Aesthetic Engagement

Is aesthetic pleasure something spontaneous, or is it something intellectual?

Primary reference papers:

  • Kant, from The Critique of Judgment, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View
  • Scruton, The Philosophy of Wine
  • Dutton, Kant and the Conditions of Aesthetic Beauty
  • Wicks, Dependent Beauty as Teleological Style
  • Marra, Modern Japanese Aesthetics
  • Odin, Tragic Beauty in Whitehead and Japanese Aesthetics
  • Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation
  • Nishida, (There are many great translations of Nishida’s works, anything you can find will be worth reading.)
  • Hisamatsu, Zen and the Fine Arts
  • Osbourne, Aesthetics and Art Theory: A Historical Introduction

What exactly characterizes aesthetic engagement?

In order to thoroughly examine this issue I am going to discuss four pertinent views on the subject.

  1. Kant
  2. East Asian characterizations of aesthetic activity
  3. Schopenhauer
  4. Nishida

But before we dive in, let’s reflect briefly back onto Scruton this Philosophy of Wine. (If you have read my other ‘aesthetic philosophy’ essays this will be a familiar concept by now)

“Sensory Pleasure is available whatever the state of your education; aesthetic pleasure depends upon knowledge, comparison, and culture.” (p. 3)

This prompts me to ask; is aesthetic pleasure something spontaneous, or is it something intellectual as
Scruton implies above?

1) Kant

“A judgment…is the bringing of a particular awareness under a universal or concept; it is thinking that a particular has a general characteristic or quality.”
(Crawford, p 14, Kant’s Aesthetic Judgement)

In other words, we cover this particular with a general. For example, take a look at a pen. Immediately before touching it you say, this is a pen. This is pen; in doing so you cover it with your concept of ‘pen’. Before touching it or even getting that close to it you can say several things about the object itself that you would not know without having this pre-conceived idea.

Kant explains that there are generally two powers that turn a representation into cognition, or knowledge. These powers are imagination (which gathers the perceptual manifold) and understanding (synthesizes the representation into the unity of the concept). You imagine that the object in front of you is a pen, you understand the concept of ‘pen’, and from this you have knowledge of its purpose.

There are two kinds of judgment outlined by Kant on this subject.

  • Determinate Judgment: Absolute judgment
  • Reflective Judgment: A judgment that you have to think about, and consider (ex. Scientists work in the
    realm of reflective judgment)

We take cognitive pleasure in categorizing an object as a thing of some type. We like covering objects with concepts. “…An aesthetic judgment is quite unique, and affords absolutely no, not even a confused, knowledge of the Object.” (15) Aesthetic is then defined as: “The active engagement of the cognitive powers without ulterior aim.” (12) Pleasure is a consequence of this kind of “active engagement”

“Now this purely subjective (aesthetic) estimating of the object, or the representation through which it is given, is antecedent to the pleasure in it, and is the basis of this pleasure in the harmony of the cognitive faculties.” (9)

Now, a few points:
a) What about the object seems designed for cognition?

Where no final determinate concept restricts the faculties the subject experiences “a feeling of the free play of the powers of representation…” (9) These powers of representation are those I mentioned above: imagination and understanding.

“The pleasure in beauty thus resides…in our reflection upon how the object’s design accords with our cognitive interest in systematic understanding.”
(Wicks, P387, Dependent Beauty as Teleological Style)

The beautiful object appears designed such that it provokes this free play, and seems perfectly suited to our cognitive structure. An example of this is nature, because in nature no designing agent is actually supposed. We find a snowflake to be wonderful, geometric and in many ways perfectly suited for us to appreciate and understand, as if it was purposeful. But an object has a purpose only when it is conceived as the result of a plan or rule. This could spark a debate about intelligent design, but luckily we still call an object purposive on the basis of its structure or form, even when we cannot actually conceive of its being made on purpose. So when an object seems designed specifically for cognition even when we cannot find or understand how it could be made on purpose, it can still be considered purposeful.

b) Understanding plays a role in the aesthetic.

The judgment of taste has its foundation “in the subjective formal condition of a judgment in general.” (35) The judgment of the beautiful is characterized as “weather freedom in the play of imagination harmonizes or clashed with the lawfulness of understanding” (Kant, Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View) Therefore, judgment of taste does not derive from the understanding, but rather it derives from the understanding complicit in it. The free relationship established between the understanding (whose general role [which it does not abandon even though it lacks fulfillment] is to conceptualize what is presented to it by the imagination.) and the imagination is WHAT characterizes the pleasure found in the Beautiful.

