From Hobson's Choice
That which is both fulfilling and moving to the consciousness.
Kant's AestheticsKant distinguished between the beautiful and the sublime, and it may be said with justice that since his time there has been a tendency to trivialize, or even disdain, the beautiful in favor of the elusive sublime. Kant himself declares that
The beautiful and the sublime agree on the point of pleasing on their own account. Further they agree in not presupposing either a judgment of sense or one logically determinant, but one of reflection. Hence it follows that the delight does not depend upon a sensation, as with the agreeable, nor upon a definite concept, as does the delight in the good...Those who have read Kant's Critique of Pure Reason will recall the schemata whereby different observers seek to establish a consensus of what actually exists, from what they separately and diversely perceive. There are intuitions and conceptions, and conceptions admit form, while intuitions are, in effect, objects of "pure reason." Here, Kant is distinguishing between the delight afforded by the beautiful and that afforded by the sublime: the former requires assimilation of the conceptions, or attributes into a structure of sense, while the latter is a synthesis of intuitions.
The beautiful ...is a question of the form of object, and this consists in limitation, whereas the sublime is to be found in an object even devoid of form, so far as it immediately involves, or else by its presence provokes a representation of limitlessness, yet with a superadded thought of its totality. Accordingly, the beautiful seems to be regarded as a presentation of an indeterminate concept of understanding, the sublime as a presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason.
[Critique of Judgment, I.i.2]
Another idea, much older than Kant (and probably older than Plato) was the idea of aesthetic finality. This is actually a very natural idea for people to have about beauty, and I think it does, in truth, capture the essence of the idea, but it's difficult to explain as precisely as Kant does. My approach is not as exquisite as his, but possibly easier for a modern reader to grasp.
Let's start with the intermediate idea of beauty (or the sublime) arising from the necessity of thing to be the way it is. Hence, we might distinguish the idea of beauty as necessity of form (beauty arising from aptness) from the morally problematic notion of beauty arising from invidious pursuit. To illustrate, one might regard a woman as more beautiful whose form is harder to achieve, than one whose form is easy; a woman whose grooming and taste in clothing reflect a pampered and idle status, versus one whose appearance demonstrates a life devoted to many concerns. This reflects the invidious nature of aesthetic standards, according to Veblen. This is morally problematic because the invidious pursuit ("pecuniary emulation") invites socially destructive behavior, and ultimately leads to the destruction of beauty through excessive "emulation": think of the disastrous effect on Venice of "everybody is somebody" insisting on going there as a tourist. Or think of the bottomless pit of avarice such attitudes inspire, when the super rich are sucked into show-stopping demonstrations of just how rich they are.
Apart from the ad consequentium problem we might have with invidious notions of beauty, there is the logical one that invidious pursuit is an inherently unstable criterion of beauty. Hence, haut-couture in fashion swings wildly between the bizarre and the campy, miraculously evading at all times the reasonably priced and convenient to wear. We'll return to this consideration in a moment.
In contrast, there is the more transcendental idea of beauty as representing necessity. Older machinery, particularly that effecting a subtle and brilliantly-executed engineering principle, is especially appealing. Architecture that advertises its complete lack of functional grounding in (extremely costly) "whimsy," in contrast, is hideous. In nature, beauty is associated with health and authenticity; hence, for example, a wildflower deep in a forest is more beautiful than a cut flower, since the former is in its element, while the latter is only a severed fragment of the living system from which it was taken. The latter is charming for it implications, viz., of appreciation, tenderness, or desire.
Now we come to the concept of finality: finality, in aesthetics, means that the conception of a thing is in agreement with that which makes it necessary. I mentioned the Concorde above; but the Concorde is a flawed example, since the decision to build it was an arbitrary political one. Hence its conception (e.g., its outward shape and geometry) reflect what might be regarded as arbitrary ends, which did not call the Concorde into existence—not, that is, without the matrix of political and economic considerations that decreed it would be that size, possess that range of capabilities, or be confined to short runways. When something has a function that is less arbitrary, then it represents finality better.
Nota bene: Kant concludes his chapter on finality by explaining that it is a concept that originates solely in reflection, since Nature cannot have ends.
Beauty versus the SublimeKant distinguishes the aesthetically pleasing (in the eyes of a particular beholder) from that which is beautiful, even though a thing that is aesthetically pleasing is "final" (embodying its necessity in its conception). "Pleasing" is an attribute of the subject, not the object. But
When the form of an object (as opposed to the matter of its representation, as sensation) is ...the ground of a pleasure in the representation of such an object, then this pleasure is also judged to be combined necessarily with the representation of it, and so not merely for the subject apprehending this form, but for all in general who pass judgment. The object is then called beautiful;Kant interposes a distinction between the form a thing takes, and the sensation of that form that gives pleasure: the difference, say, between Odysseus' admiration for Nausicaä, and that of someone merely yearning for the pleasure of her touch. But to a casual reader, this seems weak. Kant seems to be saying there is some transcendental property that inheres in the object of sense, making it beautiful in truth, rather than merely pleasing to that particular observer's senses. Not surprisingly, spelling out this distinction occupies much of the rest of Book I. However, Kant has the fall-back that sound aesthetic judgment tends to be seconded by many (I.ii).
