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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.4 (2001) 705-720

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On the Notion of "Disinterestedness": Kant, Lyotard, and Schopenhauer

Bart Vandenabeele

The strange thing, on looking back, was the purity, the integrity, of her feeling for Sally. It was not like one's feeling for a man. It was completely disinterested, and besides, it had a quality which could only exist between women, between women just grown up.

--Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

If the genuine aesthetic experience exists empirically--and it does--then the definition of its specific quality is at the core of any aesthetic theory that is concerned with the particularity of aesthetic appreciation. Firstly, I shall attempt to provide an acceptable interpretation of this extremely intricate issue in Kant and, moreover, question the interpretation of two philosophers--Lyotard and Schopenhauer--who both struggled with the notion of "disinterestedness" and provided a highly original (but often misunderstood) interpretation of it in their own aesthetic theories. I shall argue that Lyotard took for granted something in Kant's aesthetics that Schopenhauer's aesthetic theory tries to resolve, that is, the wide gap between the agreeable and the charming on one side, and the beautiful on the other.

Kant: Disinterestedness and Existence

The first moment of Kant's Analytic of the Beautiful asserts that our liking in the beautiful cannot originatefrom any interest and that in the beautiful "we are not compelled to give our approval by any interest, whether of sense or of reason" (§ 5, 52). 1 But Kant also insists that the liking in the beautiful does not createany interest in the object either. [End Page 705]

What may this mean? As Kant asserts in the beginning of section 5, it means that "a judgment of taste is merely contemplative, i.e., it is a judgment that is indifferent to the existence of the object [indifferent in Ansehung des Daseins eines Gegenstandes]: it [considers] the character of the object only by holding it up to our feeling of pleasure and displeasure [nur seine Beschaffenheit mit dem Gefühl der Lust und Unlust zusammenhält]" (§ 5, 51). The requirement that a pure judgment of taste be devoid of all interest forms the foundation of Kant's important distinction between aesthetic liking and the pleasure that may accompany moral judgment or action. 2 Kant's analysis of aesthetic response calls for another discrimination, too: the separation of aesthetic liking from mere sensory pleasure, which is the distinction that will occupy us here.

Objects that arouse mere sensual pleasure, such as Belgian chocolates, are said to "gratify" (vergnügen) someone, and are then called "agreeable" (angenehm). An object "which one just likes" (was ihm bloß gefällt) is called beautiful. The incentive that corresponds to this object for thought is, respectively inclination (Neigung) or favor (Gunst). Favor, thus accorded the beautiful, is "the only free liking" (das einzige freie Wohlgefallen) (§ 5, 52). 3 Only pleasure in the beautiful is free of a connection with an interest. Both inclination and rational desire are connected with interest, and "all interest either presupposes a need [Bedürfniß] or gives rise to one; and, because interest is the basis that determines approval [als Bestimmungsgrund des Beifalls], it makes the judgment about the object unfree" (ibid.). As Paul Guyer rightly remarks, "in defining the 'quality' of aesthetic judgment Kant is not making a phenomenological distinction between different kinds of feelings of pleasure, but a distinction between the ways in which different instances of pleasure may be occasioned." 4 What Kant is suggesting is "that the presence or absence of a connection to interest may serve as a criterion for the reflective classification of given pleasures" (ibid).

Section 3 aims to show that "a liking for the Agreeable is connected with Interest" (§ 3, 47). Pure favor, which is connected with the beautiful, "cannot be an inclination, or else the beautiful would be agreeable and there would be no aesthetic pleasure." 5 Kant, therefore, makes a crucial (but often overlooked) distinction between two senses of "sensation." 6 In the sense of the Critique of...


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