Kenneth F. Rogerson. The Problem of Free Harmony in Kant's Aesthetics. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009. ix + 134 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7914-7625-3; $19.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7914-7626-0.
Reviewed by Ryan Plumley (European College of Liberal Arts, Berlin)
Published on H-German (October, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
Does Beauty Mean Something?
Is beauty in nature the same as beauty in art, and do either of these express a message or idea? Is there a way for art to have a message without being narrowly pedantic or dogmatic? What are the roles of the artist and the audience in producing meaning out of the beauty of art or of nature? These questions drove the thinking of Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgment (1790), the third of his three major works and ostensibly the capstone to his philosophical system. Kant famously thought that aesthetics, specifically experiences of beauty, help one to believe that the world is somehow amenable to our higher goals. Our rational knowledge of the world shows it to be mechanistically determined, Kant claimed, yet we also need to believe that our moral freedom is effective. Aesthetics morally bolster the spirits of Kant's disillusioned cognitive subject, through the process that offers the title to Kenneth F. Rogerson's new book: a free harmony of the imagination and the understanding.
Rogerson returns to these basic matters through an analysis of the philosopher’s text in the mode of analytic history of philosophy: careful logical reconstruction and specification of terminology. In short, Rogerson argues that Kant's system is best understood as claiming that the pleasure of experiencing beauty derives from the way that particular objects (of art or of nature) give us the sense that they are communicating ideas that exceed our normal, everyday forms of thinking and feeling. Beautiful objects express aesthetic ideas. They do not do so intentionally or obviously, but beauty's arrangement of the physical world suggests to us that the beautiful object could have been made to express an idea that we normally think resists direct expression--such as freedom, immortality, infinity, or the like. By reading it this way, Rogerson seeks to rescue Kant's aesthetic theory from its own inconsistencies and make it robust enough to sustain some contemporary relevance.
In many ways, Rogerson's book is an admirable example of analytic history of philosophy. He uses close reading and exacting logic to work out a plausible version of Kant's intention in the text, supplementing it where needed with common-sense reasoning or credible assumption. The underlying goal is to produce a logically consistent argumentative system out of Kant's texts--to make sense of Kant, as it were. This kind of scholarship is sensitive to details of language and meaning in the text, and equally assiduous about the workings of logical argument. Analytic philosophers are good about defining their terms and getting the argument straight.
Rogerson, for instance, effectively explicates Kant's terminology and explains the arguments made in other parts of the project in Kant's Critiques when these are necessary for clarity in his own analysis (see, for instance, the summaries provided on pp. 1-2, 7-8, or 26-28). These summaries exemplify Rogerson's virtues as a writer: they are succinct, clear, and workable for the generally trained scholar interested in Kant. Indeed, these more preliminary and framing elements in Rogerson's book are perhaps its best features. Moreover, Rogerson is more insistent than other analytic philosophers that one must use all of the resources of Kant's text to explain his overall aesthetic theory. Rather than exclusively focusing on the first half of the Critique of Judgment, with its largely epistemological concerns, Rogerson proposes that we should also consider the latter half, with its focus on aesthetic ideas and the moral usefulness of art.
When Rogerson turns to the core of his argument, however, the logic becomes very painstaking. And the debates that he enters seem limited to the five other scholars that Rogerson regularly cites in the body of the text: Henry Allison, Donald Crawford, Hannah Ginsborg, Paul Guyer, and Carl Posy, all professional academic philosophers. A somewhat broader spectrum of scholarship appears in the endnotes, but one is still left with the impression that the only important debates about Kant's work occur entirely within analytic philosophy. This myopia is a widespread tendency within professional philosophy in the Anglo-American academy, so Rogerson should not be held solely accountable for it. But one might nonetheless reasonably contend that a subject as broad as aesthetics (even if limited to Kant's quite influential version) requires a number of modes of engagement.
