Kant's account of the aesthetic judgment, or beauty, has been extremely influential since his time. Though a lot of his work can be rather difficult to read and comprehend, the aesthetic theory within the Critique of Judgment has a rare instance of Kant apologizing for the complexity and obscure nature of his theories right in the preface. Ultimately, I would like to compare Kant's views on the beautiful to an older perspective on the nature of art- that of Aristotle. First, though, an effort must be to make sure that we have a working understanding of what both men actually believed. Kant being the more difficult of the two, I will address him in the first and largest section of this paper.
At the end the third moment, Kant classifies the aesthetic judgment with the following brief statement:
"Beauty is the form of finality in an object, so far as perceived in it apart from the representation of an end."
In order to understand what is meant by this, we can first analyze each of the key terms involved, to get an understanding of how Kant is using them. Let us regard 'form' first. For Kant, the form of an object is the arrangement of those qualities which appear to the senses. Now, this need not be an actual appearance- we can talk about an object that has no real existence, such as a mythical being, and attribute to it a conception of how it would appear if it existed. Thus, 'form' can be actual or conceptual. Both usages of the term could be used in Kant's statement above accurately; a real thing can be beautiful, and we can also understand a fictional thing to be beautiful through our conception of it's form. However, it is important to talk about a major point Kant makes in the second part of the first moment, and again towards the end of the third. This is that the beauty of a thing is independent of it's real existence. For example, if considering whether or not a pair of proposed desserts are beautiful, it is irrelevant to point out that this one is real, and so can actually be tasted and nourish us, while on the other hand this other one is merely a thing of the imagination, and so cannot do these things no matter how wondrous our conception of it may be. Similarly, the dessert's beauty is not contingent on whether or not we happen to be hungry as we ponder it, whether or not eating the dessert would be healthy for us, or any other such concerns that involve actual interaction with the object as an object. Beauty is wrapped up in the conceptual form of an object alone.
The next major term is finality. Finality means nothing more than the appearance of an end, so there's no more that can be said on the matter without addressing how Kant is using the term 'end', so let us turn there first. An and is a particular kind of object that is brought into existence by our conceptions. Happiness, courage, and reflective sensations are all potential examples of this. We can think things through, imagine things, for the purpose of bringing about our happiness, or fostering courage, or achieving some realization, and in turn it is true that those instances of happiness could not have occurred without the conceptualization taking place. Intentionality is also an important part of how Kant is using the term- he states that the faculty of humans bringing about ends through our concepts is the will. Thus, another way to see an end is as that which is done with purpose. Indeed, one translation of Kant's account of beauty is 'purposiveness without purpose'.
To my mind, this usage of the term Finality puts Kant in an interesting position- he needs to claim that there is such a thing as what it's like to perceive an end, apart from any content of the end in particular. In other words, we can recognize in an object the fact that it was brought about with deliberate intention, without any conception or opinion of what that intention may actually be. This must be the case, for if ends were completely different from each other, then finality could only exist when a particular end was presented to the understanding, and this completely contradicts the second clause of Kant's statement- that Beauty is apart from any such representation.
Lastly, though 'beauty' is itself the term defined in the statement being examined, a comment must be made here about his usage of it. He does not mean beauty in the common, modern, sense of the term, as a synonym for 'pretty'. Instead, an object is beautiful for Kant if it bring about the aesthetic sense in us. In other words, to be beautiful means to be recognized as art. This is crucial to keep in mind as we turn to Aristotle, for without this broad application of the term 'beauty', the two thinkers would simply be talking about completely different subjects.
So then, with a new understanding of the terms used, we should have a working grasp of what Kant has meant here with his statement. We perceive something as beautiful when we get the impression from it that it has a purpose, completely apart from any purpose that we've come to actually understand exists in the object. So then, if a toothbrush were beautiful, it would be not because we see that it brushes teeth, but because there is something in it's composition that suggests there was a reason why it was made this way instead of that way, particulars of it's structure would suggest a meaning or goal beyond just that of cleaning teeth, and while we have this conviction, we have it in the absence of any understanding of what this other purpose might be, and in fact, we have it when there may not be any such other purpose at all, except perhaps to bring about this conviction within us. Note that in this instance, I mean 'conviction' not in the sense of a rational conclusion arrived at through the understanding, but rather a mere sensation of being convinced of something.
Now that Kant's succinct description of the aesthetic judgment has been explained, there is one qualification that needs to be pointed out which was actually not contained in that summary statement. Specifically, this awareness of purposiveness without a purpose must provoke pleasure or displeasure. It's not enough for us to see something that seems to have a purpose, realize that we don't know what that purpose is, and to speculate. There is a certain joy (or sometimes dread) that comes from being confronted with something that seems, in an imprecise way, to be more than it is.