The ‘mutual accord’ between understanding and imagination (Kant’s free play) is described as a
requisite for cognition in general. “Understanding has (as in all judgments) its role in the judgment of
taste…” (15) Understanding is playing a greater role than previously thought; the mind is provoked into
the play.

“Free and indeterminately final entertainment of the mental powers [where] the understanding is at the service of the imagination.”
(‘General Remark on the First Section of the Analytic’)

3) The judgment refers to concepts

“The delight does not depend upon…a definite concept…although it has, for all that, and indeterminate reference to concepts. Consequently the delight is…taken to express the accord, in a given intuition, of the faculty of presentation, or the imagination, with the faculty of concepts that belongs to understanding…” (23)

“If, now, we attach to a concept a representation of the imagination belonging to its presentation, but inducing solely on its own account such a wealth of thought as would never admit of comprehension in a definite concept, and, as a consequence, giving aesthetically an unbounded expansion to the concept itself, then the imagination here displays creative activity…” (49)

There is a parallel for this ineffable quickening of the cognitive faculties in Japanese aesthetics called “yugen”. Yugen is similar in concept to this idea of the way in which the mind deals with the object, where no concept can cover it.

“The aesthetics ideals which pervaded the poetry, drama, painting, gardens, tea ceremony, and most other artistic activities during this period [fourteenth & fifteenth centuries] were summarized largely in the concept of yugen”
(De Bary p 51)

“Beauty, said they, or the life of things, is always deeper as hidden than as outwardly expressed…Not to display, but to suggest, is the secret of infinity. Perfection, like all maturity, fails to impress, because of its limitation of growth.”
(Okakura, Kakuzo The Ideals of the East, of the Ashikaga Shoguns p 165)

The Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers can, under one interpretation, refers to a various set of paintings done in the Song dynasty of the beautiful XioXiang region of China. This is now the modern Hunan Province. This series of paintings are all of the Xiao and Xiang rivers, showing different scenes such as “The wild geese coming home” or “The fishing village in the evening glow”. All are classic examples of ink and paper Chinese painting, sparse, distinct, and elegant. These paintings reveal the truest nature of a scene in just a few carefully placed brushstrokes.

About the scenes:
“Here all is not disclosed, something infinite is contained. Such works enable us to imagine the depth of content within them and to feel infinite reverberations….Here infinity, something far beyond the actual, painted forms, is expressed. In this unstated, unpainted content lies the quality of Yugen, which in turn is accompanied by an inexhaustible profundity.”
(Hisamatsu, Zen and the fine Arts, p33)

This parallels nicely with Kant’s idea of the aesthetic object and the indeterminable quality of the aesthetic experience.

The judgment of taste is contemplative, Pleasure equals “The quickening of both faculties (imagination and understanding, but yet…harmonious activity, such as belongs to cognition generally…” (9)

Now I am going to move on to free beauty vs. dependent beauty.

Kant: “If we wish to discern whether anything is beautiful or not, we do not refer to the representations of it to the Object by means of understanding with a view to cognition…The judgment of taste, therefore, is not a cognitive judgment, and so not logical…” (1)

When representation is unavailable for cognition, which is to say not being brought under a definite concept it is a free beauty. Free beauty disregards the kind of object, instead it is free of concepts and free of rules; purposiveness without purpose! Designedness without design. Kant proposes that in nature there is no rule we can see objects following.

Dutton, a 19th-20th century philosopher from Christchurch NZ, disagrees with Kant and does not stand by his proposed idea of free beauty. Dutton writes that we still judge natural objects under a concept.

“There are still criteria and presuppositions associated with beauty in flowers which remain relevant to judgments on the beauty of a flower e.g. freshness or wilt.”

“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.”
(Dutton: “Kant and the Conditions of Aesthetic Beauty, p231, 232)

This is also applicable to art. Artistic rules make art possible. All of our understanding regarding the art form is based off of the determinate factors, the concepts. “The underlying conditions-the structures, forms, grammars, styles, vocabularies, customs, standards, habits, conventional values-of any art.” Basically Dutton is writing that Kant had a good start here, and made a useful way of stripping down this idea of aesthetics UNTIL section 16 in his critique. But really this idea of free beauty is carried throughout the entire critique.

