Kant on the Possibility of Ugliness

British Journal of Aesthetics 53 (2):199-209 (2013)

Alix Cohen
University of Edinburgh
In the recent literature on the issue, a number of commentators have argued that Kant’s aesthetic theory commits him to the position that nothing is ugly. For instance, in ‘Why Kant finds nothing ugly’, Shier argues that ‘within Kant’s aesthetics, there cannot be any negative judgments of taste’ (Shier (1998): 413). And in ‘Kant’s problems with ugliness’, Thomson claims that ‘Kant’s aesthetic theory precludes […] ugliness’ (Thomson (1992): 107). In other words, as it is presented in some of the literature, Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment seems to preclude him from accounting for the possibility of ugliness. A number of reasons have been put forward to explain why there can be no ugliness for Kant. Some have to do with his account of experience in general. Others have to do with the very nature of the free play between imagination and understanding. Of course, the real source of the problem is that the Critique of Judgment does not actually discuss ugliness, so commentators are left with the task of filling in the gaps. This paper aims to argue that Kant’s account of aesthetic judgment commits him not only to the existence of the ugly, but to the distinction between two kinds of ugliness. To support this claim, I will start from the premise that if there is to be room for ugliness, it should be defined as the contrary of beauty. However, I will suggest that Kant’s account of beauty can be negated in two ways, one that gives rise to impure ugliness and the other to pure ugliness. I will examine them in turn, first by showing that impure ugliness is the contrary of beauty insofar as it contravenes our interests and produces a desire to dispose of it, whereas beauty is necessarily disinterested for Kant. In the second section, I will use Kant’s definition of judgments of pure beauty to carve a space for an account of pure ugliness. For, it should present all the characteristics that make it “pure” whilst replacing the characteristics that make it beautiful with the ones that make it ugly. On this basis, I will define pure ugliness as the disinterested displeasure caused by the experience of what I will call “foul play” between the imagination and the understanding.
Keywords Kant  Ugly  Beauty
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DOI 10.1093/aesthj/ayt002
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A Kantian Analytic of the Ugly.Christopher Buckman - 2017 - International Philosophical Quarterly 57 (4):365-380.
‘Nothing but Nonsense’: A Kantian Account of Ugliness.Matthew Coate - 2018 - British Journal of Aesthetics 58 (1):51-70.
The Bloomsbury Companion to Kant.Dennis Schulting (ed.) - 2015 - Bloomsbury Academic.

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