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  • Aesthetics without Art: The Para-Epistemic Project of Kant’s Third Critique
  • Chris Forster
Review of: Rodolphe Gasché. The Idea of Form: Rethinking Kant’s Aesthetics. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2003.

When poststructuralists return to “classics” of Western philosophy, it is often in a spirit of revision. When Lacan turns his attention to Kant, it is to insist, against prevailing wisdom, that Kant must be read “avec Sade.” When Foucault reads Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” it is largely to appropriate a notion of enlightenment for Foucault’s own project. Rodolphe Gasché’s project in The Idea of Form is decidedly different. More in the tradition of the explication du texte than that of the hermeneutic of suspicion, Gasché returns to the Critique of Judgment in order to reinforce its position within the Kantian corpus.

Gasché shares with his poststructuralist peers a practice of meticulous close reading which guides The Idea of Form. Having published books on Derrida and Paul de Man, Gasché’s credentials may ally him with deconstruction. The Idea of Form, however, is not a “deconstruction of the Third Critique.” Rather than borrowing his vocabulary from deconstruction, or any other critical tradition, Gasché offers a thoroughly Kantian reading of the Third Critique. Gasché attempts to take seriously Kant’s famously obtuse claim that the Third Critique completes the critical project of the first two critiques. Judgment, Kant claims, is “suitable for mediating the connection of the domain of the concept of nature with that of the concept of freedom, as regards freedom’s consequences, inasmuch as this harmony also promotes the mind’s receptivity to moral feeling” (Kant 38). Gasché focuses on what he calls the “para-epistemic” role of the faculty of judgment, exploring the capacity of aesthetic judgment to mediate between the realm of the understanding (deterministically governed by laws) and the realm of reason (which is the domain of freedom and morality).

While Gasché is not the only critic to take seriously Kant’s claim that the Third Critique bridges the chasm between the other two, his analysis nevertheless operates as a helpful corrective to the manner in which we may normally understand the Third Critique.1 Too often the province of the First Critique is taken to be epistemology, that of the Second morality, while the Third, a somewhat inexplicable addition, is thought to deal with aesthetics. This model is an oversimplification that does not respect the complexity of Kant’s texts, yet it remains the prevailing model. Gasché offers a compelling corrective, demonstrating how Kantian aesthetics emerges from the subject’s confrontation with objects for which it has no concepts.

As its title suggests, the Third Critique is not primarily concerned with aesthetics, but with the faculty of judgment. Kant explains, “judgment in general is the ability to think the particular as contained under the universal” (18). As it appears in the Critique of Pure Reason, judgment is at the disposal of the understanding as the faculty which subsumes the particular, which is given from intuition, under the universal concepts of the understanding. In the Third Critique, Kant identifies this type of judgment as “determining” or “determinative” and posits another form of judgment. “If the universal (the rule, principle, law) is given, then judgment, which subsumes the particular under it, is determinative. . . . But if only the particular is given and judgment has to find the universal for it, then this power is merely reflective” (Kant 18–19). Reflective judgment provides most of the subject matter for the Critique of Judgment, and it is as a form of reflective judgment that aesthetic judgment emerges in the Third Critique.

Reflective judgment has the singular function of securing a minimum level of cognition when the subject confronts a seemingly uncognizable object. Gasché explains,

in the case of certain objects of experience or empirical representations, determining—that is to say, cognitive—judgments are at a loss . . . and thus reflective judgment, whether aesthetic or teleological, is needed. The task of such judgment consists in nothing less than “discovering” concepts and rules that the particular obeys. In short, the task of reflective judgment, as distinct from the task of determining judgment, is to render intelligible what is particular and...

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