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December 12, 2011

This review was published in: Canadian Philosophical Reviews XIV (1994), No.2 (April 1994, pp. 130-133).


Anthony Savile: Kantian Aesthetics Pursued. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.1993. (184 + viii pp.). (With a few remarks on Anthony Savile: Aesthetic Reconstructions. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. 1988)

Most of the highly convoluted arguments in Kant's Critique of Judgement are subject to vivid debate nowadays. In Kantian Aesthetics Pursued Savile elaborates on some of these arguments and refutes some misconceptions of them, thus making this brilliant aesthetic theory seem obvious instead of incoherent: an accomplishment unparalleled in contemporary Kant scholarship. Lucky for us, Savile directs his lucid arguments exclusively at the crucial problems of Kantian aesthetics, not at more fashionable ones like the sublime. In what follows, by disagreeing on certain points with Savile I by no means intend to downplay these evident qualities.

According to Savile Kant's aesthetic theory is as objectivist as it is subjectivist, a thesis in defence of which Savile provides several interesting arguments. Most importantly, he urges us to distinguish the contents of a judgement of taste from its grounds, so that at last we may come to understand why the judgement of taste, though being the outcome of an essentially empirical event, an aesthetic experience, nevertheless lays claim to universal assent: the claim to universality derives from the grounds of the judgement of taste, whereas the synthetic a posteriority of the judgement of taste pertains to its content, which Savile thinks can actually be true or false. As he sees it, beauty is an objective property, albeit a dispositional one, making that object beautiful that has the "propensity to call forth ... a response of delight ..." (p. 14). In our judgements we refer to this objective property, although our grounds to do so lie in a felt delight. Savile, however, does not address the consequent problem of what it means for such a delight to be a perception of an objective beauty. Oddly, Savile does not address the subjective experience at all.

In his earlier book Aesthetic Reconstructions Savile has argued that the universality claim of the judgement of taste boils down to the expectation that ideal judges, suitably equipped with taste, will feel this delight when confronted with the beautiful property. In explaining the task Hume puts to the judges of furnishing a standard of taste Savile rejects a so-called constitutive reading that takes the critics' verdicts to be truthmaking, and proposes an evidential reading: a critic too must properly discern the relevant objective properties, and since true judges are normal people of flesh and blood they are trustworthy only in those areas that fit their character, preferences and background. So the critic's judgement should not convince us of the beauty of an object, but should make us experience the object from a different angle. In the end Savile comes a long way in making Hume's article on the standard of taste appear to convey a more or less Kantian point of view. His idea that Kant's aesthetic is evidential itself remains controversial, however.

Savile also deals with Kant's distinction between determinate, determinable, and indeterminate concepts, which relates to the problem that although we can argue about taste, we cannot settle disputes, since no decisive proof for the beauty of an object is available: the antinomy of taste. After explaining what it means to conceptually determine an object, Savile expands on Kant's view of the concept of beauty, which is not determinate because we cannot know in advance by applying a rule whether an object is beautiful or not, nor determinable because due to the essential creativity of genius we will never find such a rule. Beauty, therefore, must reside in the indeterminate supersensible, which is neither a kind of reality that we cannot apprehend because of our limited cognitive apparatus, nor the location of the allegedly objective aesthetic qualities, as that would leave critics empty handed. Instead we should conceive of the supersensible as a limit concept, in keeping with the use Kant puts to the concept of the noumenal as being merely a reminder of where our questioning must stop. Again, although beauty will indeed be the effect of distinct objective properties it cannot be defined in terms of some essential causality, let alone in terms of a supersensible cause. Since a detailed description of the relevant properties will sufficiently clarify our judgements, no reference to a noumenal reality is needed. Although I agree with this reminder, I nevertheless think Savile's view is too restrictive. Kant in his aesthetics appears to ascribe to the limitation provided by 'the supersensible' a more substantial role. Perhaps we better think of aesthetic values as thematizing these limitations as well as the presupposed powers of the symbolicism involved in the relevant aesthetic idea.

Savile takes up the interpretation he provided in Aesthetic Reconstructions of Kant's idealist notion of purposiveness without purpose as a 'non-designed functionality', a spiritual analogue of food, the edibility of which is not an intrinsic property. Kant's presumed ineptitude to account for the mere possibility of art apparently originates here, since art is definitely designed. We know this means that the beauty of an art work will at best be a dependent beauty, but quite apart from the question of how exactly to conceive of this 'dependency' Savile views the involved perfection as not sufficient but merely necessary for beauty: if an object is imperfect with regard to some determinate concept, this will preclude the mere possibility of its beauty. Again, I think this is more in keeping with Hume than with Kant.

In the hierarchy of the arts that Kant bases on their respective power to generate aesthetic ideas wordless music is ranked below the representative arts, because evidently it does not represent, let alone carry aesthetic ideas. Savile goes into Kant's remarks on music at great lengths, and explains the communicability of music by distinguishing merely sensuous sound from tone relating to the scale. Smell, touch and taste do not yield their own art forms because of their incapacity to generate a form analogous to musical tone rather than because of their lack of communicability. In the end Kant's low ranking of music proves undeserved, as we can easily conceive music's tone as stimulating aesthetic reflection in like manner as the representative arts. In the last chapter Savile argues against the faulty comparison of modern architecture with sculpture, concluding that "...it is a far-reaching mistake to think that architecture acts on us ultimately symbolically. It is far more direct than that, because it affects our perceptions and does not, as symbols do, bypass perception on the way to our intellect." (P. 180).

All in all, I think Savile puts too much Hume into his Kantian aesthetics. I also think we could make more of these aesthetics by specifying the freedom of the aesthetic play of the cognitive faculties. Savile has a reason for his tacit characterization of aesthetic experience as harmonious rather than slightly jarring, though. It enables him to safeguard the notion of aesthetic truth, with which Kant allegedly ensures the continuity between cognitive and aesthetic judgements. However, Savile does not argue this point, and I'm not sure if I can agree. Clearly Kant explicitly separates aesthetic from cognitive judgements from the very beginning. By disregarding the subjective aspect of beauty Savile also hinders proper insight in the historical nature of aesthetic autonomy, which one can provide by a more appropriate account of the impact of common sense within aesthetic experiences. As mentioned above, however, these points of disagreement do nothing to downplay the prominent clarity and importance of Savile's arguments. No aesthetician can afford to do without them.

The investigations were supported by the Foundation for Philosophical Research (SWON), which is subsidized by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

© Rob van Gerwen