My limited experience reading contemporary philosophers has convinced me that Wittgenstein, Kant, and Aristotle need to be read alongside one another, and that a tangle or confusion in one of the three is often worked out by the strength of a concept or line of argument in another; that view has itself been shaped and strengthened by the concurrent realization that the contemporary interlocutors and explicators of the three ought to be read alongside one another: John McDowell next to Sebastian Rödl next to Philippa Foot. And now another: Hannah Ginsborg, whose stated aims and self-established boundaries in her series of essays on Kant’s aesthetics are more modest than the aims and boundaries of McDowell, Rödl, or Foot, but whose work harmonizes with and deepens my understanding of theirs.
I’m deviating, for a second time, from the blog’s own literary limits, but feel justified in doing so given the relevance of aesthetics to literature, but also the limit set by aesthetics on literary criticism, like a mountain range whose lower pastures and valleys provide ample fodder and space for grazing, but which is practically impassable.
I’m responding here chiefly to one of Ginsborg’s essays, collected in her volume ‘The Normativity of Nature’: “Lawfulness Without a Law: Kant on the Free Play of Imagination and Understanding” (1997).
In the essay, she addresses, and convincingly resolves, a central dilemma for Kant’s interpreters, and possibly for Kant (she is not definitive on whether Kant implies the solution she provides). She addresses the Critique of Judgment and in so doing reads it as essential to Kant’s larger project, rather than a spandrel that the evolution of his thought threw up: in it, Kant addresses the problem of how particulars can be subsumed under general categories and concepts; how judgment of a particular is possible (how predication can happen, an analytic philosopher might say).
The aesthetic emerges as a relevant category because it allows for Kant to explain the relationship of the imagination (synthesizing sense impression) and the understanding (judgment that places that manifold synthesis under a concept), and to try to clarify–though, given the confusion, he did not perhaps succeed–what he means by “law.” Ginsborg’s contribution to the current scholarly muddle over the Third Critique lies in a clarification of just that notion.
The problem for Kant is thus: he says that in an aesthetic experience the play of the imagination is free and also lawful; it is free because it is subjective, but because it is lawful, we assume that it is universally valid. How can something be free and lawful? To insist that in the aesthetic experience (in aesthetic judgments) concepts are involved, allowing it to be universal, would mean any cognition would qualify as aesthetic. There would be no difference in my perception of a tree “as an oak” and my perception of a painting by Matisse. Few commentators pursue that path; more are tempted by the other, which takes them, by various routes, to another extreme, whereby the imagination is sundered from concepts too neatly–here the dilemma is greater, because it leaves unresolves, and draws us back into, Kant’s initial problem: how can the imagination, synthesizing sense impressions into a manifold object, be brought under cognition and the application of concepts? Are concepts prior to the imagination’s synthesis or subsequent to it? Are they laws that govern how we make sense of the world, or are they laws that emerge as we make sense of the world?
The first part to the answer that Ginsborg provides, and one that chimes with much I have read in McDowell and Rödl, is effectively: both. The language of priority leads us astray; both happen at once. Once, to borrow a phrase from McDowell that Ginsborg does not use, we think an object, we are bringing it into the space of reasons; once, to rely on Rödl, we recognize our own act of perception and are conscious that we believe it to be whatever we believe, we are doing the work of understanding and imagination at once; to see an apple and to say “I see an apple” are one and the same. We say, speaking as we must from the space of reasons, that the concept of an apple has governed the imagination, but that is our grammar, not a philosophical account of our mental activity.
But in this part of her answer, Ginsborg is only addressing a general problem for Kantian epistemology: she is offering an account of the relationship between imagination (the grabbing hold of the world and resolution of empirical impressions) and the understanding (bringing world under concept), between form and content; an account, McDowell would say, of spontaneity.
She has not yet addressed the knot of the Critique of Judgment, which has to do with what Kant means by a law. McDowell and Rödl in their accounts of first-person knowledge and belief do not need to address the problem as Ginsborg does; they are able to close the gap between mind and world, between belief and perception, and carry out their arguments because they do not rely on aesthetics, and certainly not Kantian aesthetics. And where McDowell writes on the Critique of Judgment (as he does, knowing its arguments matter for Kant’s Critique of Understanding), he does so with a stronger agenda, a background of original philosophical arguments, than Ginsborg; what emerges from Ginsborg’s imaginative and charitable reading of Kant, her patience with his words, is original and forceful.
