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Essay Beauty Judgement

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All material on this page copyright Theodore Gracyk 2002, 2004 


Among the score or more of Enlightenment thinkers most significant to what is now philosophy of art, pride of place must go to David Hume (1711-1776) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Their complex proposals for bringing the various arts under a comprehensive doctrine are an important source of concepts, issues and arguments that underlie debates in our own century. Both are motivated by the question of whether our highly subjective and even irrational responses to artworks and other beautiful objects can have any sort of objectivity.

The idea that a distinct discipline can systematically deal with issues concerning art can be traced to 1735, when Alexander Baumgarten (1714-1762)called for a new science of perceptual knowledge, an aestheticae. But as a lesser German author writing in scholarly Latin, Baumgarten is remembered largely for his influence on Kant's Critique of Judgment of 1790. In the Critique of Pure Reason of 1781, Kant disapproves of the increasing use of "aesthetic" in relation to taste in the German sphere of arts and letters. But in a revision of that work six years later, Kant suggests that he is ready to reconsider. Baumgarten's new discipline would be the antidote to the problems troubling a very different school, British empiricism, with its emphasis on taste and genius. Hume's essay of 1757, "Of the Standard of Taste," is one of the most elegant and subtle examples of this tradition.

Fueled by the recent explosion of scientific knowledge, both Hume and Kant embrace the general optimism of the Enlightenment. Human progress was associated with the free but critical use of human intellect. By overturning long established dogmas, the new science encouraged a corresponding scrutiny of traditional --and generally repressive-- religious and political institutions. Hume generated intense controversy and opposition for taking a further step, questioning the prerogatives of reason itself. Kant famously reports that Hume's philosophy awoke him from a "dogmatic slumber." Responding to the question of whether he lived in an enlightened time, Kant writes, "No, but we do live in an age of enlightenment." There was at least some willingness to escape from "self-imposed immaturity," from blind deference to authority, from superstition, from ignorance. "Have courage to use your own understanding!" Kant insists, "that is the motto of enlightenment." (For the complete translated text of Kant's essay on this topic, click here.)

But why should such values support fertile growth in the philosophy of art? After all, Baumgarten's own starting point is the doctrine that human reason, by which we truly know the world, is separate from aesthetic or sensory encounters with that world. Descartes' rationalist legacy was the proposal that knowledge comes only when we "lead the mind away from the senses." The universal truths that constitute knowledge are the products of intellect alone, at odds with the subjectivity of sense perception. To a large extent, Enlightenment philosophy of art can be read as an ongoing renegotiation of the polarization of reason and sensibility, of thought and taste.

At the same time, theorists were trying to take account of an emerging consensus that a broad range of creative activities belong together, to be distinguished from a range of more practical activities. Poetry, music, dance, architecture and sculpture had previously been seen as more or less separate activities. They now received the unifying label of the "fine" arts, "beaux arts," or "schone Kunst." In section 44, Kant contrasts fine art with both entertainment ("agreeable art") and mere craft (the practical or mechanical arts). Despite the obvious differences in the various media, theorists were expected to explain why a piece of sculpture belongs in a common class with poems and formal gardens, but not with jokes, pieces of furniture, or food and wine.

It was assumed that the fine arts are unified by a common function or purpose. In 1746, Charles Batteux summarized the emerging view by proposing that the fine arts share a common principle in that they all imitate beautiful nature. The fine arts "are music, poetry, painting, drama, and the art of gesture or dance." The fine arts are to be distinguished from the mechanical arts (practical skills like farming and engineering) and from a third group, the arts that combine beauty and practical function (e.g., eloquence and architecture). Because the purpose of fine art is pleasure rather than utility, art should not represent nature "as it ordinarily is." Genius should modify nature into a "beautiful whole, more perfect than nature itself."

Most European intellectuals quickly adopted some version of this distinction between practical arts and fine art, with the latter organized around the central characteristic of beauty. Within a generation, Sir Joshua Reynolds lectured at the English Royal Academy endorsing Batteux's idea that good art surpasses any beauty found in nature. In the published lectures, Discourses on Art, Reynolds holds that "perfect beauty" lies in the artist's creation of a composite representation, combining the most beautiful characteristics of the type of thing represented.

Yet none of these writers explicitly understood themselves to be doing philosophy of art, and the subject of art is not always at center stage. Hume, for instance, locates his essays on art and taste within the field of "criticism," as one part of a larger project of analyzing values. Many of his writings make little or no distinction between moral and aesthetic value. For his part, Kant's initial writings hold that the field is not appropriate to systematic theorizing; the Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764) opens with the warning that it is not really a work of philosophy. Like Hume, Kant describes his mature reflections on philosophy of art, Part I of the Critique of Judgment, as an exploration of "taste." (Part I has the title "Critique of Aesthetic Judgement.")

The readings that I have chosen from Hume and Kant represent their final published views on the philosophy of art. Hume's essay on taste was his last piece of philosophical writing and its very existence is something of an accident. When his publisher advised him to suppress essays on the subjects of suicide and immortality as likely to invite prosecution, but wanted something to fill the gap created in a collection of essays, Hume supplied this essay.

