Kant on the Beautiful: The Interest in Disinterestedness

Colloquy 16:198-209 (2008)

Paul Daniels
Rhodes University
In the Critique of the Power of Judgment, Immanuel Kant proposes a puzzling account of the experience of the beautiful: that aesthetic judgments are both subjective and speak with a universal voice. 1 These properties – the subjective and the universal – seem mutually exclusive but Kant maintains that they are compatible if we explain aesthetic judgment in terms of the mind’s a priori structure, as explicated in his earlier Critique of Pure Reason. Kant advances two major claims towards arguing for the compatibility of the subjectivity and universality of the experience of beauty: that aesthetic judgments are ‘disinterested’, and that the universality of an aesthetic judgment derives from the transcendental idealist’s account of ordinary spatio-temporal experience – that is, our ordinary cognitive framework can explain the experience of beauty. If correct, these two claims support the thesis that, while the experience of beauty is wholly subjective, it nevertheless speaks with a universal voice . I will move to interpret Kant’s theory of the beautiful with reference to his earlier two Critiques in order to better understand the marriage of subjectivity and universality. In turn, this re- veals a deeper symmetry between the disinterestedness of the experience of beauty and the freedom of moral action, allowing Kant to maintain, as he indeed does, that “beauty is the symbol of morality.”
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