On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Judgement’​: A Glimpse of Eternity — part one

‘She walks in beauty’

by Lord Byron (1788–1824)

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

What does beauty mean to you?

How would you define the beautiful?

For me of course I think of the beauty of woman:

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

‘Why sleepest thou, Eve? now is the pleasant time,

The cool, the silent, save where silence yields

To the night-warbling bird, that now awake

Tunes sweetest his love-laboured song; now reigns

Full-orbed the moon, and with more pleasing light

Shadowy sets off the face of things; in vain,

If none regard; Heaven wakes with all his eyes,

Whom to behold but thee, Nature’s desire?

In whose sight all things joy, with ravishment

Attracted by thy beauty still to gaze’.

- John Milton, (1608–1674), ‘Paradise Lost’, Book IV

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

But is such beauty only in the eye of the beholder?

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

PRINCESS:

Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean,

Needs not the painted flourish of your praise:

Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye,

Not utter’d by base sale of chapmen’s tongues:

I am less proud to hear you tell my worth

Than you much willing to be counted wise

In spending your wit in the praise of mine.

- William Shakespeare, (1564–1616), ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

One cannot help but feel that aesthetic judgements and values, just like moral judgements and values, cannot be an entirely subjective matter. De gustibus non est disputandum. In matters of taste there can be no disputes. Oh really? Is anyone going to argue that a red swelling boil full of pus on the buttocks is beautiful? Well, seen from a certain angle, in a certain light … no it does not work, no matter whose buttocks we are talking about. But they cannot be entirely objective either. Perhaps intersubjective? But is that not just a fudge?

According to Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), who if I may so of the ‘greatest philosopher who ever lived’, supposedly, was a bit of a fudge master, in his ‘Critique of Judgement’ contends that beauty is subjective, and universal. So what is the distinction between universal and objective?

We need to dig into this.

‘Space Eve’, 1972, Salvador Dali

The principal ideas forwarded in the ‘Critique of Judgement’ are:

1. Judgement in general is the faculty of thinking the particular as contained under the universal, if the judgement brings the particular under a given universal it is determinant, and if it discovers a universal by which to judge a given particular it is reflective.

2. Taste is the faculty of judging an object by a satisfaction or dissatisfaction which is not dependent upon any quality of the object itself, the satisfaction is a subjective response to the mere representation of the object, hence it is disinterested.

3. Even though beauty is subjective it is universal, the beautiful is that which pleases universally because it satisfies the will as if it served a purpose.

4. The sublime is found when a formless object is represented as boundless even though its totality is present in thought.

Since its publication the ‘Critique of Judgement’ has been of highest importance to the philosophy of art and of religion albeit it met opposition as radically sceptical and destructive of theology, indeed Kant intended to set limits on religious thinking. It opened promising new pathways in aesthetics still found highly worthy of exploration. The work is based wholly upon the psychology of faculties and the logic Kant adopted in the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ (see my articles On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’: Making Honours of Men’s Impossibilities — parts one to seven) and the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’ (see my articles On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Practical Reason’: Music at Midnight — parts one to three). The former treats the faculty of understanding which, presupposing natural law, brings us our knowledge of nature, while the latter treats reason, ‘practical’ reason, will or desire, which presupposes freedom and legislates for us in accordance with moral law. While writing the first two critiques Kant believed that the faculty of pleasure and pain could have no critique, being passive only, but he came to regard this faculty to be the same as the judgement, which subsumes representations under concepts, always accompanied by a feeling response. He declared finally that judgement could have a regulative critique of its own, demonstrating its functions and limitations, albeit the faculty brings us no objective knowledge. Indeed the ‘Critique of Judgement’ would demonstrate the ground of union between understanding and reason no matter that their presuppositions had seemingly forced them irrevocably apart.

The desire or will when realized is actually a natural cause which acts in accordance with concepts, and concepts are of two kinds, natural concepts and concepts of freedom. The understanding carries on a theoretical legislation through natural concepts resulting in knowledge, the practical reason carries on a moral legislation through precepts resulting in choices of actions. Understanding and reason legislate over the very same territory of experience, yet without conflicting. However, the practical reason presupposes a super-sensible substratum, which cannot be experienced but which is necessary as a condition of freedom of choice. The understanding can give knowledge only through intuition which can never reach the thing-in-itself, the concept of freedom, on the other hand, represents its object as a thing-in-itself but cannot give it in intuition. The region of the thing-in-itself is super-sensible, but while we cannot know it we can impute reality to it. This must be a practical reality founded upon our necessity of acting not on any source of substantive knowledge concerning it. To postulate such a substratum enables us to transfer our thought between the realm of nature and the realm of freedom and think according to the principles of each in turn.