Kant read some of Hume's work in translation, but it is highly unlikely that Kant ever read "Of the Standard of Taste." Although some passages in the Critique of Judgment sound like a response to Hume, this is due to their common influences within the British tradition that regards the apprehension of beauty as an exercise of taste. Both studied writings by Anthony Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), who claims that we are naturally endowed with an "inward eye" peculiarly suited for the perception of beauty. And both Hume and Kant studied the writings of Joseph Addison, originally presented in two influential London periodicals between 1709 and 1715:"A man that has a taste of music, painting, or architecture, is like one that has another sense, when compared with such as have no relish of those arts." And Addison is largely responsible for an idea later developed by Hume and Kant, that a taste for art involves the "pleasures of the imagination." In 1712, Addison wrote in The Spectator that "there is nothing that makes its way more directly to the soul than beauty, which immediately diffuses a secret satisfaction and complacency through the imagination, and gives a finishing to anything that is great or uncommon."

Addison writes as if beauty is an objective quality of both nature and art, as something that incites the imagination. In contrast, Francis Hutcheson (1694-1747) holds that beauty is not a quality of objects. It is an "idea raised in us," so that to describe an object as beautiful is really to make a claim about the object's tendency to cause a certain response. Hutcheson was a major influence on Hume.

Among the many assumptions guiding Enlightenment philosophy of art, modern readers probably find it most difficult to accept the idea that beauty distinguishes art from other artifacts. In the tradition of Addison and Hutcheson, both Hume and Kant emphasize that beauty is characterized by a "sentiment" or feeling of pleasure. This leads them to worry about the undesirable implication that beauty, ugliness, and other aesthetic properties are not objective features of poems, sculpture, and paintings. Because our responses to works of art seem to be utterly subjective and private, qualitative distinctions seem beyond debate or discussion. Hume and Kant try to escape this difficulty by denying that taste is a single, distinct faculty; they treat it as a complex response that involves sense perception, imagination, and judgment. Both writers ultimately use taste and art as a basis for investigating a much broader range of issues concerning human intersubjectivity.


Hume's essay on taste divides into four major parts. He begins by outlining two competing "philosophies" or views on questions of artistic value. The skeptical position, which he attacks, simply equates beauty with the sentiment of pleasure caused by the object. Sentiment "exists merely in the mind," so no response to a work of art is superior to any other. It would seem that there is no such thing as a wrong response to a work of art. Common sense, which Hume will defend, holds that evaluative responses are neither true nor false, yet some are better than others; we cannot help but dismiss the taste of anyone who praises a minor writer like Ogilby above a genius like Milton. (Notice that with the exception of the wine tasting in the Don Quixote story, almost all of Hume's examples are literary examples.)

In the second stage of the argument (paragraphs 6 through 16), Hume defends common sense by seeking a standard by which we can "confirm" one sentiment and "condemn" another. Hume is sympathetic to the neo-classicism of his time. He points to the fact that some works attain critical approval across the barriers of culture and time, as when ancient authors such as Homer and Cicero delight modern readers. He suggests that such a convergence of taste identifies a work of real genius. An examination of these works of genius should provide us with rules of composition for good art.

Hume exploits an analogy with external senses like sight, where uniformity of response provides some measure of objectivity, tied to the "sound state" of the sensing organ. This analogy has the unfortunate tendency to suggest that the response to an artwork is immediate, like seeing. However, there is no strict analogy with external sense. As a response in which the viewer evaluates what is sensed, taste is mediated by reflection on what is immediately sensed. Furthermore, while normal vision may be "good," Hume wants a standard that will recommend superior beauty. Hume's standard thus requires taste that is considerably more refined than what is merely average. Here we find the example of Sancho's kinsmen. Adapted from Don Quixote, it is meant to show that different degrees of taste correspond to real differences in the object being evaluated.

In the essay's third stage (paragraphs 17 through 27), Hume outlines what is required to improve one's taste and to be a true judge of at least some kinds of art. Five factors must come together: "Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice." These conditions for achieving good taste imply that only a very few will ever be qualified judges of any specific work of art. Yet the agreement of these acute critics, no matter what the results are, "is the true standard" he seeks. In the fourth and concluding stage, Hume acknowledges that some sources of variation in taste cannot be eliminated. Genuine taste requires making allowances for variations in customs and manners, so that as a critic I forget "my peculiar circumstances." Yet even here there are limits, as when works contain harmful superstitions and prejudices. This last point is discussed at greater length in the fourth stage of the analysis.

In the fourth and final stage of the analysis, Hume considers two circumstances that will create unavoidable prejudices in even the best critics. First, preferences are not simply a matter of training or exposure (Paragraph 30). There are natural differences in persons, so that make some prefer comedy while others prefer drama. According to Paragraph 29, there are also unavoidable preferences due to a person's age (generational differences) and culture (cultural preferences).

The second complicating circumstance is the critic's moral outlook. Hume advocates the position of moderate moralism, according to which moral defects )such as overt bigotry) are flaws that detract from the work's aesthetic merit. Hume is not a moral relativist: proper moral evaluation is guided by our sense of "the natural boundaries of vice and virtue." A critic who does not confine her moral judgment within this natural boundary "departs from the true standard." As examples of work blemished by improper moral attitudes, Hume mentions several French plays displaying religious bigotry. Earlier, in Paragraph #4, Hume criticizes the Koran because it "bestows praise on such instances of treachery, inhumanity, cruelty, revenge, bigotry, as are utterly incompatible with civilized society."



