The Experience of Art Is Paradise Regained:
Kant on Free and Dependent Beauty
In the Critique of Judgment, Kant presents what is possibly the most powerful aesthetic theory ever devised. It is not the clearest, and even when it comes clear, it is only after much toil. But its contradictions and complexities — apparent or real — reflect and disclose to great depth the very complexities and paradoxes that infect our artistic and aesthetic lives. Later aestheticians have with greater sophistication directed attention to the social and historical aspects of institutionalised fine arts, but in terms of providing philosophic provocations to take us deep into the centres of aesthetic experience, the Critique of Judgment is unmatched — the most important work of aesthetic theory since Aristotle’s Poetics. In the minds of many of us, its supremacy in aesthetics remains unchallenged today.
Even in its stumblings and uncertainties, the Critique of Judgment demonstrates Kant’s openness to a surprising variety of aesthetic and related experience: alluded to or discussed are artistic genius, nature, wallpaper designs, birdsong, flowers, poetry, artificial flowers, landscape gardening, oratory, flute imitations of birdsong, churches, sculpture, color versus design in art, tattooing, gold picture frames, the sublime, eighteenth-century Muzak — Tafelmusik — the integrity of the environment and our moral responsibility toward it, charm and emotion, charlatan-scholars, and even jokes — why they are funny and why laughing at them is good for you.
Kant’s rich collage of examples and argument is combined with broad, systematic ambitions. He puts forward a series of what might seem unrelated declarations and tries to tie them into a coherent philosophic structure, one which accords not only with aesthetic experience, but with the other great pillars of Kant’s thought, the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason. There are the claims that (1) aesthetic perception — strictly demarcated from the good and the sensuously agreeable — is a form of disinterested contemplation; (2) despite their inherent subjectivity, judgments of aesthetic taste demand universal assent; (3) the fundamental quality possessed by works of nature or art which makes them aesthetically appealing to us is their aesthetic form, “purposiveness without purpose”; (4) an underlying universal human nature makes possible interpersonal — indeed, intercultural — agreement on art works; (5) art works are singular creations of individual genius, rather than products of teachable, rule-governed technique.
There is a cost, however, for these bold, systematic aspirations. For though Kant has a sure instinct for the central problems of aesthetics — this despite limited and quirky personal artistic predilections1 — in the Critique of Judgment he is to some uncertain extent working out problems as he goes along. Much more than in the two critiques that precede it, the Third Critique develops and modifies positions as it progresses, with the result that the text often displays equivocation, inconsistency, and obscurity. It seems to me that the general appreciation of Kant’s aesthetics is hindered, rather than helped, by the reluctance of Kant’s modern commentators recognize and point out significant discrepancies in his presentation. Too many commentators prefer to overlook the flatly irreconcilable nature of some of Kant’s claims, as though at some deeper level they must all be joined into a coherent whole. But while it is doubtful that an underlying coherence can be retrieved from beneath every apparent inconsistency in the Critique of Judgment, there is no significant inconsistency in Kant’s discussion from which persistent philosophers cannot learn something of importance in aesthetics. In this essay I concentrate on one such seeming inconsistency.
A major claim of the Third Critique is that the beautiful is “that which pleases without a concept.” As this thesis is introduced in §4, it means that judgments of taste must be carefully distinguished as a different species from judgments of the good: to call something good is either to designate it as good for something — i.e., useful — or to say that we like it for its own sake. “In both senses of the term,” Kant says, “the good always contains the concept of a purpose...,” and judgments of the beautiful can involve no appeal to an extrinsic purpose. Kant elaborates: “In order to consider something good, I must always know what sort of thing the object is [meant] to be, i.e., I must have a concept of it. But I do not need this in order to find beauty in something. Flowers, free designs, lines aimlessly intertwined and called foliage: these have no significance, depend on no determinate concept, and yet we like them”(§4.2).2 Aesthetic judgments, as he continues in §5, are “merely contemplative,” and this contemplation is not “directed to concepts, for a judgment of taste is not a cognitive judgment (whether theoretical or practical) and hence is neither based on concepts, nor directed to them as purposes.” It follows that, in contrast with sensuous gratification or our approval of the good, our “taste for the beautiful is disinterested and free...” (§5.2). The freedom of the judging subject — conceived as a freedom from the need or desire for personal satisfaction or gratification — is further stressed in the next section: “the judging person feels completely free as regards the liking he accords the object” (§6.1). The freedom of a proper aesthetic judgment is, by the time he has reached §13, associated with the notion of purity: “a pure judgment of taste” is based solely on “purposiveness of the form” of an object, and “is not influenced by charm or emotion.”
Up until §16, Kant uses the terms “free” and “pure” most often to refer to qualities of aesthetic perception: “if a judgment of beauty is mingled with the least interest then it is...not a pure judgment of taste”(§2.1); “only the liking involved in taste for the beautiful is disinterested and free”(§5.2); “the judging person feels completely free as regards the liking he accords [the beautiful]”(§6.1).3 Starting with §9, the word “free” tends to be used in describing the free play of the imagination and understanding in the experience of the beautiful.
At §13, “A Pure Judgment of Taste Is Independent of Charm and Emotion,” he makes the first of a series of concessions which undercut the apparently clear and uncompromised character of his account of aesthetic judgment. Here he is concerned to proscribe the influence of charms and emotions: “Any taste remains barbaric if its liking requires the charms and emotions be mingled in, let alone if it makes these the standard of its approval.” Intriguingly, however, he turns around immediately to admit the inevitability of this barbarism: not only are charms frequently included with beauty, they are often “passed off” as beauties, “so that the matter of the liking is passed off as the form”(§13.2). This is a misunderstanding, he goes on to explain, which “can be eliminated by carefully defining these concepts.” What is significant here in light of his later concessions about the purity of aesthetic judgment is that Kant does not say that charms and emotions should (or can) be removed from the aesthetic response, only that they must be distinguished from form: “A pure judgment of taste is one that is not influenced by charm or emotion (though these may be connected with a liking for the beautiful), and whose determining basis is therefore merely the purposiveness of the form”(§13.3). The parenthetical concession is crucial: strictly determined judgments of taste may now be connected with such barbarous elements as charms and emotions, so long as they are not determined by them. Kant is in the process of changing his thinking: for what began as a discussion intent on boldly declaring the properties of “pure” aesthetic judgments becoming entangled in the muddles and complexities of our normal, everyday responses to beauty. This, as we shall see, is but a first step toward the ultimate abandonment of free beauty.