For this disciplinary reason, Rogerson's argument is quite specific. In chapter 1, "The Problem of Free Harmony," Rogerson lays out the basic problem that his book seeks to resolve. Kant claims that aesthetic appreciation, beauty, is a kind of pleasure that arises out of a mental state (similar, but somehow non-identical with cognition) called "the free harmony of the imagination and the understanding" (cited on p. 1). Imagination, in Kant's sense, is the faculty that gathers sense data into a kind of collection or manifold. The understanding, again in Kant's sense, is the faculty that applies judgments (which are like rules) to this collection, forming a concept. So, a collection of sense perceptions like fur, leg, barking, and so on can be gathered under the rule for "dog" to create the determinative judgment that "this is a dog." The problem for aesthetic judgments is that they are supposed to be rule-governed without any particular rule (the harmony is "free"). Rogerson reviews a number of attempted solutions to this problem. For instance, Guyer claims that, for Kant, a beautiful object is one to which any number of rules could be applied. Allison claims that Kant means that one could apply a rule but refrains from doing so in aesthetic judgment. Or, finally, Ginsborg claims that the kind of judgment made in Kantian aesthetics is a sort of "primitive," pre-conceptual one that nonetheless involves ordering and rules at a rudimentary level. Rogerson dismisses each of these claims as presenting problems of inconsistency or absurdity. For instance, if aesthetic judging is just refraining from applying a rule, then can any object be beautiful simply by virtue of our refraining from deciding what it is?
Rogerson's solution to these dilemmas is to turn to Kant's assertion that beautiful art is constituted by the "expression of an aesthetic idea" (cited on pp. 28-29). Demonstrating that this turn clarifies Kant's aesthetics is the main work of the book as a whole. An "aesthetic idea" by Kant's account is something that "cannot be literally described--they are notions of things too big for ordinary empirical description" (p. 21): eternity, freedom, creation, heaven, hell, and so on. An art object should inspire a free harmony that can never quite coalesce into a specific concept or a determining rule. Rogerson suggests at the end of this chapter that this way of seeing things solves the problem of free harmony for art and may also allow us to include natural beauty, as Kant obviously wants to do.
In chapter 2, "The Doctrine of Aesthetic Ideas," Rogerson reinforces his account of free harmony by explaining in more detail what Kant means by the expression of aesthetic ideas. He has to show that this expression is not inconsistent with Kant's apparent formalism, that is, that expression need not derive from the art work (or natural object) having some determinate content or message. Rather, expression arises out of the play of the understanding in its encounter with a sensible form. Basically, beauty puts our minds into a state of free play that nonetheless can cohere around some specific idea--usually, for Kant, a moral or spiritual one. This coherence emerges through genius, a naturally given talent for producing original constellations of sensible material that are ordered by their expression of an aesthetic idea. Genius does not entail actual intentionality from the artist, but rather the assumption on the part of the audience that the object created by genius could have been made to communicate an aesthetic idea. So natural objects can do this as well, even though they are not created with intention.
In chapter 3, "Natural and Artistic Beauty," Rogerson addresses the distinction that Kant makes between these two types of beauty. He argues against the view, held by many interpreters, that this has "important evaluative consequences" (p. 41). Instead, he shows that, relying on the interpretation developed in the previous two chapters, Kant can be much more easily and plausibly read as implying a difference between nature and art, although not one that makes any difference to the bigger picture of the Critique of Judgment. First, since, as he showed in chapter 2, the genius that produces beautiful art is a gift of nature, artistic beauty actually collapses in natural beauty: that is, art is just nature working through people. Second, both forms of beauty are significant sources of reassurance that our free, supersensible moral interests might be accommodated in the rule-driven material world.
Rogerson's short fourth chapter, "Free Harmony and Aesthetic Pleasure," focuses on the importance of pleasure to free harmony. The pleasure issue is significant because a shared feeling of pleasure is one of the ways in which aesthetic judgments make a claim to universality. In brief, Kant wants to claim that all people are so constituted that they will necessarily feel pleasure if they properly attend to a beautiful object. Most interpreters see this pleasure as the way in which we recognize the free harmony set up by the object in our minds. Rogerson thinks that this interpretation fails in a number of ways, and he proposes that we can return to Kant's argument about beautiful (artistic or natural) objects being expressions of aesthetic ideas. In short, Rogerson holds that we obtain pleasure from beauty because it fulfills one of our most important goals: to see our higher moral ideas expressed in the material world.
In chapter 5, "The Extensiveness of the Criterion of Beauty," Rogerson turns to one of the major problems that arises from Kant's aesthetic theory: his insistence that free harmony causes aesthetic pleasure easily leads one to conclude that any object is or can be beautiful. After all, we can observe any object for its order without applying any particular concept or rule to it. We can see a dog as an ordered manifold of sense data without focusing on the fact that it is a dog. This is called the "anything is beautiful" problem in Kant. Rogerson explains why this objection stands for other interpretations, and he concludes by asserting again that the expression of the aesthetic ideas criterion helps limit the set of objects that can be considered aesthetically pleasing.