If prevailing consensus agrees that Hume's essay on taste is a masterpiece of Enlightenment philosophy of art, the actual arguments of the essay are often dismissed as fragmentary and even incoherent. Hume often reverses himself (and not just in clearly signaled passages, as when the introductory skepticism gives way to belief in a standard). To begin, Hume seems to set two very different goals, and recommends two very different standards. In the essay's briefest paragraph, the initial goal is to find a rule by which conflicting sentiments may be "reconciled." In the very next phrase, it is to confirm one sentiment while condemning another. Consistent with the first, Hume initially seeks rules of taste or general principles that can serve as a standard. At times it even seems that works of art that win universal approval are themselves Hume's standard. But after the pivotal story of the kinsmen and the wine, the joint verdict of true judges is identified as the standard.

Whatever the standard, Hume's essay poses the problem of an apparent circularity in argumentation. A limited number of works are used to identify the best critics (leading, in turn, to the list of the qualities of such critics), but those works attain the status of masterpieces only through the judgment of such critics. So Hume either defines good critics in terms of good art, or good art in terms of good critics. (Is Homer's greatness demonstrated by the fact that true critics say so, or is their status as good critics to be be demonstrated by the fact that they agree on Homer's merits?) It may be, as Hume claims, that we face "questions of fact" in asking whether someone possesses the characteristics he attributes to true critics, or whether a specific work has appealed to such critics across cultures and the ages. Either way, how has he shown that "established" beauties provide the "finest" pleasure? Why are they superior to the "vulgar," transitory entertainments Hume dismisses? The features of the true critic are often read as Hume's way out of this trap. But Hume seems to have predetermined that only someone with wealth, education and leisure will ever possess good taste. The only answer, in the end, is the verdict of our common human nature: "the sentiments of all mankind are agreed" that such critics are superior.

Finally, Hume is sometimes taken to be proposing an ideal critic, not real persons whose actual judgments can serve as our standard. Not only is this contrary to the spirit of Hume's empiricism, it conflicts with his frank admission that some critical disagreement cannot be eliminated. The final stages of the essay move in the direction of genre criticism; focusing on the literary arts, Hume observes that each species has its partisans. While it would be an error to condemn other genres on this basis, such preferences are "innocent and unavoidable." At the same time, this admission does not square easily with Hume's description of the ideal critic as having a mind "free from all prejudice."

(Skip this section if you just want to know about his theory of art. To skip ahead, click here.)

Those who know his later philosophical works are often surprised to find that Kant's initial writings about art (the Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime) falls squarely within the empiricist tradition. As is the case in most British theory of the time, fine art is associated with "finer feeling." Different degrees and types of feeling account for the variety of tastes in both individuals and in the characteristic preferences of different nations. Unlike Hume but like Edmund Burke (1729-97), Kant gives equal attention to beauty and sublimity. Another difference between Kant and Hume is that Kant emphasizes nature as an important object of taste. Finally, Kant does not share Hume's optimism that their common assumptions, associating beauty and sublimity with specific feelings, offer any basis for constructing a standard of taste.

With the Critique of Judgment, Kant's mature theory reveals a rethinking of art and taste as aspects of larger issues. Unfortunately, Kant now deals with them in relation to a complex, jargon-filled philosophical system. Kant's first major work, the Critique of Pure Reason, argues that the mind is not a passive "mirror" of the world. However immediate any of our experiences seem to be, there are no uninterpreted experiences. The world comes to us as a complex "manifold" of sensations. Through the joint activities of imagination and understanding, we actively interpret the "matter" of sensation in terms of stable objects with predictable behaviors. When one hears a roaring sound and feels a slight vibration, understanding might supply the concept of an airplane; a range of sensations is attributed to an unseen airplane passing overhead, while other sensations are attributed to various other objects. We divide the manifold of sensations into various objects by grouping the sensations under empirical concepts: the sound comes from the airplane, but when I look toward the source of the sound, the white patch that I see is cloud, not an airplane. Our concepts of 'cloud' and 'airplane' are determinate concepts.

A priori principles of understanding guide this process, supplying a unity to experience that transcends the subjectivity of our own point of view. Without such principles, our subjective sensations would not be experienced as particular objects with determinate characteristics. (Without a principle directing us to interpret the world as ordered in terms of cause and effect, the loud roar would seem unrelated to the vibration and a certain flavor in one's wine would not be taken as evidence that iron has gotten into it.) In short, a priori principles underlie all determinate, objective judgments. Yet no one is born knowing what iron and wine are, or how a limerick differs from a sonnet. So human cognition also requires reflective judgment, in which our thinking is not determined by concepts already known. Kant proposes that taste comes into play in such situations, as a form of reflective judgment.

The complex argument of the "Critique of Aesthetic Judgment" has several major stages. Book I, the Analytic of the Beautiful, begins with an analysis of four distinguishing features of judgments of taste. They involve a pleasure that is disinterested yet both universal and necessary, directed at an object's form without a conceptual determination of its purpose. As a consequence of this analysis, Kant concludes that the "faculty of taste" is neither a separate faculty nor a passive receptivity to objects. It involves a complex interplay of imagination and understanding in "free play."