Kant’s doubts and hesitations about aesthetic purity are brought to a head at §16, long-windedly entitled, “A Judgment of Taste by Which We Declare an Object Beautiful under the Condition of a Determinate Concept Is Not Pure.” Kant again reverts here to the adjectives “free” and “pure,” but now to distinguish “free beauty” (pulchritudo vaga) from “dependent beauty” (pulchritudo adhaerens) — which he also calls accessory or adherent or fixed beauty.4 This distinction directly contradicts the major initiating premise of the Critique of Judgment, according to which the beautiful is defined as that which “without a concept, is liked universally” (conclusion of the second moment, following §9). This definition, however, cannot be made to accord with the account of dependent beauty, which according to Kant does presuppose such a concept, “as well as the object’s perfection in terms of that concept.” As Geoffrey Scarre remarks, Kant’s introduction of dependent beauty as a legitimate form of beauty “is like apologizing for making a ‘secondary sort of apple pie’ when, having found you are out of apples and cannot make the pie you have promised, you have made a raspberry pie instead.”5 Ruth Lorand is another commentator who agrees with this view, bluntly rejecting the notion that the distinction can be rescued by clarifying Kant’s intentions in drawing it.6 Such attempts are “completely wasted effort,” she contends, because the distinction is not just vaguely expressed, but “rests solely on a mistake and serves no purpose in his or any other theory.” Free and dependent beauty, she goes so far as to claim, share no common property, and therefore cannot be two kinds of the same thing. This seems to me overstated: though the free beauty of §16 and the sense of beauty that precedes it conflict in their relationships with concepts, both forms of beauty do please in acts of disinterested contemplation, and to that extent still share something in common. Nevertheless, Lorand’s essential point is indisputable: Kant’s acceptance of dependent beauty overturns his fundamental understanding of beauty in general as expressed up to the point where the free/dependent distinction is introduced.
The case to be put in §16 seems to begin clearly enough: “Free beauty does not presuppose a concept of what the object is [meant] to be. ... The free kinds of beauty are called (self-subsistent) beauties of this or that thing”(§16.1). Kant’s first example of free beauty is flowers. “Hardly anyone,” he says, “apart from a botanist knows what sort of thing a flower is [meant] to be; even he, while recognizing it as the reproductive organ of a plant, pays no attention to this natural purpose when he judges a flower by taste.” If we make a judgement about a flower, we refer to no “intrinsic purposiveness” of the object, and need no notion of a “perfection” of a flower. Kant continues with other examples: the parrot, the hummingbird, the bird of paradise, and crustaceans. None of these is determined by concepts of purpose, “but we like them freely and on their own account.” He then extends the list to include “designs à la greque, the foliage on borders or on wallpaper, etc.” These things “mean nothing on their own: they represent nothing, no object under a determinate concept....” Kant then adds “What we call fantasias in music (namely, music without a topic), indeed all music not set to words, may also be included in the same class.” He continues:
When we judge free beauty (according to mere form) then our judgment of taste is pure. Here we presuppose no concept of any purpose for which the manifold is to serve the given object, and hence no concept [as to] what the object is meant to represent; our imagination is playing, as it were, while it contemplates the shape, and such a concept would only restrict its freedom.
Dependent beauty, on the other hand, is a “merely adherent beauty,” which “does presuppose the concept of the purpose that determines what the thing is [meant] to be, and hence a concept of its perfection....” The first example he gives for dependent or accessory beauty is the beauty of a human being, adding subordinate to that the beauty of a man or a woman or a child. He then mentions the beauty of a horse, or of a building, adding as subordinate, a church, palace, arsenal, or summer house (§16.4):
Now just as a connection of beauty, which properly concerns only form, with the agreeable (the sensation) prevented the judgment of taste from being pure, so does a connection of beauty with the good (i.e., as to how, in terms of a thing’s purpose, the manifold is good for the thing itself) impair the purity of a judgment of taste. (§16.4)
Despite the contradiction noted by Lorand and others, Kant must have meant to achieve something in drawing the distinction, but what? There are a handful of chapters and articles by commentators which give varying interpretations of the distinction between free and dependent beauty.7 Each places a different stress on the strands of meaning in Kant’s text; I have found no interpretation of Kant for which some textual evidence cannot be adduced. Putting text and commentators together, there seem to be three dominant points of emphasis in construing dependent beauty.
(i) Dependent beauty appeals to the perfection of a type. The section immediately preceding §16 is entitled, “A Judgment of Taste is Wholly Independent of the Concept of Perfection.” It is in part a direct response to Alexander Baumgarten,8 but it is also a powerful and sophisticated attack on an idea as old as Plato and current in the eighteenth century: that beauty is found in the perfection of a type. The free/dependent beauty distinction of §16 continues this line of resistance: to call something (dependently) beautiful is to situate it in relation to an ideal archetype of the kind of thing it is, and thus is an impure judgment.9 Thus one might call an orchid beautiful because it is a nearly perfect specimen of its species. This Platonic reading of the distinction would presumably make the concept of dependent beauty of practical value to the competition judges of flower and dog breeders’ associations, who require check-lists of features against which to measure “aesthetic” quality. This sense of dependent beauty is unquestionably high in Kant’s thinking, being much discussed both in §15 and in §17, “On the Ideal of Beauty.”
(ii) Dependent beauty involves the observation of decorum with regard to an object. This is Geoffrey Scarre’s interpretation of dependent beauty: when we judge aesthetically “we should look at it not only from the point of view of its free beauty, but should also ask ourselves whether it is fitting that an object of its type should possess whatever features make it beautiful”(pp.357-58). This interpretation of dependent beauty, though limited in its application, is strongly supported by the above-mentioned examples Kant adduces :
Much that would be liked directly in intuition could be added to a building, if only the building were not [meant] to be a church. A figure could be embellished with all sorts of curlicues and light but regular lines, as the New Zealanders do with their tattoos, if only it were not the figure of a human being. (§16.5)
The sense of dependency here is that the beauty of a church or the figure of a man will be limited by our sense of decorum, of what we ought to allow a church or a man to be: the spirals and curlicues of Maori moko (tattooing) are well and good, but not, Kant thinks, appropriate for a human face. For a more recent example, consider a remark in The Happy Isles of Oceania, where Paul Theroux observes that the Mormon churches of Tonga look like Dairy Queen franchises. While there is presumably nothing particularly wrong with looking like a Dairy Queen outlet, churches, Theroux seems to think, ought not to look like them.10
(iii) Dependent beauty requires only that an object be recognized as an object of some kind. This possibility is already suggested by the way Kant introduces the distinction at §16.1: While free beauty does not presuppose a concept of what an object is meant to be, dependent beauty does presuppose such as concept — to which Kant then adds the clause, “as well as the object’s perfection in terms of that concept”(§16.1). The wording here indicates that (1) the concept of an object, and (2) an object’s perfection in terms of that concept, are separable notions in the way Kant regards dependent beauty. Often Kant speaks of what a dependently beautiful object is “meant to be,” without mentioning anything about perfection: churches and children are subject to judgments of dependent beauty, though there is no reason to believe that Kant thought there was some conception of perfect child or perfect church against which they might be judged. (In fact, this point is explicitly made in the next section, at 17.3, where Kant denies it would be possible to ascertain the “fixed” beauty of, e.g., a mansion, because its “purposes are not sufficiently determined and fixed by their concept.”)
