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Aesthetic Theory [2021]

Adorno retraces the historical evolution of art[2] into its paradoxical state of "semi-autonomy" within capitalist modernity, considering the socio-political implications of this progression. Some critics have described the work as Adorno's magnum opus and ranked it among the most important pieces on aesthetics published in the 20th century.[2]

Aesthetic Theory


In Aesthetic Theory, Adorno is concerned not only with such standard aesthetic preoccupations as the function of beauty and sublimity in art,[2] but with the relations between art and society. He feels that modern art's freedom from such restrictions as cult and imperial functions that had plagued previous eras of art has led to art's expanded critical capacity and increased formal autonomy. With this expanded autonomy comes art's increased responsibility for societal commentary. However, Adorno does not feel that overtly politicized content is art's greatest critical strength: rather, he champions a more abstracted type of "truth-content" (Wahrheitsgehalt).[1] Unlike Kantian or idealist aesthetics, Adorno's aesthetics locates truth-content in the art object, rather than in the perception of the subject.[3] Such content is, however, affected by art's self-consciousness at the hands of its necessary distance from society, which is perceptible in such instances as the dissonances inherent in modern art. Truth-content is ultimately found in the relation between multiple dialectical interactions that emerge from the artwork's position(s) relative to subject and greater societal tradition, as well as internal dialectics within the work itself.[1] Throughout, Adorno praises dramatist Samuel Beckett, to whom the book was dedicated.[1]

Rasa allows for multiple experiences and interpretations, it eschews causality and linear notions of time and progress. I believe the ways of thinking embedded in the aesthetic theory of rasa can be helpful in rethinking our relationship to the planet and to climate. It can help us think about time as cyclical (like the seasons), relationships that are not based on conflict, and interactions that do not determine winners and losers. If rasa suffuses our theatre, rather than catharsis, it will teach us different modes of interacting with the planet and each other.

The central elements of Immanuel Kant’s faculty-based aesthetic theory are reasonably familiar: In non-aesthetic cognitions, the faculty of imagination serves to synthesize sense intuitions and reproduce them in a manifold that is then "unified" under concepts by the faculty of understanding. The unification of the sensory manifold is thus a cognitive aim (Absicht) with respect to knowledge.(1) A crucial claim of the third Critique is that in conjunction with reflective experience of certain objects, the imagination presents the sensory manifold already unified, as it were, without the use of a concept. This harmony of the two faculties accomplishes that cognitive aim in a sort of unexpected way, and is the occasion of "a noticeable pleasure."(2) It is on the basis of this pleasure and an acknowledgment of its genesis in the contingent harmony or "free play" of the faculties that a judgment of taste is made.

Kant’s explanation of our pleasure in beauty in terms of a distinctive employment of the underlying faculties of cognition... may be sufficient to make it reasonable to expect that all cognitive subjects should be capable of aesthetic response under some circumstances or other. ... But his argument does not seem sufficient to prove that particular objects must always produce the same aesthetic response in all subjects who encounter them under suitable circumstances. (6)

Kant would not have accepted this conclusion, of course; he seems to think that his Deduction is successful in all respects. It is perhaps worthwhile, however, to consider whether Kant’s theory in general has the resources to handle Guyer’s latter-day criticisms. In Kant and the Claims of Taste, Guyer denies that such resources exist. (7) In his more recent Kant and the Experience of Freedom, Guyer refers to the work of a number of other theorists who have argued otherwise—in each case by trying to tie the experience of a particular object of beauty to the interests of morality. According to Guyer, all of these attempts but one fail, for reasons which he enumerates in the early pages of the book. There is, says Guyer, only one author who has with some degree of success "confronted the issue of how a connection between aesthetics and morality could … justify the [expectation] that different persons not just have some aesthetic sensibility in general but agree in finding particular objects beautiful. That author is Anthony Savile, in his book Aesthetic Reconstructions." (8)

My initial aim here is to indicate why Guyer’s affirmation on Savile’s behalf is ill-founded by way of showing that Savile’s account achieves its goal only at the cost of undermining important tenets of Kant’s overall theory. Savile makes a great advance, however, when he proposes that we look into Kant’s discussion of "aesthetic Ideas" (9) for the resources with which to salvage the Deduction. In the latter portion of the paper, I provide an interpretation of the notion and phenomenology of an aesthetic Idea which, while remaining faithful to the spirit of Kant’s theory, suggests a solution to the problem of particularity.

