restricted access The Purposiveness of Form: A Reading of Kant's Aesthetic Formalism
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Journal of the History of Philosophy 44.4 (2006) 599-622

The Purposiveness of Form:
A Reading of Kant's Aesthetic Formalism

In the "critique of aesthetic judgment," Kant claims that when we find an object beautiful, we are appreciating its "purposive form." Many of Kant's readers have found this claim one of his least interesting and most easily criticized claims about aesthetic experience. Detractors hold up his aesthetics as a paradigmatic case of narrow formalism; 1 and even many admirers of Kant's aesthetics take Kant's claims about form to be problematic, but argue that they are inessential to his aesthetics (which includes more interesting, defensible claims). 2 Though these critics come to differing evaluations of Kant's aesthetics as a whole, they agree on two points. First, interpretively: that when Kant claims that it is the "form" of an object we find beautiful, he means that in aesthetic appreciation, we find certain spatial and/or temporal properties (such as proportion, line, shape) aesthetically pleasing—and that such properties are exclusively responsible for an object's beauty. Second, evaluatively: that Kant is wrong, at least about this.

In this paper, I shall propose that we need not endorse either claim. I shall argue that one may interpret Kant's formalism as a claim that in aesthetic experience 3 [End Page 599] we appreciate the object as an individual, as comprising all (or indeterminately many) of its sensible properties as inextricably interrelated or unified to make the object what it is; in other words, we appreciate what has been called an object's 'individual form.' This reading, I shall suggest, allows us not only to understand Kant's aesthetics as intimately connected to his project in the Critique of Judgment (hereafter, CJ) as a whole, but also to see Kant's aesthetics, in general, as providing a richer, more plausible description of our aesthetic engagement with an object, or as less narrowly subjectivist than is frequently believed.

I shall proceed by presenting Kant's claims about form, and the standard criticisms thereof, and then turn to defend this alternative reading. Before I do so, however, I wish to make some preliminary remarks about aesthetic formalism in general. Contemporary discussion of formalism often takes aesthetic formalism to be instantiated by the views of the twentieth-century art critics, Clive Bell and Roger Fry, 4 and Kant's formalism is often implicitly equated with theirs (or the kind of position attributed to them). I wish to resist that equation in this essay; to that end, I start here by giving a wider sense of what formalism might be, drawing especially on historical positions that were available to Kant. 5

Broadly speaking, "formalism" is the view that, in aesthetic appreciation of an object (usually a work of art), we do and ought to pay attention not to the object's representational content, emotional expressiveness, historical, institutional, or social context (whether conditions for the production of the object or its effects), but only to its form. Formalism is characterized in some sense, then, by what it excludes, viz. considerations taken to be external to the object. But it does specify positively (if vaguely) that the form of an object is what makes it beautiful. 6

'Form,' however, can mean a number of different things, all of which (in some sense) are the design or arrangement of an object's parts, often of its sensible properties. I wish to draw attention to three somewhat distinct ways in which one may understand such form or arrangement of properties, which I shall call 'property-formalism,' 'kind-formalism,' and 'whole-formalism.' Property-formalism is the view that the form of an object can be described in terms of a set of specific spatial or temporal properties that characterize the relations that hold among different parts of the object, and that these properties are responsible for the beauty of the object. Hogarth's view that the serpentine line is the most beautiful line, responsible...