Kant had begun the Critique of Judgment with an account the disinterested experience of beauty, considered as an apparently coherent and unified notion — contemplated form which pleases universally without a concept. By the time he reaches §16, however, he has had time to consider many examples of natural and artificial beauty and has become troubled by the relation of cognition to aesthetic experience; hence he feels the need to distinguish free from dependent beauty. This impossible notion of dependent beauty — impossible, in any event, on a strict construal of his initial position — is found more and more to influence his further thinking and discussion. While he remains adamant (in §17, for example) that judgments according to an ideal standard stand apart from pure judgments of taste, the forms and varieties of dependent beauty dominate his thinking though the remainder of the “Analytic of the Beautiful.”
It therefore should not surprise when he finally comes around in §48, “On the Relation of Genius to Taste,” to the position that all artistic beauty is dependent beauty. He still insists in §48 that in order to judge natural beauty, we need no concept of what kind of thing an object is meant to be. But when we declare a work of art beautiful, Kant says, “then we must first base it on a concept of what the thing is [meant] to be, since art always presupposes a purpose in the cause (and its causality).” He continues speaking here of an object’s perfection, but he has in mind a more complicated sense than earlier in §§15-17, where perfection was still conceived as a fixed, external standard or archetype. Perfection is now described as a “harmony of a thing’s manifold with an intrinsic determination of the thing, i.e., with its purpose....” Kant is not completely explicit here (§48.4), but we may imagine that a (dependently) beautiful knife should not only have a beautiful form, but, being a knife, should also look sharp, well-balanced, etc. It is not, however, just decorated utilitarian objects Kant has in mind, but all human artistic creations, since they embody in some way a purpose or intentional meaning. This, it now seems, would apply retrospectively even to those examples he earlier gave of free beauty in §16, such as abstract music and wallpaper designs, since they are the products of human design.
There are three ways to respond to Kant’s shift in thinking. One is to dismiss entirely the account of dependent beauty as a mistake, and to insist that by Kant’s expressly defended criteria, dependent beauty is not beauty at all. As this would remove from Kant’s aesthetics almost everything we would designate as works of art, this strategy is obviously unacceptable. A second tack is to try to reconcile free and dependent beauty. While some commentators, such as Robert Stecker,11 have worked hard toward a reconciliation, I ultimately agree with Ruth Lorand that such a reconciliation is strictly impossible.12 A third alternative, the one which I now propose, is to acknowledge that Kant is saddled with a contradiction, but to find the solution in abandoning the idea of free beauty. In fact, though he never overtly admits it, the concessions of §48 show that this is the direction in which Kant was inevitably drawn as the discussion of the Critique of Judgment progressed.
Before continuing, however, let us consider two approaches to the issue of free and dependent beauty, by two of Kant’s most astute commentators, Donald Crawford and Hans-Georg Gadamer. Crawford prefers to locate the distinction between free and dependent beauty more in the character of appreciation and judgment, than in the nature of the object judged.13 This strategy has much to recommend it. Crawford notes Kant’s remark that the botanist may “pay no regard” to the concept of a flower as a reproductive organ in judging it as a free beauty. Most non-botanists wouldn’t even have to do that, Kant seems to presume: they do not think scientifically of the flower, but view it only as a free beauty anyway. Nevertheless, Kant says, in addition to being ignorant of the purpose of a beauty, it is possible for a knowledgeable person to “abstract” from judgment a knowledge of purpose. As Crawford says, “Kant’s remarks here seem to indicate that just as we can abstract from charm and emotion, and must so abstract if our judgment of taste is to be pure, so we can abstract from any concept of a purpose determining the form of what we care considering.” The distinction between free and dependent beauty, Crawford says, “is not in terms of what is present; the distinction between free and dependent beauty is one concerning how the object is judged”(p.114). This accords with much of §16, and is especially emphasized by the section’s last paragraph, where Kant writes:
A judgment of taste about an object that has a determinate intrinsic purpose would be pure only if the judging person either had no concept of this purpose, or is abstracted from it in making his judgment. But although he would in that case have made a correct judgment of taste, by judging the object as a free beauty, another person who (looking only to the object’s purpose) regarded the beauty in it as only an accessory characteristic, would still censure him and accuse him of having wrong taste, even though each is judging correctly in his own way, the one by what he has before his senses, the other by what he has in his thoughts. If we make this distinction we can settle many quarrels that judges of taste have about beauty, by showing them that the one is concerned with free and the other with accessory beauty, the one making a pure and the other an applied judgment of taste. (§16.8)
I will have more to say about this important passage later on, but note for now yet another shift in Kant’s thinking: §16, which began — in line with many passages that precede it — by emphasizing two kinds of beauty by distinguishing kinds of object, ends by seeming to transform the issue into one about kinds of judgment about objects of, apparently, any kind. According to Crawford, “Attention to formal purposiveness is regard for an object’s free beauty; attention to the extent to which the object manifests those characteristics that are the criteria for the application of a concept constitutes regard for an object’s dependent beauty.” This is consistent with the aesthetic-attitude implications of Kant’s original notion of disinterested perception; the problem for this passage is that it is significantly inconsistent with much of what he says elsewhere in the Critique of Judgment about beauty. The free/dependent distinction cannot be wholly a matter of mode of attention, apprehension, or choosing a viewpoint, because this would amount to psychologizing the beautiful, which for Kant is unthinkable. From the very beginning of the Critique of Judgment, we are told that the evidential foundation for aesthetic judgment cannot be other than subjective. The subjective experience of beauty is for Kant, however, an experience of something — that is why Kant is troubled to make a distinction between kinds of beauty, free and dependent, in the first place. These are the objects whose qualities have the capacity to provoke aesthetic experience, and it is the nature of those qualities that is here in question.
Consider, in relation to this issue, the little narrative he provides in his discussion of the response to natural beauty at §42. A lover of natural beauty always takes what Kant calls a direct, “intellectual” interest in nature, not only admiring it for its form, but also requiring its existence:
Suppose we had secretly played a trick on this lover of the beautiful, sticking in the ground artificial flowers (which can be manufactured to look very much like natural ones) or perching artfully carved birds in the branches of trees, and suppose he had then discovered the deceit. The direct interest he previously took in these things would promptly vanish — though perhaps it would be replaced by a different interest, an interest of vanity, to use these things to decorate his room for the eyes of others. (§42.4)
A few paragraphs later Kant imagines how, having enjoyed the song of a nightingale on a quiet, moonlit summer evening, we would react to the revelation that the song has actually been produced by some clever, roguish boy hiding in the bushes with a reed in his mouth: “our interest vanishes completely as soon as we realize that we have been deceived”(§42.10).
In passage after passage, Kant makes it plain that the Critique of Judgment is not only about the logic and justification of judgments of taste, but also about the actual properties of beauties, natural and artistic; to my knowledge there is no overt suggestion by Kant anywhere outside the last paragraph of §16 that anything could be transformed into a beauty merely my adjusting the properties of our attention to it. There is no hint, for example, that in the moonlit night we can regain the sense of the beauty of the moment by adjusting our perception, by listening to the boy’s fluting “as if” it were that of a nightingale.14 The first sentence of the third Critique may propose that the appreciation of beauty involves referring the presentation of the object to the imagination, rather than cognition, but neither this sweeping claim nor its subjectivist implications are much supported by Kant after §16. Quite to the contrary, the magic of the moonlit moment in the present example requires that we “refer the presentation [i.e., our perception of the sound] to the object so as to give rise to cognition” — that is, that we cognize the fact that the sound is produced by a nightingale, and not by a boy. The contemplation of the presentation — independent of any notion of its actual source — cannot in itself be enough. Little wonder, then, that consideration of Kant’s examples of free and dependent beauty drives Crawford to the conclusion that Kant “may not be entirely clear on what distinction he is attempting to draw” (p.116).
