On the Relation Between Purposivity and Aesthetic Judgments of Liking in Kant’s Third Critique

Kant’s goal in the third critique is not to give an account of the principles by which we might say something is beautiful or not beautiful correctly. This is a misconception that is easy to fall into, as it seems we are reading the text anticipating Kant to betray his own taste.

Kant makes it clear, however, that what he is interested in is something transcendental. His analytic of the beautiful looks to describe what judgment takes with it in an aesthetic judgment. It does not look for a means by which we might determine a proper judgment of the beautiful or cultivate ones aesthetic taste.

Kant acknowledges this in the preface. He writes:

Since this inquiry into our power of taste, which is the aesthetic power of judgment, has a transcendental aim, rather than the aim to help form and cultivate taste (since this will continue to proceed, as it has in the past, even if no such investigations are made), I would like to think that it will be judged leniently as regards to its deficiency for the latter purpose.[1]

It seems quite silly for Kant to phrase it this way, because if the critique were a guide for forming and cultivating taste, it would be subject to the historical contingency that the analytic of the beautiful, if it is to be universal (that is, of any lasting philosophical value) must avoid.

This passage implies that the aspects of an aesthetic judgment this book points to are transcendental and do not concern the cultivation of taste (and, being universal and necessary, are not subject to historical contingency). This work is deductive and analytic: that is, it begins with an idea of an aesthetic judgment and works out the different transcendental aspects of it. The “aim to help for and cultivate taste” involves various syntheses and inductions and is affected by outliners and modal arguments. This too, would be subject to historical contingency. Kant’s project, however, should have no problem dealing with outliners, modal arguments, or its historical contingency.

Initially, I had thought it to be evident that, when we make a judgment of liking, we take with us some concept of purposivity. This is because it seems that, in order to like something, we have to know kind of thing it is. If one did not understand the being of the thing in question in some way, one would have a kind of “aspect blindness” to the thing. This then would serve to explain why the universal assent we require of others within a judgment of the beautiful is not always realized.

For instance, in order to encounter a rock and roll song as something beautiful, it seems one must have an acquaintance with the form of artistic expression; otherwise, the experience would be too foreign for one to make sense of and one might miss out on the experience of finding it beautiful. This attempts to solve the problem of the historical contingency of taste by saying that, although the judgment of taste is not directly a judgment of purposivity, we must first have some form of access to the being of the object contained in its purpose (so that we may recognize it for what it is).

Despite the fact that the being of the object of our judgment may be historically contingent, the aesthetic judgment made by someone with an understanding of what the thing is might still imply something transcendental. If this is the case, we might still be able to identify necessary, definitive content within an aesthetic judgment- content which would not be subject to historical contingency or modal critique.

This simply means that aesthetic judgments are definitively distinguished from the historically contingent purposive baggage constitutive of the judging subject’s world.

The problem is, Kant explicitly says, to the contrary:

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 determinate 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.[2]

Yet it seems that there are, in fact, judgments of taste that are only possible after an understanding of “the thing the object is meant to be.” Take Michelangelo’s David, for instance. It seems that there is a possible aesthetic liking for this work of art that takes into account “the thing the object is meant to be” and finds the portrayal of this object beautiful (in a sense that involves a judgment of taste, not a judgment of how the portrayal ‘does justice” to David, the city of Florence, or what not.

If we exclude such judgments from the range of aesthetic judgments proper, we limit judgments of taste to the kinds of judgments depicted in the film “American Beauty,” in which the protagonist is (e.g.) filming plastic bags blowing in the wind (ignoring their being-trash and focusing instead on the free play of form). But this account of judgments of taste seems to airy and whimsical to be adequate for a complete description of the scope of aesthetic judgments of beauty.

Kant makes a provision for these kinds of judgments, however. Towards the end of the analytic of the beautiful, Kant gives an account of the judgments of taste we make in comparison to an ideal model- something like a Platonic form. He writes:

…it follows that the highest model, the archetype of taste, is a mere idea, an idea which everyone must generate within himself and by which he must judge any object of taste, any example of someone’s judging by taste, and even the taste of everyone else… Hence that archetype of taste, which does indeed rest on reason’s indeterminate idea of the maximum, but which still can be presented not through concepts but only in an individual exhibition, may more appropriately be called the ideal of the beautiful.[3]

What separates the ideal of the beautiful from other concepts is the fact that we cannot express it though concepts. We can, however, use particular instances to refer to the ideal of the beautiful.

Kant writes: “Though we do not have such an ideal in our possession, we do strive to produce it within us. This is to say that we try, through the power of exhibition in the imagination, to exhibit this notion of the beautiful. This is to say that, in the judgment of taste, one carries with oneself the notion that idea beauty exists and that particular instances within experience are relatable to this ideal. The ideal itself, however, is inaccessible, except through a kind of “exhibition” of this ideal through a particular we have a liking of.

The ideal of beauty is most readily accessible, Kant says, in human beings. This is because human beings can determine the purpose of their existence within themselves.[4] Kant writes:

Man can himself determine his purposes by reason; or, where he has to take them from outer perception, he can still compare them with essential and universal purposes and then judge the former purposes’ harmony with the latter ones aesthetically as well. It is man, alone among all the objects in the world, who admits of an ideal of beauty, just as the humanity in his person, [i.e., in man considered] as an intelligence, is the only thing in the world that admits of the ideal of perfection.[5]

Beauty is, for Kant, anthropocentric in that human beings are the only kind of animals which are capable of, not only grasping their purpose, but determining a purpose for themselves. When we judge the beauty of animals, we do so on the basis of an empirical claim, which judges an animal based on the standard shape of its appearance.