Much of Kant's theorizing is driven by the question of how feelings of pleasure, which are subjective responses to objects, can ever have any claim to universality and necessity. To a large extent, his answer comes in section 9: the pleasure is our felt awareness that the appearance of the object conforms to the most basic conditions of human cognition. Even if we do not yet know what a rose is, reflective judgment approaches it as something that can be understood. Apart from any objective determination that it is a rose, or that roses serve a purpose in reproduction, its mere form seems to satisfy our presupposition that all objects are subjectively purposive relative to human cognition. (They seem as if designed for investigation by human knowers.) As the third moment of the Analytic puts it, beauty is an object's "form of purposiveness" apart from the presentation of a purpose.

Responding to an object's appearance without the guidance of any determinate concept, we respond aesthetically. The feeling of pleasure is basically a signal that the sensory presentation is suitable for comprehensible by the faculty of understanding. So in aesthetic judgment we make a determination about human cognition rather than the object itself. Yet the result is one that we can expect of others whose cognitive faculties are like ours, at least with respect to those features of the presentation that must also be available to other judging subjects. When we judge that this necessity and universality holds of our pleasure, we regard the object as beautiful and not just pleasing. These are judgments of taste.

In the Observations, recognition of the sublime is treated as a case of taste. In the Analytic of the Sublime, Kant now argues that such judgments are not displays of taste at all, for they involve an appeal to reason (as a faculty of moral principles) rather than to understanding. Section 24 introduces a distinction between the mathematically and the dynamically sublime.

The second major stage of Kant's argument is the Deduction, centered in sections 30 through 42. The obvious obstacles to intersubjective agreement of tastes are summarized in a central question: how can any feeling of pleasure "require" a corresponding liking from everyone else? Kant concludes that taste is a sort of common sense (sensus communis), but not in the everyday sense of a minimal level of understanding of things. It is, literally, the only dimension of sensing (rather than understanding) that is shared by everyone.

However, it is important to keep in mind that Kant has a very limited goal in the Deduction phase of his argument. He wants to prove that some principles must already be in place (a priori) in order to make human cognition possible, and this aim guides Kant's choice of topics and the order of their presentation. The Critique of Pure Reason examines the conditions that account for objective judgments (guided by the understanding), while the Critique of Practical Reason examines moral judgments (guided by reason's concept of freedom). In a similar fashion, this third critique aims to demonstrate that without judgments of taste, our other cognitive accomplishments could not occur. Without taste we could not experience an organized world, much less care about the beauty of a sunset or the graceful lines of a Matisse drawing. As such, Kant focuses on pure judgments of taste. They alone display the universality and necessity that requires a special principle. Impure judgments, or those for which our pleasure is contingent, require nothing a priori.

Having defended the necessity of taste, Kant turns to the philosophy of art as such (sections 43 through 54). True to his times, Kant regards beauty as an essential element of fine art. But he also develops a theory of genius that looks forward to Romanticism. Genius is not treated as a separate faculty so much as a rare employment of imagination. The best art, Kant argues, combines spirit/soul (the rich inventiveness of genius) with taste.

Finally, Kant offers a Dialectic of Aesthetic Judgment (sections 55 through 60). As in his earlier two Critiques, he tries to show that an established puzzle (an antinomy) can be resolved by his theory. Here, the seeming contradiction laid out in section 56 closely parallels the paradox fueling Hume's essay.



Hume and Kant agree on a number of doctrines concerning art. Both oppose moral didacticism or the use of art to promote sectarian moral and religious doctrines. Both emphasize that fine art displays genius. Neither believes that the value of an artwork can be inferred from general principles or from intellectual knowledge of what beauty is.

However, the two writers are fundamentally at odds over proper philosophical methodology. Their surface agreements can mask significant disagreement about the degree of consensus that is possible in our encounters with fine art. Ever the empiricist, Hume is skeptical about reason's powers. So there is some irony in the fact that he defends a sharp distinction between better and worse tastes, and between true and pretend judges. More importantly, he believes that we can reliably identify better critics and so can determine which of two works is better than the other. Although Kant defends the necessity of a common sense, he remains skeptical about determining whether it is operating in any specific case. Worse yet, he does not see how Hume's starting point in contingent agreements of feeling can generate any useful distinction between agreeable and beautiful objects. Without a distinction between the agreeable and the beautiful, Kant sees no escape from the radical subjectivity of aesthetic response, nor any way to associate culpability with taste. Even with it, Kant is ultimately more skeptical than Hume about the authority of art critics and the possibility of settling actual disagreements about artistic value.

Consider central differences in their competing accounts of the reflection that grounds taste and thus criticism. Hume notes that sense perception is variable, both from person to person and for a single person at different times. But the fact that honey is sweet and lemons are not remains as much a matter of fact as our empirical generalizations that fire can burn flesh and that such wounds are painful. No one thinks that the subjectivity of pleasure and pain makes it meaningless to generalize and to warn others about the pain that will come with burned flesh. However variable, we believe that "certain qualities in objects" cause our responses. The pleasure and pain unique to our experience of fine art are subtle and are complicated by their reliance on imagination. They are thus more uncertain. But there is no less reason to think that these responses are caused by real qualities of artworks.