As mentioned above, beauty differs from the sublime in that beauty arises from a thing's form, whereas the sublime arises from some object of reason that escapes form. Another crucial distinction is the emotion aroused by the two;
For the beautiful is directly attended with a feeling of the furtherance of life, and is thus compatible with charms and a playful imagination. On the other hand, the feeling of the sublime is a pleasure that only arises indirectly, being brought about by the feeling of a momentary check to the vital forces followed at once by a discharge all the more powerful, and so it is an emotion that seems to be no sport, but dead earnest in the affairs of the imagination. Hence charms are repugnant to it; and, since the mind is not simply attracted by the object, but is also alternately repelled thereby, the delight in the sublime does not so much involve positive pleasure as admiration or respect, i. e., merits the name of a negative pleasure.Rather than making the observer merely feel "small," the sublime inspires a mixture of emotions of which one is dread at the fragility and incidental nature of life.
Moral Implications of Beauty
The cherishing of beauty as an aesthetic ideal was largely repudiated in the late 20th century. Elaine Scarry mentions (On Beauty and Being Just, p.39) the "banishing of beauty from the humanities," arguing that beauty came to be seen as competing with, and detracting from, the struggle for fairness. By this, she means that open discussion of beauty as a criterion of judgment in the humanities has come to seem odious. I would go further than she and declare that beauty has come to be regarded as a reactionary and even somewhat mawkish consideration in the fine arts (painting, drama, contemporary "classical" music), architecture, and academic writing.
Scarry cites two currently fashionable attacks on beauty:
- by preoccupying our attention, beauty distracts from wrong social arrangements;
- when we stare at something beautiful and make it an object of our regard, we are injurious to the object.
She argues that these two complaints are mutually incompatible, since we either (1) hope to serve (meliorate) unfortunate people by looking at their plight, or (2) we ought to know that we disserve (objectify) fortunate people by admiring their beauty. At once, the basis of her disagreement becomes obvious: Scarry regards beauty as a transcendental concept, whereas "the opponents of beauty" are thinking of it as an invidious pursuit. In such a case, Scarry's students might be perplexed when she points out the contradiction between the two rebukes of beauty, while remembering the searing rhetoric of their women's studies professor.
Scarry observes, rightly, that awareness of beauty stimulates a striving for justice, and explains why (p.58ff): that justice represents aesthetics applied to social arrangements, and the pursuit of social arrangements pleasing to a conception of finality will lead to justice.
- ↑ For an example of the this, see this photo of the Anglo-French Concorde. The Concorde is canonically beautiful, although we should mention the 2-10-4 "Texas" steam locomotives of the mid-20th century as another exceptionally handsome machine.
- ↑ For an example, see this photo of the Weatherhead School of Management (Case-Western Reserve, Cleveland, Ohio) or this photo of the Scottish House of Parliament, Edinburgh, UK. With its opening in 2004, the United States lost its record of the world's ugliest large building (photo). While Boston City Hall is far more violent an affront to the sensibilities than any other building with comparable design constraints (obviously, Boston is filled with lovely buildings that have long endured the climate, are relatively cheap to maintain in good order, and quite large), it at least is not mawkish and repulsive.
- ↑ The text is from Robert Fagle's translation of The Odyssey:
But if you're one of the mortals living here on earth,Cited in Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, p.15-16.
three times blest are your father, your queenly mother,
three times over your brothers too. How often their hearts
must warm with joy to see you striding into the dances—
such a bloom of beauty...
I have never laid eyes on anyone like you,
neither man nor woman...
I look at you and a sense of wonder takes me.
once I saw the like—in Delos, beside Apollo's altar—
the young slip of a palm-tree springing into the light.
There I'd sailed, you see, with a great army in my wake,
out on the long campaign that doomed my life to hardship.
That vision! Just as I stood there, gazing rapt for hours...
No shaft like that had ever risen from the earth—
so now I marvel at you, my lady: rapt, enthralled,
too struck with awe to grasp you by the knees
though pain has ground me down.
- ↑ Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class includes a chapter, "Pecuniary Emulation," discussing the invidious basis of common standards of beauty.
- Hannah Ginsborg , "Kant's Aesthetics and Teleology," Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2007); addressed Immanuel Kant's theories of aesthetics
- Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment (complete text online), translated by James Creed Meredith (1790)
- Elaine Scarry, On Beauty & Being Just, Princeton University Press (2001)
- Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (complete text online) B. W. Huebsch (1912)
James R MacLean (23:56, 28 November 2007 (PST))