The deduction of the principle of judgement is of central importance in the work. ‘Judgement in general’, says Kant, ‘is the faculty of thinking the particular as contained under the universal’. Either the universal or the particular might be given. If the universal then the judgement which brings the particular under it is determinant, the judgement brings knowledge according to a priori law and with finality, but if the particular is given then the judgement must find for itself a law to judge by, in the absence of a concept. Hence it is reflective, and if the judgements delivered are to be regarded as laws this must be on the assumption of some underlying principle. The principle must be this, as universal laws of nature have their ground in our understanding, as shown in the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’, particular empirical laws must be considered in accordance with such a unity as they would have if an understanding had furnished them to our cognitive faculties so as to make possible a system of experience according to particular laws of nature. The concept of an actual object contains its purpose, the principle of judgement which we take, then, on these suppositions, is purposiveness in nature. For nature to realise a purpose would be to carry out a ‘particular law of nature’. If nature were guided by an understanding, then purposiveness would underlie its variety as the unifying factor. This concept of purposiveness is a priori, it provides a principle for reflecting upon nature without needing specific experience of nature, and yet we can never prove real purpose in nature, we only justify our way of thinking about it.

The faculty of judgement functions also as the faculty of pleasure and pain. When the understanding shows us an order of nature and the judgement apprehends it under the aspect of purposiveness, we feel a pleasure, since the attainment of any aim is bound up with the feeling of pleasure. In virtue of the ground of this feeling being a principal a priori, the judgement is valid for every person. The imagination is the faculty of a priori intuitions, our pleasure arises when the judgement of purposiveness places the imagination in agreement with the understanding, shows a form such as a understanding would furnish. The judgement of taste represents purposiveness without mediation of a concept. But purposiveness may also be represented objectively as the harmony of the form of an object with the possibility of the thing itself according to some prior concept which contains the basis of this form. In two ways a concept of an object may be realized, a person may make an object which fulfils his preconceived concept, or nature may present an object realizing a concept which we supply. Thus we can regard natural beauty as the presentation of the concept of subjective purposiveness and natural purposes as the presentation of the concept of an objective purposiveness. Hence the ‘Critique of Judgement’ is divided int the ‘Critique of the Aesthetical Judgement’ (considering the former) involving the feeling of pleasure, and the ‘Critique if the Teleological Judgement’ (treating the latter) involving the understanding and reason, according to concepts. While the aesthetical judgement is the special faculty of taste, the teleological judgement is not a special faculty but only a reflective judgement in general, judging of certain objects of nature according to reflective principles.

True to his critical logic Kant considers in turn the quality, quantity, relation and modality of the judgement of taste, in a subdivision called the ‘Analytic of the Aesthetical Judgement’. Then in its ‘Dialectic’ he resolves an antinomy or contradiction which arises in aesthetics. By the aesthetical Kant means that element whose determining ground can be no other than subjective. Consequently, the aesthetic apprehension does not depend upon existential relations of the judged object with other things (its usefulness for instance) but only upon the relation of the representation of the object to the observing subject. In contrast, the pleasant and the good always involve a representation not only of the object but of some connection of the judging subject with that object, hence they bring an interested rather than a free satisfaction. Taste is the faculty of judging of an object, or of the method of representing one, by a satisfaction or dissatisfaction which as to quality is entirely disinterested. The object of such satisfaction is called beautiful.

‘Two Women Making Music’, Pauline Auzou, (1775–1835)

In native worth and honor clad,

with beauty, courage, strength adorn’d,

to heav’n erect and tall, he stands a man,

the Lord and King of nature all.

The large and arched front sublime

of wisdom deep declares the seat.

And in his eyes with brightness shines the soul,

the breath and image of his God.

The large and arched front sublime

of wisdom deep declares the seat.

And in his eyes with brightness shines the soul,

the breath and image of his God.

With fondness leans upon his breast

a partner for him form’d,

a woman fair and graceful spouse.

a woman fair and graceful spouse

Her softly smiling virgin looks,

of flow’ry spring the mirror,

bespeak him love,

love, and joy, and bliss.

