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Aesthetics, Immanuel Kant & Imagination


Aesthetics, Immanuel Kant & Imagination


in conversation with Paul Guyer

Does an artist perceive or invent his creation? And how does imagination relate to freedom, beauty and nature? Philosopher Paul Guyer talks to four by three about the relationship between aesthetics and ethics in the work of Immanuel Kant, Hegel's rejection thereof and Schopenhauer's positive conception of the aesthetic experience.

A substantial part of your work as a philosopher has been in the field of aesthetics. What motivated you to start working on this discipline of philosophy?

Paul Guyer: In hindsight, three things. First, I started taking classes with Stanley Cavell as a freshman at Harvard (his large humanities class, some of the material from which turned up forty years later in his last book, Cities of Words). Cavell did not teach any conventional aesthetics in that course, or at any time during my undergraduate and graduate years at Harvard, but his title was ‘Professor of Aesthetics and General Theory of Value,’ and that may have both piqued my interest and licensed the subject of aesthetics for me.  

Second, I became interested in Kant very early and by the time I was ready to find a dissertation topic, I thought I had something of a grip on Kant’s theoretical philosophy and on his practical philosophy (especially from classes with John Rawls), but I knew little of his aesthetics, so I wanted to look into that. But that wasn’t just me: while Kant’s moral philosophy had stayed on the philosophical radar throughout the twentieth century and interest in Kant’s theoretical philosophy had been rejuvenated by the pathbreaking work of Peter Strawson and Jonathan Bennett and others such as Graham Bird, Robert Paul Wolff and Douglas Dryer in the 1960s, very little had been done on Kant’s aesthetics (let alone his teleology) in that period, so it was an open field and inviting for that reason. There were a few useful articles and perhaps one monograph from the 1960s, but Don Crawford’s book was not published until after I completed my dissertation.  So I could pretty much do what I wanted.  After the publication of his book in 1974 and mine in 1979, the floodgates opened and now Kant’s aesthetics has become a military-industrial complex like so much else in philosophy.

Kant’s aesthetics has become a military-industrial complex like so much else in philosophy

But third, and perhaps most important, my father was a painter, and very active during my college and graduate years (and thereafter, until he died at nearly 96). Every time I visited home, he would immediately drag me to his studio, show me his latest work and asked me what I thought. Well, I liked some and didn’t like others, but, especially when it’s your father, you think it would be nice to have something intelligent to say, based on principles. So I turned to aesthetics. Of course, what you learn from aesthetics is that there can never be principles that mechanically ground judgments about particular works of art.  But you do learn about the varieties of things human beings have found valuable in the experience of art, and therefore about things that may be of value in particular works of art.  So aesthetics does help you get beyond just saying I like this one and don’t like that one.


In your Values of Beauty, you suggest that we should re-think the history of modern aesthetics as being a development of two conceptions of the imagination: a negative and positive conception. Could you say a bit about what these two conceptions entail?

PG: This is an interesting suggestion, because I had not previously thought of that work in this way. That volume was a collection of papers written for different occasions, although with lots of common threads. It did include a paper on conceptions of genius, in which I argued that there have been two, one in which the genius is portrayed as especially gifted at perception, seeing things others don’t but then communicating what they have seen to others, the other, on which the genius is praised for his or her capacity for invention and originality, as well as for the capacity for communication. Of course, these two cannot be rigidly separated, because invention does not come from nowhere and the creative genius has to recognize possibilities for innovation in what already exists or has been done. Charles Batteux’s ‘reduction’ of art to the ‘single principle’ of the ‘imitation’ of nature (1746) might be taken as emblematic of this point, because on his account the artist must be both attentive to how nature is, but also must idealize or perfect it, i.e., invent as well as perceive. To some degree, the two are always linked, still, different accounts of creativity often do emphasize one aspect over the other.


Joseph Addison is the first person to begin synthesizing these two conceptions of the imagination. How did he do so and how did he open the way for subsequent developments in aesthetics?

PG: Addison’s account of the experience of beauty emphasizes perception, while his accounts of what he regards as the other two fundamental aesthetic categories (of course, he did not use the word ‘aesthetic’ yet, that not being invented by Baumgarten until 1735 and not becoming common in English until the nineteenth century), namely novelty and ‘grandeur,’ i.e., the sublime, might be thought to emphasize invention more, novelty obviously so, and grandeur because Addison’s account is that the mind takes pleasure in mighty mountain ranges and seas – the stock examples of the sublime – as ‘images of liberty.’ Thus there is an essentially metaphorical cast to this aspect of his theory, so in one case he emphasizes imagination as a form of perception, in the others as a form of invention or creation.