Her solution is indebted (though she cites neither, perhaps because they have been so absorbed into the philosophical tradition) Aristotle as well as Wittgenstein. She frames the problem in terms of following a rule. How do we know, more specifically, when a language speaker follows a rule? The answer is that the rule emerges from the practice itself. (The work of Robert Brandom is probably relevant here too, since his philosophy of language and meaning is founded on the idea of normative commitments, emerging in and defining practice.) The key-distinction she makes is between a practice that is governed by a rule and one that is “exemplary” of it; the latter word she takes from Kant but the explanation she offers for it is her own. We would say that a speaker of a language follows rules, but we would not want to say that her practice is governed by rules, as if she were consulting a grammatical guide in speaking; instead, we would say that the rules of the language emerge from, and are inherent in, the practice itself, so that the speaker’s practice is exemplary of them.
Something similar, she says, is the case when a person thinks about the world: the person does not approach the world with a concept of a tree, to which the world then conforms or otherwise; the unity of the concept does not precede the experience. Nor, however, does the sensory manifold find unity without the concept. Here we are back in the old bind that McDowell and Rödl have helped us out of. Instead, as they say, the concept emerges out of the practice of cognition itself—speaking a language, communicating with others, making predictions about the world: thinking the world, living as a human in a space of reasons, possessed of self-consciousness. When we reflect upon what we believe that we see in the world, when we state what we are seeing in other words, our reflection and practice is exemplary of a rule, but it can also be justified and explained in terms of what we know about a concept. We can defend our judgment that a concept is right in a particular situation through an appeal to other facts about the concept. Hence we are squarely in the “space of reasons.”
What is crucial about Ginsborg’s account, what sets it apart from those of McDowell and Rödl, is that it leaves space for a form of “Lawfulness without a Law,” an area of experience that is not entirely to be set within the space of reasons, but that is similarly not a form of bald naturalism, whereby she claims we can have “direct” experience of the world. But to do justice to Kant’s aesthetics, she needs to explain how it is that Kant can posit a realm of judgment, and an experience of the world, that does not depend upon concepts, but that is nonetheless lawful, as concepts and reasons are.
Return to her account of laws and rules and my paraphrase of it. Ginsborg’s suggestion is that a practice can exemplify laws or rules, without being governed by them—without being articulated in terms of the laws and rules that concepts imply. She offers a second account of the distinction, which owes something to Aristotle. She suggests that we can consider judgment in two lights: as “primitive” or as “derivative.” Both are normative assessments of the world, but a “primitive” judgment is a judgment about what something is. We can say of a person, “she speaks English” or “she does not speak English” not because we know that the design of the language is such-and-such, but because we recognize that a language possesses, to use Ginsborg’s phrase, “internal standards of correctness.” More clearly, she offers (presumably with Aristotle in mind) an example from the natural world:
“We think of plants and animals in normative terms: we regard some organisms within a given species as healthy and well functioning, and others as unhealthy or defective. Thus we may think of any given organism as subject to normative rules or standards. For example, if we came across an eight-legged honeybee we would say that it was an aberration, that there was something wrong with it. We would regard a been with eight legs as, in effect, failing to meet a normative standard applicable to bees: namely, that bees ought to (‘are meant to’) have six legs. But this is not because six-legged bee-like things are intrinsically preferable to eight-legged bee-like things, in the way that shoes which do not let in water are better than shoes which do…Rather, the standard is internal. We can arrive at it only be examining actual examples of bees and taking their characteristics as a guide to characteristics that bees in general ought to have.”
For Ginsborg, the idea of one shoe being better than another because it performs a certain task more effectively is an example of a “derivative” judgment. Both “primitive” and “derivative” judgments, both judgments borne from internal and external standards, are judgments made within the space of reasons, through concepts, and predication. The primitive judgment is a form of judgment that appeals only to our awareness of the internal standards of an object in order for us to judge that object to be what it is; in a primitive judgment we are saying, to borrow Ginsborg’s phrase, that something ‘is as it ought to be.’ The debt to Aristotle is obvious in that he offers appeals to what Philippa Foot calls ‘natural goodness’, which can be thought of as constituted by standards internal to habitual action and practice; a list of virtues is not a rule-book but a description and categorization, and ethics cannot be prescriptive but descriptive of that internal standard, which can then be known and debated.
I will digress here briefly to note that something analogous might pertain to Kant’s discussion of reason, as Onora O’Neill understands it: there is no external judgment as to what counts as reason; reasoning can only emerge out of the practice of reasoning, which is perforce public because reasoning depends on (without being equivalent to or defined by) communicability.
