Problems with Kant’s beauty: Ugliness, genius and mathematics

Christian Helmut-Wenzel gives two suggestions of poignant problematics within the Kantian aesthetic programme. The first is the so-called problem of the ugly; and the second is the beauty and genius of mathematics. Wenzel deems, and I agree with him, that the so-called problem of the ugly is easily dismissed; but the issue of genius and beauty in mathematics gives us a moral about our intuitions on the beautiful.

Beauty and ugliness

Kant’s analysis of aesthetics considers as a candidate a propositional schema ‘X is beautiful’, this seems to be a propositional analyis rather than a quantificational analysis. Is it a predicative one? I err on the side of saying that it isn’t..but you may reply, how could it NOT be?

Kant’s prime candidate for aesthetics is, beauty. Another curiousity is that Kant makes a division between nature and the works of human effort. That is; art and nature.

I think the schematic overview of ‘X is beautiful’ is more provoking for me, as a methodological consideration. I am curious about the widest perspective we can have; and what kind of methodology we can have towards the best depiction of art.

Anyhoo; the interesting thought here is that Kant’s emphasis on the beautiful is suggestive that he ignores ‘art’ that goes beyond beauty. Like what? Would you ask? Art that depicts ugliness, the darker aspects of our humanity that we cannot easily call beautiful, the dissonance of music, the sensory discomfort of the eyes in film noir. Stockhausen is art; beautiful melodic death metal like Eternal Tears of Sorrow is art! If Kant’s analysis excludes non-beauty by construing the candidate case of beauty alone; is Kant’s analysis of aesthetic experience limited? The answer (phew) is no.

Why? The analysis that Kant gives for the beautiful; namely the four ‘moments’, or ‘phases’ or ‘conditions’ of aesthetic experience which fit into his 4 categories which he establishes in the First Critique (modality, quality, relation, quantity) set the conditions for experience of the beautiful, or judgements of taste. These moments can be construed as preconditions for aesthetic experience, and with a bit of modification, we can make it applicable to ugliness.

Consider universality, for instance. We may say that the universality claim upon beauty applies just as much to beauty as it does to ugliness. That is, when we decree that the song Sweet Lilith of my Dreams, or Prophetian evokes deep sorrow in the ugliness of our human condition of despair; we must ascribe that everyone should (in principle) agree. Genuine judgments of beauty or ugliness, if they are such judgements of beauty or ugliness at all, must be binding beyond the agent herself. In other words, the underlying analysis machinery that Kant lays down is flexible enough to apply to beauty and ugliness. A textual point; there are precedents that Kant believed that the reception of the ugly was not merely an absence of beauty, but a feeling suis generis.

Genius, beauty and mathematics

From Kant’s views that Genius is not an act of scientific endeavour, but following a set of rules one binds onto himself (its not clear to me what this latter point means). Kant’s notion of cognition also may deny, if at least prima facie that any grasp of mathematics can be beautiful.

Why? Kant believes that judgments of the beautiful come only when there is a lack of a determinate concept to which we understand intuition (the condition of experience). Since, mathematics is understood as a series of concepts determinate (like say, natural numbers, functions), we cannot use the purposiveness a prioricity that is imbued in all beauty judgments. This is quite a bold claim. The only way would be…

  1. Mathematical sublimity (I’m thinking of the work of Cantor [and his alleged insanity], here)
  2. Reflection upon mathematics, rather than intuiting mathematical truth

Kant says in an earlier work, something like “Newton [the standard candidate of a genius] was a great man, but not a genius”, because of his quite interesting construal of genius being exclusively artistic. I think this is just a matter of being a non-standard definition and to talk of contradiction or inconsistency is just a matter of two concepts of ‘genius’ talking past each other.

Michael, Destre


4 thoughts on “Problems with Kant’s beauty: Ugliness, genius and mathematics

  1. It would be interesting to see what Kant would think about the indeterminate beauty in the aesthetics of John Cage or Marcel Duchamp for that matter. It seems they pushed this idea much farther than Kant imagined, possibly into the realm of ugly. These are interesting thoughts to ponder … Thanks,

  2. Duchamp is an interesting (yet standard) case. I think Kant is with intuition and would probably dismiss the urinal (you could even say, he thinks that work “TAKES THE PISS”…).

    As for Cage; that’s a VERY GOOD ISSUE. Cage’s work is highly mathematical and formal. Formal art is valuable for Kant. I can’t remember who it was who said ‘listening to Cage is like doing mathematics without knowing you are doing mathematics’.

    That’s a very good point you raise about John Cage, particularly his technical stuff where he meticulously details the performing arrangement. Thank you.


  3. Aestheticians and High Art critics in particular seem to defend beauty under the auspices of disinterestedness. A photograph can never be absolutely disinterested. How should we consider beauty after photography? Is Kant necessary?

  4. Good question, Chris. I’m glad you pointed that out.

    There are two questions I can think of here;

    (non-Kantian thought): to what extent is ‘representation’ significant when we judge beauty. A lot can be said about this, particularly concerning the photography case.

    (Kantian thought): TO which does the particular photograph apply:

    i. The photo is intentionally towards an object, or subject matter
    ii. The photo has no discernable, or intended subject. This relates to the first thought about representative art

    You, Chris probably know exactly where my thought is coming from here. I am alluding to Scruton’s writing on this issue (Photography and representation)


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