This node explains the way the harmony of imagination and understanding informs Immanuel Kant's understanding of aesthetics, or, in his own terminology, the aesthetic judgement of reflection.

Preliminary note: For readers who would like to skip the explanations of Kant's terminology to get to the crux of the argument, please skip to paragraph that starts with "Now that we've covered." I offer you this option because though hair-splitting terminology is philosophically important, some readers may prefer a general overview of the idea rather than its exposition in all its glorious and gruesome detail ;-)

Before aesthetic judgements can be addressed, their place in Kant's system has to be explained with reference to teleological judgements. Kant writes about how every determinate judgement involves reflection. He compares teleological judgment and aesthetic judgement as two different types of reflective judgement. Teleological judgements have to deal with products of nature; they are merely reflective because they do not determine concepts by subsuming the particular empirical perception under laws of causality. Instead they only compare the empirical objects to the reason's notion of causality to posit reason's necessity of integrating these empirical concepts under the law of causality. Thus, teleological judgements employ causality not to subsume representations of empirical sense data under its principle but use the empirical sense data's willingness to lend itself to reason's concept of causality to validate the concept of causality itself.

When Kant begins talking of aesthetic judgements, he relies on a framework for treating them that he derives from teleological judgements. Like teleological judgement, aesthetic judgement compares empirical representations with the reason's idea of systematically organizing these representations under principles. But unlike with teleological judgement, aesthetic judgement does not produce a validation of the concepts based on empirical sense-data's willingness to mould itself to them. The aesthetic judgement validates a feeling.The feeling is dependent upon the fact that empirical intuition turns out to be a whole that lends itself to conceptual determination and not a chaos that resists it. (Ironically, Nietzsche, who wrote centuries after Kant, would argue the opposite. But his ideas won't get an airing here because this node is not about him. Is this first time on E2 that Nietzsche yearns to speak and somebody shuts him up?)

Why is empirical intuition whole and ready for conceptual-determination rather than chaotic and resistant to it? According to Kant, empirical cognition presupposes a manifold of intuition to be comprehended as a unity, whose parts must be held together in a whole and not splinter into fragments that do not connect with each other. Of course, it doesn't come to that state of being by itself. It gets there with the help of the faculty of the imagination. The imagination works as the pre-conceptual stage of perception when the manifold of apperception is being apprehended. This is the pre-conceptual stage where the sense-data is perceived but not yet conceptualized. The understanding, the faculty that reasons and subsumes the particular under concepts, relies on imagination as friend to deliver to it the particular sense-impressions in a very organized fashion so that it could later conceptualize them. So the understanding is sort of like a pastry cook or a bread baker who tells his farmer (the imagination) to run out into the field, gather the disparate stalks of wheat, grind them into a uniform powder-like flour that it could use to create all kinds of baked foods: cakes, pies, pastries, breads, danishes. (The food metaphor is my reward for the fact that you've kept reading thus far.) Now when these two faculties of imagination and understanding work well together, what results is harmony. Harmony of these two faculties is required for perception to work at all. Otherwise, if the imagination delivers to the understanding a set of empirical data too disparate to be able to be subsumed under concepts, the understanding fails to make sense of empirical sensation and conceptualize via its concepts. What results is not perception of objects, but a perception of something indeterminable, confusing, and meaningless. (I think I heard the voice of Nietzsche utter the last sentence.. Him and the 20th century philosophers he influenced love cases of concepts being too weak to contain empirical particulars. But again, I won't go there, cause this node is not about Nietzsche or them.)

Now that we've covered this harmony of imagination and understanding, we can get to the definition of the aesthetic judgement of reflection. This is a sensation of pleasure that a person experiences when he realizes that his two faculties of imagination and understanding worked well enough to perceive an object. There is of course a feeling of displeasure when the understanding does not manage to embrace all of the imagination's particulars and conceptualize them. Of course, this point of view of Kant's is not something everyone would agree with. It is possible to say that confusion brought about by the object's inability to be contained by a concept means that the object is somehow transcendent of all concepts and represents some super-mystical phenomenon that surpasses the limits of reason.