Her softly smiling virgin looks,

of flow’ry spring the mirror,

bespeak him love,

love, and joy, and bliss.

bespeak him love,

love, and joy, and bliss.

Since the satisfaction does not depend upon a particular relationship with a particular subject, it may be thought of as resting on something present in everyone and hence binding universally. Since this element inheres in the subject, not in the objects judged, the quantity is a ‘subjective universality’. What we postulate is that all rational minds are constituted alike in the relation of their cognitive faculties. For a representation to be capable of becoming a cognition at all requires imagination for bringing together in ordered fashion the manifold of phenomena, and understanding, for providing a concept under which the representations may be united, but this requires as its condition a free play in the action of imagination and understanding. Aesthetic pleasure must be communicable among all minds so constituted. What the judgement of taste asserts as universally valid is not some attribute of the object (as in the claim that something is present or good) but rather the claim of our presupposition of the communicability of aesthetic pleasure among subjects. As to quantity, then, the beautiful is that which pleases universally without requiring or providing a concept. A purpose is a concept of an object insofar as the concept is regarded as the cause of the object.When we can think of an object only as caused by a concept for us that object has purposiveness even though we cannot know whether it has purpose. That is, it has purposiveness without purpose. The mere form of purposiveness is given, and it is that in which we take pleasure. As to relation, beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, so far as this is perceived in it without any representation of a purpose.

The modality of the judgement of taste is necessity. It is, however, neither objective necessity nor practical necessity, like those respectively of understanding and reason, but exemplary necessity. It requires the assent of all ‘to a judgement which is regarded as the example of a universal rule that we cannot state’. This assent may be expected only on the assumption introduced above, the communicability of our cognitions. Under this presupposition, an individual has a right to state his or her judgement of taste as a rule for everyone and thus assert of all subjects the particular judgement arising from his or her own experience. The beautiful, then, is that which without any concept is recognised as the object of a necessary satisfaction.

The judgement of the sublime has the same quality, quantity, relation, and modality as that of the beautiful, but there are important differences. The beautiful pleases through its form and its bounds, but the sublime is found when the formless object is represented as boundless, even though its totality is present in thought. Hence while beauty is a satisfaction in quality the sublime is a satisfaction in respect to quantity. Furthermore, in the sublime the form may seem to violate purposiveness and be quite unsuited to our presentative faculty, it rather should be said that the object is fit for the presentation of a sublimity found in the mind, producing in us a feeling of purposiveness of our powers, independent of nature.

The sublime has two kinds, the mathematical, and the dynamic. Whereas that of the beautiful is restful, the judgement of the sublime stirs a movement of the mind which is judged as subjectively purposive and is referred either to the cognition, generating [X] the mathematically sublime, or to the will, generating [Y] the dynamically sublime. [X] we can always think something still greater than whatever the senses give us. While we cannot have an intuition of the infinite which is absolutely great we can comprehend it logically. To do this without contradiction presupposes a super-sensible faculty. Thus we refer to the ideas of reason (God, freedom, immortality). Comparing the objects of nature, however grand, with these ideas, we gain a feeling of respect for our own destination according to the law of reason. [Y] upon observing in nature mighty objects from which we are in no danger, if we can think of a case in which we would fear them, we feel the emotion of the sublime. It calls up a comparison with our own power, which is small physically but which in our rational faculty has a superiority to nature even in its immensity, in the sublimity of the mind’s destination. The judgement of either kind of sublime is thus not so much upon the object but on our state of mind in the estimation of it. Like the judgement of the beautiful, the judgement of the sublime postulates a common faculty among men and women, in this case the feeling for the legislation of reason, that is, for what is moral.

Kant considers it requisite to provide a deduction or proof of its grounds for any judgement claiming necessity, but since the judgement of taste is neither cognitive nor practical, it can draw its necessity from no concepts. Rather, it has a twofold peculiarity. First, it claims the universality of a singular, not a universal, proposition, and second, it claims the necessary assent of everyone a priori, but cannot depend upon a priori grounds of proof for doing so. And because of what they are, Kant asserts, the explanation of these peculiarities suffices as a deduction. As to the necessity, although the judgement of each individual improves with exercise, at each stage it claims the necessary assent of others. It claims autonomy. If it submitted to external principles, it would be something other than taste. As to quantity, since it judges without a concept, this must always be singular. ‘This lily is beautiful’, never ‘all lilies are beautiful’, since the universal subject term of the latter is a concept and brings the understanding into the process. Kant actually talks about tulips but as I am of a more romantic bent I am thinking lilies (see below).

