Kant locates the esthetic effect, defined as “pure pleasure,” in the faculty of judgment, which he situates midway between the understanding, whose concepts make sense of the natural world, and reason that “legislates” practical rules to our free will. The normal function of judgment is to subsume the objects of the natural world under the concepts of the understanding. But the esthetic defeats judgment’s efforts; the object–explicitly or implicitly a representation–that provokes the esthetic experience cannot be subsumed under a concept. In other Kantian terms, we experience the object’s “finality” or purposefulness, its status as the intentional product of a will, but not in the context of a specific end or purpose. A passport photo serves to identify someone; in order for a painted portrait, or this very same photograph, to produce an esthetic effect, it must be experienced outside the context of any such purpose.

Concepts of nature contain the ground of all theoretical cognition a priori and rest, as we saw, upon the legislative authority of understanding. The concept of freedom contains the ground of all sensuously unconditioned practical precepts a priori, and rests upon that of reason. . . But there is still further in the family of our higher cognitive faculties a middle term between understanding and reason. This is judgment . . .

[T]here is . . . a . . . ground, upon which judgment may be brought into line with [an] arrangement of our powers of representation . . . that appears to be of even greater importance than that of its kinship with the family of cognitive faculties. For all faculties of the soul, or capacities, are reducible to three, which do not admit of any further derivation from a common ground: the faculty of knowledge, the feeling of pleasure or displeasure, and the faculty of desire. For the faculty of cognition understanding alone is legislative, if (as must be the case where it is considered on its own account free of confusion with the faculty of desire) this faculty, as that of theoretical cognition, is referred to nature, in respect of which alone (as phenomenon) it is possible for us to prescribe laws by means ofa priori concepts of nature, which are properly pure concepts of understanding. For the faculty of desire, as a higher faculty operating under the concept of freedom, only reason (in which alone this concept has a place) prescribes laws a priori. Now between the faculties of knowledge and desire stands the feeling of pleasure, just as judgment is intermediate between understanding and reason. Hence we may, provisionally at least, assume that judgment likewise contains an a priori principle of its own, and that, since pleasure or displeasure is necessarily combined with the faculty of desire (be it antecedent to its principle, as with the lower desires, or, as with the higher, only supervening upon its determination by the moral law), it will effect a transition from the faculty of pure knowledge, i.e., from the realm of concepts of nature, to that of the concept of freedom, just as in its logical employment it makes possible the transition from understanding to reason.

Critique of Judgment Intro., III: “The Critique of Judgment as a means of connecting the two Parts of Philosophy in a whole”

What are we to make of Kant’s three “faculties of the soul”? If knowledge results from the exercise of pure (theoretical) reason on the natural world, and desire is the mode of the free will’s action on the practical (ethical) world, what, beyond its usefulness in Kant’s triadic system, is pleasure doing between knowledge and desire?

The justification of Kant’s model can be made more intelligible in the perspective of originary anthropology. First of all, in the generative context, the practical-ethical must precede the theoretical. The possibility of conceptual thought depends on the inaugural act of human freedom: the deferral of mimetic violence through the abortion of the potentially rivalrous act of appropriation and its transformation into the originary sign or name-of-God. This act is also the origin of desire, which we distinguish from appetite by its mediation through the sign. (In “The Cognitive and Anthropological Origins of Narrative” [http://www2.bc.edu/~richarad/lcb/fea/mla01rvo.html], Richard van Oort, adapting the Peircean schema of Terrence Deacon’s The Symbolic Species [Harvard, 1997], refers to this originary transformation as the passage from the indexical signs of the associative world of appetite to the autonomous semiotic world of the symbolicsign.)

As a result of the emission of the sign, the participants experience the “pleasure” of the deferral of violence that is the foundation of all cultural pleasures. This moment also permits the dispersal of the newly constituted community, protected by the mediation of the sacred center they have collectively represented. The application to the natural world of the concepts of the understanding is dependent not only on the sign’s prior existence, but on the persistence of the deferral of violence it inaugurates, and that we have just seen to be the source of esthetic pleasure. In the passage from the originary ethical act to the emergence of conceptual understanding of the natural world, the sign representing the central sacred object is transformed into an instrument of cognition; the name-of-god becomes an empirical concept. The esthetic experience of representation is the moment of the originary event in which the unity of the two poles is affirmed; as in Kant’s schema, it is intermediary between ethical and cognitive, sacred and profane.