This point is key to seeing the connection between Kant and Aristotle's views, since it is closely tied to Aristotle's concept of mimesis, which I will turn to now. In Chapter 4 of the Poetics, Aristotle makes the point that we can gain pleasure from representations of things that would shock or horrify us, such as frightening animals or corpses. This, he says, occurs because it is natural for man to gain pleasure from exercising the understanding- it is a faculty we have, and more than that, a faculty that makes us uniquely human, and so is bound up in the telos of man- it is only natural that we would find pleasure in exemplifying our common ends as humans. What's most similar here to something Kant would say is the point that this pleasure comes about irregardless of whether or not the actual thing being represented is in itself good or bad from the individual humans perspective- recognition and understanding is pleasurable in itself.
Another similarity between Kant's views and Aristotle's comes in the alleged universal nature of these experiences. Aristotle ties the appreciation of art to mimesis, or representation, and the pleasure of experiencing art to the exercise of the understanding. Gaining pleasure from understanding a mimetic moment is something that is a part of human nature, according to Aristotle. According to Kant, recognition of the beautiful is accompanied by a conviction that what one has recognized is universal in it's subjectivity- that is, the (subjective) experience you are having could be shared by every other human (universal) if they were exposed to the thing of beauty as you were, and were inspired to see it just so. Both thinkers, then, tie the appreciation of art to fundamental aspects of human nature.
Is there any great difference between Kant and Aristotle on these matters? There is one that comes to mind with a little reflection. While they both agree that aesthetic recognition and pleasure can come about from representations of objects we would normally find disagreeable, they seem to part ways on what to make of this. Aristotle would say that when we take pleasure in seeing a horrible thing, it is because we have exercised the understanding of the horrible thing as horrible. Thus, he goes on to instruct would-be artists on how best to evoke those emotions from people when creating a tragedy, and on the therapeutic benefits of katharsis, the release of emotion that comes from art carrying us through an experience that would be strongly negative if it were real. On the other hand Kant would say that the emotional content of a piece of art is besides the point- while it can get our attention, and inspire us to contemplate the work and ultimately to have an aesthetic judgment about it, to judge something as beautiful (or artistic merit) is to see something in it beyond that emotional content, which in fact Kant says can get in the way if it's presented to strongly.
One fundamental disagreement, then, is over the role of emotional content in the nature of art. Surely Kant would acknowledge that many beautiful things also have compelling emotional content, and we have seen that Aristotle contends that things with negative emotional content can be appreciated artistically. However, Kant's view allows for the possibility of representations which evoke strong enotions, and yet nevertheless have no artistic merit. At first glance, Aristotle's emphasis on emotional content and it's role in creating good art would seem to suggest that there's no room for the Kantian idea of a pure aesthetic judgment with no emotional content at all. However, Aristotle's most basic description of the mimesis doesn't actually seem to rely on emotional content in the representation to make sense- rather, the mere act of recognition, of exercising the understanding, leads to the pleasure- so in theory, some work of art which was not emotionally evocative could provoke this response, even if Aristotle doesn't explore this possibility himself. So, while the role of emotional content is perhaps the most obvious and most verbosely-addressed difference in their views, it is not at the very heart of the matter. It seems to me, that the key difference is in the exercise of the understanding.
Aristotle claims that the pleasure of witnessing art comes from the exercising of the understanding, with special attention paid to where we get an opportunity to understand (and therefore experience, on some level) negative emotions or situations, without the total consequences that these situations actually have. Kant, on the other hand, denies that any concept needs to be properly understood in order to make an aesthetic judgment. This indeeds seems to be an irreconcilable difference. Kant does, however, have some role for the understanding to take in the experience of art- this is accounted for in his talk of free play. Probably one of the more difficult concepts to grasp in the Critique of Judgment, free play involves a certain relationship between the understanding and the imagination. Ordinarily, the understanding dictates to the imagination- it creates rules, through the information we gain from recognizing a representation. Our understanding of a representation determines what the imagination may conceive of when we have an experience. In the case of the aesthetic judgment, however, no conception is actually there- and no understanding is reached. The 'purposiveness' is just that- it creates the right frame of mind for the understanding to dictate to the imagination, without any actual boundaries of concrete conception. To put it in Aristotelian terms- it is the process of mimesis itself, without reaching it's natural conclusion- understanding and recognition of what the representations means. Kant would say that this experience is pleasurable. Would Aristotle agree? He never specifically says, of course, but here is a relevant passage from the Poetics:
"An indication of [the pleasure which all men take in mimetic objects] can be observed in practice: for we take pleasure in contemplating the most precise images of things whose sight in itself causes us pain- such as the appearance of the basest animals, or of corpses".
