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A Surfeit in Thinking: Kant’s Aesthetic Ideas
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One of the stranger conceptions in Immanuel Kant’s writings about aesthetics, which is rich in strange conceptions, is that of aesthetic ideas. Even by the standards of common sense, the idea of an idea being aesthetic is not immediately intelligible. We grant that ideas can bring forth feelings, perhaps also aesthetic feelings, but that still leaves us at a loss about what it would mean for them to be aesthetic, just as we are perplexed by the idea animating the essays in this volume, namely that thinking may in some sense be poetic. The perplexity only deepens when we try to find a place for this conception on Kant’s fastidious philosophical chart, where the word “idea” is expressly reserved for those concepts “whose object simply cannot be encountered in experience.” For Kant, there are, on the one hand, the concepts of the understanding, which forge intuitions into experience, and, on the other, the pure concepts of reason—the ideas—that can never be melded with any intuitive elements and thus remain beyond the ken of experience. What are some examples? In the Critique of Pure Reason Kant develops the idea of the “unconditioned”; in his moral philosophy, the ideas of freedom, immortality, and God figure prominently. Each plays its part in the complicated machineries that drive the first and second Critiques, but that need not concern us here. What does interest us is the fact that the very essence of the Kantian idea prohibits its object from being “encountered in experience,” hence from being encountered in aesthetic experience. By the lights of Kant’s writings on the topic before the Critique of Judgment, the idea of an “aesthetic idea” can be nothing but an oxymoronic monster. Yet here it is.

The aesthetic ideas may well have been an afterthought (they make their first significant appearance only late in the half of the book that addresses aesthetics); if so, they are the kind of afterthought that occasions a rethinking of the beforethoughts. Kant seems to sense the import of this conception, since he introduces it with the flourish reserved for important terms (formal definition, conceptual map, typographic emphasis). Even so, we are not quite prepared for how thoroughly it alters the conceptual landscape into which it is placed. It refashions—surpasses even—the conception of beauty that earlier parts of the book had labored to develop; it introduces an idea (in the looser, non-Kantian sense) thus far absent in a work that means to account for aesthetic experience, namely the idea of aesthetic value, and makes meaningfulness its measure; it stands at the core of the philosophy of art that Kant does no more than sketch here. And, what for our purpose is of greater significance still, it opens the way to thinking what it would mean to think poetically.

Kant does not treat the idea of aesthetic ideas as the monstrosity that following his own earlier logic would oblige him to treat it as. An aesthetic idea, he writes matter-of-factly, is “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, consequently, no language fully attains or can make intelligible.” He adds: “One easily sees that it is the counterpart (pendant) of an idea of reason, which is, conversely [umgekehrt], a concept to which no intuition (representation of the imagination) can be adequate” (§49, 314, emphasis omitted). Does one really see—easily see—that the two kinds of ideas are each other’s counterparts? When he delineates the contours of the idea in earlier writings, we noted how Kant does so by drawing a line between two kinds of concepts, distinguishing those that can have an object in experience—concepts of understanding—from those that cannot—concepts of reason, henceforth called simply ideas. The genus to which both belong, then, is concept, and their specific difference lies in whether or not our imagination can possibly muster an intuition to match them. So in that context the counterpart of an idea is another kind of concept, not another kind of idea. This makes sense there, since the idea of...

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