- Communicative Implications of Kant’s Aesthetic Theory
In recent discussions of aesthetic theory, critics who raise social, cultural, and political concerns have issued important challenges to the Kantian legacy. Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) continues to be widely regarded as one of the founding documents of modern aesthetic theory. But the arguments he laid out in that notoriously enigmatic work remain controversial on a variety of fronts. One of those arguments concerns his distinction between pleasures that are beautiful and those that are agreeable. According to Kant’s definition, what makes experiences of the beautiful special is that they have a potentially communicable universal validity. By contrast, pleasures that are merely agreeable are incommunicable and remain confined to private sensation. Philosophers have found this distinction problematic for a variety of reasons. Their detailed commentaries have examined the intricate logical and conceptual difficulties that Kant’s theory raises (see Allison 2001; Guyer 1982, 1997, 2002; Kalar 2000; Wenzel 2005). On another front, sociologists and cultural critics—whom I will broadly refer to as “social critics”—typically raise concerns about the theory’s hidden social implications (Bourdieu 1984; Eagleton 1990; Smith 1988; Shumway 2005). Specifically, they question Kant’s proposal that judgments about the beautiful ought to have universal validity. Taking an external standpoint, they tend to regard aesthetic judgments either as the peculiar habits of [End Page 103] specific social classes, or as badges of hierarchical distinction, or as weapons in symbolic struggles for cultural dominance.
To suggest why Kant’s theory is worth revisiting in the wake of such critiques, the following analysis defends his theoretical effort to distinguish the experience of the beautiful from that of the agreeable. This feature of his aesthetic theory highlights an alternative to the cognitive and practical concerns that social critics emphasize. In particular, I indicate how Kant’s aesthetic theory offers directions for the effort to explain how aesthetic experience promotes communicative sociability. By emphasizing this theme, I hope to supplement the rival emphasis that social critics place on the Kantian legacy’s elitist undercurrents. Social critiques characteristically overlook the affective type of sociability to which aesthetic experience gives rise. This oversight occurs because those critiques tend to privilege the theoretical and practical dimensions of communication. In the process, they disregard the special types of validity claims that are unique to aesthetic discourse. Following the lead of his academic precursors Meier and Baumgarten, Kant tried to define a possible third mental “faculty” that differs from cognitive and practical reason (see Henrich 1992, 31–36). But the difficulty of defining this third faculty, much less determining its existence, continues to vex both philosophers and communication theorists.
Kant’s Account of Aesthetic Experience and Its Critics
In the opening sections of the Critique of Judgment, Kant attempts to establish the independence of aesthetic judgment from theoretical and practical cognition. Those faculties are concerned with cognitive and moral concepts. By contrast, the aesthetic properties that concern taste judgments have a unique ontological and epistemological status. Kant’s argument about that status is itself enormously complex, involving as it does an intricate network of idiosyncratically defined concepts (for example, the understanding, the imagination, intuition, representations, objects, etc.). But to avoid getting lost in those intricacies, we can bracket them by simply referring to aesthetic “experience.” Also, we can concentrate on the two properties that distinguish aesthetic experience from other kinds of experience. First, aesthetic properties relate to the feelings of pleasure that are aroused by certain encounters with objects. Second, aesthetic properties are “merely subjective” (Kant 2000, 75). They do not have an objective status because we cannot associate the feelings they arouse with determinate concepts and objects. [End Page 104] As Miles Rind puts it, “in making a cognitive judgment one requires everyone to conceptualize an object in a certain way, while in making a judgment of taste one requires others to share one’s liking for an object” (Rind 2000, 83). In sum, Kant differentiates aesthetic judgment from both theoretical and practical cognition because it is radically subjective and because its unique grounding lies in feelings of pleasure and displeasure.
Social critics tend to downplay the idea that there...