Another philosopher, Wicks in his “Dependent Beauty as Teleological Style”, argues dependence on concepts, not concept free but concept rich. In his opinion the concept of free beauty disregards “any concept of the object’s character or purpose.”

This is an interesting argument, but to counter his idea I could write that the pleasure of dependent beauty arises under the presupposition of a concept of what the object ought to be and the perfection of the object there with. The judgment of dependent beauty is a combination of pure judgment of beauty and judgment of perfection. Judgment about the perfection of an object only would be a matter of estimating how closely it exemplifies its type or fulfills its purpose. How close it is to its perfect form. This will start to sound familiar to those who have studied Plato, Plato’s Forms in particular.

Funny side note, as the only American student in my Aesthetic Theory class the professor sometimes will single me out. For example he used the game of cricket once for an example and stopped in the middle of a sentence to say to me ‘but you really won’t know what I’m talking about will you?’ While talking about Plato in class this time he turned to me and said, “Oh but you must know Plato, Americans know Plato. They love talking about him.” It’s true, we do love talking about Plato, I remember spending a lot of time on the forms and dialogues in high school.

Plato’s theory of forms asserts that every object has a perfect form after which it is modeled.

These Forms do not exist in the world, they are an abstract non-material idea, but they possess the most fundamental kind of reality. Every chair in existence is modeled after its perfect Form; no chair is actually perfect, each is, in fact, a bad imitation of the chair Form. This idea mirrors what I claimed earlier about judgment of perfection. The judgment of dependent beauty is discovering how closely this concept exemplifies its purpose. The determinate factor here is that purpose. You ask first what the proof sets out to prove. Then the mind sets out to find how this proof reaches its determinate end. How does it solve the problem?

Wicks states that you have to pay attention to the object’s “purposiveness without purpose” in view of its “purposiveness with purpose.” (p388) He puts forward the example of a mathematical proof as dependent beauty. He claims that the pleasure afforded by a proof issues from two grounds.

  1. The pleasure of apprehending the perfection of the proof
  2. Surveying the way in which the proof solves the problem; clumsily and laboriously, or neatly and
    elegantly. The elegance of the proof “is an obvious example of dependent beauty.”

Take the example of our friend, the structural engineer. There used to be a formula used in calculating the building structure load bearing properties that was pages long, tedious to work through, and easily to mess up. Then, recently, a European engineer came up with a new formula that was only a couple of lines long serving the same purpose. The structural engineer in this story said that that new formula was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen, when asked why he replied that it was beautiful because it
was just so…elegant! The beauty was in the simplicity, in the absolute elegance of the formula, because it was clear, neat, tight, and survey-able.

Another example I like is that of the Japanese tea ceremony. Every part of this ritual is exactly planned and must be flawlessly executed. When heating the water to make the tea a great deal is made of arranging the coals in a certain manner. The purpose of this is to heat the pot to exactly 75 degrees C which was considered the perfect temperature at which to consume certain types of tea. This artful act of arranging coals in the grate is appreciated by guests because of the elegant and beautiful way this achieves the 75 degree purpose. The purpose is given and the answer is graceful. It would not be appreciated if you just flipped a switch to heat a pot of water as I do every morning. Every part of the tea ceremony is about appreciating the way in which the purpose is achieved.

Dependent beauty can be defined as a way to judge something where the purpose of the object is included in the contemplation of it, we appreciate the way the form of the object suits that purpose.

Free beauty apprehends the purposive quality of the object without cognizing any particular purpose. That is to say, there is not identifiable purpose, but the object is configured in such a way that it seems to be designed to fit with the understanding’s objective, to unify the manifold under one concept. The object presents itself as if it were designed to fit some purpose, and “our understanding resonates with hypotheses of all kinds of purposes which the object might serve.”

It seems that we should be able to cover it with some concept, but it is a beautiful object this fails. With the dependent design we know the purpose, and it is beautiful when it fits that purpose. Another example is that of an ugly church decorated in flashing neon lights and signs, if it were not meant to be a church, it might be appealing; instead we say that it is not because it just does not fit the purpose of the church. This is dependent beauty as defined by Wicks.

