Is there a relationship between beauty and freedom? If we accept some central ideas about beauty from Immanuel Kant we can say that there is. In this essay I want to show how, given Kant’s analysis, we can discern some interesting connections between beauty and freedom.
Many enlightenment philosophers, such as Leibniz (1646-1716) and Wolff (1679-1754), had argued aesthetic experience was potentially intellectual. They argued that the sole difference between sensation and thought is that thought is distinct and sensation is confused. In order to make something distinct, we need to distinguish all its parts through a process of abstraction and definition. The task in approaching aesthetic experience rationally is to take a confused sensation, sort out its parts, and transform it into a clear thought or set of thoughts. However, Alexander Baumgarten (1714-62) claimed that sense perception can have a standard of perfection all its own. This standard should be one that emphasizes what individuality and singularity sensations have. The standard of perfection should be richness and vividness of detail in the perception. But this implies that the perception must be indistinct or confused. After all, all perceptions are fused with many other elements in the continuity of experience. This fusion of elements in the process of perception means that there is something in sensation that cannot rise to distinct thoughts. Nonetheless, despite these limitations Baumgarten coined the term ‘aesthetics’ and envisioned it as a science of sensory perception and cognition.
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) disagreed with all these thinkers. In his book Critique of Judgment he argued that aesthetics is not a mater of conceptual knowledge. Rather, it is about feelings. When we make judgments of taste, which are judgments that something is beautiful, we are really expressing something subjective—something about us, our feelings. Does this mean that aesthetics is totally subjective and therefore relative? Kant says no. This is what makes Kant so interesting: he tries, on the one hand, to remove aesthetics from some kind of science that could discover the necessary and sufficient conditions for beauty and conceptualize and categorize them into a science. But, on the other hand, he tries to avoid relativism. In short, he wants to make judgments of the beautiful subjective and universal. How can he do this? To see how, we need to consider the four things Kant thinks go into every judgment of the beautiful. Once we do we can link his insights to freedom.
(1) Judgments of the beautiful must be disinterested
This means that, while we do experience pleasurable feelings in making the judgment, we make the judgment (1) without concern with whether or not the object exists or not (as is the case in scientific judgments for example); (2) without concern with satisfying our desires or appetites by using the object (as is the case with pornography for example); and (3) without concern with the moral goodness of the object (as is the case with moral objections to a Leni Riefenstahl’s 1934 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will). In an interested judgment, we are concerned with whether the thing exists or not, whether we can realize our desires for it or not, and whether the thing is good or not. But in a disinterested judgment we are interested in the beautiful object for its own sake.
(2) Judgments of the beautiful must be universal
When we judge something to be beautiful we don’t think it is merely a statement of what we find to be personally agreeable. We don’t think, despite the fact that aesthetic judgments are not a matter of concepts, that our judgment is simply a matter of subjective feelings. No, we place the beautiful object on a pedestal and try to convince others that they should think the same. If we hold something to be beautiful we think it should be held universally so: beautiful for everyone, everywhere, at all times. If one doesn’t think this then one is not, for Kant, making a judgment of the beautiful but rather a judgment about what is personally agreeable. To be sure, Kant is not saying people do, in fact, agree about what is beautiful. He is only saying that judgments of the beautiful entail the belief that others should see what we see.
(3) Judgments of the beautiful must be in response to something that has the form of purposiveness without the presentation of an external, actual purpose. This means the form will be (a) harmoniously unified; (b) found interesting for its own sake; and (c) always appears new and inexhaustible to us.