The central thesis of the Savilian account is that only art objects that treat of a certain "subject matter or theme" allow an individual’s positive aesthetic judgments about them to be legitimately imputed to everyone. (10) That subject matter, says Savile, is some "idea of reason." Now for Kant an idea of reason is a concept which has something to do with "the supersensible" realm outside our phenomenal experience, and thus it outstrips the conceptual ability of the understanding. Unlike a determinate theoretical concept (such as "a dog" or "a house"), these ideas cannot be adequately exemplified by any single intuition. (11) According to Savile, a successful, spirited artwork will contain an aesthetic Idea which is, in turn, "one possible way of thinking about [a rational idea], and may be said to be an expression or presentation of that idea or theme." "On this account then, Ideas are identified as the concrete presentations of particular themes that are offered us by individual works of art. Consequently, whatever interest they have for us attaches to the particular work or object that embodies them." (12)

Whatever this account’s intrinsic plausibility, I do not think it does justice to Kant’s overall position. This for two reasons: First, it conflicts with Kant’s insistence that aesthetic pleasure be disinterested; second, it bases this pleasure in the rational concept thematized in the work, rather than in the subjective form of aesthetic experience itself.

This is not to say that there are no intellectual or empirical interests involved in our experience of beauty. Kant thinks that we have an empirical interest in communicating our judgments to others in society, for instance, and an intellectual interest in the moral aspects of any experience. (17) Moreover, these interests arise out of needs we have for sociability and for affirmation of our moral vocation—needs which can be met in the course of making aesthetic judgments. But these needs, the interest they evoke, and the pleasure we experience in having them met are technically external to aesthetic judgments and their pleasures considered "of themselves." (18) Savilian judgments of beauty will indeed be universal, but only because they are inappropriately based on universal practical interests. (19)

(ii) The second reason for rejecting Savile’s proposal is related to the first: by connecting an artwork’s beauty to its subject matter or theme, Savile departs from Kant’s dictum that it is the subjective form of aesthetic experience alone which prompts aesthetic response. Kant emphasizes this in many places; the following is one:

An aesthetic judgment is unique in kind and provides absolutely no cognition (not even a confused one) of the object; only a logical judgment does that. An aesthetic judgment instead refers the presentation, by which an object is given, solely to the subject; it brings to our notice no characteristic of the object, but only the purposive form in the [way] the presentational powers are determined in their engagement with the object. Indeed, the judgment is called aesthetic precisely because the basis determining it is not a concept but the feeling (of the inner sense) of that accordance in the play of the mental powers insofar as it can only be sensed. (20)

For Kant, the form of the aesthetic experience—the way our faculties interact upon being presented with beautiful objects—is the sine qua non of a well-formed judgment of taste. Savile violates the spirit of Kant’s theory when he has us attributing beauty to art objects because their conceptual content strikes us as expressive of rational ideas, and therefore as morally valuable. In what follows, I want to suggest how we might employ a different understanding of aesthetic Ideas to solve the problem of particularity, and to do so in a way that does not militate against the basic tenets of Kant’s account.

Although Kant occasionally speaks of an aesthetic Idea as "a presentation" in the singular, my suggestion is that we construe the mental act of contemplating an Idea as involving a plurality of presentations and thoughts linked together. (21) There is textual evidence for this: In one passage, Kant calls an aesthetic Idea a "coherent whole of an unspeakable wealth of thought." (22) And in an earlier discussion of the "aesthetic standard ideas" that exhibit determinate concepts (rather than rational ones), Kant indicates that they are produced by way of the imagination "projecting a large number" of thoughts "onto one another." (23) It is plausible then to read the later notion of an aesthetic Idea that exhibits a rational concept as involving (to use Kant’s words) an "inexhaustible" and "unexpoundable" series of thoughts that the imagination produces when confronted with beauties. It is this coherent and yet unspeakable whole which "aspires" to exhibit in imagination the object’s rational concept—a concept that cannot, in principle, be given an adequate exhibition. 041b061a72


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