By separating out two forms of judgment, Ginsborg feels that she bolsters the account of the mind and world that McDowell offers; that she offers a naturalistic account for how the synthesis into a unity can be lawful without needing to believe that we come to the world with external standards, a rule-book, to which we turn when we appeal to concepts and think the world. Whether that is the case (I think it is), she deepens an account of the imagination in Kant, and clears space for the aesthetic:
“When I acquire a concept on the basis of perceptual experience, on the view suggested, I take features of what my imagination actually does in the perception of an object—its combining and reproducing of representations to form, say, the image of something with leaves, branches, and a trunk—to serve as a rule determining how that, and other such objects, ought to be perceived. But this is possible only because I am entitled to take my imagination to be, in general, exemplary of rules: that is to ‘be as it ought to be’ in the primitive or indeterminate sense which does not presuppose antecedent rules determining how it ought to be. Without this assumption, the actual features of my imaginative activity remain just that: actual features of my imaginative activity. They cannot serve as standards for how my, or anyone else’s, imagination ought to function in the perception of that object or others of its kind.”
And this last point, recall, is a condition for the aesthetic judgment if it is to universally valid as well as subjective. The difficulty for philosophers, Ginsborg says, is in failing to understand that the first-person speaker will, when explaining why he or she used a concept like “tree,” resort to explaining how the concept fits the case, and narrate their perception as if it followed a rule-book. They enter into a “derivative” judgment not of the tree, but of their initial statement, defending its truth and reliability. The initial statement, however, “I see a tree” was a primitive judgment identical to the imaginative synthesis. She is very close to Sebastian Rödl (or rather, since his work is later, he is close to her), when she writes: “The act through which I acquire the concept tree is at the same time my first act of judging something to be a tree.”
The new challenge that she faces is how, if the imagination is exemplary of rules, there is any space for the aesthetic, if it is to be free of concepts, as Kant says. In other words, has she closed the gap between mind and world so closely, as McDowell and Rödl do, that there is no way to experience the imagination as freely lawful, exemplary of rules but not beholden to them. Once I say “I see a tree,” I am distant from “the subjective experience of my imagination as freely lawful,” and am instead left with what seems to be “the objective experience of something as a tree.” Has she, in other words, not done away with Kant’s aesthetics in order to make better sense of Kant’s notion of the imagination and understanding?
Not at all: “It is possible that a given object might elicit an activity of imagination such that rather than becoming aware of specific features of that activity which exemplify rules for how the object ought to be perceived, I take the activity to be exemplary simpliciter of how the object ought to be perceived. I take it—as I am entitled to take my imaginative activity in general—to set a standard for how my or anyone else’s imagination ought to function with respect to the object which elicits it. But I do not—as I do in each case of empirical cognition—specify that standard in terms of determinate rules according to which imagination ought to function with respect to the object.” In other words, the object of judgment is not, ultimately, the object being perceived, but instead the act of perception itself; and that only judgment we can pass on that is in the form of a statement or gesture of pleasure or displeasure, the feeling that we ought to be perceiving this object thus, or that we ought not to be doing so, and that norm is universalizable.
“To perceive an object as beautiful, on this suggestion, is to take my imagination to function as it ought to function with respect to the object, yet without either having in mind an antecedent concept of how it ought to function, nor arriving at such a concept through the activity itself…In taking my imagination to function as it ought to function in the perception of the object, I take it that everyone ought to perceive the object the same way I do.”
A few other explanations are worth quoting, drawing as they do on her earlier discussion of rules and norms:
“The content of my state of mind is precisely that I ought to engage in my present mental activity, and hence that I ought to be in that very state of mind. In exemplifying how my state of mind ought to be, my state of mind sets a rule with which it itself accords, and thus serves as the ground for its own continuation in me.”
“But this means that I ‘see my judgment as the example of a universal rule’: a rule which ‘cannot be stated’ because there is no way of characterizing how the object ought to be judged except by pointing to the example of my own imaginative activity in the judging of the object.”
“In perceiving my imaginative activity to be as it ought to be with respect to the object, I perceive my imaginative activity and the object as appropriate to each other: where this appropriateness is, again, ‘primitive’, in that it does not presuppose any feature of our imaginative activity or of the object in virtue of which they conform to each other…I take there to be an irreducible harmony or fit between the object and the imaginative activity it elicits…”
And making sense of purposeless ‘purposiveness’:
“[Kant] is saying that aesthetic judgment makes us aware that our powers of representation are functioning as if they had been designed to function that way under those circumstances. We perceive their determination as ‘purposive’ in so far as we perceive them not just as happening to function the way they do with respect to that object, but as if meant to function the way they do with respect to that object: in other words, we take their functioning to be appropriate to the object. But this is also to say that we perceive the object, similarly, as ‘purposive’ for the activity of our powers of representation: we perceive it as if it were meant to elicit the mental activity which it does in fact elicit.”