Gadamer agrees not only that there is obscurity and confusion in the distinction, he also insists that it is “a particularly dangerous doctrine for the understanding of art.”15 His discussion of the distinction is presented as part of his general argument that the Critique of Judgment has resulted in the unfortunate “subjectivization” of aesthetics. His difficulty with the free/dependent beauty distinction, however, that it concentrates on aesthetics to the point of leaving us without an adequate philosophy of art. For Gadamer recognizes that it is not just tattooing and church design that fall outside the limits of free beauty, and therefore the judgment of taste, but all of what we normally class as art, including
the whole realm of poetry, of the plastic arts and of architecture, as well as all the objects of nature that we do not look at simply in terms of their beauty, as we do decorative flowers. It seems impossible to do justice to art if aesthetics is founded on the “pure judgment of taste” — unless the criterion of taste is made merely a precondition....Here (in §16) the standpoint of taste is so far from being a mere precondition that, rather, it claims to exhaust the nature of aesthetic judgment and protect it from being limited by “intellectual” criteria.
The privileged aesthetic position, Gadamer notes, is given to free beauty in a way that “fits neither Kant’s words nor his subject matter.” While Gadamer senses the grave problem Kant has made for himself in the free/dependent distinction, he is unclear as to how the problem might be resolved. Nevertheless, he does begin to hint at one idea which I wish to develop in the remainder of this discussion.
Freedom and dependency, Gadamer seems to suggest, are aspects of all aesthetic responses. “Looking to a concept,” Gadamer says, “does not abrogate freedom of the imagination.” He goes on:
Without contradicting himself, Kant can describe it as a legitimate condition of aesthetic pleasure that there is no conflict between purposive elements. And as it was artificial to isolate beauties which exist freely in themselves (“taste,” in any case, seems to prove itself most where not only the right thing is chosen, but the right thing for the right place), so also one can and must go beyond the standpoint of the pure judgment of taste by saying that one certainly cannot speak of beauty when a particular concept of the understanding is illustrated schematically through the imagination, but only when the imagination is in free harmony with the understanding — i.e., where it can be productive. The imaginative productivity is not richest where it is merely free, however, as in the convolutions of the arabesque, but rather in a field of play where the understanding’s desire for unity does not so much confine as suggest incitements to play.
Gadamer here is moving toward two ideas in which I propose are to be found a way of resolving Kant’s problems with free and dependent beauty: (1) dependent beauty is beauty that emerges from and is conditioned by a presuppositional background, and conversely (2) Kant’s deepest philosophic difficulty is not with dependent, but with free beauty.
The commentators who have discussed free and dependent beauty have tended to concentrate on the obstrusive awkwardness of dependent beauty in Kant’s scheme.16 If we take seriously the argument up till §16, dependent beauty does indeed muddy what had seemed relatively clear waters. But the clarity of Kant’s position on the issue was an illusion from the start. It is not dependent beauty that creates the paradox of §16 and thereby undermines Kant’s argument, but rather free beauty. While he does mention palaces in §2, much of Kant’s initial discussion centers on that simplest of cases of free beauty, the flower. Soon he refers to other natural objects — birds, beasts, shells — and, at last, to intentional objects, works of art of every description. The sense of progression here is from the simplest examples to the more problematic; in fact, as Gadamer grasps, this sense is most deceptive.
For the problem Kant faces is that free beauties of the sort he initially posits as objects of aesthetic attention are not experienced in anything like the way he wants to describe. Not even Kant’s own chosen examples from nature achieve freedom from concepts in the manner §16 seems to imply. “Flowers,” he says, “are free natural beauties,” and a judgment of taste applied to a flower, Kant claims, would be “based on no perfection of any kind....” Of any kind? What of a flower that is wilted, or whose white petals show brown spots? In the judging of a flower, it is possible to disregard its botanical aspects, but there are still criteria and presuppositions associated with beauty in flowers which remain relevant to such judgments. This is not to insist that these concepts and ideas (freshness, wilt, petal flaws, etc.) necessarily compel a judgment one way or the other in every case — there may be individual flowers whose beauty is accentuated by virtue of being wilted or spotted — but these qualities are always relevant to the experience of beauty in flowers.
Consider Kant’s example of seashells. On his superficially uncomplicated account, they are free beauties, which we assess purely in terms of their own decontextualized form. And yet, who ever experiences a seashell in this manner? In the more normal course of events, one finds a shell on the beach which catches attention with, say, a lovely spiral pattern of green with yellow flecks outside and a pink, porceline-like interior. It’s lovely — but wait, there’s another, even nicer one. Later we find a still better specimen. We by now may have begun a career as a shell-collecting aesthete. All of this activity — this seeking out, identifying, comparing, admiring — involves concepts. Even the very first shell a small child encounters, assuming it doesn’t know what seashells are, would be subject to comparisons: to, for example, the porcelain tiles in the bath, or a plastic toy. Later on, when we know the genre, so to speak, we become adept at sorting especially fine from mediocre specimens. We might become connoisseurs of seashell shape or color. The aesthetic appreciation of seashells, whether done at the seashore, in a museum, or in the study of an eighteenth-century philosopher, presupposes some context, a background of precedents, comparisons, types, and an indefinitely long list of other information.17
Kant’s aspiration to isolate a notion of autonomous, “self-subsistent” beauty, which dominates the early sections of the Critique of Judgment, is an attempt to discover a decontextualized beauty which exists independent of the desires and designs of human beings. Human desires and intentions are enmeshed, which is why he concentrates on the disinterested contemplation of “pure” cases of beautiful natural objects, such as flowers, seashells, and birdsong, in the early sections: all of these are free from intentions and other human meanings in their determination.18 But though judgments of their beauty may not be cognitively determined by concepts (in the way that concepts determine the quality of fruits being graded for market), they are hardly independent of concepts. It is plain that Kant had not completely thought this issue through, though much of his meaning is apparent nonetheless. Lobsters and hummingbirds are free beauties, and horses dependent beauties because in Kant’s thinking the former are remote from human practices and intentions, and latter intimately involved with them (even more in the eighteenth century than today). Again, to cite another of Kant’s examples, nonprogrammatic music may be free from its dependency on representation, and in that sense free from one kind of conceptual determination, but nowhere does (or could) he suggest that it is free from the structures, norms, and conventional expectations of tonal European music and its history. Another of his instances, abstract or floral wallpaper designs, are free from dependency on pictorial representation — they are not a form of portraiture — but they are not free from concepts and associations; floral wallpaper designs are floral.
