On Judgement of Beauty

“Speak what you think today in hard words and tomorrow speak what tomorrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.” -Thoreau

Primary reference papers:

  • Kant, from The Critique of Judgment
  • Huysman, from Against Nature
  • Scruton, from The Aesthetics of Architecture
  • Osborne, “Odours and Appreciation”
  • Korsmeyer, “On the ‘Aesthetic Senses’ and the Development of Fine Arts”
  • Scruton, from Questions of Taste

I understand now what the tutor meant when he said that these are questions that could keep you awake at night, these infuriating and seemingly answerless questions. I’ve been reading and reading…there have been papers on aesthetics, papers on smell, papers on experience and wine and beauty. One opinion appears and I say, yes I agree – this is right. Then I read another that is completely contradictory and my first stolen opinion is then cast into shadowy doubt. I suppose this is the lovely thing about philosophy.

I agreed and disagreed with parts of each paper, none matched my philosophy completely. Now through discussion of my favorite quotes I will start to work my own opinion out of the tangled mess that is my thoughts on the matter. Let’s make some sense of this. First I want to focus on Kant, and Kantian judgements.

Kant says, when asked if something is beautiful we do not want to know whether we are concerned in the true existence of the thing. We simply make our judgment on intuition or reflection alone.

We don’t think about the history, the practicality, the vanity that created such a thing. We should only care about that initial contemplation. We need to take the thing out of its context and see for ourselves if it still holds meaning, if it still holds Beauty. Beauty in the way that Kant describes it is the highest aesthetic. Beauty is universal. So, when you say that something is beautiful you are saying that every person should also find it beautiful. Any other judgment is simply agreeable; everything else depends on personal taste and personal experience. You can say, I like this painting, it is agreeable to me-that would be an expression of taste. Taste can and most definitely does differ from person to person. Comparatively, Kant’s ‘Beauty’ would not differ from person to person, calling something beautiful means that it is universally accepted as that.

Although I would really like to believe in this universal Beauty I think that it would be unattainable. I would compare it to the idea of a perfect circle. We all have in our minds this idea of a circle, a perfect circle, but no person or computer can achieve it. It is a thing conceptually real, but realistically false. And still we use circles. We talk about circles and apply them in real situations. This application is possible because we know the concept. I feel that the same is true with beauty. The idea of something universally beautiful, something untouched by personal interest, something to which judgment is inconsequential, is something that I believe cannot exist in our human world. Taste changes across cultures, across societies, across gender, age, maturity, finding an art or natural occurrence that would be pleasurable to every person who witnesses it is unattainable. I say words like this, words like impossible, unattainable, and false, but I don’t mean to downplay the importance of Beauty. Even though we cannot achieve or experience it does not mean that the search is unimportant.

One of the quotes that caught my eye in this work was in a footnote, it said, “Only in society is it interesting to have taste.” I really had to think about this, because if this is true then the question arises: is taste a social construction? It’s true that we all have likes and dislikes, we all have our tastes. But is it possible to remove yourself, and your societal influences, from the object and still make a judgment? The word “disinterested” appears. I struggled with this at first because to me saying disinterested in regards to an object is extremely negative. In this case though, disinterested simply means that our individual wants and needs do not come into play.

The idea of being disinterested in an object is key to understanding Kant’s Beauty. In a way we need to take our tastes, our interests out of the judgment of a thing. Then once disinterested if a thing is still pleasing then it could be considered Beautiful. We seek to possess pleasurable objects, and we seek to promote moral goodness, but we simply appreciate beauty without feeling driven to find some use for it. This is disinterest. We aren’t personally interested in the object, we simply appreciate it. For some reason the object is pleasing, or displeasing, at its very pith.

Is it possible to remove yourself in that way? Do we seek to posses pleasurable objects because of our society or culture? Do our morals come out of that self same place? I would answer no to the former and yes to both the latter; our tastes are defined in part by where and how we are raised. The way that we are raised defines everything that we are. It is impossible to separate your judgment from yourself.

Still I wonder; what if it could be possible? What if we could disinterest ourselves? Perhaps then true Beauty could be recognized, then true Beauty could be created.  If this happened we would probably lose the amount of variety seen today in the various forms of art. It is the difference and the diversity of art that fascinates me most, even though I don’t take pleasure from the entire assortment. In a way this reminds me of Brave New World by Adolus Huxley. With universally excepted Beauty comes universally accepted pleasure. From there everything would become uniform, but everything would also become exceptionally delightful.

One last problem that I have with Kant’s Beauty is how some objects would be called Beautiful and others would not.  To me it speaks of the implied belief that some higher power bestows this attribute. If beauty were an objective property of certain objects in nature, the question would naturally arise of how these objects were bestowed with Beauty. This then would lead to the argument for intelligent design. I suppose then that God, Beauty, the perfect circle, and maybe love as well would all mean the same thing.

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