Hume's central example, the two kinsmen and the wine, is misleading because the delicacy of taste involved in identifying the presence of the leather or iron is an immediate sensory response. In contrast, a poem or painting invites a process of reflection, an imaginative exploration that is absent in wine tasting. Where the presence of iron and leather in the hogshead is a matter of fact, the inferiority of such wine depends on subsequent "feelings of sentiment." One exercises taste, rather than judges matters of fact. An accurate sensing of an artwork's various qualities is preliminary to a feeling of approval or disapproval.

Hume's other writings on art and taste indicate that the relevant pleasures are not immediate responses to objects so much as "impressions of reflection." In many cases, the pleasure arises from reflection on an object's likely utility (requiring imaginative association between cause and effect), leading the experienced observer to a sympathetic pleasure with those who might benefit from an architectural design, a muscular body or a purebred stallion. The essay on taste suggests that reflection on utility plays a limited role in the appreciation of fine art. Where there is no specific aim such as persuasion or instruction, Hume seems to recognize imaginative reflection on formal properties as central to the exercise of taste ("some particular forms or qualities, from the original structure of the internal fabric, are calculated to please").

Principles of taste might be generated by identifying features that regularly please experienced critics with good sense and sufficient delicacy, but it is not by means of such principles that reflection culminates in taste. Homer and Milton would not be great writers if their work did not please with regularity, but the pleasure does not depend on the audience's awareness that their works fit specific rules of poetical construction. In short, while a sound understanding is essential to the operation of taste, the pleasure of art does not depend on any inferences we make from established rules. The possibility of standards of taste rests on the brute fact that we "naturally" respond in similar ways to the same objects. If our "internal fabric" were different, the works of Ovid and Milton would have as little value as a scientific text propounding a discarded theory.

In contrast, Kant dismisses Edmund Burke's "merely empiricist exposition" of taste because empiricist accounts do not distinguish sharply enough between a taste for a particular type of wine and for the work of a particular poet. Unlike the taste of wine and our highly idiosyncratic aesthetic judgments of sense, a "taste" for poetry presents a philosophical puzzle precisely because the pleasure is one that has a claim to universality and not mere generality. If the pleasure produced by a work of art is contingent on our general psychological "fabric" and the specific viewer's knowledge, there is no real difference between admiring a building for its architectural design and for the fact that it houses a restaurant where we can satisfy our hunger pangs.

In pure judgments of taste, Kant holds that the reflective judgment involves no recognition of the object as subsumed under a concept. One judges the sensible presentation of the object "without a concept." There are many places where Kant seems to hold that one must not know anything about the object in question, for if one does, the judgment will not be about its aesthetic presentation. (If based on concepts, the result will be an ordinary cognitive judgment or an evaluation of its utility or morality.) At other times he allows that if the pleasure or displeasure is not "determined" by concepts --if we "pay no attention" to what it is, so the judgment occurs "independently of the object's concept"-- pure judgments of taste are compatible with knowledge about the object.

Depriving taste of any determination in cognitive judgment, Kant concludes that it must be a response to the form of the presentation. According to the Critique of Pure Reason, apprehension of form involves the imagination. (Recognizing one side of a house, imagination "fills in" the other sides.) In determinate judgment, understanding guides imagination, subsuming the form under a concept. Looking at a carpet with a simple and repetitive pattern or watching a play that simply strings together familiar plot devices, imagination is stifled once we grasp the organizing concept or rule. We may judge the thing to be good of its kind, but strict regularity demands no exercise of taste and it "ceases to entertain."

In contrast, taste relies on reflective judgment. Knowing that a piece of music is by Haydn and in sonata allegro form is simply irrelevant to its beauty. The connection of part to part must allow a free play of our imagination. Yet it must not seem incomprehensible; imagination must harmonize with the understanding in a nonconceptual awareness of order. (We must be aware of the order but we must not interpret that order as having any specific purpose. No description that we can give will adequately describe the order that we comprehend.) Form pleases universally when it displays purposiveness for our cognitive faculties, leading to Kant's famous claim that beauty lies in "purposiveness without a purpose."

On one reading of Hume, the agreement of true judges is the standard of taste. Where such judges can be identified for a specific art form, deviation from their agreement demonstrates a failure of taste. Kant disagrees. Judgments of taste do not postulate agreement (as a matter of fact). Instead, they require or demand it (as an "ought"). Others may not care for the things we find beautiful, but we are entitled to hold that they should.


Kant's theory of beauty is not identical with his whole philosophy of art. Much of his discussion of beauty focuses on an example of natural beauty ("this rose is beautiful"). The universality and necessity of pure judgments of taste holds for natural beauty as well as art. What is distinctive about art is that purposiveness is accompanied by some specific purpose. With fine art, that purpose is the communication of ideas. This purpose introduces a social dimension that is absent from mere entertainment. To concentrate exclusively on Kant's Analytic of the Beautiful is to encourage an overemphasis on design and thus an extreme formalism that is contrary to Kant's actual views. Kant holds that we can hardly avoid recognizing when something is art, and that it therefore demands evaluation as a thing of a certain kind (as a poem rather than a statue). Reducing art to a mere display of beautiful form would suggest that a work's content is a superfluous addition. For Kant this is only a "would-be work of fine art," manifesting taste without genius through slavish imitation, or genius without taste through undisciplined outpourings. His ideal is a work in which the form is uniquely suited to the ideas presented, so the play of form is also a "play with ideas."