From Chapter 4, Poetics.
The phrasing here puts the pleasure precisely on the contemplation, not on the recognition. Is this just a turn of phrase, or is it significant? At the very least, it could be reasonably interpreted to leave room for Kant's idea- that the pleasure of mimesis can be achieved even when (perhaps even 'especially when') complete understanding does not take place. The clause 'the most precise images of things' can even be taken two ways- does it mean that the images must be very precise in order to take such pleasure, or does it mean that we take pleasure despite horrible things such as corpses being precisely depicted? The second interpretation would coincide well with Kant.
For the sake of argument, though, let's assume that this disagreement is genuine- that Aristotle believes understanding is central to the pleasure of experiencing art, and that Kant has said otherwise. Which is correct? It seems the easiest way to answer this question would be to reflect on personal experience of the aesthetic judgment ourselves- do we, in fact, experience moments where we recognize something as beautiful apart from it's use to us, recognition of a specific, enjoyable concept, and emotional content? It would seem that this is precisely what occurs in the appreciation of modern art- there is often nothing specific represented at all, enjoyable or otherwise, the skill involved in the pure composition can be at least somewhat evaluated by the critic's common refrain of "I could have done that myself", and the works are often too simple to convey any specific emotional meaning beyond what the viewer brings to the experience themselves. And yet, the works are appreciated as art. So it would seem (unless we are very generous in our interpretations) that Kant has the more precise view, and that this sort of art is something that Aristotle has overlooked.
However, there is another fundamental difference between them in terms of their overall goals in writing what they have- Kant is describing what it is to see art, and to judge it as art. Aristotle on the other hand, is mostly concerned with how one creates the very best art. Which art is the best is always going to be somewhat subjective, of course, and Aristotle's point of comparison seems to be the works of Homer and similar writers- they told a gripping tale with an evocative message that will probably always endure. Whether or not a mostly empty canvass with a few colored strokes or splashes could evoke a mimetic experience without achieving understanding is quite far indeed from Aristotle's concerns in the Poetics. As far as I can tell, we can grant nearly everything Kant says without affecting Aristotle's points at all- mimesis is at the heart of enjoying art, and there are certainly specific methods that work best when it comes to bringing out an emotional response from the viewer and achieving katharsis. Kant does not dispute that art can be emotional, and that such emotional experiences can be good. Aristotle is defining the best art as that which achieves this the most effectively, and writing from that perspective- that there may be some art which does not achieve or intend to achieve this goal is a subject about which Aristotle is silent.
Kant, however, does take a more forward, and thus vulnerable position when he asserts that the emotional content of a representation is of no consequence when determining whether or not it is art. The implications here is that there could be a work which successfully evokes katharsis, and is a well done and technically skillful achievement, and which is nevertheless not art at all. Can we find examples of this? Pornography manages to be emotionally evocative without any particular technical skill- or in any event, any skill which may be present doesn't seem strictly necessary to achieve it's ends. Thanks to modern technology, there is music today which manages to be emotionally evocative, technically skillful (at least from the perspective of computer programming), that many serious musicians would refuse to acknowledge as art. However, the lack of sincere musical talent involved seems to be connected to the reasons why the works aren't viewed as art- the process of their composition seems directly linked to our appreciation in these cases. The news is another example that comes to mind - many things we see on the news can be quite provocative, and indeed there are a lot of technical skills involved in shooting, composing, and presenting a good news broadcast. Would Aristotle say this is art? It seems to me it depends on what skills were employed- if the intention is to provoke the emotions, and the news piece is composed with that goal in mind, it seems to meet Aristotle's standard for art, even though many of us might disagree with that classification. Political speech may be another example- a political advertisement can certainly drum up emotion- intended and otherwise- and there is a skill in presenting the facts (or opinions) in ways that do this as effectively as possible. Is this art? While some of it might be, it seems safe to say that not all of it is- even some of the most inciting.
It seems we have found, then, examples of things which meet Aristotle's definition of art, but which most of us would agree are not art. It would be the reasonable opinion of most aesthetics that Kant is onto something real that Aristotle did not identify, then. However, before we close the book on the debate, let me point out that the examples of modern art- little technical skill, no representation, yet possessing of the aesthetic judgment- is also not considered to be real art by many people. It would be interesting to compare the opinions of those who would defend journalism and political rallying speech as art, with those who would defend modern art as art. Evaluating whatever arguments they may have is outside the bounds of this paper, though. What I think is useful to conclude is this- there is very broad agreement between Aristotle and Kant on what constitutes art, it's universality, and why it is that humans enjoy it. Those examples of purported art which would poke holes in one theory or the other are, not surprisingly, the most controversial and disputed examples of art that we have.