Kant’s philosophy of fine art, the culminating level of his thought in the ‘Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment’, constituted a unique synthesis of the novel theory that the intrinsically pleasurable free play of our mental powers is the essence of aesthetic experience
that was developed in mid-19th century Scotland and Germany with the theory that aesthetic experience is a distinctive form of the apprehension of truth that had been the core of aesthetic theory since the time of Aristotle.
Kant brought these two strands of aesthetic theory together in his conception of ‘aesthetic ideas’ as the source of ‘spirit’ in fine art and of genius as the uniquely artistic capacity for the creation and communication of aesthetic ideas, for by means of this concept he postulated that in both the production and the reception of fine art the imagination freely plays with and around the intellectual content furnished by ideas of reason. In spite of Kant’s immense prestige, this synthesis, like so many others among the delicate balancing-acts that comprised Kant’s philosophy, was quickly sundered by Kant’s successors, and Kant’s combination of the aesthetics of play with the aesthetics of truth was rejected in favor of a purely cognitivist aesthetics. This is particularly evident in the next two great aesthetic theories to take the stage after Kant, those of Schelling and Schopenhauer—the former of which indeed deeply influenced the latter—and beyond them in the aesthetics of Hegel and his numerous followers.
While both Schelling and Schopenhauer preserved much of the terminology and outward organization of Kant’s aesthetics, they transformed Kant’s central conception of aesthetic ideas as a form of free play with truth back into a more traditional conception of an apprehension of truth that is certainly different from other forms of cognition but does not really involve an element of free play at all.
And they both rejected Kant’s idea that aesthetic experience is intrinsically pleasurable because it is a free play of our mental powers, replacing that theory with the view that for the most part aesthetic experience is pleasurable only because it releases us from the pain of some otherwise inescapable contradiction in the human condition—to borrow terms used by Edmund Burke a half-century earlier, they replace Kant’s conception of aesthetic response as a ‘positive pleasure’ with a conception of it as ‘the removal of pain’ or ‘delight’ as a merely‘negative’ or ‘relative’ form of pleasure.
This is somewhat of an overstatement, and we will see that Schopenhauer in particular recognizes that there is some pleasure in aesthetic response that goes beyond mere relief at the removal of pain, but he nevertheless maintains that all of the pleasure in aesthetic experience comes through cognition alone rather than from a free play of our cognitive powers. It is above all the element of play that disappears from their transmutation of Kant’s aesthetics back into a version of cognitivism, an element that was then not to reappear for another half-century, in the post-Schopenhauerian thought of the later Nietzsche, in spite of his own hostility to all things Kantian.
Nietzsche will return briefly at the end of this chapter, but its focus will be Schopenhauer. My main task will just be to show that in spite of the many outward trappings of Kant’s theory that Schopenhauer preserved, his aesthetic theory replaced Kant’s central idea of the positive pleasure of the free play of our mental powers with the idea of a predominantly negative form of pleasure afforded by aesthetic experience as a distinctive form of cognition.