The sign as aborted gesture is the first gesture of human freedom, but, as in Hobbes’ model of sovereignty, each participant’s emission of the sign expresses the free sacrifice of his appetite (which only then becomes “desire”) for (the sake of) the sacred center. In contrast, the cognitive moment of originary signification transmits not sacrality butinformation concerning the worldly presence of the central object. The distinction between the central being as material object on the one hand and as the “immortal” subsistent signified of the sign on the other is the originary source of Kant’s distinction between the concepts of the understanding, which concern the natural world, and the concept of freedom that alone belongs to reason.

What must be intermediary between the sacralization of the object that coincides with renunciation of the attempt to appropriate it and its cognitive classification under a concept (as “god”) is a moment in which the sign is no longer an act of ethical solidarity and not yet a mere instrument, but independently evokes its referent in the imagination, no longer as material object but as sacred being. The sacred sign is absolutely motivated; the formal closure that cuts it off from worldly action is alone the criterion of its significance for the community, not the specific form this closure in fact encloses. On the contrary, at the cognitive pole, the sign is “arbitrary,” capable of being recalled in its specificity as a signifier designating a signified. What assures the affective link between the arbitrary sign and the experience of sacred interdiction is the possibility of imaginarily, that is, esthetically, evoking the scene by means of the sign. The esthetic moment is, so to speak, the becoming-portable of the sign.

What makes this moment uniquely pleasurable is that it permits the individual subject to experience within his imagination the sacred deferral of violence by means of the sign. The esthetic experience, however solitary, is always implicitly collective. The pleasure of the esthetic effect is not merely affirmed as universal, but implicitly sharedby the human community; the peaceful sharing of the esthetic experience is a guarantee of communal harmony, in contrast with the mimetic rivalry provoked by the “shared” desire for a real object. What Kant omits from this experience, along with the intuition of communal solidarity, is the concomitant experience of the transcendence of desire through the oscillation between sign and imaginary object that defines the esthetic experience. As soon as I come to desire the imaginary object, which is to say, to experience an implicit rivalry with my fellows over it, I am obliged to recognize that the source of my imaginary conception is nothing but a representation, that is, something made possible by my existence within the deferral of violence that constitutes the human community. The pleasure in the moment of sharing exists only against a constantly renewed background of “painful” desire that Kant does not mention. (As we shall see, however, Kant does recognize an analogous configuration in his discussion of the sublime.)

We may now revisit Kant’s affirmation that esthetic pleasure “can express nothing but the conformity of the object to the cognitive faculties brought into play in the reflective judgment, and so far as they are in play, and hence merely a subjective formal finality of the object.” What is unintuitive in Kant’s description of “conformity . . . to the cognitive faculties” is precisely what is unanthropological: the “faculties” conformity to which provides the subject’s pleasure in the object’s “subjective formal finality” are not individual and cognitive but collective and ethical. The ultimate source of our pleasure in the “formal finality” of esthetic representation is not our “cognitive faculties” but our intuition that the community’s shared participation in this finality or representational intentionality will protect us from mimetic violence. The esthetic performs a function analogous to that attributed by Durkheim to religious ritual: it reinforces our solidarity with the sacred center and, by its mediation, with our fellow members of the human community


As I approach the age at which Kant elaborated his moral and esthetic philosophy, I have come to see his system as the final synthesis of the classical metaphysical vision of the human that still remains the foundation of moral and esthetic philosophy today. Kant looked down from the height of the a priori of pure reason on what he considered the lesser empirical science of anthropology; he never tires of reminding us that the subject-matter of critical philosophy is not homo sapiens but the non-empirical category of “rational creatures.” The goal of Generative Anthropology is to bring together in a single model the worlds whose separation Kant was the first philosopher rigorously to respect–the a priori and the empirical, the domain of representation and the domain of reality–by providing a parsimonious model of the historical generation, from within the empirical world, of Reason and its “realm of ends.” In the Kantian sense of the word, Generative Anthropology is critical anthropology.

There will be more about Kantian esthetics in future Chronicles.