The Starry Heavens Above and the Bollocks Within

Casual notes of reading Kant loosely edited. Lateral thinking required

  1. his anti-Cartesian revolt which prevents our self from being totally severed from our senses; and
  2. his innovative, non-deductive, non-provable yet at the same time non-unprovable arguments based entirely on reverse logic

The first one enables us to link up our phenomenal senses (empiricist) with our cognition (rationalist) with the help of a priori categories that he invented. I say invented because he cannot prove the existence of such categories, of which some are really functions that enable any sensible data to be processed. At the same time, however, these functions are operating everywhere in our everyday lives. Most of these functions are logical functions like synthesis (addition) and causality; some other are time and space. His argument goes that since these categories are abstract they must not be empirical; and that since they would not have been known without being applied to sensible data first they are not purely rational either. So it follows that Descartes is wrong when he says cogito ergo sum because his cognition preempts sensible data that his body experienced. All fine and well. I actually think this is a rather neat way of going around the chasm between empiricism and rationalism, because it is entirely tautological. His strategy is to relegate anything he cannot prove to a category whose existence alone explains for its own existence because otherwise things would not have been the same as it is.

This is fine when we are dealing with pure reason like pure mathematics and logic. But all this is becoming rather shaky when he moves into the practical realm and tries to attribute reason to morality. Unlike pure reason which builds a castle in the air for as long as the bricks are adhered by the mortar of logical rules, practical reason requires making judgements. When the ideal castle can no longer be held up by those thought-out rules we are only required to build another one; but the judgements we make with practical reason have real impacts on our living lives. That is when the problem begins the show: the operating functions have to be general enough to be universal and concrete enough to be recognisable when judgement is made. Kant calls them the ideas of reason, meaning that in order for us to act according to reason (i.e. the hallmark of humanity), we must first assume (and therefore act as if believing in) the existence of these ideas: God, freedom, and immortality. Again, Kant has no way to prove it; nor does he attempt to. He is not even maintaining that there are such things – that’s why he calls them ideas. But again he makes the same move: what else could it be if not what I say it is? Very well, Mr Kant, whatever you say. Just one question: are these ideas also brainchild of the a priori operators of pure reason?

Now, the chap goes on to the critique of aesthetic judgement, which he discusses in two parts: beauty and sublime. Why he finds it necessary to engage in this critique is interesting: he deems art the heightened expression of humanity (per reason, which governs our morality) and therefore by studying it we are learning how to examine our morals. But Kant takes a rather digressive way to do so. He first establishes what beauty is, taking example from the Nature: that it is the form of the purposiveness of an object so far as this is perceived without any representation of a purpose. Typical of Kant, he based his argument on assumption again. Purposiveness is the ‘as if’ that we have to view Nature – and by extension, any artwork – because otherwise it would only appear to us as an array of disconnected data and fail to generate the condition on which a feeling of beautiful is possible. We look at Nature assuming that there is some sort of design (whom by? God obviously) although we cannot find any proofs of that design; likewise, we look at a piece of painting assuming that there is some sort of purpose for that painting to exist even though there really is not. But if we don’t make that assumption, the feeling of beautiful will fall apart because nothing will hold together the splatters of colour in front of us that has made the aesthetic experience possible in the first place. What Kant is essentially saying here, again, is that what other ways could this have been?

Next, he says that beauty is ‘disinterested’. We can only judge that something is beautiful when we do not derive any interests from it. It entails that a judgement of beauty has to bypass any sensible data thereby confining it to pure formal existence. Such idea implies two things: first, that I cannot say that a dress is beautiful based on the reason that I will look good in it and therefrom my desire to wear it but that I feel pleasure in looking at it; and second, that I cannot say that the same dress is beautiful because its fabric is soft (sensible) but that its shape is ‘pleasant’ or its cutting is interesting (formal, nonsensible, imaginative). Now immediately we see how absurd it is: does it mean that when I, say, stand under a banyan tree on a warm summer’s day, I cannot judge either the tree or the sun beautiful because I am interested as the tree provides shade and the sun gives me warmth. But when I look out of the window and see the same tree and the same sun (preferably setting) I can judge that they are beautiful because I am now disinterested? Does it mean that aesthetic judgement lies in the intention or manner of such judgement rather than the aesthetic quality of the object being judged?

Of course you can say Kant subjects these objects to a rigorous test only when they pass to be beautiful even when looked at, ripped of any interest. So the tree and the sun continue to be beautiful even when I enter into some sort of interest relationship with them. This speaks of the absolute objectivity of aesthetic judgement and therefore its (problematic) universality. Fair enough. But then it leads to more questions. Why would I judge a setting sun beautiful were it not for its rich colours (which according to Kant is sensible and therefore not eligible as a criterion for judgement)? And is the rising sun equally beautiful? Or the noon sun? Obviously not. So beauty is momentous, meaning it derives its pleasurable effect from the object’s relationship with other objects at a particular moment (composition, tension). The setting sun cannot be considered as the same sun as the rising one, even though our reason tells us that they in fact are. Likewise the tree. This points to two things: first, beauty lies in the relation, not the object per se; and second, aethestic judgement goes against – or bypass – our reason. The first one is related to the idea of purposiveness, as when we feel pleasure in the setting sun we are having a feeling that arises on the achievement of a purpose, even though we cannot pin down to any definite purpose. Therefore, for us to be able to decide that the setting sun is beautiful, we have to give in to the idea, or allow the presumption that, the setting sun is meant to be beautiful, under the law of grand design that puts it in that particular setting as we see it, to evoke a certain indefinite or unknown purpose. The second point implies that formal beauty is given priority to plausibility in aesthetic judgement, effectively evicting morality as a concern. The two seems contradictive to Kant’s intention – which let me recall is moral-bound. To resolve this, he makes yet another ingenious move by bringing in the idea of sublime.

Sublime

Let us recall the problem of the sun, whose beauty is manifested in its splendid setting but not on a cloudy noon day. As well as going against our reason it also goes against Kant’s idea of a priori categories of time and space, which posits us in a historical and spatial continuum in the first place. Now sublime, he thinks, is when the viewer connects with the object that he is viewing, and thereby, through the ideas of reason, induce an elated emotion in response to the magnitude of this view. This creates a sense of insignificance, mortality and finality of our own existence in confrontation with Nature. Of course, all this awe-ful awareness would not have been possible were it not for the operation of the ideas of reason and the a priori categories of space and time. So again Kant is playing tautology here by proofing something by using the unreputable because non-unprovable existence of that thing.

My trouble with Kant is not with his claims, which I think are important to the self-awareness of human existence in relation to the universe. What I have trouble with is the methodology he adopted, which, in my humble opinion, amounts to intellectual bullying. On the other hand, however, I can somehow understand why he did it that way, because he has overstepped the boundary into a realm where no language is powerful enough to command. Like what Wittgenstein would later say, what cannot be spoken about we must pass over in silence – with art and philosophy being two of them.

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