Last week I argued that disagreements among lovers of beauty about what is praiseworthy form communities of rivals—groups of like-minded devotees who find rival beauties unremarkable or unintelligible. This is true of beautiful wines as well—they have their fans and detractors.
This idea of rival communities highlights one of the stranger notions that has persisted throughout philosophical discussions of beauty. It was the enormously influential 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant who defended it most stridently—beauty, despite being grounded in subjective feelings of pleasure, makes universal claims of validity he argued. When I judge an object to be beautiful based on my own feelings of pleasure, not only does the object merit such a response from me, it merits such a response from anyone. Beauty demands universal agreement.
This is not to say everyone will agree; Kant is well aware of the extent of disagreements about beauty. He is claiming everyone ought to agree. It’s a normative claim. Thus, if we fail to agree someone is mistaken. Someone is failing to conform to the demands the object makes on us. This is the main difference between what is beautiful and what is merely pleasant or preferable. We don’t demand that others share our preferences for chocolate ice cream. But we think someone who finds Rembrandt or Screaming Eagle boring is coarse and lacking in taste.
What Kant had in mind was that we approach pleasure differently when the object is beautiful as opposed to just agreeable. We take a disinterested attitude towards a beautiful object, an attitude whereby our personal desires and idiosyncratic attitudes are bracketed and we enjoy the object for itself, not because of some antecedent desire or interest one might have.
I won’t belabor the tortuous logic that gets Kant to this conclusion. But the thumbnail sketch is that Kant wants to show that our judgments are rational and free. And he thinks that if we are pushed around by yucky personal things like desires and emotions our actions will not be our own. It is better, more free, to be governed by principles that any rational being must assent to since as a rational being I must by necessity assent to them. (Yes. I know. It’s peculiar. You are most free when forced by logic to draw a conclusion)
Once we free ourselves from interests and emotions and achieve disinterested attention, the possibility of universal assent to judgments of beauty are possible. Rival beauties are created by personal interests that we should strive to overcome, according to Kant.
Since I think actions unmotivated by personal desires or emotions are incoherent and a gross misunderstanding of human nature I think the concept of disinterestedness makes no sense. It especially makes no sense in aesthetics. Why would I seek to experience beauty if I had no personal interest or desire in doing so?
Far from being disinterested, we fall in love with great works of art, beautiful men and women, and lovely bottles of wine. Without that love, appreciation is a feeble and limited gesture, like our preference for chocolate ice cream. But thankfully no one is obligated to love what I love. (My wife doesn’t think she’s that lovable)
Universal validity in matters of love is complete nonsense, and the experience of beauty (and beautiful wines) is a matter of love. When we find an object beautiful we experience the need to converse with it, submit to it and make it part of our lives just as we do with the people we fall in love with.
But that does mean that Kant is right that beauty is normative—it makes demands on us.
Stay tuned for more on what a beautiful wine demands of us.