Typically an object is understood to have a purpose if it is made according to some conception of an external purpose. For example, a car is constructed according to certain concepts, some of which include the ability to get someone somewhere, protect them in certain ways, give them pleasure, etc. Now, what is strange about beautiful objects is that they affect us as if they were completely determined by a purpose and yet, upon careful consideration, no external purpose can be found. We follow the lines, shapes, textures, and dynamics of a painting that we consider beautiful. Our eye moves from shape to shape, is carried along, and seems to be following some rules. Something has been accomplished, an aesthetic consummation is reached, and we do not feel this is matter of chance. But all this doesn’t square with the fact that we can’t relate the painting to any real external purpose nor can we reduce the painting to the intentions of the painter. We seem to have been granted a “free play of the imagination” in which the aspects of the painting are imaginatively considered in relation to one another as purposeful in and of themselves—without external purpose. What is really interesting is that we can return to something with a beautiful form again and again and always finding something new. We do not experience boredom, and we do not see it as a derivative copy of something or as an application of some pre-existing form. There is a freshness in beauty, a uniqueness, and an aliveness. We feel that beautiful things do something to us: we are activated, we feel alive, and we feel pleasure. Kant leaves it open as to exactly what this form is to be. He argues we cannot formulate the rules for beauty once and for all since beauty, as we have just seen, is a matter of observing things that do not conform to pre-existing rules that would lead to conformity and boredom. This is obviously a sensible stance to take if we wish to do justice to the diversity of art and the ongoing creative experimentation of artists.
(4) Judgments of the beautiful must be held to be a necessary judgment
Kant argues that the debates we have regarding beauty do not proceed through the discovery of universal conceptual rules since, as we have seen, judgments of beauty are about feelings and in feelings there are no conceptual rules. Rather, in aesthetic debates we give examples and argue about how these examples illustrate beauty. However, we seem to expect that our examples will necessitate others to see things the same way. If we didn’t expect this we wouldn’t debate the way we do. But what can make sense of this appeal to necessity? Kant claims it is our common sense. Kant argued, in his Critique of Pure Reason, that our minds are not passive receivers of sense data but actively structure incoming data to make our experience what it is. For example, all humans experience the world as a system of cause and effect relations because our mind structures the events of our experience as causal ones. This shared capacity to actively shape sense data is our common sense. This common sense plays a role in shaping the world as we know it in science. But it also allows people to feel the same way about objects take to be beautiful. In the presence of certain forms our shared mental faculties should resonate the same way. Thus it is by virtue of sharing the same mental operating system that we can expect others to necessarily agree with our judgments of the beautiful. To be sure, in many cases we bring far too much interest to our aesthetic judgments – too much concern for truth, use, and morality – and therefore we don’t experience this common sense. But maintaining a disinterested stance towards something may allow to transcend our selves with their situated, unique concerns and desires. Such an experience of transcendence leads us to assert that the judgment of the beautiful, insofar as it isn’t about our personal preferences but is made based on our common sense, can be understood by everyone, that is, it can be universal.
Freedom and Beauty
Freedom can be connected to these observations in at least four closely related ways:
(1) If judgments of the beautiful are disinterested, then we are free from linking our reason and imagination to practical judgments (use value), factual judgments (truth and falsity), and moral judgments (good and bad/right and wrong).
(2) If judgments of the beautiful are disinterested, then we are not seeing from our idiosyncratic ego-based perspective: we are seeing from that universal operating system of active cognitive functions that Kant thinks we all share. This enables us to experience objects from the point of view of the “humanity in us” as it were: we can access something universal and potentially shareable. Thus in experiencing beauty we are free from our own private interests and relative perspectives.
(3) When we encounter beauty we experience a free play of these cognitive faculties in which alternatives are played with; ideas are explored; lines and shapes are followed with curiosity and surprise. We dwell on what fits or doesn’t fit, what works, what is interesting, and so on. We look for meaning and find it; we interpret, debate, and learn. In short, we are free to consider alternatives.
(4) When we encounter beauty we encounter a sense of being connected to the world; we feel as if our operating system, in being stirred by formal properties in the environment, is somehow in harmony with them. We feel at home in the world. The world is made for us and we are made for the world. To be sure, such experiences are limited and rare. But Kant thinks they serve an important function: they become regulative ideals for our efforts to understand these harmonies more and more. Scientists use beauty as an indication of truth; and that there is such a relation between beauty and truth suggests we should keep looking for deeper connections. We can’t prove that the world is designed according to Kant; but the experience of beauty makes it sensible to suppose it is and use that as an ideal for inquiry. This means that beauty frees us from the view that we are not at home and that nothing makes sense: we are free from homelessness. And, in doing so, it frees us to look for ways in which we can more and more at home.
