’s earlier theory of aesthetics, contained in his Observations on the feeling of the beautiful and the sublime, published in 1764, and the third Critique. One key aspect of this change, as we will see, is Kant’s introduction of a theory of aesthetic ideas: “by an aesthetic idea, however, I mean that representation of the imagination that occasions much thinking though without it being possible for any determinate thought, i.e., concept, to be adequate to it, which, cconsequently, no language fully attains or can make intelligible” (CPJ; 5:314, p.192). For Kant, the highest form of art is poetry, and poetry has the power to present the indeterminate ideas formulated by our imagination and understanding in an object of art. Kant thus moves from an empirical understanding of aesthetics, whereby the concept of the sublime or the beautiful is revealed in works of art, to a transcendental theory of the power of human genius to create works of art that go beyond the representation of concepts. Throughout the course, students will thus gain a sense of the development of the key concepts that underlie Kant’s aesthetic theory. Finally, we will consider how this theory can shed light on the place of aesthetic experience in today’s world, in particular in light of questions concerning our engagement with the natural environment.

This course will be of an introductory nature, and will suppose no prior knowledge of Kant’s work or of aesthetics. While some of the material will be difficult, all that is required is an interest in the topic.

Course Schedule

Session One: Key Critical concepts

Aims: To provide an introductory exploration of the key terms which underlie Kant’s aesthetic philosophy.

In this session students will be introduced to key concepts of Kant’s aesthetics such as, what grounds the understanding and reason in his transcendental philosophy; the conditions for rational and aesthetic forms of judgment; and the roles of space and time as subjective forms of human sensibility. Students will also develop an understanding of the roles of apperception, imagination, intuition, and the understanding, in the formation of a concept. By way of an introduction, this session will also provide a contextual understanding of Kant’s place in history as a philosopher of the German Enlightenment, and students will discover some interesting nuances to Kant’s use of style throughout his philosophical opus.

Readings:

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Pure Reason. Edited by Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood, Cambridge University Press, 1998. (Sections TBA)

Frierson, P. (2011). Kant: Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime and Other Writings (Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy) (P. Frierson & P. Guyer, Eds.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. §1 - §2.  

Session Two: Theory of the beautiful

Aims: To develop an understanding of Kant’s Critical theory of the beautiful and its role within Kant’s aesthetic philosophy.

In this session students will learn about Kant’s theory of beauty and the role of taste in aesthetic judgments of beauty. This shall include an in depth analysis of the the necessary conditions which ground judgments of taste: disinterest, universality, indeterminateness, and perceived unity. Students will learn about the types of objects which can inspire aesthetic judgments of beauty, and shall develop an understanding of the role of pleasure in indeterminate aesthetic judgments.

Readings: Kant, I. (2000). Critique of the Power of Judgment (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant) (P. Guyer, Ed.; E. Matthews, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Analytic of the Beautiful §1 - §22

Session Three: Theory of the sublime

Aims: To develop an understanding of Kant’s Critical theory of the sublime and its role within Kant’s aesthetic philosophy.

In this session students will learn about Kant’s theory of sublimity and how it contrasts with Kant’s theory of the beautiful. This shall include a complimentary reading of the necessary conditions which ground aesthetic judgments of sublimity in comparison to those of beauty, such as, formlessness, negative pleasure, contrapurposiveness, and measurements of quantity. Students will learn about the types of objects that can inspire an experience of sublimity, and shall develop an understanding of the contemporary debates which surround the ongoing relevance of the sublime to contemporary aesthetics.

Readings: Kant, I. (2000). Critique of the Power of Judgment (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant) (P. Guyer, Ed.; E. Matthews, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Analytic of the Sublime §23 -  §29

Session Four: Theory of Fine Art

Aims: To engage students in the critical analysis of Kant’s theory of Fine Art in the third Critique, and to develop their understanding of the role of aesthetic ideas in Kant’s overall aesthetic philosophy.

In this session students will examine three key components of Kant’s theory of Fine Art: art as distinct from nature, the role of genius in the creation of Fine Art, and the significance of Aesthetic Ideas as produced in the mind in response to works of Fine Art. This understanding of Kant’s theory of aesthetic ideas will prefigure a discussion on the possible nature of the artistic sublime and the revelation of ideas of reason in our aesthetic experience of the world.

Readings: Kant, I. (2000). Critique of the Power of Judgment (The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant) (P. Guyer, Ed.; E. Matthews, Trans.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Aesthetic ideas §30 - §53

Session Five: Contemporary considerations

Aims: to engage students in contemporary aesthetic debates which draw from Kant’s aesthetic theory in their desire to understand the relationship between human beings and the natural world.

In this final session, students will draw upon what they have learned in the four preceding sessions in order to engage with some contemporary interpretations of Kant’s aesthetic philosophy. Students will consider how Kant’s theory has been used to shed light on the place of aesthetic experience in today’s world, particularly in light of questions concerning our engagement with the natural environment. By way of a conclusion, this session will provide students with the ability to apply their own interpretation of Kant’s aesthetic philosophy in the wider context of their engagement with the natural environment. 

Readings:

Abaci, Uygar. “Kant's Justified Dismissal of Artistic Sublimity.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 66, no. 3, 2008, pp. 237–251. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40206342.

Brady, Emily. “The Environmental Sublime.” The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2013, pp. 183–206.

Anthropocentric Sublime (“Sublime. Tremors of the World”, Centre Pompidou-Metz, 2016) – document will be consulted during lectures.