Thursday, April 19, 2018

Immanuel Kant on the Possibility of Ugliness

In Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics, (Chapter: “Kant on the Purity of the Ugly”), Paul Guyer points out that, according to Kant, our response to the beauty of a thing on one hand and the ugliness of a thing on the other have fundamentally different sources. Our response to beauty is a purely aesthetic response, whereas the feeling that a work is ugly is an impure aesthetic judgment—in many cases we perceive a thing as ugly because we feel discomfort at the thing’s failure to satisfy our expectations or because we find it to be morally offensive or physically disagreeable.

Some authors have argued that there is nothing that Kant finds ugly. But Guyer rejects that argument. He cites several instances of Kant specifically identifying things that are ugly—the furies, diseases, and the devastations of war. Guyer also refers to the comments that Kant has made on ugliness in his lectures on logic and metaphysics. For instance, Kant says: “That which pleases through mere intuition is beautiful, that which leaves me indifferent in intuition, although it can please or displease, is non-beautiful; that which displeases me in intuition is ugly. Now on this pleasure rests the concept of taste.”

There also exists a room for purely aesthetic displeasure in Kant’s theory. In his account of the experience of the sublime, Kant “explicitly describes as including an element of displeasure as well as an element of pleasure, and as thus on the balance a “negative pleasure” akin to the mixed moral feeling of respect rather than a purely positive pleasure.” Kant opens his discussion of the sublime in the Critique of the Power of Judgement by stating that “Since the mind is not merely attracted by the object, but is also always reciprocally repelled by it, the satisfaction in the sublime does not so much contain positive pleasure as it does admiration or respect, i.e., it deserves to be called negative pleasure.”

Here’s an excerpt from Guyer’s essay:
While Kant obviously recognizes the existence of ugliness, he does not hold that our experience of ugliness is a pure aesthetic experience. The ugly is what we find physically disagreeable or morally offensive, and although the latter experiences place limits on the freedom of our imagination in its play with the understanding, they are not themselves pure aesthetic experiences. Further, while there might seem to be a place for a purely aesthetic displeasure in the experience of the sublime, this experience does not, as might be thought, involve any disharmony between imagination and understanding that could be an alternative to the harmony between these two faculties that is the core of the experience of beauty, and it is in this case by no means clear that the experience of the sublime in either of its forms is a pure rather than mixed aesthetic experience. So on Kant’s theory, only the experience of beauty can be a pure aesthetic experience; the experience of the ordinary or indifferent is the simple absence of aesthetic experience, and the experiences of the sublime and the ugly are at beast mixed aesthetic experiences.

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