With free beauty we imagine alternative purposes of the object and the way the particular form fits these various purposes. Dependent beauty is only the latter: “…what we appreciate in positively judging the object in reference to dependent beauty is the contingency of the way the object realizes its purpose so very well.” (p393)

Dependent and free are both ways to judge something, they are focused on kinds of judgments. The center of Dutton’s thesis is this:

“taste it is true stands to gain from the joining of the intellectual and the aesthetic.”
“Taste makes art available”


a) Mystical Foundation

“Oriental theories of art are deeply permeated with a philosophy of religious mysticism which is largely unacceptable to naturalistic thinkers in the West”
(Munro “Oriental Traditions in Aesthetics”)

Kant strips aesthetics down, but in oriental terms that would absolutely not be acceptable and would not happen. Everything is too interconnected, this is the mystical foundation.

b) Daoist & Zen Buddhist unity with nature and art

“The Taoist in understanding his own nature arrives at an understanding of the nature of all things and intuitively experiences his own unity with all things in a pantheistic identity of spirit.”
(Sickman & Soper The Art and Architecture of China p54)

“This idea of painting as an activity which at once brings the artist into unity with and makes manifest the cosmic principle of Tao lies at the root of Chinese thinking about art…”
(Osborne, Aesthetics and Art Theory: A Historical Introduction, p54)

“Painters, suitable prepared through quiet sitting and through lifelong absorption of nature into their very being, achieve a state of emptiness out of which the painting emerges spontaneously yet with the utmost artistry, thus imitating and indeed participating in the way in which the world of nature emerges spontaneously yet with the utmost harmony out of the primal emptiness of the Dao.”
(Clarke, the Tao of the West; Western Transformations of Taoist Thought p66)

Spiritual unity with the force of the world, it is in this state which is so much greater than one self that art is created. Art is the same force of nature therefore the beauty of art is identical to the beauty of nature. Beauty or the profunity of the works of art is the expression of the inherent of ‘essential’ qualities of the natural world.

In a series of negations Zeami (a noted figure in the expressive art of No theatre) gives advice to the audience: “Forget the specifics of a performance and examine the whole. Then forget the whole and examine the actor. Then forget the actor and examine his [mind]. Then, forget [the mind], and you will grasp the nature of the no.”
(Marra “Zeami and No: A Path towards Enlightenment” Journal of Asian Culture 12 (1988):37-65, 52)

The aim of no is “to represent ultimate reality lying beyond the realm of the intellect.” (Ueda “Zeami and the Art of the No Drama: Imitation, Yugen, and Sublimity” in Hume p189)

Kant would disagree with this claiming that the whole aesthetic experience is centered in the mind, not in some abstract other. Personally I think that this unity with nature and art is a wonderful concept and that Kant can be read as a little too inflexible, a little to sure that his word is the final word.

c) Negation of Self

“Beauty in nature is a manifestation of the supreme creative force which flows though all things in the universe, animate and inanimate… [Basho] believes that a poet should renounce his personal emotions in favor of the transpersonal energy within him, through which he may return to the creative force that flows in all objects in nature.”

(Ueda p424)

The poet was “unhuman” as he suppressed human elements in himself.” (p425) In the art of haiku this is what the poet is trying to achieve. If he tries to create a poem it will be absolutely subpar, instead the poet must allow nature to flow through him spontaneously. And it is from nature itself that great poetry is created.

3) Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

Schopenhauer had a very bleak view of the world at large. His claim is that we are all driven by our will and cannot escape, except in the area of aesthetics.

a) Aesthetic as Independent from Will

“In all abstract employment of the mind, the will is also the ruler. According to its intentions, the will imparts direction to the employment of the mind, and also fixes the attention; therefore it is always associated with some exertion; but such exertion presupposes activity of the will. Therefore complete objectivity of consciousness does not occur with this kind of mental activity in the same way as it accompanies, as its condition, aesthetic contemplation…”

(Foster, p216)

Schopenhauer asserts that we are captive to our will and cannot be objective because everything we do is driven by our will, from which we cannot separate. BUT in aesthetic contemplation we find the one time that we are free from the will, the appreciation of the aesthetic is our one saving grace. You see, willing is based in desire, “No attained object of desire can give lasting satisfaction, but merely fleeting gratification; it is like the alms thrown to the beggar…” (World as Will and Idea p141)

“The ordinary man does not linger long over the mere perception, does not fix his attention long on one object, but in all that is presented to him hastily seeks merely the concept under which it is to be brought, as the lazy man seeks a chair, and then it interests him no further.”

