Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Kant: On the Relationship Between Beauty and Utility

In Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics, (Chapter 4, “Beauty and Utility in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics"), Paul Guyer offers an interesting account of the eighteenth-century debate on beauty and utility between the British philosophers Shaftsbury, Hume, Hutcheson and Burke. But the focus of Guyer’s essay is on the important contributions that Immanuel Kant made to that debate at a later stage.

Guyer points out that in his Critique of the Power of Judgement, Kant holds that the judgement of beauty is independent from any judgement of utility. But Kant also recognizes a form of beauty that is connected to utility or even dependent on it. Here’s an excerpt from Guyer’s essay:

"Kant does recognize a form of beauty that is connected to utility or even dependent upon it. This is what he calls “adherent beauty.” Here Kant now calls the pure case of beauty he has been analyzing up to this point — that which “presupposes no concept of what the object ought to be” — “free beauty,” but he contrasts it to a second kind of beauty that “does presuppose such a concept and the perfection of the object in accordance with it,” namely, adherent beauty, which, “as adhering to a concept (conditioned beauty) [is] ascribed to objects that stand under the concept of particular end” (Critique of the Power of Judgement). And in many cases of adherent beauty, the concept of the end of what the thing ought to be that is presupposed by the judgement of its beauty is clearly a concept of its intended use and of the features necessary for it to serve that intended use."

Kant holds that the human mind has a fundamentally teleological character, and he bases his aesthetic theory on the assumption that the pleasure that we derive from a thing of beauty is caused by the recognition of the attainment of an end. Guyer says that Kant’s Critique of Aesthetic Judgement “is a complex analysis of our tendency to seek purposiveness and utility throughout nature: Kant argues that we naturally look at everything in nature as if it were designed for a  purpose, that this attitude is by itself theoretically unjustified, but that certain things in nature—namely, organisms—force the thought of design upon us…”

Guyer further illuminates Kant’s position with these lines:

"We should understand Kant as resolving the eighteenth-century debate over the relationship between beauty and utility with the thesis that utility is a necessary although not sufficient condition for beauty in those sorts of objects where we would expect utility, a condition that can be explained by the inherent tendency of the human mind to seek purposiveness and to be frustrated when it does not find it where it expects to — the case of utility — and to be particularly pleased when it finds it where it does not expect to — the case of beauty."

In Chapter 5, “Free and Adherent Beauty,” (Values of Beauty), Guyer offers a more detailed explanation for what Kant means by the concepts of free and adherent beauty. I will talk about it in another blog. 

1 comment:

Kirsti Minsaas said...

This is a very interesting take on Kant’s distinction between beauty as free (i.e., independent of any concept of an object’s purpose) and adherent (i.e., dependent on such a concept). I should like to add that the relevancy of this distinction is not only that it aimed to resolve 18th century disputes about the relationship between beauty and utility; it’s also crucial in Kant’s attempt to resolve the conflict between formalism and moral didacticism in contemporary theories about the value and function of fine art.

The significance of this becomes clear if we take into account that Kant’s aesthetics is widely considered the philosophical source of the “l'art pour l'art” conception of art as autonomous, serving no moral or practical function beyond itself. The problem of this view, as Guyer and others have pointed out, is that it rests on a one-sided emphasis on Kant's notion of aesthetic contemplation as disinterested. Since such disinterested contemplation involves the free play of the imagination, unhindered by any consideration of an object’s purpose or function, it’s intimately connected with Kant’s conception of free beauty as aesthetically pleasing form. But it’s a view that stumbles against Kant’s notion of adherent beauty. Since Kant viewed works of art as objects that necessarily are created with a specific intention, say, the artist’s desire to present a theme, it follows that whatever pleasure we take in an art work’s formal beauty will be complicated by our considerations of how well suited it is to its particular end or purpose. Or, to put it differently: our pleasure in its free beauty will enter into a complex relationship with our pleasure in its adherent beauty.

The precise nature of this relationship is too complex to go into here. But here is an interesting article on the topic which I found highly illuminating: http://www.denisdutton.com/kant.htm. The author, Denis Dutton, goes much further than Guyer in reclaiming the important role played by adherent beauty in Kant’s aesthetics, arguing that Kant gradually, as he grappled with the complexities of judgements of taste in regard to objects of art, came to abandon the idea that the experience of free beauty is the primary or dominant form of aesthetic appraisal. For Kant, he holds, artistic beauty is essentially adherent beauty, leaving little room for the disinterested pleasure afforded by free beauty.

If Dutton is correct, and his arguments are persuasive, this gives us a strong reason for dismissing, or at least qualifying, the widespread view that Kant is the philosophical father of the view of art that informed the “l’art pour l’art” movement.