In his somewhat longer chapter 6, "Beauty, Free Harmony, and Moral Duty," Rogerson concludes his analysis by summarizing previous arguments and bringing them into dialogue with one another. His conclusion, the one toward which all of the chapters point, is that "aesthetic appreciation is (universally) pleasing just in the case that we are able to judge an object as 'subjectively final' in the sense that we can judge an object as expressing an idea" (p. 99). That is, Kant's aesthetics hold together when we understand him to be arguing that beauty in art and nature is an experience, occasioned by focused attention on particular, exceptional objects, of pleasant contemplation of ideas that exceed our everyday, empirical life. This contemplation is not a matter of defining the object or putting it into a category. Rather, the contemplation is a "free harmony," an interplay between perceiving and trying to understand. This experience is linked to morality because in the process our hope is sustained that aesthetic ideas have some bearing on a world that otherwise seems mechanistic, anonymous, and dead to our attempts to transform it rationally.
Rogerson is almost entirely absorbed by exegetical debates within analytic philosophy. In order for his contribution to these debates to be more widely meaningful, one really has to assume that the project of meticulously reconstructing Kant's aesthetics will have a major pay-out for other scholars or for other kinds of scholarship. Moreover, along the way, one has to assume that the reader finds Kant's more general epistemology plausible. These are big demands if they are made on readers outside of the small audience to which Rogerson seems to address his book. If he wishes for his work to have broader implications for contemporary thought on aesthetics, as at times he seems to, he needed to provide some kind of orienting frame within debates outside of his own discipline.
As it is, Rogerson only provides brief explanations of what even counts as "art" in his or Kant's analysis, and from these it is easy to conclude that he assumes a narrowly bourgeois or traditionalist view of "fine art." His few examples of actual aesthetic objects all fall within a quite conventional, textbook history of art: the Mona Lisa, a Gothic church, Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1917), and Piet Mondrian's Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue (1937-42). Yet, even these examples show that Rogerson wishes to make Kant's aesthetics workable for art objects that were created long after the Critique of Judgment. Indeed, this aim raises the problem of how past philosophical works can be made relevant to contemporary debates. Because he always asks questions in the present tense, however (What is the nature of an experience of beauty? In what way does art have a meaning?), Rogerson paradoxically loses touch with the present. Even if we resemble the eighteenth-century, educated bourgeoisie to whom Kant directed his texts (and one would have to actually make that argument), our inherited tradition of aesthetic reflection is longer and somewhat different than theirs. Their assumptions are not ours; their needs and motivations are not identical with our own. Making past philosophical works relevant to our present concerns would have to involve a rather more complicated negotiation with texts from the past over both continuities and divergences within a discourse that is typically highly contested and complex.
One would not have to go far to find examples of a more sophisticated relationship to Kant's aesthetics than offered here. Kant's contemporaries and successors--including the German Romantics and other Idealists like J.G. Fichte or G. W. F. Hegel--were all heavily influenced by his aesthetic theory. Friedrich Schiller, for example, developed Kant's insistence on the moral usefulness of art into a full-blown theory of the "aesthetic education of man." Friedrich Schlegel contended that poetry and philosophy (artistic production and aesthetic theory) had to be somehow fused in order to be adequate to the modern condition. In both cases, aesthetic theory was historicized in a way that tried to put contemporary concerns into a progressivist narrative of modernity. However questionable this narrative, one can easily see that it involves a more developed contextualization of Kant's theory that does the work of relating his texts to what came before and after. Rogerson, by contrast, offers no such framing.
Moreover, previous to Kant, but perhaps even more so after him, many works in the western tradition actively disrupt, disorient, or disgust the audience rather than attracting it through pleasurable contemplation of aesthetic ideas. One has to wonder whether a view of aesthetics based on an analysis of beauty is even terribly relevant to contemporary art discussions. But, again, Rogerson and his interlocutors are so narrowly encased in exegetical debate that they leave little room for the most basic of bigger questions. Even if beauty is meaningful, it is not clear that this is the most important aspect of questioning about aesthetics.
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Ryan Plumley. Review of Rogerson, Kenneth F., The Problem of Free Harmony in Kant's Aesthetics.
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