The first suggestion of this doctrine occurs in section 16, with Kant's distinction between free and merely accessory beauty. The latter is so called because our response is "accessory to a concept" of what the thing is; a form that pleases in the design of a church is not appropriate to an armory or summer house. With many types of objects, including the human form, we are hardly capable of disinterestedness, viewing the object without concern for what it is. We judge according to its perfection relative to a certain purpose (under a determinate concept).

But this invites the question of why Kant thinks that there are two kinds of beauty here. Accessory beauty does not fit his analysis of beauty at all. After all, to consider anything but the object's design is to "impair the purity" of the judgment. Furthermore, it poses an apparent obstacle to the beauty of fine art; unlike natural beauty, with art "the perfection of the thing must be taken into account." Section 16 also says that the category of free beauty includes "all music not set to words," implying that music with sung text has only accessory beauty. Kant seems to think that all representational and functional art has only accessory beauty. Once the Deduction has defended the universality and necessity of pure judgments of taste, Kant expands on the topic of fine art. When successful, fine art displays genius, animated by spirit. These features distinguish it from the limited diversions of pleasing sensations or merely accessory beauty.

Although Kant's account of genius points towards nineteenth century Romanticism, sections 48 and 50 emphasize that genius produces great art only when reigned in by taste. Without an element of "academic correctness" constraining the artwork's form, genius risks nonsense. Yet rather than communicate according to established conventions, genius involves originality in which "nature gives the rule to art." In section 49, Kant elaborates that soul or spirit (Geist) is a question of content, not form. Spirit is present when a work prompts the viewer's imagination "to spread over a multitude of kindred presentations," so that the work is rich in associations but cannot be encapsulated under a determinate concept or under any one paraphrase. In short, genius requires a natural talent for expressing "ineffable" ideas through the play of imagination.

Section 52 argues that when there is no link between purposive form and the expression of aesthetic ideas, the resulting art is a diversion or entertainment, "a beautiful play of sensation" without the broader dimension of culture. Far from making art into empty design, Kant values art as a stimulus for its "indirect" intellectual interest. Section 44 proposes that fine art is distinguished from both craft and agreeable art (i.e., mere entertainment) for its ability to further the culture of our mental powers. The viewer, as autonomous judge exercising taste, is connected to a larger community in two ways. First, taste demands awareness of the sensus communis. Second, to understand that one is dealing with art is to confront one of several modes of communication. On the latter basis, section 51 outlines a division of the arts according to three basic aspects of ordinary communication: words, gestures, and tones. Analogously, art expresses aesthetic ideas through language, visual arrangement, and variation of sensations. Section 53 argues that a ranking of the arts is then possible, but it is complicated by one's choice of criteria. Ranked according to the degree of culture they provide, poetry "holds the highest rank" and music holds the lowest. But ranked according to universality of appeal, purely instrumental music's lack of determinate concepts gives it highest rank.

Finally, the Critique of Judgment repeatedly explores connections between aesthetic and moral judgment. Recognition of sublimity has an explicitly moral dimension; section 42 identifies a superiority of natural beauty over that of art on the grounds that the former indicates an interest in moral goodness; when we cannot postulate real purposes, nature's beauty interests those with a good moral attitude by suggesting that our moral ideas are similarly compatible with nature. Section 59 reviews a series of analogies between the beautiful and the morally good. Locating beauty in disinterested pleasure does not, in the final analysis, free art from moral judgment.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY (* = useful bibliography included)

*Burnham, Douglas. An Introduction to Kant's Critique of Judgment. Edinburgh University Press (2001).

*Burnham, Douglas. "Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) Theory of Aesthetics and Teleology" (2006). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, online.

*Cohen, Ted, and Paul Guyer, eds. Essays in Kant's Aesthetics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982. Crawford, Donald. Kant's Aesthetic Theory. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1974.

Crowther, Paul. The Kantian Sublime: From Morality to Art. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989.

Dutton, Denis. "The Experience of Art Is Paradise Regained: Kant on Free and Dependent Beauty," British Journal of Aesthetics 34 (1994): 226-41, now available online.

Gracyk, Theodore. "Rethinking Hume's Standard of Taste," Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 52 (1994).

----------- "Hume's Aesthetics," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2003 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), 

Hipple, W. The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth Century Aesthetic Theory. Carbondale: 1967.

Hume, David. Selected Essays. Eds. Copley, Stephen and Andrew Edgar. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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There’s no getting around it. In this world, you’re better off  being good-looking. At all ages and in all walks of life, attractive people are judged more favorably, treated better, and cut more slack. Mothers give more affection to attractive babies. Teachers favor more attractive students and judge them as smarter. Attractive adults get paid more for their work and have better success in dating and mating. And juries are less likely to find attractive people guilty and recommend lighter punishments when they do.

Many factors can play into personal attractiveness — the way you dress, the way you act, the way you carry yourself, even things that are hard or impossible to change, like social status and wealth, race, and body size and shape. But the first thing we notice when we meet someone is their face. There are faces that launch a thousand ships, and faces that only a mother could love, and we are supremely attuned to tell the difference. The brain, among its many other functions, is a beauty detector.