Kant’s aesthetics is the first philosophical exposition of these two notions of the imagination in aesthetics. However, the imagination, for Kant, plays also a central role in our reason more broadly. What does Kant take the imagination to be and what role does it play in aesthetic experience in particular?

PG: Kant’s basic conception of aesthetic experience is that it is the free play of the imagination within and with the limits of the lawfulness required by the understanding and his conception of art is that it is the product of such free play in the mind of the artist, communicated to an audience in works with ‘exemplary originality.’ A crucial consequence of these ideas, although Kant makes it explicit only in his account of the relation between an artistic genius and successor artists, is that the free play of the artist’s imagination must stimulate free play in the mind of the audience, so the artist’s own intentions can be exemplary and stimulating for the audience, but never completely dispositive, never fully determining their response.

In all of this, Kant does not actually say very much about what he means by imagination. In his theoretical philosophy, he begins with a conception often common to Locke, Wolff, Baumgarten and many others of the time, namely that the imagination is the ability to have images – sense-like representations – of objects not currently present; this can include both memory, the recall of images of objects previously present, but also foresight, or what Baumgarten calls ‘prevision,’ that is, images of objects not yet experienced…or maybe never to be actually experienced, except through art, as when we create images of objects not yet and maybe never to be actually experienced from images of bits and pieces of objects that have been experienced.  It is the imagination as recalling previous experiences that is most emphasized in Kant’s account of cognitive synthesis, as in the Transcendental Deduction of the Pure Concepts of the Understanding in the Critique of Pure Reason, but perhaps we could also argue that imagination as the ‘prevision’ of things that have not yet been experienced, but that can be is also assumed by Kant’s conception of the cognition of objects, since when we claim to know an object we are in fact tacitly committing ourselves to many predictions about actual or possible future experience. This is suggested, for example, by the symmetry of explanation and prediction in (at least mid-twentieth-century) philosophy of science. But when it comes to what Kant really means by the free play of the imagination in the aesthetic context, his examples tell us more than anything else. Above all, his conception of the aesthetic imagination emerges in his account of ‘aesthetic ideas’ as the ‘spirit’ of fine art: the imagination uses things it takes from experience, such as the image of an eagle, as ‘attributes’ to suggest things like the god Jupiter, which in turn suggest ‘rational ideas’ of power, morality, and so on, which can never be directly and fully presented in experience. So images both recalled and transformed – perceived and created – by the imagination suggest ideas without being either necessary or sufficient conditions for that.


Speaking of the imagination as ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ strongly parallels the way we generally talk of freedom. In Kant the relationship between the aesthetic and the moral is undeniable. But it’s also unclear why aesthetic experience makes an important contribution to these. You suggest that it concerns our need as sensible-affective beings for a similar kind of ‘presentation’ of the moral. How, in your view, does art have a ‘sensible-affective’ significance for our moral lives in Kant?

PG: I am convinced that it was his recognition of the moral potential of aesthetic experience that ultimately drove Kant to write a third critique and to connect aesthetic experience to a teleological attitude toward nature in that work, something he had not previously done.

Yet the relationship between aesthetic experience and its moral significance must be subtle, because the freedom of imagination that is essential to aesthetic experience and part of what makes it morally beneficial will be lost, if the aesthetic is too directly constrained by or too evidently in service of the moral. Kant’s slightly wayward disciple Friedrich Schiller recognized this point in his Letters on Aesthetic Education, arguing on the one hand that humans can become moral only through aesthetic education, but on the other that art cannot be didactic.  I tried to capture some of this complexity in earlier work (Kant and the Experience of Freedom, 1993), with the phrase ‘the interest of disinterestedness.’