But that again is a 20th century phenomenon of fighting with language and trying to break its concepts on the complicated wheels and gears of experience. Kant, an 18th century philosopher par excellence, was concerned with warding off scepticism that tried to undermine the cognitive coherence of perception. Kant needs to use nature to justify the judgement of taste in his system. Since his system usually can only posit "transcendental principles" .. i.e principles necessary for the cognition of nature, Kant ties the sensation of pleasure at experiencing the confluence of imagination and understanding in producing a concept to the perception of nature in general. It's his way of saying that everyone who experiences nature as a perceptive whole experiences aesthetic judgements of taste because the harmony of the empirical and conceptual is necessarily pleasurable.

The point is that this whole argument is just a way for Kant to show that aesthetic judgement is a necessary cognitive faculty. However, after "grounding" or positing it with his system, Kant will take this principle of aesthetic judgement of reflection to explain aesthetics in general. This means that it won't only be the perception of nature that would give ground to a sensation of pleasure arising from harmony. All aesthetic experiences will be grounded in harmonious perception. Whether it's riding a motorcycle, swimming, listening to music, Kant will argue that our judgements of pleasure are founded upon our recognition that particular components in any given activity come together to form a "togetherness" so that our sense perception and understanding are perceiving and conceptualizing something whole whose parts become so enmeshed in this whole that they comprise that these components disappear as separate items.

It is quite ironic that the best way to illustrate this point is to reference computer programs, since many wrongly attribute computer experts as clueless in the real of aesthetics. Those who deal with different software packages note that some programs' interfaces are structured in a confusing way, where a user would labouriously search out specific functions that he wanted the software to perform because the clutter of menus and boxes of options required fiddling around with and reading manuals. On the other hand, there are other programs whose functions are not split up among confusing menus and boxes of options. These offer no confusion clutter that requires searching and reading but a few intuitively and easily accessible buttons and menu options. Plunging into these programs somehow requires no manual or struggle because the menus and buttons that it offers somehow jive with your expectations and speak in your language so that it feels like the program understands your needs and wants.

That right there is the experience of aesthetic harmony; the pleasure of your faculty of understanding finding itself in tune with the empirical sense data offered up by a computer program. The program's empirical data - options, menus - conform themselves in total to the conceptual tools of the understanding so that there are no confusing incomprehensible details that evade the user's comprehension and require him to grudgingly wade through menus, manuals, and etc.

(Elucidative note: Though the wholes of perception are subjective to each individual and hence the judgements of taste are too, the aesthetic judgement of reflection/judgement of taste is universal because the pleasure at perceiving harmony applies to all, regardless of the objects/experiences in which this harmony elucidates itself.)

P.S: This writeup was based on chapter 2 of Henry E. Allison's book, Kant's Theory of Taste: A Reading of the Critique of the Aesthetic of Judgement, entitled Reflection and Taste in the Introductions. I have also previously noded the summary of Chapter I, which offer interesting background information for this node, under the title Reflective Judgement and the Purposiveness of Nature. The primary source of these ideas is the section Critique of Aesthetic Judgement in Kant's work the Critique of Judgment

To add to what krenseby has already said about the role of understanding and imagination in aesthetic judgment, I can offer a supplementary explanation of how imagination and understanding allow us to judge what is beautiful and what is sublime and, more generally, of what role beauty and the sublime play in Kantian philosophy.

The judgment of beauty is arational

For Kant, beauty begins with sensory experiences and a consciousness of the pleasure attained through them as they affect the understanding and imagination. His conception of beauty, then, is very distinct from that of Plato because in Kant’s view reason plays no part in apprehending the beautiful. Beauty is apprehended through an aesthetical judgment, not a rational one.