Paul Guyer presents a speculative interpretation of dependent beauty which takes its lead from Kant’s remark on churches and tattooing. These examples, Guyer says, suggest that “the relation between purpose and dependent beauty is a negative one: the purpose functions to constrain the forms which may produce the harmony of the faculties but not to fully determine them.” The “perfections” Kant speaks of “constrain the imagination rather than guide it in its reflection.”19 So the intricate designs which the Maori apply in tattoos would be excellent, perhaps, engraved on a Maori war club, but they are incompatible with the dignity of a human face, just as looking like a fast-food restaurant is incompatible with being a church. Seen in this way, the conditioning concepts of dependent beauties set limits, necessary conditions not to be violated, but they do not provide sufficient conditions for the occurrence of the beautiful. They are purely negative, informing us what a work of art must not be.
Guyer’s interpretation is unquestionably correct, as far as it goes: Kant does talk about how a liking for beauty may be “made to depend on,” and hence can be “restricted by” the concept of a purpose, though this makes an aesthetic judgment “a rational judgment, and so it is no longer a free and pure judgment of taste”(§16.7). That this cannot be the whole of Kant’s meaning, however, is shown in Kant’s very next sentence, which expresses a possibility the importance of which has been missed by all of Kant’s commentators, except perhaps Gadamer: “It is true,” Kant writes, “that taste gains by such a connection of aesthetic with intellectual liking, for it becomes fixed and, though it is not universal, rules can be prescribed for it with regard to certain objects that are purposively determined”(§16.8).
What is it that taste gains by connecting aesthetic with what he calls here intellectual liking? The answer is a set or system of background rules, forms, or structures — usually provided by a cultural tradition — within or against which the “purposively determined” aesthetic object, i.e., the work of art, emerges. As we have seen, the conditioning concepts necessarily rule out some features that a work of dependent beauty might have, though they are never, as Kant repeatedly stresses, sufficient to determine beauty, or ensure its presence. But there is a yet another sense of “conditions for beauty” which are necessary but not sufficient: enabling conditions. These are the underlying conditions — the structures, forms, grammars, styles, vocabularies, techniques, customs, standards, habits, conventional values — of any art. Kant often talks in terms consistent with a regard for the enabling conditions of dependent beauty, and is sometimes quite explicit, for example in a key remark in the section, “Fine Art Is the Art of Genius”:
For every art presupposes rules, which serve as a foundation on which a product, if it is to be called artistic, is thought of as possible in the first place. (§46.3)
These rules provide a springboard for the activity of genius. Consider the unKantian example of music: the tempered twelve-tone scale of Western (and much non-Western) music has not in the normal course of things tolerated quarter-tones between the notes of the scale: such notes sound “out of tune.” This is but one of the countless respects in which all musical beauty is dependent (even “fantasias without a theme”) because musical art is governed by the basic rules and implications of the tempered scale. Even where these rules are bent, tested, replaced, or broken — at one time in musical history parallel fifths are to be avoided, at another, exploited — they form the system of regularities and expectations against which music is made. These very structures make it possible for music to happen; they condition music and are presupposed by it. Music as an intelligible art form depends on them: what they give back in return for their “restrictions” is, as Kant says, that they enable the art of music to be “possible in the first place.”
There is in this view no implicit endorsement of any kind of artistic traditionalism on Kant’s part: the Rite of Spring and Duchamp’s Fountain need an established musical or artistic culture as surely as any early Mozart symphony or postmodernist pastiche. The potential of any work of purposive aesthetic imagination to move us (or excite, surprise, bore, or repel us) depends on how the aesthetic object stands out from — or is created against, perhaps — its presuppositional background. One of the potential aesthetic pleasures of music is, for example, its capacity to surprise us. But surprise is only conceivable within a conditioning context of “normal” expectations — in a context where anything can happen, there can be no surprises, and neither delight nor disgust in contemplating them. Kant frequently stresses the restrictive and limiting character of background conditions, and many of his commentators, such as Guyer, have justifiably emphasized the negative aspects of dependent beauty. But Kant also recognizes the capacity of the rules of art not just to limit, but to incite the free imagination and provide it with material, for instance in the way that Kant shows himself over and over again to be opposed to any coercive role for tradition in the arts. In his defense of poetry as the “highest” of the arts, he says that poetry “owes its origin almost entirely to genius and is least open to guidance by precept or examples.” Poetry is praised for its ability to “expand” the mind, “for it sets the imagination free, and offers us, from the unlimited variety of possible forms that harmonize with a given concept, though within that concept’s limits, that form which links the exhibition of the concept with a wealth of thought to which no linguistic expression is completely adequate, and so poetry rises aesthetically to ideas”(§53.1). Poetry does not, however, set the mind free from the language and culture that constitutes the determinate background from which the imagination of both poet and reader float free; poetic freedom would not be possible without it, as Kant rather ponderously explains:
A poet ventures to give sensible expression to rational ideas of invisible beings, the realm of the blessed, the realm of hell, eternity, creation, and so on. Or, again, he takes [things] that are indeed exemplified in experience, such as death, envy, and all the other vices, as well as love, fame, and so on; but then, by means of an imagination that emulates the example of reason in reaching [for] a maximum, he ventures to give these sensible expression in a way that goes beyond the limits of experience, namely, with a completeness for which no example can be found in nature. (§49.5)
If we interpret the free/dependent beauty distinction as not only about the assignment of an object to a category (with its concomitant perfections), but also about the more general presupposed background conditions for artistic practice and critical judgments, it throws into new light Kant’s normally overlooked final sentence in §16: “If we make this distinction we can settle many quarrels that judges of taste [Geschmacksrichter; Meredith translates, “critics”] have about beauty, by showing them that one is concerned with free and the other with accessory beauty, the one making a pure and the other an applied judgment of taste.” This important remark is consistent with the free/dependent distinction being concerned with the enabling conditions of artistic creativity, if we include one crucial qualification: strictly speaking, Kant cannot here be talking about pure, free, autonomous, self-subsistent beauty versus dependent, adherent, accessory beauty. As we have seen, Kant himself comes ultimately to the position that all artistic beauty is dependent. How then can the free/dependent distinction function to settle disputes between critics, since no works of art are, strictly speaking, free beauties? The answer (which incidentally clears much of the confusion over freedom and dependency) is that the free/dependent distinction slides according to whatever aspect of a work is being attended to: what, therefore, counts as “free” or “dependent” is contextually determined. This does not psychologize the distinction, but it does make its application contextually dependent to the extent that it makes it in part an issue of aspect-recognition. Once this is grasped we can understand why Kant is precisely correct in his claim that the distinction is useful in settling quarrels among critics.
