Beauty and architecture

Beauty and architecture

One of the most pressing problems in understanding what Kant means by ‘free’ and ‘dependent’ beauty in his Critique of the Power of Judgement, and indeed his whole discussion in the chapter ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’, was recently noted in the work of James Kirwan. This problem lies in ‘the fate that the concept of beauty, and consequently Kant’s work, has suffered at the hands of the philosophy of art’ (Kirwan, 2004, p. 19-28). In the following I want to show the implications this has for our understanding of architecture as a species of ‘dependent beauty’.

James Kirwan, in an adversarial mode, offers a defence against what he robustly characterises as the misinterpretation, in almost all subsequent debates in aesthetics, of the original meaning in Kant of beauty. He claims that even contemporary research confuses aesthetic merit and value with Kant’s account of beauty, thus disastrously distorting Kant’s arguments in his Critique of the Power of Judgement.

Perhaps one of the most extreme positions against Kant says that beauty in Kant really amounts to nothing more or less than ‘mindless feeling’ (Mothershill, 1984 and Kirwan, 2004, p. 19). In such an account the aesthetic is not about the Idea or the Absolute, as in Hegel, but about pleasant feeling, and since feeling is not conceptual, or logical, it may very well be termed ‘mindless’. One can say that Hegel initiates the deepest hostility to the long-standing eighteenth-century tradition of the discussion of taste which culminated in Kant’s work. As Kirwan remarks, in the introduction to his book, most subsequent theories in aesthetics are dependent on Hegel, which has led to the consistent misinterpretation of Kant’s third critique.

The question then is, how do we retrieve Kant’s account of beauty, and how should we understand his distinctions between ‘free’ and ‘dependent’ beauty?

The demands, or stipulations, made by Kant in his study of the judgement of taste as aesthetic judgment, established important requirements for the analytic of the beautiful. When for example someone says ‘this is beautiful’, he reports a pleasure felt apart from any interest in the object. The immediate apprehension is of beauty, and is not related to a concept, or a determinate cognition. Beauty must please immediately, and also universally. The latter stipulation of universality means that this very subjective judgement can be grounded in a common sense, suggesting that by saying ‘this is beautiful’ we also impute our satisfaction to everyone else. Otherwise there would only be a hedonistic solipsism, a kind of aesthetic autism.

The necessity of the communication itself is nested in the broader requirement that in making such a judgement, if it is not put forward as exemplary, it would not be a claim about the beautiful, but only the agreeable. In his account of what the modality of a judgement of taste is, Kant says that whilst of every representation I can say that it is at least possible that it, as a cognition, be combined with pleasure; the agreeable actually produces a pleasure in me. For the beautiful I must think it has a necessary relation to satisfaction, a necessity that is not theoretical and objective, nor indeed practical, rather, it is a necessity that is thought in an aesthetic judgement. It can be only called exemplary, that is, the assent of all to a judgement that is regarded as an example of a universal rule. 

In making this latter stipulation, Kant does not deny that the judgement is singular, but the judgement also, in its immediacy and disinterestedness, communicates the notion of a sensus communis. 

This communication requires equality, and also the homology of imagination, that is sympathy to the other; it requires reason, to check the violence of communing but different forces; it requires a sensus communis for the possibility of such communication to take place. As in genuine dialogue there is respect, equality and sharing of the common understanding, which is constitutive for the communication itself to proceed. This is actually known, or can occur, through the feeling itself, in its mutuality, which is further realised in the dialogue taking place. 

Kirwan rightly suggests that there are two points which are fundamental to Kant’s discussion, i.e. two matters of fact we must accept if we are to understand him correctly: first, that sometimes objects appear to please us immediately, and second, that such an object which pleases in this way may be called ‘beautiful’ (Kirwan, 2004, p. 18). This is the concept of free beautywhich is the pleasure associated with the mere reflection of a given intuition.

It is a pleasure undetermined by desire or rational concepts; ‘I must be sensitive of the pleasure immediately in the representation of it, and I cannot be talked into it by means of proofs. Thus although critics, as Hume says, can reason more plausibly than cooks, they still suffer the same fate as them. They cannot expect a determining ground for their judgements from proofs, but only from the reflection of the subject on his own state of pleasure or displeasure, rejecting all precepts and rules’ (Kant, 2001, sec. 34).1

Nevertheless Kant will argue that there are two forms of beauty, one of which is free beauty which presupposes no concept of what the object should be, and the other is dependent beauty which presupposes a concept. In a certain sense the latter is less ‘pure’ than the former. What is at play in this distinction? In some sense it is the notion of ‘dependent’ beauty that has become conflated with the idea of normative and evaluative aesthetic claims, with the study of art as the principal activity of aesthetic education. 

