Fundamental elements of Kant’s aesthetics

Show how the specific elements of Kant’s aesthetics (the four moments of aesthetic judgment, the ideas of the beautiful and the sublime, the idea of genius in art) articulate a new humanism, the idea of Man in History coming into his own freedom in the age of Enlightenment.

Make clear in the course of your essay how this answers for Kant the key theoretical problem of aesthetics, how aesthetic judgment can be valid, as something that is true yet not objective or provable (in the sense of science or morality).

A little background to help you grasp the question.

The concept of Humanity is the founding concept of Kant’s aesthetics. It is a culmination of a long development going back to the Greek models, and a radical inversion of all prior humanisms, Greek, Roman, Christian, Renaissance.

First, classicism is essentially humanism, because it is based on the idea that the human form is the ideal vehicle for the manifestation of divinity. Man is the image of the divine, in Biblical terms. On this point, Biblical and Greek traditions touch. In Christianity, they fuse. But there are many kinds of “humanism” that invoke the classical ideal.

Western ideas about art for most of the last 2500 years oriented themselves by reference to the classical Greeks (though also if to a lesser extent the counterpoint of Egypt). Greek art provided the classical models of what art is, an “image” or “imitation” of the real (of human action or embodied soul) but also an image of the divine by means of the human form. The paradigmatic Greek original inspired many successive epochs—Romans, Medievals, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Idealists and Romantic following Kant. Theyused Greek classical humanism to serve or express different or new religious and moral intuitions. In each of these eras, Greek models served as media to convey new humanistic ideals. But until the modern age (the age of Enlightenment and after), these ideas were still inscribed in a divine order or Nature or Revelation.

Most of these traditions reflect two vectors, opposed yet often combined: one, the idea that art is “imitation,” the representation of something real; the other, the idea that art aspires to the transcendent, to divinity, especially (after the Romans) the Christian notion of God, and serves as a mode of communication with the divine (think of holy icons in Catholic and Orthodox traditions). Borrowing Plato’s idea of the “in-between,” the intermediate state of being represented by the “daimonia” (demi-gods) such as Eros and the other forms of “divine madness” (including poetry and its enactment by performers like Ion), art aims both “upwards,” at the transcendent beyond the visible world, and “downwards”, towards nature and life, the actuality of man and natural. This dual orientation expresses the tensions between religious and secular drives, between image and idol (in the Greek sense of the kolossos or the holy icon), and (especially in modern aesthetics) between the beautiful and the sublime.

At the highpoint of the 18th century Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant arrives in effect at a new kind of classicism (still borrowing from the traditions above), one in which humanism is no longer dependent either on the Greek mythical or cosmological view of Nature, or on Christian revelation and theology as in the Medieval and Renaissance worlds. Greek classical humanism envisions the human in the context of revelation of the divine in Nature or the Cosmos. Christian (Medieval and Renaissance) humanism absorbs that but also embed its within supernatural Christian revelation. Kant’s humanism, to the contrary, revolves around Man and his rational capacity for “moral freedom” in himself (indeed freedom in every aspect of human experience, including Science and Aesthetic Judgment too). Moral freedom is fundamentally individual, the freedom of the autonomous or self-legislating will, but it unfolds in the natural world in the history of society and politics. On this view, History replaces Nature or Revelation as the basic framework of Man. (I capitalize it to suggest its special role and its teleological structure in Kant’s view, that fact that it has an until now hidden purpose.)

Kant’s aesthetics assumes “universal humanity” as developing self-awareness of man’s vocation for moral freedom in history. This is bound up with historical creation ofcorrespondingly rational social and political institutions. (It is not an easy or painless process—far from it—it occurs only through violence and conflict.) To be sure,Kant emphatically stresses the transcendent or religious dimension of morality or man’s vocation. This isattested especially by the importance for him of the Sublime, but also in general man’s relation to an “Intelligible” or “supersensible” order or Kingdom above or behind the sensible order of perceptible nature. Both the Beautiful and the Sublime intimate for him (each in a different way) a higher reality than the immediate world of nature. This is not given by scriptural revelationbut revealed by Man’s moral and aesthetic powers, his capacity for freedom in moral and aesthetic judgment, based on Reason but unfolding only in history.

Morality does not come from religion, for Kant; rather, religion comes from our moral self-consciousness. Likewise, the beautiful does not come from our perception of perfection in nature, but rather our ostensible perception of beauty (as if) in nature, comes from our power of judgment and the common humanity it evinces when it is truly free. Kant retains tradition but turns it upside down by making it revolve around Man’s moral self-awareness.

For Kant, aesthetics (reflective judgments of taste based on the beautiful and sublime in nature and on the art of genius) thus replaces religion (in the Biblical sense) with culture. It reflects the secular development of a “sensuscommunis” of Humanity in History, the sense of a common humanity evolved in the cultural and artistic traditions of nations.

With this for background, to repeat, write an essay in which you show how the specific elements of Kant’s aesthetics (the four moments of aesthetic judgment, the ideas of the beautiful and the sublime, the idea of genius in art) articulate this new humanism, the idea of Man in History coming into his own freedom.

Show how this answers for Kant the key theoretical problem of aesthetics, how aesthetic judgment can be valid, as something that is true yet not objective or provable (in the sense of science or morality).

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