‘Beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, insofar as it is perceived in it without representation of an end’. It might be adduced as a counterexample to this definition that there are things in which one can see a purposive form without cognizing an end in them, e.g., the stone utensils often excavated from ancient burial mounds, which are equipped with a hole, as if for a handle, which, although they clearly betray by their shape a purposiveness the end of which one does not know, are nevertheless not declared to be beautiful on that account. Yet the fact that they are regarded as a work of art is already enough to require one to admit that one relates their shape to some sort of intention and to a determinate purpose. Hence there is also no immediate satisfaction at all in their intuition. A flower, by contrast, e.g., a tulip, is held to be beautiful because a certain purposiveness is encountered in our perception of it which, as we judge it, is not related to any end at all’.

- ‘Critique of Judgement’

Obviously then on this reasoning no objective principle of taste is possible and no rule can be given to art. Rather, the principle of taste is the subjective principle of judgement in general, operating on the condition solely of the faculty of judgement itself.

‘Woman with Lilies in a Greenhouse’, 1911, Lovis Corinth. ‘… he is in love with an ideal; / A creature of his own imagination; / A child of air; an echo of his heart; / And, like a lily on a river floating, / She floats upon the river of his thoughts!’ — Henry W. Longfellow, ‘The Spanish Student’, Act 2, Scene 3.

Unlike mere labour or science or commercial handicraft beautiful art is free. Yet we must be conscious of it as art and not nature, to keep it within the framework that will allow it to please in the mere act of judging. Beautiful art is the work of genius, which is the ‘innate mental disposition (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art’. Genius is an original productive talent, not a capacity for following rules. Its products serve as examples setting standards for others. Natural beauty is a beautiful thing, but artificial beauty is a beautiful representation of a thing. In some beauties, such as the latter, inevitably a concept enters, and enjoyment through reason as well as aesthetic judging enters with it. Taste, but not genius, is a requisite for judging works of beautiful art. Genius is a faculty of presenting aesthetical ideas, representations of the imagination which occasion much thought where no one thought is adequate. This is a particular kind of the play which harmonizes the imagination and the understanding. It goes beyond the limits of experience to find presentations of such completeness that they have no example in nature, presentations which will communicate the aesthetic pleasure to others.

The chief aesthetic problem of Kant’s times was how to controvert seriously matters of taste as though taste had an objective standard, when we also assert that there is no disputing tastes, (what about carbuncles on the bottom?). Kant cast the problem as an antinomy in the ‘Dialectic of the Aesthetical Judgement’.

Thesis: ‘The judgement of taste is not based upon concepts, for otherwise it would admit of controversy (would be determinable by proofs).’

Antithesis: ‘The judgement of taste is based on concepts, for otherwise, despite its diversity, we could not quarrel about it (we could not claim for our judgement the necessary assent of others).’

The apparent contradiction is resolved when we recognise that ‘concept’ has a different reference in each proposition. A concept may be either determinable or not. The thesis refers to determinable concepts, the antithesis refers to the one indeterminable concept, the super-sensible, upon which the faculty of judgements rests. So understood, both are true, and the contradiction disappears (fudge mastery you see).

The beautiful is the symbol of the morally good, in that it gives pleasure with a claim for the agreement of everyone else, it makes the mind feel an elevation of itself above mere pleasantness of sensation, and enables it to estimate the worth of others in this regard also. For just as the reason does in respect to the practical, the judgement gives the law to itself with respect to objects of pure aesthetic satisfaction. The propaedeutic to the beautiful arts lies in humane studies, not in precepts, and it reaches art through the social spirit and the communication of men which is distinctive from humanity. Taste is at bottom a faculty for judging of the sensible illustration of moral ideas:

‘But since taste is at bottom a faculty for the judging of the sensible rendering of moral ideas (by means of a certain analogy of the reflection on both), from which, as well as from the greater receptivity for the feeling resulting from the latter (which is called the moral feeling) that is to be grounded upon it, is derived that pleasure which taste declares to be valid for mankind in general, not merely for the private feeling of each, it is evident that the true propaedeutic for the grounding of taste is the development of moral ideas and the cultivation of the moral feeling; for only when sensibility is brought into accord with this can genuine taste assume a determinate, unalterable form’.

