Kant Today, Again


I approach my latest grapple with the "Critique of Judgment" in the wake of several discussions I've had recently on the subject of cultural 'elitism' and the possible validity (or lack thereof) of an artistic (specifically, a literary) 'canon' for our day and age.

We all know what time it is. It seems strangely ironic that one can still fight over oppositions of "high culture versus low culture", or "vulgar versus noble", or even "objective versus subjective". Alas, one can. A vast amount of academic debate takes place around absolutes that by now should've become obsolete. Technically, one can dance over all cultural boundaries and onto a "universality of experience". Which means that the universe has shrunk to fit us, or that we have grown to be able to encompass the universe, whichever we prefer. The resources are here and the only obligation one has to keep anything sacred, as far as "cultural value" ("beauty" seems like so naive a term, almost anachronistic...) is concerned, is to oneself. Emphasis is heavy on the subjectivity of judgment, on individuality and on freedom. Key word: Heavy. One must be very careful how much sharing of one's subjectivity one "indulges in" before it becomes an imposition on the independent subjectivities of others. Each subjectivity is as important as the next and they all need to share a common space. Movement is restricted. One is conscious of limitlessness, but there are limits. Certain exchanges of opinion become tantamount to high risk behavior. One hears constant calls for "responsibility" in one's responses to intellectual stimuli... Small wonder, really, all the accusations of stagnation that plague our "golden professorial/philosophical circle(s)"...

Kant today? Aesthetics as elucidated in the "Critique of Judgment" can turn into a lifesaving navigational device or a punishing rod, depending on where and how one chooses to closet oneself. Abstractions such as 'beautiful' and 'sublime' (and even 'subjective' or 'objective') can work against us. They are only usable to a very small extent without recourse to arbitrariness. But they can also work for us, given minimal skills in confusion-management. Two hundred years down the line, Kant's terminology is no longer functional. But his method of analyzing reality, his brand of reason, could perhaps bring us to the redefinitions we need in order to move along -- in whatever direction.

In his essay "Qu'est-ce que les Lumieres?", Michel Foucault reminds us that, for Kant, the guiding principle of the Enlightenment is not "be free, then reason", but "reason and thereby become free". We should keep this in mind in dealing with the "Critique of Judgment". It confronts us with conclusions that become highly questionable in light of our own historical circumstances (e.g. How can one fail to include the Holocaust among the terrifying sublime? How do we adjust our scale of judgment?). There remains very little evidence to support claims of any real "disinterestedness" in man. Kant didn't have to deal with the inescapable fact that everything is either a commodity or commodifiable. He inserted the "Critique of Aesthetic Judgment" into his third "Critique" because he found that in the presence of beauty, the ethical mechanisms of rational man became, in a manner of speaking, impaired. This made an understanding of aesthetic perception and of the disposition (natural or not) toward aesthetic judgment instrumental to the understanding of all other rational faculties in man. The experience of the beautiful was conducive to "the free play of the mind". Karl Jaspers explains that in Kant "an aesthetic idea cannot become a cognition because it is an intuition to which no concept can be adequate". Ethical ideas being subject to all sorts of logical strictures, it's easy to see how Kant would bestow the importance he did upon those 'intuitions' generated in 'freedom'. One feels, freely. One judges on the basis of the feeling. One experiences a necessity to share one's judgments and have them validated by the agreement of others...

This last is the stepping stone of most of the best and worst arguments contra Kant. For is there any tangible reality to that "common sense" he wrote about? If Kant's reasoning is correct, then this "common sense" exists as a function of "disinterestedness" in the human perception of the beautiful that leads to aesthetic judgment. Of course, I won't go to the extremes of Pierre Bordieu, who puts Kant somewhere between Marx and Merleau-Ponty and turns him into a vicious dandy a la Ernest or Gilbert (I forget which is which) in Oscar Wilde's "The Critic as Artist". I shall only venture that the argument against "disinterestedness is strong enough to invalidate a lot of Kant's conclusions, at least for our context. Faith is a very scarce commodity these days. But we shouldn't dismiss Kant on the strength of this alone.

In his "Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime", Jean-Francois Lyotard provides a little help with the great difficulty I find in Kant's notion of the "common sense". Lyotard writes: "The faculty of judging is said to be 'simply reflective' when 'only the particular is given and the universal has to be found'. This what the 'Anthropology' calls 'Witz', 'ingenium', or 'discovering the universal for the particular', finding an identity in a multiplicity of dissimilar things. If reflection is, therefore, assigned the task of reunification, it is because of its heuristic function. Although the faculty of pure judgment may not have 'a special authority to prescribe laws', it may well have 'a principle particular to itself upon which laws are sought'".

With this I would like to wrap this short presentation up and open up what could very well be a lively in-class discussion. Lyotard makes me curious, writing from a postmodern viewpoint, insofar as he is willing to consider the possibility of a true 'universality' being abstracted from subjective individual experience. Perhaps what is required is a rigorous Kantian inquiry of aesthetics -- with full consideration of an innate "interestedness" on the part of we, beholders, full of agendas as we are. Any volunteers?

p.s. Many apologies to all for the tardiness in delivering this erratic little paper. Not world enough and time to master Kant and computers, I guess.