I begin with a brief review of the central themes of Kant’s aesthetics that will be relevant to what follows. Kant begins from the challenge posed by mid-century aesthetic theory, for example by Hume’s essay ‘Of the Standard of Taste’:
to explain how a judgment of taste can be made only on the basis of one’s feeling Mof pleasure in response to an object, independent of any determinate concept of or rule for that object, and yet can be universally valid, that is, valid for all qualified observers of the object responding to it under appropriate conditions.
Kant begins his answer to this puzzle by accepting from Shaftesbury and Hutcheson that a judgment of taste must be disinterested, independent of any personal physiological, prudential, or moral interest in the existence of the object.
But disinterestedness seems to be merely a necessary condition for universal validity: one’s pleasure in an object might be independent of any identifiable interest, and yet still be utterly accidental or idiosyncratic. To find a sufficient condition for the universal validity of the judgment of taste, Kant seeks its ground in a mental state that is disinterested and free from regulation by determinate concepts but nevertheless can be reasonably expected from all normal human beings who can themselves approach the object without an antecedent interest in or preconception of what the object ought to be.
This state Kant claims to find in the free play of the imagination and understanding in response to an object, a state of the ‘animation [Belebung] of both faculties (the imagination and the understanding) to an activity that is indeterminate but yet, through the stimulus of the given representation, in unison [einhelliger]’ Such a state of mind is pleasurable because it seems to us like the satisfaction of our general goal in cognition—finding unity in our manifolds of representation—in a way that is contingent and surprising precisely because it is not dictated by any concept of rule that applies to the object .But it is also intersubjectively valid, that is, a response to the object that we can impute to others as what they too would experience under ideal or optimal conditions, because it involves nothing but cognitive powers which themselves must be imputed to others and assumed to work in the same way in them as they do in ourselves. This inference is what Kant calls the ‘deduction of judgments of taste’.
In the ‘Dialectic of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment,’ Kant restates the challenge of justifying the judgment of taste’s claim to universal validity in the form of an ‘antinomy’ between the ‘thesis’ that ‘The judgment of taste is not based on concepts, for otherwise it would be possible to dispute about it (decide by means of proofs)’ and the ‘antithesis’ that the ‘judgment of taste is based on concepts, for otherwise . . . it would not even be possible to argue about it (to lay claim to the necessary assent of others to this judgment)’.
However, instead of then simply reiterating his previous solution to this dilemma, that the judgment of taste is based on a free and therefore indeterminate play of cognitive powers that can be assumed to work the same way in everybody under ideal conditions, Kant here argues that ‘all contradiction vanishes if I say that [determining the ground of] the judgment of taste . . . may lie in the concept of that which can be regarded as the supersensible substratum of humanity’, the noumenal basis of our phenomenal, psychological powers.
This assertion relocates the explanation of the non-derivability of particular intersubjectively valid judgments of taste from determinate concepts of their objects from the psychological (empirical or otherwise) theory of the free play of the faculties to a metaphysical theory of a common but noumenal and therefore inaccessible ground of the phenomenal psychologies of all human beings.But although his introduction of the metaphysical conception of a noumenal basis for taste would be decisive for later aesthetic theories including Schopenhauer’s, this leap into metaphysics plays no role in Kant’s own account of fine art or of the significance of either natural or artistic beauty for us.
Thus, Kant uses his idea of the free play of the cognitive faculties but not that of the supersensible ground of that state of mind in his theory of fine art and its source in genius. Kant defines beautiful or fine art as ‘a kind of representation that is purposive in itself and, though without an end, nevertheless promotes the cultivation of the mental powers for sociable communication’.
Kant initially suggests that in order to appreciate beautiful art as such one may have to suppress one’s knowledge that it is the product of intentional human production. But as he continues he makes it clear that beautiful art produces a free play of our cognitive powers precisely because its form engages and unifies our imagination in a way that goes beyond whatever determinate concepts—concepts of its goal, its medium and techniques, its genre, and its content—that we do know apply to it.
This is the lesson of Kant’s conception of genius as the source of art and of ‘aesthetic ideas’ as what the artistic genius produces. Beautiful art must be produced by genius because ‘The concept of beautiful art . . . does not allow the judgment concerning the beauty of its product to be derived from any sort of rule that has a concept for itsdetermining ground,’ and genius is precisely the ‘talent (natural gift)’ for ‘producing that for which no determinate rule can be given, not a predisposition of skill for that which can be learned in accordance with some rule’.
Beautiful art, Kant also says, must contain ‘spirit,’ so genius must be responsible for the spirit in art. Kant then explicates spirit in terms of the concept of aesthetic ideas. Spirit, he says, is the ‘animating principle in the mind’ in the production and experience of beautiful art, and that ‘by which this principle animates the soul . . . into a play that is self-sustaining and even strengthens the powers to that end.
What sets the mental powers into such a play, Kant then continues, is an aesthetic idea, ‘that representation of the imagination that occasions much thinking though without it being possible for any determinate thought, i.e. concept, to be adequate to it, which, consequently, no language fully attains or can make intelligible.’ What Kant means by this is that a work of art on the one hand has intellectual content—Kant assumes without argument that fine art is paradigmatically representational or mimetic—but specifically rational content, a content of ideas that cannot be reduced to determinate concepts of the understanding, and on the other hand conveys this content through a wealth of materials of the imagination—intuitions—that cannot be derived from that content by any concept or rule but nevertheless illustrate it and convey it to us in a satisfyingly harmonious and therefore pleasurable way.
What a successful work of fine or beautiful art does is set the form and the content of a work of art and the mental powers for the intuition of that form and the intellection of that content into a free and harmonious play. Genius is thus the capacity for the ‘exposition or the expression of aesthetic ideas,’ the ability to present rational ideas through particular artistic media and genres in imaginative ways that cannot be fully determined by any rules for the latter. Further, Kant stresses that genius consists not just in the artist’s capacity to create such ideas for herself but also in the capacity to find ways to communicate them to others: ‘thus genius really consists in the happy relation . . . of finding ideas for a given concept on the one hand and on the other hitting upon the expression for these, through which the subjective disposition of the mind that is thereby produced’ in the artist ‘can be communicated to others,’ namely the audience for art.
Schopenhauer draws on all of these ideas. But he turns Kant’s idea of the free play of our cognitive powers back into the more traditional idea that aesthetic experience is actual cognition, and also treats such cognition primarily as a source of the negative pleasure of relief from pain rather than as a source of positive pleasure presupposing no antecedent pain. Let us now see how he does that.