The brain is such a good beauty detector, in fact, that it can judge the appeal of a face before you’re aware you’ve even seen one. When participants in a recent study were presented with attractive and unattractive faces for only 13 milliseconds, they were able to judge the faces’ attractiveness accurately (that is, in accordance with experimenters’ ratings), even though they were not consciously aware of the stimuli and felt like they were just guessing (Olson & Marshuetz, 2005).

There is no doubt that beauty (which here means both male and female attractiveness) is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, but across individuals and across cultures there is nevertheless considerable agreement about what makes a pretty or handsome face, and the evidence strongly counters the conventional wisdom that attractiveness preferences are mainly acquired through life experience. For one thing, the beauty bias is already present in infancy. Six-month-olds prefer to look at the same relatively attractive faces that adults do (Rubenstein, Kalakanis, & Langlois, 1999).

Truth in Beauty

The question is, is beauty really only skin deep, or does an attractive face actually reflect underlying good qualities? In a few ways, the stereotype that “beautiful is good” does hold. Evolutionary psychology holds that faces really are windows onto certain fundamental and important characteristics indicative of a person’s quality as a romantic partner and as a mate — qualities of health and genes, and even character.

Among the most important and consistent factors in facial attractiveness are structural qualities of the face that are highly sex-typical. An attractive man, in the eyes of female experimental participants, is generally one with relatively prominent cheekbones and eyebrow ridges and a relatively long lower face. Likewise, prominent cheekbones, large eyes, small nose, a taller forehead, smooth skin, and an overall young or even childlike appearance add to women’s allure in the eyes of male raters.

Our faces are sculpted by our hormones. These sex-typical facial features of adult men and women reflect the ratio of testosterone to estrogen or estrogen to testosterone, respectively, acting on the individual during development. We are programmed to be drawn to strong indicators of maleness (for women) and femaleness (for men) partly because they reflect an individual’s health (Fink & Penton-Voak, 2002). The reason hormones equate to health is somewhat counterintuitive. High levels of sex hormones during puberty actually suppress the immune system, raising vulnerability to disease and infection. It sounds like a bad thing. But when a person with a particularly “male” or “female” face makes it to adulthood with all his or her health intact, it means that the person has withstood the potentially debilitating influence of those high hormones. In other words it signifies a more robust constitution.

‘Your Symmetry Lights Up the Room’

No two faces are alike, and no two halves of a face are alike. Countless small variables make faces somewhat asymmetrical – a slightly wider jaw on one side, one eye a fraction of an inch lower than the other, a cheekbone that sticks out just a wee bit more, a dimple on one cheek, etc. Some asymmetries (called directional asymmetries) are common across the population – for example, the left side of most people’s faces is slightly larger than the right. But many asymmetries, called fluctuating asymmetries, arise when one’s unfolding genetic program is perturbed during development, for instance by parasites or other environmental challenges. The slings and arrows of life’s fortunes can literally knock our faces off of kilter, just like a punch to the nose. A symmetrical face, like a particularly masculine or feminine one, is a sign of having stood up better to life’s figurative schoolyard beatings.

Numerous studies have found that when men and women are asked to compare versions of faces that are more versus less symmetrical, the symmetrical ones garner significantly higher ratings of attractiveness, dominance, sexiness, and health, and are perceived to be more desirable as potential mates (Rhodes, Proffitt, Grady, & Sumich, 1998; Shackelford & Larsen, 1997). So as with masculine/feminine features, the appeal of symmetry makes perfect sense to evolutionary psychologists. In a beautiful face, we are really seeing the artistry of good genes. People prefer symmetrical faces even when they can’t actually perceive the symmetry – that is, when only face halves are presented. It may be that symmetry covaries with other desirable characteristics that reflect the same genetic endowment and overall health (Penton-Voak et al., 2001).

It may not be all that surprising that we’d rather mate with a symmetrical Greek god or goddess than with someone who stepped out of a Picasso painting. Less obvious is that a pretty or handsome face is also generally one that is, well, average. When presented with individual faces and a composite of those individual faces, participants will judge the composite as more attractive than the individual, more distinctive faces. And the more faces that contribute to the composite, the more attractive it becomes (Langlois & Roggman, 1990). The most attractive faces appear to be those whose features are closest to the average in the population—that is, more prototypical.

Averageness, like symmetry, reflects a favorable genetic endowment. Those with average features are less likely to be carrying harmful mutations. Additionally, averageness reflects greater heterozygosity — having both a dominant and a recessive allele for given traits, rather than two dominant or two recessive alleles (an advantage that symmetry also reflects). Heterozygosity confers relatively greater resistance to pathogens, in many cases, and thus, along with all the other indicators of resilience, we may be programmed to seek it out through its subtle but telltale signs.

However, it has also been argued that there may be some much simpler cognitive reasons for the preference for averages. Besides faces, people show a preference for average-looking dogs, average-looking birds, and average-looking watches (Halberstadt & Rhodes, 2000). Prototypes are more familiar-looking than less typical examples of a given class of objects, be it the face of a potential mate or the face of a timepiece, and they are easier to process. Easy on the eyes = easy on the brain.