Sensation, Understanding, Imagination, and Reason

In order to understand how Kant arrives at this conclusion, one must be familiar with the terms he employs in his argument, especially the terms sensation, understanding, imagination, and reason which create the framework for experience. Sensation is the beginning of our experiences. We are first aware, not of things in space and time, but of the internal effect that they create in us, acting on us, as it were, through the senses. The second level of this framework is the understanding which builds a world of objective meaning out of mere sensation, sorting and ordering sensory data into coherent relationships according to universal principles. The imagination, the third level, unites the products of understanding under an “I,” a conscious agent to whom phenomena appear. Reason, the final aspect, is that which drives us to a completeness in our knowledge of the world and self. Furthermore, it moves us to see the unity in all things, to attempt to construct out of our many concepts and experiences a single illuminating principle.

Objects of "free beauty"

How does beauty fit into this matrix? Kant claims that beauty is available most clearly to us if it is independent of a sustaining concept. A sign of this is that we do not find any deeper appreciation in the beauty of a flower after years of botanical study. The flower does not suddenly become more beautiful once we understand how the parts are formed and interact, what chemicals operate in certain processes, whether the flower is a perennial or an annual, or any other piece of trivia. Dependent beauty, on the other hand, does require the knowledge of a certain concept to sustain the beauty of an object. It is difficult for me to think of an example of such an instance because for the “beauty” that one might associate with mathematical or scientific concepts, Kant employs the word “elegant.” Could a case can be made for the fractal? Understood as merely a pattern or a design, it has a sort of superficial beauty. Understood as a mathematical concept, the fractal—finite in area but infinite in the length of its perimeter, self-similar at arbitrary levels of magnification, yet expressed by a simple, recursive definition—may be called beautiful, although certainly mixed with elements of the sublime. But even if we went so far as to grant this as true, that mathematical understanding sustains the beauty of the fractal, we must admit that the beauty is less clearly expressed than the free beauty of the flower.

Beautiful objects of "disinterested satisfaction"

Not only is the flower an object of free beauty, it is an object of disinterested satisfaction; meaning that the beauty of the flower is not bound up in any ideas of utility or morality that affect our judgment of its beauty. There is really no reasoned explanation one can give for why he appreciates the aesthetic beauty of a flower—it is a question irresolvable by the intellect. What Kant calls the “Ideal of Beauty,” however, does pertain to an intellectual judgment. The Ideal of Beauty is an object which somehow presents morality—embodies it, gives it substance and tangibility. Therefore, an art piece which attempts to portray the Ideal of Beauty is necessarily judged in terms of a concept and is an example of dependent beauty. Also, the Ideal of Beauty is clearly not an object of disinterested satisfaction because one’s appreciation of it relies on a reasoned explanation.

Aesthetic judgments are analogous to moral judgments

Though there is no substitute seeing the beautiful firsthand, one can have an indirect, intellectual interest in the beautiful by studying the great works of past artists and trying to grasp the aesthetic values of the sensus communis. This kind of scholarship may have the benefit of cultivating moral sense in addition to aesthetic taste. According to Kant, aesthetic judgments are analogous to moral judgments for they are both underpinned by revelations of the supersensible. For this reason, he calls beauty “the symbol of morality.” Human conscience and human appreciation of beauty attest to an attunement to the divine.

The sublime

Likewise, human awareness of the sublime in nature is a felt moral relationship to the whole. This feeling of awe, insignificance, and stupefaction comes about when human thought approaches its limit. It is characterized by a tension between imagination and reason. Despite this psychic threat, something within us feels compelled to seek out sublime experiences—at least through the mediation of art. In this way, like beauty, it is an object of disinterested satisfaction. However, unlike beauty, it does not produce the harmonious free play between understanding and imagination. Beauty makes us feel “at home” in the universe and sublimity seems to challenge this notion severely. However, Kant claims that the sublime is that which wakes us up to our moral destiny and excellence as free, thinking, moral agents.

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