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Saturday, May 2, 2009

Free and Dependent Beauty

Philosopher Emmanuel Kant divides beauty into two categories: (1) free beauty--that which presupposes no concept of what the object ought to be; and (2) dependent beauty--that which does presuppose a concept of what the object ought to be and judges the perfection or imperfection of the object in accordance therewith. Kant's dependent beauty is rather easily understood. This beauty is conditioned beauty, that which is ascribed to objects that come under the concept of a particular end. Kant believes that the beauties of human beings, horses, and buildings as presupposing a concept of perfection are, hence, merely dependent. These objects of adherent beauty are judged according to their purpose, so it is inappropriate to add to them elements of pure beauty. However, Kant contends that free beauty is that which has "purposiveness without purpose." It, therefore, does not get caught up in judgments of sense (that which is merely pleasant or unpleasant) or judgments of reason (that which is good/bad, useful/not useful). Judgments of free beauty are independent of emotions, of sensory charms, and of the concept of perfection. Although judgments of free beauty are not provable, they, nonetheless, oblige every one's agreement -- the key to the critique of taste. The judgments rely on the harmony of the cognitive faculties of understanding and imagination. Also, the judgments of free beauty reflect upon how an object's configuration appears to have been the result of an intelligent design. For example, flowers are free beauties of nature. Hardly anyone but a botanist knows the true nature of a flower, and even he, while recognizing in the flower the reproductive organ of the plant, pays no attention to this natural end when using his taste to judge of its beauty. Kant believes that judging the beauty of the flower is not a conscious action. In acknowledging this judgment of a flower, Kant explains how an ordinary capacity of perception works in a special way when finding something inherently beautiful. The person viewing the flower senses that there is something to be understood - but quite what it is eludes him. I think that the implications for understanding Kant's philosophy of beauty are great. Concepts of dependent beauty pervade our waking existence. Singular stereotypes of beauty in gigantic doses are fed to us by the media. We swallow these images, become conditioned to them, and inject them into our own daily lives. Soon, we become slaves to appreciating and valuing only dependent beauty, and we demand its ever-increasing presence in our lives. Perhaps a better understanding of free beauty as a useful companion to our walk on earth might better our conception of the world. To repeat an old saying, we all should "stop to smell the roses" that grow in abundance around us. When we open our eyes a little wider to allow free beauty to take its rightful, natural place, we may benefit in its appreciation. And, we may feel more comfortable with an expanding view of beauty as it truly exists.
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