With the ideal of beauty in human beings, there are two components. The first is the empirical component[6] that judges human beings insofar as they belong to a “particular animal species.” I call this judgment the empirical component because it seems to, like the later discussed judgments of the beauty of animals, involve some kind of notion of “how the species is supposed to look.” This notion could be inductive, contrived, socially engineered by corporate advertising, or even a fetish.

The second component is a bit more solid. In Kant’s words, it

“…is the rational idea, which makes the purposes of humanity, insofar as they cannot be presented in sensibility, the principle for judging its figure, which reveals these purposes, as their effect in appearance.”[7]

But what this is, in essence, is the standard idea of a beautiful human being. This idea is something that is psychologically constituted- formed out of the mind’s ability to generalize out of many experiences of different human beings. Kant writes:

Now if… we try to find for this average man the average head, for it the average nose, etc., then it is the shape which underlines the standard idea of a beautiful man in the country where this comparison is made. This is why, given these empirical conditions, 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. The same would apply to the model of a beautiful horse and dog (of a certain breed).[8]

The validity of Kant’s psychological example is not necessary for this point, as I think we can see the phenomenon at work, regardless of the psychological explanation we give it. Even if we are explaining the liking of human beings by means of unconscious desires or social engineering, there is still a standard ideal that is formed. When I personally reflect on my own experiences and examine the situations in which I find particular human beings beautiful, I usually find that they resemble an individual in my past (often a particular person).

Of course, there are also things that bother us, on the basis of which one would not say someone is beautiful. Kant argues that it is precisely on the basis of these, for lack of better word, “flaws” that we say that someone does not fall within the standard idea of the beautiful. He writes:

“Nor is it because of its beauty that we like its exhibition, but merely because it does not contradict any of the conditions under which alone a think of this kind may be beautiful.”[9]

This entire psychological point about the standard idea of the beautiful; however, is a tangent, as Kant wants to distinguish this from the ideal of the beautiful.

The ideal of the beautiful is not a mere inductive assessment of a general “standard” notion of beauty. It is rather the association of our ideas of beauty with ideas of morality. An example of this that immediately comes to mind is someone who “has an honest face.” Here, an association is made between the physical appearance of someone’s face and a certain moral quality. Of course, these ideals must be found a posteriori through something contingent like, say, an abstraction of the particular faces of human beings who exhibited honesty or a frequent depiction of honest people in such and such a way. In Kant’s own words:

Yet these moral ideas must be connected, in the idea of the highest purposiveness, with everything that our reason links with the morally good: goodness of soul, or purity, or fortitude, or serenity, etc.; and in order for this connection to be made visible, as it were, it must be united with a very strong imagination in someone who seeks so much as to judge, let alone, exhibit it.[10]

Since both of these are grounded in both empirically collected psychological biases and judgments of purposivity, Kant says

“This in turn proves that a judging by such a standard can never be purely aesthetic, and that a judging by an ideal of beauty is not a mere judgment of taste.”[11]

At this point, I think that the text agrees with my initial position: that a number of our judgments of taste contain judgments of purposivity. While Kant acts as if this is a negative thing (since he is once again looking for something transcendental), those of us who feel more comfortable with historically contingent teleological grounds than transcendental principles can rest assured that when the universal assent we require of others in giving a judgment is declined, we are not just being elitists, dogmatists, or asses. Those who do not assent to the universality we require assent to are just aspect blind.

Another point I would like to make is on the topic of universal assent. Let me take a moment to explain what Kant means when he says that we require universal assent when we make a judgment of taste. First, let us look at what Kant says:

Now, experience teaches us that the taste of reflection, with its claim that its judgment (about the beautiful) is universally valid for everyone, is also rejected often enough. What is strange is that the taste of reflection should nonetheless find itself able (as it actually does) to conceive of judgments that can demand such agreement, and that it does in fact require this agreement from everyone for each of its judgment. What the people who make those judgments dispute about is not whether such a claim is possible; they are merely unable to agree, in particular cases, on the correct way to apply this ability.[12]

When we make a judgment of something as beautiful, we are not just speaking of its particular affect upon us, but the affect that it should have upon any subject who views it. This is what Kant calls “subjective universality;” that we try (although we, for the most part, fail) to make everyone agree with our judgment of taste and treat the judgment as if it is universal.

It seems that this notion of “universal assent,” if we think about the way in which we make it in everyday language, is a judgment made about the object; and in a way, it is. Kant wishes to turn this around, however, and say a judgment about the beauty of an object is not, in fact, about the object, but is instead about our liking for the object. However, this universal assent still belongs to the experience of an aesthetic judgment, and seems curious.

Yet, if we think about it, it seems that what we mean is a quality of the object itself, which is why we think that anyone can see it there (and is why we demand universal assent). The problem is that we cannot find these qualities within the visible properties of the object qua object, so we think that it must be something that the subject is adding to the world. In other words, we are taking a notion that is supposed to be grounded in the object (in the fact that anyone can see it) and then “discovering it” as something in the subject’s judgment about his or her taste for a particular object. This move is troubling me, as it seems that both ordinary language and phenomenology places beauty within the object while our tendency to argue with one another whether or not the thing is beautiful causes us to retreat to a subjectivity that demands a universal assent (which could amount to saying “a subjectivity with a tendency to insist their position is right).

It seems that this position of subjectivity is inescapable, for even if we managed to inductively acquire universal assent about the beauty of something, we would have only convinced every subject that we are correct or have cultivated the taste of every subject in a particular way.


[1] 7 (170)

[2] 49 (207)

[3] 79-80 (232)

[4] 81 (233)

[5] Ibid.

[6] My term, not Kant’s.

[7] Ibid.

[8] 82 (234)

[9] 83 (235)

[10] 84 (236)

[11] Ibid.

[12] 58 (214)

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