- Thinking with Kant's Critique of Judgment by Michel Chaouli
Books on Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgment usually fall into one of the following sorts: (1) introductions, (2) in-depth companions, (3) scholarly work offering specific interpretations of certain aspects of the book. Where does Michel Chaouli's book fit within this taxonomy? Reading the preface and the first few dozen pages, one gets the impression that it falls under the third rubric, aiming to defend a specific interpretation of Kant's aesthetic theory: in making a judgment of taste, our imagination is productive; it can make anything into an object of pleasure (xv, 10–11). According to Chaouli, the activity of making, as creative production, is also constitutive of aesthetic experience, and it demands that one live life poetically. Indeed, the book ends on this note, with the author saying that "Kant's concept of aesthetic experience … allows us to feel life itself" (266). However, more is needed for a justification of this claim than what is provided in the text. The main textual evidence Chaouli provides is a passage where Kant states that the agreeable and the good "leave us no freedom to make anything into an object of pleasure ourselves" (§5, 5:210). Yet, for one thing, this textual source can only garner indirect justification for Chaouli's claim, since he is deriving a claim about the beautiful through its presupposed opposition to the agreeable and the good. For another thing, it is not at all clear that this presupposition holds.
The initial appearance that Thinking with Kant's Critique of Judgment is a book of the third sort partially dissipates as the book unfolds. The first chapter, "Pleasure," aims to justify the interpretive claim, but the rest of the book gives the impression that the author is aiming at a work of the second sort. The book is divided into three parts: part I, Beauty, aims to examine Kant's conception of judgments of taste, first by distinguishing them from judgments of the agreeable and the good, and then by exploring their main features, such as their claim to universality and necessity, their disinterested character etc.; part II, Art, examines Kant's idea of fine art, first by narrowing down how artistic making is different from other kinds of making, for example, craftsmanship, and then by exploring Kant's notion of genius and aesthetic ideas; part III, Nature, examines Kant's teleological understanding of nature, focusing on his account of organisms and the human mind. However, unlike books that fall under the second category, we do not get much in the way of references to the secondary literature. There are some reiterations of commonplace explanations of main aspects of Kant's aesthetics and teleology without references; and, when a new reading is proposed, it is presented without locating it with respect to the existing literature.
Additionally, unlike books of the second kind, the conclusions are drawn too quickly, without sufficient argumentation. To give an example, Chaouli at one point contemplates what Kant has in mind when he talks about artworks that lack spirit, though not taste (178–81; §49, 5:313). To shed light on this, he brings in two passages. In the first, where Kant claims that a work—whose purpose is enjoyment through sensation, but without making us think of different ideas—will bore us eventually and itself become loathsome (§52, 5:326). The other is a passage where Kant states that art can present everything beautifully, except the disgusting (§48, 5:312). On the basis of these passages, Chaouli concludes that spiritless art is nonart and that it causes us to be nauseated by the object and by ourselves. Important questions, such as why spiritless art is not art (especially given Kant's claim that if sacrifice is necessary it should be on the side of spirit instead of taste [§50, 5:319–20]), or why engagement with spiritless art leads to disgust with oneself, are left unanswered. These kinds of conclusions are not rare...