These four modes of liberation have serious consequences that Roger Scruton, in his book On Beauty (and the BBC show Why Beauty Matters), has explored. Much of our perception is a function of controlling stimuli that is manipulative and leads to addiction and thoughtlessness (propaganda, pornography, advertising, and movies that, rather than fostering aesthetic distance for rationally and imaginatively considering suggestive alternatives, negate that distance in an effort to control what we perceive and when we perceive it). But, as we have seen, judgments of the beautiful entail a free play of the imagination in which we can dwell on what fits or doesn’t fit, what works, what is interesting, and so on. We rationally consider alternatives and therefore experience ourselves as rational agents that possess freedom. And we can return to beautiful things without becoming addicted: we see aspects of them anew and, far from becoming more servile to them, grow from our new perceptions of them. Beauty is not about use value; but it serves, indirectly, a great use: it helps cultivate our rational faculties and thereby our free agency. The disinterestedness of judgments of taste can also help us appreciate things with inherent worth that are not a means to an end. And this is very important for Kant since it helps us understand his fundamental vision of morals: treating people as free subjects worthy of respect and never as a mere means to an end only. This notion of discovering inherent worth applies to our respect for nature as well. Once we see nature as beautiful we may see it as a home possessing inherent value. In beauty, our world is lovable; and the more beauty we bring to it the more lovable it can become. Lastly, since disinterestedness helps us transcend our idiosyncratic perspectives, the experience of beauty can help foster universal human bonds based on our common capacity to freely see things and people as having inherent worth.
This account of beauty is beset by many problems. For one thing, Kant was a formalist which means he thought that judgments of the beautiful arose not in response to the content of the thing but only in response to the formal properties of the thing. You may like the color green and I may not like it; you may like the sound of cellos and I may not like it. But for Kant, colors and sounds will not be what we are reacting to in our judgments of the beautiful; we will only be reacting to the formal properties of a painting or a piece of music: the shapes, the structures, the proportions, the ratios, etc. Many argue along these lines with reference to the golden ratio. In mathematics, two quantities are in the golden ratio if the ratio between the sum of those quantities and the larger one is the same as the ratio between the larger one and the smaller. The golden ratio is 1:1.618 (1:1.6180339887…) and Phi is the Greek name for the number 1.618. Some argue that faces that closely approximate the ratio will be considered beautiful by everyone despite, for example, their tastes in hair, skin, or eye color. These latter properties would fall under content; the structural features of the face in relation to each other would fall under form. But is this formal approach to beauty correct? Shouldn’t beauty also be understood with reference to content? Think of someone you think is beautiful. Isn’t part of his or her beauty a matter of content and not just form? Isn’t beauty often inseparable from an expression of something – emotion, love, virtue, and so on – rather than just the formal features of that expression? Moreover, can’t beauty be understood in relation to something exercising a function well, that is, to its use value? Can’t it include an instrumental aspect whereby it is in part defined by its external purpose? And isn’t it the case that, as Plato thought, the beautiful is a manifestation of the good and true rather than feelings in response to a disinterested perception of form? Ian Stewart asserts that “In Mathematics, beauty must be true—because anything false is ugly.” But if this is the case then why does beauty have to be a matter of feelings only as Kant asserts? Why can’t judgments of the beautiful entail some concepts? And why can’t true propositions made up of concepts be beautiful?
These are just some of the questions that can be raised and many of them can receive plausible, perhaps even convincing, responses. But whatever the limitations of this account, it clearly shows there is at least a philosophically articulate way to indicate just how closely beauty can be connected to freedom and, in turn, how beauty can be connected to important issues in relation to ourselves, others, and nature.
 Ian Stewart. Why Beauty is Truth: A History of Symmetry (New York: Basic Books, 2007), p. 280.
Critique of Judgment, trans. by Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987).
Roger Scruton, Beauty (New York: Oxford, 2009).