Kant recognized many different ways, in which aesthetic experience can be morally beneficial although once again without being either a necessary or sufficient condition for successful moral development. In the case of art, most obviously, Kant thought that great art paradigmatically has significant moral content, thus stimulates us to think about morality and moral issues without directly telling us what to do or how to live. But art also offers many opportunities for selfishness, as in the collector’s lust for possession (think of recent sales of Francis Bacon or Picasso paintings for prices well over $100,000,000), and for that reason Kant was also leery of art and stressed the ‘intellectual’ i.e., moral interest of natural rather than artistic beauty. He argued that the experience of natural beauty prepares us to love something without personal interest, as we must do to fulfil our imperfect duty of beneficence to others (although this calls for ‘practical’ rather than ‘pathological’ love), and that the experience of the sublime prepares us to love something even contrary to our personal interest, as morality may also sometimes call upon us to do. More generally, Kant argued that the experience of the sublime makes our moral powers palpable to us, although at the same time that we must be prepared by a certain amount of moral culture to be receptive to such feelings. In his last great work, the Metaphysics of Morals of 1797, Kant argued that our attraction to the beauty of organic and inorganic nature is a disposition conducive to morality, and a spirit of wanton destructiveness toward such natural beauty will rub off on our dispositions to other human beings, the only direct objects of moral concern in Kant’s view. But it comes as a great surprise when, after having expounded his theory of aesthetic ideas as the spirit or essence of fine art in section 49 of the Critique of the Power of Judgment, in section 51 he suddenly claims that all beauty, whether of art or nature, is the ‘expression of aesthetic ideas.’ He offers no explanation of this claim. My conjecture is that he simply assumes that morality is so central in human life that we project moral significance into non-human nature even when we know rationally that non-human nature is not really a subject or object for morality. This tendency would also be the explanation of something he mentions earlier in the book, our tendency to take different colors, different animals and plants, and so on, as symbols of different virtues or moral qualities.

The experience of the sublime prepares us to love something even contrary to our personal interest, as morality may also sometimes call upon us to do

In all of this, it is important to recognize that Kant is making causal rather than conceptual claims, or in his language synthetic a posteriori rather than analytic or synthetic a priori claims, so these claims of beneficial influence are empirical, subject to empirical confirmation and no doubt true only to a degree, varying for different individuals and for different points in the lives of particular individuals.  

Perhaps one of Kant’s deepest thoughts on this subject is that while there is no essential connection between aesthetic experience and morality, morality is so important to human beings that it may be hard for beauty or art to sustain our interest without some ultimate moral significance. But again, that can only be an empirical claim.


Hegel marks one of the major departures from Kantian aesthetics and in general his rejection of Kant is taken to be on the grounds that Kant is too subjective in his approach. However, even in his account of works of art, Kant doesn’t deny a distinctive aesthetic significance to objects, such as artworks. Was Hegel right to reject Kant on the grounds of alleged subjectivism?

PG:  I don’t think Hegel was very fair to Kant on this (or various other subjects). Like many since, Hegel seems to base his conception and critique of Kant’s aesthetics on the ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’, rather than on Kant’s actual account of fine art, which is misleadingly buried in the ‘Analytic of the Sublime.’ In fact, Hegel’s own fundamental claim that art offers the sensible appearance of the Idea is a direct descendent of Kant’s account of aesthetic ideas, itself Kant’s own synthesis of the perennial conception of aesthetic experience as a form of cognition (going back at least to Aristotle’s Poetics) with the eighteenth-century idea of it as a form of play. Of course, one difference is that Kant speaks of aesthetic ideas and the rational ideas they illustrate in the plural, whereas Hegel’s ‘Idea’ is singular. Thus it sounds more absolute, more metaphysical than Kant’s multiple aesthetic ideas – but as the idea of the Absolute, it certainly comprises them, if more as well. But Hegel also trivialized Kant’s idea of play, not recognizing it as an essential aspect of the sensible appearance of the idea. One of the challenges for nineteenth-century aesthetics was to restore some respect for the idea of free play; we can see the struggle to do this even within a generally Hegelian framework in the mid-nineteenth century work of the fascinating Tuebingen philosopher and critic Friedrich Theodor Vischer (1807-87).


Another philosopher heavily indebted to Kant is Arthur Schopenhauer. You suggest that many have wrongly interpreted him as a proponent of the negative account of the imagination: that aesthetic experience matters insofar as it is a state, in which we are not driven by the will or constrained by the principle of sufficient reason. You’ve suggested that this fails to take into account the ‘positive’ dimension. How does Schopenhauer also offer a positive conception of aesthetic experience?

PG:  To be sure, Schopenhauer emphasizes that aesthetic experience, which consists in the contemplation of ‘Platonic ideas’ or the essences rather than particularities of things, offers us release from the endless suffering of ordinary life and transports us into a state of painless, subjectless being. That’s the ‘negative’ and no doubt easily ridiculed side of this theory. But I argued that he also recognizes a positive pleasure in knowing and in the kind of knowledge that aesthetic experience offers, and that this is central to his account of artistic creation – the artistic genius (Schopenhauer is still part of that tradition) is not only unusually gifted at knowledge, but takes pleasure in it and is motivated by that to communicate his insight to others.