As I read over Ginsborg, I returned in my mind to the work of Rödl on self-consciousness. In the stunning ambition of the book, he announces that he is concerned with two of the great orders of reason: the true (“I believe I see a tree”) and the good (“I am chopping down the tree to feed my family because it is my duty to do so,” said the Beaver). Here though is the third of Plato’s great ideals: the Beautiful. What is form of self-consciousness when experiencing that? Here Ginsborg’s words offered me a suggestion as to how I might think through the question:
“We can describe the awareness of imagination’s free lawfulness in the perception of an object as the awareness of its free or indeterminate relation to understanding.”
Self-consciousness in the experience of the beautiful also—but the experience of the beautiful offering a form of reasoning, a causality, different from the True and the Good. What might the generic phrase be, to be put alongside statements of belief and action?
I propose “statements of attending.” “I am watching,” not to be understood as an act of perception or an action directed towards a good, but as an act of attention, in which the end is to attend further, to feel that one ought to attend.
Whether or not that is an adequate suggestion, the entirety of Ginsborg’s reading of Kant needs has real relevance for those of practicing criticism. At first glance, it might seem to threaten the critical activity or else to reduce the experience of something beautiful. If an aesthetic experience is fundamentally non-cognitive, then what reasons can critics provide for the success or failure of a work of art? If the aesthetic experience is without concepts, the attention feeding on the desire to attend further, then is it not reduced to something akin to a drug? Is it a non-sensual form of gratification?
The answers to the questions are: many; no; and yes, but who cares. Works of art remain open to critical analysis, interpretation, and cognitive play, just as beautiful mountains remain open to skiers and geologists. Unlike a drug induced state, an aesthetic experience consciousness of one’s own consciousness operating freely, a heightened self-awareness in which one feels oneself to be in accord with a standard or norm. Anyone supposing that Kant is making aesthetic into a safe-zone for those too scared to indulge in sensual pleasures is condemning themselves, and not Kant, as a Puritan; there is no condemnation of sensual pleasures in the acknowledgement of imaginative pleasure.
Ginsborg reminds us, near the end of her essay, that “the free play of the faculties does not take place in every—or, indeed, in any—act of cognition. It is only when I take my imaginative activity in the perception of some particular object to exemplify how it ought to be with respect to that object that my faculties may be said to be in free play.”
Beauty is to be found in mountains, in geese in flight, in light across a table…in many different experiences, as well as in many works of art. To say that a work of art be beautiful, or to believe that beauty defines a work of art, is not a step we are being asked to take. We can go along with Goodman or Danto and believe that art is, like science, a way of world-making, a product of an art-world, that we ought to ask “when is art” and not “where is art.” We can believe that a work of art is beautiful, but that criticism cannot or should not discuss its beauty, even if the critic appreciates and experiences it. We can acknowledge that a work of art is beautiful, but is not Beauty itself, and admit that it does many other things, and is many other things, of which beautiful is one.
But we should not believe that Kant makes beauty irrelevant to art, or that his argument devalues it into some sort of mental pacifier; and we should not suppose that beauty does not have a vital function in making a work of art live and succeed in other dimensions that are open to cognition, as satire, or judgment on the world, or record of an event.
To take the real weight of Kant’s claim for beauty we need to feel the weight of the faculty at its center: the faculty of attending. A Mozart concerto, a Brahms symphony, an etching by Goya, a painting by Cezanne, a poem by Donne…these all ask that we attend and then attend more and more. The same is true of a view; it captures the attention. The same is true of a person whose face or voice we find captivating and beautiful; it might be true also of their conversation, of their personality. They demand attention.
We do not need to accept her religious convictions or to take the full complexity of the word as it appears in her writings, but Simone Weil is eloquent on attention and what it can be, when she writes that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” There is an ethical weight to the term, which might be generosity not only to another, but to a work of art, or to the world we inhabit.
If nothing else, we can know that our attention is functioning as it ought when we encounter beauty; and that is affirming something essential about our capacities as people. But more than that, we can come to know better what it means to attend, come to know better the faculty that is necessary for other acts of judging and practice.