In the Sex of the Beholder

Men and women both show the above preferences when it comes to faces, but in general men’s preferences tend to be more pronounced (Rhodes et al., 1998). Males may place greater importance on physical beauty when it comes to mate choice, while females also attend to characteristics like power and status. But a number of factors contribute to how much — and when — male face characteristics matter to women.

One factor is a woman’s own attractiveness: Preference for masculine and symmetrical features has been shown to be higher for women who regard themselves as more attractive (Little, Burt, Penton-Voak, & Perrett, 2001). Another is time of the month: The degree of women’s preferences for different attractive qualities fluctuates strikingly across the ovulatory cycle.

A group of University of Mexico psychologists have studied women’s shifting preferences for symmetrical men. They have found that this preference (which women can not only see, but even smell in tee-shirts slept in by symmetrical men) increases dramatically around the time of ovulation, when a woman is most fertile and the chance of conception is highest (Gangestad, Thornhill, & Garver-Apgar, 2005). So does a woman’s preference for more masculine-looking men. But this preference wanes during other times of the month. Again, evolutionary psychology provides a ready explanation.

Humans, like many other species, are socially monogamous but not necessarily sexually monogamous. When sex might result in getting pregnant, it’s health and fertility that are particularly desirable in a mate. But good genes in the sense of physical health is not the same as good genes in the sense of character, and what makes a good sperm donor may not make the best long-term, nurturing, helpful life partner. The flip side of high testosterone is an increased tendency toward aggression and antisocial behavior, a tendency to compete rather than help. Thus a male with less testosterone, indicated by less masculine features, may invest more in caring for offspring (whether or not he’s the biological father) and so may be better to have around for the long term.

A Thousand Ships

In myth, beautiful women are disruptive of men’s reason, even causing them to go to war. We now know that there’s truth to the idea that men make worse decisions when exposed to female beauty, and we even are beginning to understand the neural basis. A pair of McMaster University researchers found that looking at photographs of attractive women (but not unattractive women) caused a significant increase in delay discounting in men — that is, choosing a smaller immediate reward over a larger delayed one (Wilson & Daly, 2004). It’s the same tendency found to a high degree in addicts and others with impaired self-control. Interestingly, viewing attractive men did not influence women’s decisions.

The reason-unseating effect of a beautiful face partly involves the amygdala. Activation of the amygdala, which detects the value of social stimuli, has been associated with greater discounting of all kinds of future rewards, and sure enough, this brain area shows much stronger activation to attractive faces than to more ho-hum ones. (It is actually a U-shaped relationship; the amygdala is also highly activated by unattractive faces; Winston, O’Doherty, Kilner, Perrett, & Dolan, 2007.)

In both men and women, attractive faces cause greater activation in several other brain areas involved in processing of rewards. These include the nucleus accumbens, which also activates in response to rewarding stimuli like money; the medial prefrontal cortex; and the anterior cingulate cortex, which may be involved in shaping future behavior from learning reward outcomes. In men (but not in women), the orbitofrontal cortex, an area that evaluates the reward value of current behaviors, also activates in response to attractive female faces (Cloutier, Heatherton, Whalen, & Kelley, 2008).

Beautify Yourself

Beauty is unfair. Not everyone can be born with great genes. Not everyone can be born symmetrical. Not everyone can be born enticingly, well, average. But obviously there are many factors contributing to attractiveness that are potentially under our control.

For women, makeup does have a strong effect. In one study, women wearing makeup were approached more, and approached faster, by men at a bar than they were on nights without makeup (Gueguen, 2008b). Effect sizes on beauty judgments for makeup have been found to be as high as those for the facial structural features mentioned earlier (Osborn, 2006).

Getting enough beauty sleep is something everyone can do to up their beauty quotient. A group of Swedish and Dutch researchers conducted an experiment in which observers rated the attractiveness (as well as health) of participants who were photographed both after a period of sleep deprivation and after a good night’s sleep (Axelsson, 2010). Not surprisingly, individuals who were sleep deprived were rated significantly less attractive than those who were rested. They were also rated less healthy.

And then there are the emotions we project through our faces. Not surprising, positive emotions increase attractiveness. We are drawn to those who smile, for example. As when they wore makeup, women who smiled at men on entering a bar were more likely to be approached and were judged more favorably (Gueguen, 2008a). Even a smile perceived only in the periphery of one’s vision will be seen as more attractive than a face with a neutral expression (Bohrn, Carbon, & Hutzler, 2010). And attractive faces that smile produce even more activity in the orbitofrontal cortex than do attractive faces wearing neutral expressions (O’Doherty et al., 2003).

So here’s the timeless message of psychological science: Be beautiful—or, as beautiful as you can. Smile and sleep and do whatever else you can do to make your face a reward. Among its other social benefits, attractiveness actually invites people to learn what you are made of, in other respects than just genetic fitness. According to a new study at the University of British Columbia (Lorenzo, Biesanz, & Human, 2010), attractive people are actually judged more accurately—at least, closer to a subject’s own self-assessments—than are the less attractive, because it draws others to go beyond the initial impression. “People do judge a book by its cover,” the researchers write, “but a beautiful cover prompts a closer reading.” œ


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