While the distinction is often held in the reception of Kant to be obscure, it may be no more than the recognition that there is a beauty that is relative, admiring craft, art, handiwork or skill, and an intrinsic beauty, which just appears and takes your breath away: a beautiful flower, an appearance in nature and so forth. In considering free beauty which is intrinsic, we are not in want for examples, because in the judgement of a free beauty, according to mere form, the judgement of taste is pure. The play of the imagination is unrestricted, there is no concept of any end for the manifold which should serve the given object, nor which the latter should represent. The imagination is, as it were, at play, in the observation of the shape. However, in contrast, the beauty of the human being, the beauty of a horse, of a building, (such as a church, a palace, an arsenal, or a garden-house) presuppose a concept of the end of what the thing should be, hence a concept of its perfection, ‘and is thus merely adherent beauty’ (Kant, 2001, sec. 16). 

For Kant, this combination of the good – that is the way the manifold is good for the thing itself, in accordance with its end – with beauty does damage to its purity. Beauty must be distinguished from usefulness, but is also, on the Kantian view compatible with its object. Kant argues that this combination of aesthetic satisfaction with the intellectual can lead to rules, although not universal, which can be prescribed in regard to certain purposively determined objects. These are rules of the unification of taste with reason, and through which the beautiful becomes usable as an instrument of intention with regard to the good.

Again he underlines that where there is an intention as well as an end or a thing that is possible only through an intention, a building, even in an animal, the regularity that consists in symmetry must express the unity of the intuition, which accompanies the concept of the end and belongs to the cognition. However, he adds, where only a free play of the powers of representation (although under the condition that the understanding does not suffer any offence) is to be maintained, in pleasure gardens, in the decoration of rooms, in all sorts of tasteful utensils, and the like, regularity that comes across as constraint is to be avoided as far as possible; hence the English taste in gardens or the baroque taste in furniture pushes the freedom of the imagination almost to the point of the grotesque, and makes this abstraction from all constraint by rules, the very case, in which the taste can demonstrate its greatest perfection in projects of the imagination. The stark contrast Kant establishes is that stiff regularity is contrary to taste, that the consideration of it affords no lasting entertainment.

However, if one thinks of nature, which is extravagant in its varieties to the point of opulence, subject to no coercion from artificial rules, this can provide the imagination with lasting nourishment. Even the song of the bird, which we cannot bring under any musical rules, seems to contain more freedom and thus more that is entertaining for taste than even a human song that is performed in accordance with all the rules of the art of music. However Kant allows that even in the case of the bird song we may be confusing the merriment of the little creature with the beauty of its song, and gives the example that when it is exactly imitated by a human being, as is sometimes done with the notes of the nightingale, strikes our ear as utterly tasteless.

In a further step in this complex argument Kant wants to show that it is indeed the freedom in the play of our cognitive powers that also allows a double ‘as-if’, literally posited and hypothetical assertions about art and nature. In a product of art one must be aware that it is art and not nature, and yet its purpose in form must still seem to be free from all constraint by rules as if it were a mere product of nature. It is this feeling of freedom in the play of our cognitive powers which must at the same time be purposive, and on this freedom rests the pleasure which is alone universally communicable. As Kant adds, without being grounded on concepts ‘art can only be beautiful if we are aware that it is art and yet it looks to us like nature’ (Kant, 2001, sec. 45).

It is genius that, as a gift of nature and as a talent, gives the rule to art. Genius is the inborn predisposition of the mind, ingenium, through which nature gives the rule to art, and in the following ways: genius is a talent for producing that for which no determinate rule can be given, and originality is its primary characteristic. However, since there can be original nonsense, a further requirement is that, the products of genius must at the same times be models. They should be exemplary, that is, whilst not themselves the results of imitation, they must serve others in that way, as a standard of a rule of judging.

Thirdly genius cannot describe or indicate scientifically how it brings its product into being. As the word indicates from the Latin, genius, in the sense of a particular spirit of a person from birth, which protects and guides him, is an inspiration from which these original ideas come. Further, genius can provide rich material for art; its elaboration and form require a talent that has been academically trained, in order to make a use of it that can stand up to the power of judgement. 

What we can extract from the above discussion is that Kant creates a dynamic balance between free and dependent beauty. They are not simply antithetical. By introducing the notion of genius, ingenium, Kant posits a source for the activity of art which turns more and more to the example of nature, because mind is part of nature. There is within this a double consideration: rules are given by the genius that are a model, which is part of the power of the singular of which great creation is capable, for example one can think of Borromini, Palladio, Schinkel, Sullivan, Kahn, Koolhaas, Hadid, etc, which come from the ‘force of nature’, as mind, ingenium, and which in another perspective, though exemplary, does not constrain as would be the case with a mere mechanical set of rules. This dynamic of constraint and the issuing of singular, but exemplary events, is close to Kant’s account of freedom.

Since something in beautiful art must be thought of as having an end, it is essential that there is no beautiful art in which something mechanical which can be grasped and followed according to rules, and thus something academically correct, does not constitute the essential condition of the art. If something in it cannot be thought of as an end then one cannot ascribe it as a product to any art at all. It would be a mere product of chance. Superficial minds believe they can flout academic conventions, and pronouncing themselves free of rules, thinking that one parades around better with a horse that staggers than one that is properly trained (Kant, 2001, sec.47).


1. The reference is to a passage in Hume’s essay The Sceptic, of 1742.

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