A more recent figure that you’ve discussed is that of Arthur Danto. On the face of it, his analytic approach to the work of art, with his historicism and essentialism, seems a million miles away from Kant’s aesthetic approach to artworks. You’ve argued that Kant can nonetheless be seen as sharing many of Danto’s basic claims for art. What are the significant similarities between their views?

PG:  In his later work especially, Danto emphasized that art is ‘embodied meaning.’ This was not an original phrase; it was also used by the Michigan philosopher DeWitt Parker in the 1920s and later. It’s also not an original idea: it is essentially the same idea as Kant’s conception of aesthetic ideas and Hegel’s of artistic beauty as the sensible appearance of the Idea. I think that Richard Wollheim’s idea of ‘twofoldness,’ although he develops it only in the case of painting, is another version of this idea. In fact, I would be willing to say that the idea that in responding to a work of art we respond both to qualities of the sign and to what is signified is the central idea of modern aesthetics, going back at least to Baumgarten and Moses Mendelssohn if not earlier. There have been attempts to break with it, more or less self-conscious, as in the case of Clement Greenberg’s attempt to reduce the meaning of painting to its presentation of its own materiality, or Duchamp’s ‘anti-retinal’ approach to art, which wants to do away with all the aesthetic character of the sign or work of art. Actually, at least in such work as his ‘readymades,’ perhaps Duchamp wanted to do away with both sides of the equation, embodiment and meaning as well, leaving us with an essentially vacuous idea of art as such! And perhaps George Dickie’s institutional theory of art is another such an attempt from within philosophy. But although Duchamp’s work has enjoyed a long run of interest from philosophers, I don’t think such approaches have the same staying power as the central, call it Baumgartian approach.


In recent history many have been highly skeptical towards the aesthetic, for instance treating it as an ideology or, in the field or art, as alienating art from practical and social concerns. However, in your conception of it these seem to be incorrect. Is there anything true about these kinds of criticisms however?

PG: Of course, art like anything else, and maybe even instances of natural beauty, can be co-opted by the rich and powerful to advance their own interests or to trumpet their own wealth, power and dominance. We didn’t really need Eagleton and Bourdieu to tell us that; all sorts of people from Pericles to the Counter-Reformation popes to Napoleon, Hitler and Stalin have made that plain. I think that the aesthetic experience of art and nature also offers us possibilities for overcoming social divisions of various kinds. I think that eighteenth-century thinkers such as Kames, Kant and Schiller were quite sincere in recognizing that possibility and that the frequency, with which art has been used for the contrary end does not prove that it cannot be used for this end as well.

There is no need to reduce the value of art to a single source

With figures such as Stanley Cavell and neo-Hegelians, there is the dominant claim that works of art are able to reveal ‘truths’ and have a cognitive significance that can’t be captured in our ordinary ways of knowing things. Would you agree with this? And does this exhaust for you why art and aesthetic experiences are still worth our attention today?

PG:  Certainly I agree with this.  Early twentieth-century writers such as Edward Bullough and R.G. Collingwood, as well as early twenty-first century writers such as Jenefer Robinson have made especially clear the potential of art to facilitate cognition of our own emotions, by which I mean the full range of human emotions, not the particular emotions of a particular artist or audience. But the argument of my History of Modern Aesthetics, from the mottoes at the beginning of volume 1 to the last page of volume 3, is that there is no need to reduce the value of art to a single source. I present this history as that of different conceptions of the relations among three sources of value in art – cognition, emotional impact and free play of the imagination – interacting in various ways, for example in the conception of art as offering cognition of human emotions. Perhaps there are other sources of aesthetic value that I have failed to identify. In any case, the argument is certainly not that any particular work of art is better the more of these potential sources of value it exploits; that is always an empirical question. But the argument is that there is no reason to reduce the value of art or of aesthetic experience more broadly to a single factor.


Paul Guyer is Jonathan Nelson Professor of Humanities and Philosophy at Brown University since 2012. His interests include all areas of the philosophy of Kant, modern philosophy more generally and the history of aesthetics. He is the author of nine books on Kant, editor of six anthologies of work on Kant and co-editor of a volume on the work of his teacher Stanley Cavell.