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  • Critical Aesthetic Realism
  • Jennifer A. McMahon (bio)


A clear-cut concept of the aesthetic is elusive. Kant’s Critique of Judgment presents one of the more comprehensive aesthetic theories from which we can extract a set of features, some of which pertain to aesthetic experience and others to the logical structure of aesthetic judgment. When considered together, however, these features present a number of tensions and apparent contradictions. Kant’s own attempt to dissolve these apparent contradictions or dichotomies was not entirely satisfactory as it rested on a vague notion of indeterminacy. He addressed the emerging tensions with his distinction between pure and dependent beauty, which is a distinction I believe a satisfactory theory of aesthetic judgment would reveal as unfounded. In addition, Kant left a crucial connection unaccounted for. This was the connection between the two aspects that he envisaged characterized an aesthetic judgment. The two aspects to which I refer are the “purposiveness of form” provided by the Imagination and the associated mental content, which Kant called “aesthetic ideas.”

More recent aesthetic theories treat only a subset of the features addressed in Kant’s aesthetic theory. Even so, the standard aesthetic theories, such as expressivism, cognitivism, and formalism, entrench the kind of thinking that grounds these dichotomies. In contrast, I will demonstrate that a naturalized aesthetic theory can accommodate all the features suggested by the Kantian analysis in such a way that they are shown to be complementary rather than contradictory. I begin by presenting the relevant features in terms of the dichotomies to which they give rise, before the meaning of the terms involved are adjusted through naturalization. In conclusion, I identify an important implication that the aesthetic theory that results has foraesthetic education. [End Page 49]

1. Tensions to Be Resolved

1.1. Objectivity and autonomy

Typically, one does not treat aesthetic disagreements about the kind of objects one values and about which one is knowledgeable as no-fault matters. For example, someone with extensive knowledge of and experience with cars might consider a particular car’s speed capacity, its ease of handling, and steering sensitivity as relevant to an aesthetic judgment of it. For such an expert, an aesthetic judgment that ignores these qualities would be a judgment about an incomprehensive set of the particular car’s properties. By the expert’s lights, it might be the kind of aesthetic judgment typically made by a novice.

The expert would typically dismiss the novice’s aesthetic judgment as uninformed even though both the novice’s and the expert’s aesthetic judgments are ultimately based on subjective responses to the object. For the expert, it is as if certain experiences with objects of the relevant kind ground what is taken to constitute the object to be judged. In other words, understanding provided by background knowledge and experience features as part of the object of aesthetic judgment. In this case, the variations between the respective aesthetic judgments of the expert and the novice would reflect variations in background knowledge and experience.

However, both the expert and the novice would be persuaded by their aesthetic responses. Their aesthetic estimations are felt or intuitive (one might invoke practical reason to explain this) rather than the result of consciously applying certain criteria. A genuine judgment, in contrast, is thought to involve the application of criteria either explicitly or implicitly. We might represent this and other features of genuine judgments in terms of certain underlying principles that govern them. I will call these principles the typical principles of objectivity. They can be formulated as follows:

  1. i. A judgment can be based on a verbal description, in the absence of one’s experience of the actual object.

  2. ii. We can be said to know the verdict of a judgment based on testimony.

  3. iii. A judgment is assumed to be based on criteria or conditions that are either necessary, sufficient, or strongly support the verdict, and that such criteria can be stated.

  4. iv. A judgment is the conclusion to an argument, either a deductive or inductive argument.

What we call aesthetic judgment, however, does not satisfy any of the typical principles of objectivity. It is generally accepted by aestheticians and philosophers of art...


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pp. 49-69
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