- ‘Critique of Judgement’

The sequel of the study of purposiveness in nature without purpose is the study of the basis of judging nature as having a purpose, the ‘Critique of the Teleological Judgement’. We have absolutely no grounds to ascribe purpose objectively to nature but must regard purpose as a principle supplied by ourselves for bringing this phenomena of nature under rules wherever the laws of mechanical causality do not suffice to do so. A purpose is a concept which functions as a cause of that of which it is the concept. In order to see the possibility of a thing as a purpose it is a requisite that its form is not possible according to natural laws and that the empirical knowledge of its cause and effect presupposes concepts of reason. The things regarded as natural purposes are organized, living beings. The understanding takes causes to be immediate preceding conditions (efficient causes) of their effects, but the reason can think a final cause. For a thing to be a natural purpose, its parts must be possible only through their reference to the whole, and they should so combine in the unity of the whole that they are reciprocally cause and effect of each other. Thus nothing is in vain in it. The being so constituted may be regarded as the product of both efficient causes and final causes, an organized and self-organising being, in a word a natural purpose. Organised beings give the basis for teleology, as they first afford objective reality to the concept of a natural purpose. From regarding them we are carried farther, reflectively to regard the mechanism of all of nature as subordinated according to principles of reason.

‘Plum Brandy’, 1877, Edouard Manet

The reflective judgement must subsume presentations under a law not yet given, hence, it must serve as principle for itself. Therefore it needs maxims for its reflection, so as to attain to concepts and cognize nature even according to empirical laws. Among its maxims the following antinomy arises:

Thesis: All production of material things and their forms must be judged possible according to merely mechanical laws.

Antithesis: Some products of material nature cannot be judged to be possible according to merely mechanical laws.

But these are maxims, not substantive propositions. The concepts involved in maxims of the judgement (including ‘mechanical laws’) are not accorded objective reality but are merely guides to reason. Now the thesis may be acceptable as a maxim of the determinant, and the antithesis of the reflective judgement. Hence no contradiction in fact exists between them. To unite the mechanism of nature and the principle of purposes, teleology places the super-sensible tentatively at the basis of phenomenal nature, but of it we can have no theoretical knowledge whatever. We should explain everything in nature by mechanism as far as this is in our power but we should acknowledge that some things, which we cannot even state for investigation without a concept of a purpose of reason, must finally be accounted for by purposes.

For anything in nature, if we ask why it exists the answer is either that it rose solely out of nature’s mechanism without design, or else that it has somewhere a designed ground as a contingent being. And if the latter, we can say either that its purpose lies in itself, a final purpose, or that the ground of its existence is external to it in another natural being. Apparently, human being is the only being we can regard as the ultimate purpose of creation here on earth, for he and she is the only creature who can form a concept of his or her purposes and who can, by his or her reason, make out of an aggregate of purposively formed things a system of purposes:

‘If one looks at the vegetable kingdom, one could initially be led by the immeasurable fertility by which it spreads itself over practically every terrain to think of it as a mere product of the mechanism of nature that is displayed in the formations of the mineral kingdom. But a close acquaintance with the indescribably wise organization of the former does not allow us to stop with this thought, but rather leads to the question: Why do these creatures exist? If one answers: For the animal kingdom, which is nourished by it so that it is able to spread itself over the earth in so many genera, then the question arises again: Why do these herbivorous animals exist? Perhaps the answer would be: For the carnivores, which can only be nourished by what lives. But in the end the question is: For what are these, together with all the proceeding natural kingdoms, good? For the human being, for the diverse uses which his understanding teaches him to make of all these creatures; and he is the ultimate end of the creation here on earth, because he is the only being on earth who forms a concept of ends for himself and who by means of his reason can make a system of ends out of an aggregate of purposively formed things’.

- ‘Critique of Judgement’

That within him or her which is to be furthered as a purpose must be either what nature could perhaps satisfy, his or her happiness, or else his or her aptitude and skill with which he or she can turn nature to all kinds of purposes, his and her culture. But if a human being makes happiness his or her whole purpose, a purpose dependent upon nature, this renders him or her incapable of positing his or her existence as a final purpose and of being in harmony with it. The culture of skill, and particularly of the will, of discipline, makes us receptive of higher purposes than nature itself can supply. Through culture of the beautiful arts and the sciences we are prepared for a reign in which reason alone shall have authority. (Sounds horrible to me. Think Aldous Huxley’s, (1894–1963), ‘Brave New World’).