The “free” aspect of any artistic performance — whether writing, composing, painting, singing, sculpting, or, to use another of Kant’s favored examples, landscape gardening — is what is creatively achieved against a regulating, “fixed” backdrop. This regulating backdrop may include something as narrow as a musical score, the text of a play, a model, or a libretto. Or it may be very broad, perhaps vague: a tradition, culture, or language. It may include elements uniquely specific to the individual work, such as the demands of a particular artistic commission. Such considerations can be developed into a way of distinguishing the so-called creative from performing arts: we deem arts creative when they have relatively more vague background conditions, but performing when the background conditions are narrowing defined (e.g., by a score or play-text). So the freedom of the portrait artist is the freedom to imaginatively recreate a human face, but it will be both incited and limited by the portrait subject; the poet’s imaginative creativity may be relatively unbounded, but even it is played out against the background of the vocabulary, grammar, syntax, conventions, associations, and history of language. A composer’s creativity consists in the ability make a musical work within the context of a tradition; a musical performer’s creativity consists in imaginatively recreating the notes of the score. In each of these cases, the free aspect of beauty — what Kant calls pure form — can only come into being against an already-given determining background of human structures, ideas, rules, which he calls the “foundation” for any art.
It follows from this that the free/dependent distinction is curiously parallel to Aristotle’s form/matter distinction: it will be employed differently depending on the occasion or the aspect of an artistic work to attend to.20 For Aristotle, whether an object counts as form or matter is a function of how it is seen in a context: these terms do not refer to fixed essences. Thus in one domain clay is matter and the shape of a brick is form: both together explain the brick we see before us. In another context, however, the finished brick may itself become matter to be used in the construction of a house or a wall, the design of which becomes form. Just as form and matter are sliding aspects of objects which unite them, so freedom and dependency are relative aspects of beautiful objects. Kant can therefore say that non-programmatic musical fantasias fall in the class of free beauties, although such freedom is only relative, to be contrasted with the more narrow determination of program music. Even Bach’s (or his sons’) keyboard fantasias — which Kant possibly had in mind — remain dependent on the tempered scale, available instrumentations, and so forth.
At another level, once a Bach fantasia is fixed in a score, it becomes the determinate backdrop for the free imaginative acts of other musicians. In general, the composition of a piece of music at any historical moment will be a free act which depends for its aesthetic meaning on the tradition, even though the tradition cannot wholly determine it (genius alone can do that). When, centuries later, a musician performs the fantasia, then the score, regarded now from the standpoint of performance, becomes the determining background against which a new free artistic (i.e., interpretive) act is carried out. The performance is now the free beauty relative to the fixed score. The performer has interpretive choices to make, as well as deciding, perhaps, on whether to use a harpsichord or piano. Further complications abound: as a free beauty, a Bach fantasia may become the material for an orchestrator, such as Anton Webern, whose imaginative orchestral arrangement of Bach becomes a new score which provides opportunity for other musicians to undertake yet other free, imaginative interpretations, as performers. Their work may in turn be used by a film-maker as the soundtrack for yet another (cinematic) art work, or by a choreographer for a ballet. Yet another musician may attempt a realization of the Webern transcription on a sound synthesizer. If you switch on the radio to hear the music, you may choose to concentrate attention on the aesthetically imaginative act of Bach, or Webern, or the orchestra, or the conductor, or you may be listening to the music as a film score, or you may be simultaneously listening to a combination of aspects. Each of these aspects of the total sonic experience is in its own way a free beauty — a purposive form — and each constitutes potential material relative to which some other free creative act (orchestrating, conducting, etc.) is waiting to happen. The history of art thus plays itself out.21
Kant himself is notably sensitive to questions of what we might call the relative creativity of various artistic activities, even if his specific opinions about genres are dubious. Poetry, as we have seen, is extolled precisely on account of the considerable indeterminacy of its background conditions, and the “free” style of English gardens (as opposed for the constrained, formal French style) is praised for its capacity is set the imagination free (“General Comment,” following §22). Nevertheless, he says, genius, “since it is an artistic talent...presupposes a determinate concept of the product, namely, its purpose...”(§49.11), and “in the case of beautiful art the aesthetic idea must be prompted by a concept of the object...”(§51.1). In the case of poetry, the generic concepts are in his view much more vague than they are with, say, painting, which must create “sensible illusion”(§51.7). Kant’s failure to speak highly of music’s imaginative potential is obviously based on his lack of personal feelings for it, rather than any philosophical consideration, but his approach suggests that, though imaginative geniuses may be found everywhere in musical life, the greatest composers will always be rated more highly than the finest performers, because their achievement is relatively more free. But no aspect of musical art is “self-subsistent.”
For some commentators, the concessions at §45.2 that “art always has a determinate intention to produce something,” and at §48.4 that “a product of art” must be treated as intentional and therefore dependent, pose a fatal threat to the notion free beauty in art — which for many is one of the most attractive elements of Kant’s aesthetics. But, as the present reading demonstrates, the dependent beauty of art remains free in two senses indicated in §16. The first, about which Kant is entirely explicit, is that artistic beauty is underdetermined by its historical, traditional, and technical conditions. He makes this clear in §17, where Kant says that it is “inconceivable” that there could be an ideally beautiful mansion, tree, or garden, because these concepts are far too open or vague to demand a single realization.22 He also alludes to the vagueness of artistic concepts much later, at the “Solution of the Antinomy of Taste” (§57). The second and deeper sense of free beauty is the manner in which it is the product of unfettered imagination rising above a determining background. Here, I think, we see spelled out the implication of Gadamer’s cryptic aside on freedom and dependency: “imaginative productivity is not richest where it is merely free...but rather in a field of play where the understanding’s desire for unity does not so much confine it as suggest incitements to play.”
Returning to the last sentence of §16, it is now easier to understand why Kant thought that the free/dependent beauty distinction could be useful for settling disputes among critics. Take as an example the critical reception that was provoked by the artistry of the pianist Glenn Gould, particularly in the late 1950s, when Gould was young and new to the musical scene. A pure judgment of taste, Kant says, requires that a critic abstract from the notion of purpose and “judge the object as a free beauty.” Such superior critics must be differentiated from others who will judge artistic performances according to a determinate purpose, treating beauty as an “accessory characteristic.” These latter critics, Kant says, can be counted on to accuse the former of “having wrong taste,” even though each kind of critic “is judging correctly in his own way, the one by what he has before his senses, the other by what he has in his thoughts.” Gould was a pianist whose freely beautiful performances of, for instance, Beethoven, ignored not the score (otherwise they would not be performances of Beethoven) but the performing tradition studied and carried on by most other pianists. This tradition, the looming models of Backhaus, Kempff, and especially Artur Schnabel, was not something Gould ever intended to join, despite the fact that he passionately admired Schnabel. The conventional “perfections” of the “right” way to play Beethoven was not something Gould presupposed as a condition of his music-making. And here was the difficulty Gould continually faced at the hands of his less-imaginative critics: they could not listen to his Beethoven without having in their minds the fixed model of Schnabel and that German tradition. The free beauty of Gould’s interpretations of Beethoven were disturbing to ears only prepared to hear yet another performance in Schnabel’s tradition; hence Gould’s critical advocates no doubt were accused of “having wrong taste.”