(World as Will and Idea, p139)

This is to say that ordinary cognition and conceptual thinking merely justifies that which is already desired by the will. Willing is more than basic cognition, in fact willing drives cognition. Aesthetic contemplation is the condition for ‘objective consciousness’, the one time we are free from the will. Objective consciousness evades the will completely; it is a separation of consciousness from individual willing. In other words, we are separated from our own desires. We are disinterested.

b) Perceiving Art as Idea

By being a ‘pure subject’ the individual can apprehend “Ideas”. (See again, Plato’s forms)

“The real end of paintings, as of art in general, is to make the comprehension of the Platonic Ideas of the nature of the world easier for us.”

(WW cited Diffey, p133)

Art unveils metaphysical truth, it is a non-conceptual enlightenment. This enlightenment is also available through ascetic practice.

“works of art distil and intensify the experience of the Idea to the degree that even ordinary persons are by virtue of them given temporary respite from the will. This respite allows the ordinary intellect to…engage the ideas on an intimate level, albeit temporarily and through the artist’s rendering of his own experience with them.”
(Foster, p227)

“…the attention is no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will, and this observes them without personal interest, without subjectivity, purely objectively, and gives itself up to them so far as they are ideas…Then all at once the peace which we were always seeking, but which always fled from us on the former path of the desires, comes to us of its own accord, and it is well with us. It is the painless state which Epicurus prized as the highest good and as the state of the gods…”

“When we say that something is beautiful…it means that they sight of the thing makes us objective, that is to say, in contemplating it we are no longer conscious of ourselves as individuals, but as pure will-less subjects of knowing. “

We become free from our own personalities.
The genius apprehends the Idea: “In such moments, the object and subject feel as if they blend into one; the world as encountered (idea) and the self as encountering (pure subject) meld into experientially undifferentiated phenomenon…” (Foster p228)

It is an ineffable pleasure.

4) Nishida (1870-1945)

Kant’s philosophy is a condition for aesthetic judgment, not a definition. It has nothing to do with feeling.

Nishida’s philosophy connects aesthetic judgment with the feeling, making them inseparable. As a counter point, think of disinterestedness as a condition for the pleasure. Disinterestedness in this case is defined in a Japanese way, bringing it together with Zen philosophy. One “forgets one’s own interest such as advantage and disadvantage, gain and loss.” Nishida identifies this with Zen muga ‘no self’ ‘no ego’, or selflessness. (Mu=nothing or nihility, ga=ego or self).

“If you want to obtain an authentic sense of beauty, you must confront things in the state of pure muga.” This muga is also spiritual, and is considered a form of ecstasy or satori. “The sense of beauty is a pleasure detached from the ego.”

Beauty is intuitive truth.

“Cannot be expressed in words”, [counter point: aesthetic ideas] “attained when we have separated from the self and becomes one with things.”, “Penetrates into the profound secrets of the universe.”, “Far deeper and greater than the logical truth obtained through ordinary thought and discrimination.”

[For a counter point: see essays on reflective judgment].

“…the feeling of beauty is the feeling of muga. Beauty that evokes this feeling of muga is intuitive truth that transcends intellectual discrimination. This is why beauty is sublime. As regards this point, beauty can be explained as the discarding of the world of discrimination and being one with the Great Way of muga; it is therefore really of the same kind as religion.”

I will be discussing the sublime in a later essay but for now a quick Kantian definition: The sublime is “illadapted to our faculty of presentation” and represents “an outrage on the imagination” (23) Hisamatsu, a modern philosopher, Zen Buddhist scholar, and tea ceremony master claims that the state of mind referred to as “Formless Self” is divorced from conceptually governed thinking. Skill in Zen painting is characterized as:

“A matter of how freely, as the self expressing creative subject, the Formless Self expresses itself. It follows, consequently, that when Zen expression occurs-no matter what it is- it is the formless Self that is, in the truest sense, being expressed. This means, finally, that that which paints it that which is painted; that which is painted is in no way external to the one who paints.” (019)

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