The moral law, as the rational condition of the use of our freedom, obliges us a priori (as shown in the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’) to strive for the highest good in the world possible through freedom. The highest physical good is happiness. But the reason supposes virtue to be the worthiness to be happy, and it is impossible to represent virtue and happiness as connected by natural causes or as harmonized in life. Thus, in order to represent to ourselves a final purpose consistent with the moral law, we must assume a moral world cause. While the final purpose cannot be regarded as having objective reality, it has subjective practical reality by being embodied in our actions toward the highest good. Through it we gain the possibility of thinking the world as a purposive order, although we gain no proof of the existence of its original Being. ‘For the existence of the original Being as a Godhead, or of the soul as an immortal spirit, absolutely no proof in a theoretical point of view is possible’. Faith, as habitus or disposition, not act, is the moral attitude of reason toward belief in something unattainable by theoretical cognition. The mind assumes that, since it is so commanded, the duty to attain the highest good is possible to fulfil. It has grounds for such a faith in the faculty of the reason freely to legislate in accordance with the moral law. Only freedom, among the three pure rational ideas, God, freedom and immortality, proves its objective reality by its effects in nature, and thus it renders possible the reconciliation in thought and nature of God, immortality, and freedom.

And so the ‘Critique of Judgement’ ends.

‘La mandoline’, Charles-Amable Lenoir, (1860–1926)

‘Storm sky in August. Gusts of hot wind. Black clouds. Yet in the East a delicate, transparent band of blue sky. Impossible to look at it. Its presence is a torture for the eyes and for the soul, because beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time’.

- Albert Camus, (1913–1960), ‘Notebook 1’.

A final thought for now however. I do not know if Philip Larkin, (1922–1985), had ever read Kant but he would certainly have agreed that beauty was best viewed under a critique. But necessarily a philosophical critique? What about a poetical one? Is not a critique of aesthetical judgement self-reflective? How aesthetically pleasing is the philosophy behind it? Which may seem an odd question, but is it? ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know’, as John Keats, (1795–1821), said. Well, that may be the thesis, Larkin gives us the antithesis, so to speak, in his poem on essential (heavily ironic use of the term there we may suppose) beauty. And furthermore this really does bring out how the times we are living in can press upon our aesthetical judgements. In this poem Larkin brings to the fore the gap between the beautiful (maybe) images advertisements present us with, too good to be true but something for us to aspire to, to give us purposes (recall Kant’s discussion on purposiveness in relation to aesthetical judgements) indeed to form the reality of most of our lives. Beauty and truth were synonymous for Keats, for Larkin they were bitter adversaries.

‘Essential Beauty’

by Philip Larkin

In frames as large as rooms that face all ways

And block the ends of streets with giant loaves,

Screen graves with custard, cover slums with praise

Of motor-oil and cuts of salmon, shine

Perpetually these sharply-pictured groves

Of how life should be. High above the gutter

A silver knife sinks into golden butter,

A glass of milk stands in a meadow, and

Well-balanced families, in fine

Midsummer weather, owe their smiles, their cars,

Even their youth, to that small cube each hand

Stretches towards. These, and the deep armchairs

Aligned to cups at bedtime, radiant bars

(Gas or electric), quarter-profile cats

By slippers on warm mats,

Reflect none of the rained-on streets and squares

They dominate outdoors. Rather, they rise

Serenely to proclaim pure crust, pure foam,

Pure coldness to our live imperfect eyes

That stare beyond this world, where nothing’s made

As new or washed quite clean, seeking the home

All such inhabit. There, dark raftered pubs

Are filled with white-clothed ones from tennis-clubs,

And the boy puking his heart out in the Gents

Just missed them, as the pensioner paid

A halfpenny more for Granny Graveclothes’ Tea

To taste old age, and dying smokers sense

Walking towards them through some dappled park

As if on water that unfocused she

No match lit up, nor drag ever brought near,

Who now stands newly clear,

Smiling, and recognising, and going dark.

‘La mandoline’, Charles-Amable Lenoir, (1860–1926)

To be continued …

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.