Some disputes between critics are doubtless irresolvable. But Kant is correct in supposing that many can be settled at least to the extent that it can be shown that apparently disagreeing critics are actually talking about different aspect of the same work of art. Glenn Gould’s imaginative artistry may not necessarily be to everyone’s liking; there is no question, however, that some music critics failed to understand the nature of Gould’s art. There are many analogous episodes in the history of the arts, especially when we consider the reception of abstraction in painting at the end of the nineteenth century. (Very much the eighteenth-century aesthete, Kant himself viewed painting as essentially representative and would undoubtably have been horrified by abstract expressionism.) In particular, the tendency to evaluate in terms of the authority or “perfection” of a model or tradition is especially pronounced in contemporary music criticism, which has been far more conservative in the twentieth century than, for instance, criticism of painting and sculpture.23
The account of free and dependent beauty given here explains why Kant says that a taste which has been enhanced by the connection of the aesthetic with intellectual liking is “not universal” (§16.7). Such an aesthetic appreciation would presuppose training or enculturation in artistic rules and structures, and with them expectations, comparisons to be made within a genre, familiarity with possibilities for an art form, historical precedents, and so forth. The universality of access to the experience of beauty is therefore limited in the same way that we are limited in understanding speech acts expressed in a natural language: anyone can learn artistic traditions or natural languages, and having learned them can communicate or experience the meanings and beauties found within them. Artistic creations are capable of giving us intense experiences, but their appreciation requires a sufficient knowledge of a shared human experience. In all of this, the permanent problem for criticism and the understanding of new art is, how and to what extent ought critical perception acknowledge the history and background of the art work? To this question, there can be no useful general answer, though it would be consistent with what Kant says throughout the Critique of Judgment to remark that criticism ought to be carried out in a spirit of seeking and enjoying free beauty in whatever context it can be discovered. Criticism too is therefore a demanding, though parasitic, imaginative activity.
Where then does this leave that sense of free beauty with which Kant began the Critique of Judgment — the presuppositionless, “self-subsistent” form to be experienced in a conceptual vacuum, known only through its power to excite the otherwise empty faculties of mind? One could almost say, nowhere. It virtually drops from sight, except as an unrealizable, limiting condition of aesthetic experience. Free beauty was a convenient notion for Kant as a foil against which to measure the corrosive influences on aesthetic judgment of self-interest, desire, charm, sentimentality, and prejudice. But in the fullness of his investigations, Kant comes to the view that such experience for a cultivated, intelligent human being is an impossible ideal. At the same time, however, Kant also discovers that it is unnecessary.
The idea of free beauty has a nearly mythic hold on all who have come under the spell of Kant’s aesthetics. It is almost as though the paradigm of aesthetic experience were the first encounter of Adam with the beauty of nature. Yet even in this first sight of a flower or butterfly, there was something that captured Adam’s eye, a daub of crimson against the mass of green leaves or grey stones, some shape that by comparison thrust itself forward, and so already gained its meaning by that very contrast. Beauty even then presupposed a background, a context. Down the road of human history, far from Eden, when people, no longer satisfied by God’s aesthetic handiwork, started making beautiful things for themselves, the relationship of beauty to context became even more fraught and rich, embodying, as Kant reminds us, vanity and corruption, but radiant exaltation as well. Though the concept of a bare, self-subsistent free beauty is ultimately lost in the infinite complexities of art’s dependence on its human context, the aesthetic purity (and even moral truth) it represents persists for Kant in the capacity of artistic imagination to rise freely above the determinations of history, tradition, and the context of interest and desire. The experience of art is paradise regained.
University of Canterbury, New Zealand
1. Rudolph H. Weingartner, “A Note on Kant’s Aesthetic Interests,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 16 (1957-58): 261-62. Kant had an engraving of Rousseau in his rooms, but no other painting or graphic work. Lewis White Beck, in Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969), surmises that Kant “probably never even saw a beautiful painting or a fine statue”(p. 498). Perhaps, but surely he would have experienced a great many engravings in the books he devoured; this might be connected with his failure to understand the function and importance of color in painted forms (see §§14.7, 51.10). By all reports, Kant had no mind for music; his eccentric, cranky remarks on the subject at the end of Book I and in §53 of the Critique of Judgment attest to this. Nevertheless, his taste for literature, especially poetry, was both broad and highly refined.
2. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment (1790), trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987). This recent translation has already become the English standard for the third Critique, both because of its fluency and its useful scholarly apparatus. All textual citations refer to section/paragraph numbers; in every instance italics indicate Kant’s emphasis. In addition to the German Akademie edition of 1908/13 (rpt; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1968), I have also compared Pluhar with the other English translations, J.H. Bernard’s 1892 version (New York: Hafner, 1951), J.C. Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1911), and Walter Cerf’s partial translation (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963).
3. There are two points prior to §16 at which Kant uses “free” and “pure” to refer to the qualities of the object, rather than the experience: at §4.2, Kant says that in order to consider something good, one must know what it was meant to be, but this is not required in order to find beauty in an object: “Flowers, free designs, lines aimlessly intertwined and called foliage; these have no significance, depend on no determinate concept, and yet we like them.” Free designs here are apparently designs free from the burden of representation. Purity too, an intriguing passage at §14.5, is used once to refer to properties of an object, rather than perception. Kant allows that although color, as mere sensation, normally cannot be subject to judgments of beauty, pure, simple colors — he presumably means unmixed spectral hues — can be beautiful, “insofar as they are pure.” Their purity in itself is a property that can be “abstracted” from the mere sensation, and therefore can be considered as form. This foreshadows the aesthetics of Guy Sircello in A New Theory of Beauty (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975). The concept of purity itself has been recently examined in by Ruth Lorand, in “The Purity of Aesthetic Value,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (1992): 13-21.
4. Vagus for Kant means frei, and also suggests both wandering and diffuseness — hence, connotations of (1) “vagabond” and (2) “vague” (German: vage) beauty. Adhaereo means clinging to something, hanging on, depending on it, being an appendage. It seems to me that Kant’s inclusion of Latin here neither increases nor diminishes the clarity and precision of his distinction.
5. Geoffrey Scarre, “Kant on Free and Dependent Beauty,” British Journal of Aesthetics 21 (1981): 351-62.
6. Ruth Lorand, “Free and Dependent Beauty: A Puzzling Issue,” British Journal of Aesthetics 29 (1989): 32-40.
7. In addition to discussions noted separately, see Salim Kemal, Kant’s Aesthetic Theory: An Introduction (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992), 146-49; Anthony Savile, Aesthetic Reconstructions: The Seminal Writing of Lessing, Kant, and Schiller (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), 114-15; Heinrich Walter Cassirer fails to mention the distinction in A Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Judgement (London: Methuen, 1938).
8. See Beck, Early German Philosophy, pp. 283-86; the original source is Alexander Baumgarten, Aesthetica (Hildesheim: Georg Olms, 1970); see also Mary J. Gregor, “Baumgarten’s Aesthetica,” Review of Metaphysics 37 (1983): 357-85.
9. The perfection of “fixed” purpose in dependent beauty is stressed by Werner Pluhar in his introduction to his translation of the Third Critique, pp. lxvi-lxviii.
10. Paul Theroux, Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific (London: Hamish Hamilton), 272-73.
11. Robert Stecker, “Lorand and Kant on Free and Dependent Beauty,” British Journal of Aesthetics 30 (1990): 71-74. See also Stecker’s “Free Beauty, Dependent Beauty, and Art,” Journal of Aesthetic Education 21 (1987): 89-99.
