- Critical Absorption:Kant's Theory of Taste
The Movement of the Mind
Kant's theory of taste concerns emotion not only because it postulates a feeling that claims universal validity but also because this feeling arises out of the inner movement of the mind that, for Kant, constitutes the activity of thought. This reading of Kant presents his theory of taste as a critique of the idea that movement could be conceived as something internal and that this internal movement constitutes the essence of a subject's mental life, indeed that subjectivity just is the unity of this movement. Because Kant grounds the objectivity of knowledge in this unity, his theory of taste postulates that a certain judgment about objects, namely the judgment that an object is beautiful, can reveal something about the judging subject and what he or she has in common with others. This paper will argue that this experience of beauty constitutes an instance of absorption in the sense articulated by Michael Fried in Absorption and Theatricality, and furthermore that Kant's theory of taste elucidates the consequences this paradigm entails when it is taken as the basis of authentic inter-subjectivity. The inter-subjective, communicative qualities of self-absorption as a paradigm of representation are shown to arise out of a certain kind of emotion, meaning an inner and purely subjective mental state. At the foundation of thinking, Kant's theory of taste postulates a moving imperative for agreement that can only be described as emotional.
The impulse for this mental movement can be traced to the first Critique, to the "I think" of the transcendental subject. Kant defines the subject not in terms of what it is but what it does: namely give form and unity to its representations. One key aspect of this definition is that the very act of unifying representations can be understood as a form [End Page 572] that makes it possible for the matter of representations to be given. In his consideration of form and matter as concepts of reflection, Kant explicitly makes this point, defining form as an act of determination (Bestimmung) and content or matter as that which can be determined (das Bestimmbare).1 Form thereby appears prior to content in the sense that form is what makes it possible for content to be given. Only because the mind forms what is given to it into unified intuitions can objects be given and known as appearances, internal to the mind's sphere of representation. Yet this priority of form over content does not impinge upon whether something is actually given to the senses—a brute fact of existence that applies equally to all objects in the world, including the subject as a thinking being. In this sense, this givenness is a condition outside of the mind's activity. Critical philosophy begins by acknowledging its position within the boundaries of this dualism, in which contact with objects of the world both causes sense impressions and "awakens" the mind to spontaneous activity—to a movement—of its own:
Daß alle unsere Erkenntnis mit der Erfahrung anfange, daran ist gar kein Zweifel; denn wodurch sollte das Erkenntisvermögen erweckt werden, geschähe es nicht durch Gegenstände, die unsere Sinne rühren und teils von selbst Vorstellungen bewirken, teils unsere Verstandestätigkeit in Bewegung bringen, diese zu vergleichen . . . und so den rohen Stoff sinnlicher Eindrücke zu einer Erkenntnis der Gegenstände zu verarbeiten, die Erfahrung heißt?(B1)2
Hence Kant's method as he announces it here: to heighten a reflective awareness of thinking in order to abstract out those formal, a priori contributions of the mind that, so Kant will argue, guarantee the objectivity of knowledge.
As Kant continues this project, he maintains his description of the mind as a faculty (Vermögen), applying this term specifically to the synthetic unity of apperception expressed in the "I think" (footnote B134); or as he writes in this passage:
Es ist aber nicht aus der Acht zu lassen, daß die bloße Vorstellung Ich in Beziehung auf alle andere (deren kollektive Einheit sie möglich macht) das transcendentale Bewußtsein sei. Diese Vorstellung mag nun klar...