In the case of works of art, literature would seem the most difficult to discuss in light of Ginsborg’s reading of Kant. After all, unlike a piece of music, it is inherently conceptual; the experience of it depends on knowledge of a language. But to say that we need to understand words to understand a poem by Donne, and even to say that we need to understand the words in order to find it beautiful does not, I think, deprive us of the possibility of an aesthetic experience any more than my looking at a mountain, learning its name, and learning some of its features, prevents me from subsequently experiencing it as beautiful. The difference of course is that the name of the mountain and the facts I have learned about it do not constitute it as the words do a poem by Donne.
But the key point is this: when I read a poem, I am not applying my own concepts to the words; I am responding to them implicitly, reading them and relating them to one another, even sorting out the shape and connections of a simile, but not judging them or passing remarks on them. What is more, once I do so, that implicit knowledge of the poem can remain inert, or else serve as a scaffold from which I can find aesthetic pleasure in the poem.
Reading in translation might seem a particular problem for Kant’s account. But in my own experience stumbling through Virgil, dictionary in hand, translating and working out syntax, permitted, rather than interfered with the aesthetic experience.
The point is this: my having knowledge of a poem’s parts and having related them to one another (my having submitted a poem to cognition) does not prevent me from then appreciating it aesthetically. Just because an aesthetic experience does not depend upon concepts does not mean that it cannot operate in their presence. The aesthetic is not prior to the cognitive; it might even stand upon a prior cognitive experience. All that means is that the aesthetic experience does not bring cognition to bear. I would go even further and suggest that the aesthetic experience might operate simultaneously to something else, flickering in and out, as it were, our sometimes conscious of attending, and the pleasure of attending further, and our sometimes thinking through beliefs about the object of attention; sometimes needing to think in order to attend, and sometimes not. To say as much is to describe experience, not to carry out a philosophical argument.
It is not therefore irrelevant to critics to consider the aesthetic quality of a work of art. To say whether a work of art offers an aesthetic experience is entirely relevant to saying what it is; there are obviously popular and, in the eyes of many, successful works of art that do not aspire to an aesthetic quality at all. Giving the terms a conceptual heft, there is such a thing as conceptual art.
I would say also that Kant’s account of aesthetics, though not cognitive and not conceptual, is not antagonistic towards cognition. After all, in an aesthetic experience, I am aware of that my attention is conforming to the correct standards, and I am aware that an object is correct to the standards of my attention; we are made aware that we live up to norms in the way we attend and that the objects to which we attend merit our attention. Ginsborg again: “To think of imagination as lawful or in conformity with rules, then, is eo ipso to think of it as standing in relation to the understanding.” And, to quote again what I quoted earlier: “we perceive the object, similarly, as ‘purposive’ for the activity of our powers of representation: we perceive it as if it were meant to elicit the mental activity which it does in fact elicit.” In the case of a mountain, the implication of this apparent conformity of the object and attention, of its seeming to be designed to merit attention, may lead a person to believe in God, or to an interest in geology. In the case of a work of art, where we might assume a designer or else assume a social force in the background, we might wonder about their world, their beliefs, their hopes, or whether the object offered them some solace.
In other words, an aesthetic experience, though it is not conceptual, might be seen as a promissory note for conceptual work. It might lend us the feeling that we belong in the world, that we are suited to not only attend to it but also to take our attention a step further and understand it. It might lend us the feeling that we are suited to understand another person and that they might be seeking our attention for a reason; it might lend us the feeling that we are suited to understand another culture in time or place, that a novel was written to sustain the attention of others for a reason, and that we too can enter into that audience and try to learn about what was being communicated to them. An aesthetic experience does not ground all understanding, but it might motivate it, and it might provide us with a foundation upon which later understanding must rest: attention itself.
Though art might be cognitive, beauty is not. And we can have understanding without beauty, just as we can have works of art without beauty. But we cannot have understanding or art without attention, and beauty is a concentration of it, a valuation of it that we might appreciate a work of art for permitting or inspiring, just as we might appreciate our understanding of a work of art, its language, its details, its design, for permitting or inspiring. Beauty is not all of art; an aesthetic response to a work of art is very rarely all that an artist demands. But I imagine the pleasure would be great if I were to ever write something or compose something and to look out and see someone giving, with a feeling of happiness and rightness, sustained attention to it; it might not be so different from someone giving sustained attention, not desire or adoration or curiosity or even fascination, to me—which might be another way of describing an experience found only in love, a not wanting to be elsewhere, or to interpret, or to judge, but to be there and hear and look; and it might speak also to another experience found in life, with friends and strangers, of wanting to direct your attention not on another, but in union with them, to harmonize your attention with theirs, and to harmonize both with a common object worthy of drawing it out.