12. Ruth Lorand, “On Free and Dependent Beauty — A Rejoinder,” British Journal of Aesthetics 32 (1992): 250-53.
13. Donald W. Crawford, Kant’s Aesthetic Theory (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974), 24-26, 56-57, and esp. 113-17.
14. Eva Schaper, in “The ‘As-If’ Element in Aesthetic Thought,” part of her Studies in Kant’s Aesthetics (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1979), defends a reading according to which the notion of purposiveness without purpose depends on seeing the aesthetic object in a particular manner. Despite the virtues of this idea as an strategy for the interpretation of many passages of the Critique of Judgment, it does not well fit the present example, nor the free/dependent beauty distinction. Schaper’s fine summary of Kant’s aesthetics is included in The Cambridge Companion to Kant, ed. Paul Guyer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)
15. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, revised English ed. by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall (New York: Crossroad, 1989), 44-46. See also, Joel Weinsheimer, Gadamer’s Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 82-83.
16. Mention must be made of ten exasperating pages on free and dependent beauty in Jacques Derrida’s The Truth in Painting, trans. Geoff Bennington and Ian McLeod (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987), 91-101. Derrida at least correctly describes the self-deconstructing character of Kant’s conception of free beauty (one would expect no less; but Derrida is like a doctor who diagnoses every patient as having the same disease — once in awhile he cannot help being right). While he performs an amusing etymological ballet with pulchritudo vaga, Derrida trips badly trying to do the same thing with pulchritudo adhaerens. He makes much of the “vague” character of free beauty, describing it as “an indefinite essence, without limit, stretching toward its orient but cutting itself off from it rather than depriving itself of it, absolutely. It does not arrive itself at its destination”(p. 93). This misses the point, absolutely: the vagueness of pulchritudo vaga is not that it is fuzzy, incomplete, indefinite, or never-arrived, but rather that it is vague with regard to how it embodies a purpose or is guided by a concept. A precise, elegant, tight, and singularly beautiful painting can be a “landscape” in an indefinite number of ways. Kant might be occasionally murky, but never as much as Derrida tries to persuade us. Check the last sentence of §47 for what would have been Kant’s judgment on Derrida.
17. Catherine Lord, in “A Note on Ruth Lorand’s ‘Free and Dependent Beauty: A Puzzling Issue’,” British Journal of Aesthetics 31 (1991): 167-68, holds firm to the thesis that Kant’s judgment of taste cannot involve comparison: “the concepts involved in comparison deprive us of the pleasure of making a judgment which is free from any qualification.” Her textual evidence is derived from §8, and she admits, “I do not expect most people to share my feeling that, where beauty is concerned, comparisons are odious.” For an explanation of how comparative judgments of taste can be made acceptable in Kantian aesthetics, see Donald W. Crawford, “Comparative Aesthetic Judgments and Kant’s Aesthetic Theory,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 38 (1980): 289-98.
18. Roger Scruton, in his brief treatment of the free/dependent distinction in his Kant (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), perfectly captures Kant’s ambitions. Free beauty, Scruton says, is “perceived wholly without the aid of conceptual thought....Only in the contemplation of [free beauty] are our faculties able to relax entirely from the burdens of common scientific and practical thought, and enter into that free play which is the ground of aesthetic pleasure. Examples of this free beauty abound in nature, but not in art”(p. 87).
19. Paul Guyer, Kant and the Claims of Taste (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 247. Along with Crawford’s equally splendid Kant’s Aesthetic Theory (note 13, above), Guyer’s book remains an indispensable guide to the Critique of Judgment.
20. In discussing charm, emotion, and the purity of taste, Kant himself distinguishes “sensation,” both at §13.2 and in the last sentence of §14, as “merely the matter of an aesthetic judgment.” Sensation here is understood as the material which is formed in the free play of imagination to yield the aesthetic object. This way is construing form/matter is fixed, and in that respect not perfectly parallel to the free/dependent distinction, which is contextual. For a provocative and highly critical discussion of sensation-as-matter in §§13-14, see Mary A. McCloskey, Kant’s Aesthetic (Albany: SUNY Press, 1987), 61-65.
21. In his well-known account of art and craft, R.G. Collingwood claims that in the realm of craft, but not art, there is a hierarchical relation between crafts, so that “the raw material of one craft is the finished product of another”: the craft of silviculture provides as its end-product material for the craft of the saw miller, who in turn uses his craft to provide material for the cabinet maker, who provides matter for the craft (Kant would say art; see §51.9) of interior decoration. However, as the contextual nature of the free/dependent distinction in Kant suggests, these sorts of relations exist in art as well, where the final, formed product of one art can provide material for yet another art, and so on. Collingwood would presumably object that to use a work of art as material for another, different work is not to regard it as art at all. See R.G. Collingwood, The Principles of Art (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1938), 15-17.
22. In §17 Kant allows that there is, after all, one sui generis category of judgments of dependent beauty which can appeal to a fixed ideal: “It is man, alone among all the objects in the world, who admits of an ideal of beauty...”(§17.3). We should not hasten to the conclusion that the Sage of Königsburg was endorsing twentieth-century beauty contests, but Kant’s notion that there is an ideal perfection of human beauty is nevertheless awkward. The Miss Universe Beauty Pageant is not determined by judgments of taste; in Kantian language, it is a Desirability Pageant, heavily charged with charm and emotion (and money). Kant rejects the notion that the ideal of beauty could be an empirical average of bodily qualities, as this would be ethnocentric: “a Negro’s standard idea of the beauty of the [human] figure necessarily differs from that of a white man, that of a Chinese from that of a European.” He finally settles on the ideal of human beauty consisting in the visible “bodily expression” of moral qualities, such as purity, fortitude, and serenity. Such an ideal would not permit “any charm of sense to be mingled with the liking,” though “judging by such a standard can never be purely aesthetic, and...is not a mere judgment of taste”(§17.6) In Kant’s Miss Universe Pageant, the judges would have their work cut out detecting the winning moral virtues in contestants’ faces. (I almost wrote pretty faces, such is the corrupting power of charm.) There is an unsurprising tendency for contemporary commentators to avoid discussing this passage.
23. For a survey of critical reactions to Gould’s artistry, as well as other insights both musical and philosophical, see Geoffrey Payzant’s Glenn Gould, Music and Mind, rev. ed. (Toronto: Key Porter, 1984). I have also discussed critical attitudes toward Gould in “The Ecstasy of Glenn Gould,” in Glenn Gould Variations, by Himself and His Friends, ed. John McGreevy (Garden City: Doubleday, 1983), 191-98.
24. I am indebted to Bernard Harrison of the University of Utah and formerly of the University of Sussex, to editor T.J. Diffey and to my University of Canterbury colleagues, especially Philip Catton, Mark Stocker and David Novitz, for their helpful criticisms of this essay. They alone are responsible for any mistakes which remain.
This is the unabridged version of an article that appeared in shorted form in The British Journal of Aesthetics 34 (1994): 226-41, under the title “Kant and the Conditions of Artistic Beauty.”