Kant on the Subjectivity of Aesthetic Judgment

Wednesday 29 January 2020, 16:00-18:00

Senate House, Room 246


No issue in Kant’s aesthetics has received more critical reception than his claim that judgments of beauty are subjective. Rather than revealing any truth about the object, Kant maintains that judgments of beauty express the object’s pleasurable effect on the subject. This is often taken to mean that beauty is something that can be appreciated only from within the restricted, first-personal, subjective point of view of an empirical subject (the point of view of feeling). Once we step outside of this subjective viewpoint, by raising ourselves above it to the standpoint of objective, scientific knowledge (the point of view of thinking), beauty disappears. Beauty is subjective, on this reading, because it is a mere appearance whose force, like that of a dream, lasts only as long as there is no doubt about its reality, but that loses all its truth upon waking.

In this paper I wish to argue that this is not how Kant understood the subjective character of aesthetic judgment. The standpoint of aesthetic judging that makes beauty possible is first-personal, but so is the standpoint of logical judging that makes objective truth possible. What makes aesthetic judgments subjective is not their first-personal character, but the involvement of affection or feeling. Aesthetic judgments do not have a ‘logical’ form, and thus cannot reveal truths about an object; they have a merely aesthetic form. They belong not to the ‘I think’, but to the ‘I feel’, not to the realm of Consciousness, but to the realm of the Unconscious. They express an awareness not of what is illuminated by reason in me, but of the darkness at the core of my being that hides from reason.

However, the standpoint of feeling is not the limited perspective of an empirical being in the world; in fact, I will argue that the aesthetic standpoint (the ‘I feel’) is the limitless standpoint of the whole of a nature informed by freedom (it has no ‘outside’). Aesthetic judgment is subjective, not because beauty belongs only to the inner world of an empirical subject, but because it belongs to the interior of the objective world as a whole, an interior that exceeds objectivity but is also inseparable from it. So rather than disappearing from the logical, cognitive standpoint, beauty envelops and accompanies it like an ever-present dream from which it is impossible to wake, because it is internal to wakefulness as such.