Subtle Scripture for an Invisible Church: The Moral Importance of the Beautiful in Kant
Sandra L. Shapshay
In this paper, I investigate the overall Enlightenment role that Kant conceived for aesthetic experience, and especially, of the beautiful. (1) I argue for an interpretation of Kant's aesthetics whereby the experience of the beautiful may play the same functional role in the invisible church of natural religion as Scripture does for the visible churches of ecclesiastical religions. Although aesthetic experience, for Kant, is autonomous by virtue of its disinterestedness, seemingly paradoxically, this very autonomy enables the beautiful, potentially, to serve profound moral and Enlightenment aims within his system. For Kant, because we are both rational and animal, we require embodiments of moral ideas, and thus, the experience of the beautiful is necessary in order to found what Kant views as the final (secular) end of morality: The ethical community. Thus, I contend, the links that Kant himself implies between the aesthetic and the moral (in the third Critique and the Religion) are much stronger than generally portrayed by commentators. I end by assessing the contemporary significance of this aesthetic-Enlightenment link in light of criticisms by Richard Shusterman. Though challenged by contemporary charges of elitism, I sketch out a defense of a Kantian-style, disinterested, free-play link between aesthetics and morality for a liberal, democratic society.
One of the main, stated purposes for writing the Religion is to address a potential shortcoming in his moral theory: a concern for duty that is merely personal is not satisfying for reason. For Kant, an individual wonders not only about whether or not she herself has conformed to duty, but also looks toward a final purpose of morality in general:
What consequences may I bring about in the world? What is the ultimate end of moral action? The thematization of this concern seems something of a departure from Kant's writings on morality thus far, with the austere demand that one's duty be done for duty's sake alone. Kant takes a less rigoristic turn in the Religion, asserting that to inquire about the ultimate aim of morality in general (the "highest good in the world" or summum bonum), is a natural product of human reason, and not to do so would be, in fact, counterproductive for morality:
While doing one's duty for duty's sake ought to be enough to motivate people to right action, humans have a rational desire for a notion of the final consequences of their moral actions. Without such a conception, Kant asserts, moral decision-making would be hindered. This aspect of human moral psychology, which Kant refers to as a human limitation (Einschränkung), has been recognized and exploited by all religions, though Kant focuses his attention on Judaism and Christianity.
Religions, both salutarily and nefariously, have furnished conceptions of the ends of morality; they are invariably transcendent, be they in the form of personal redemption or global salvation from this world. In contrast, for Kant, the highest good consists of an ethical community on earth wherein happiness is proportionate to virtue. Arriving at this notion, however, reason leads inevitably to religion, since, for Kant, if a highest good in the world is possible, it necessitates the postulation of "a higher, moral, most holy, and omnipotent Being which alone can unite the two elements of this highest good" (RLR, pp. 4-5). Only God could settle the score in the end, granting people happiness in proportion to desert. But Kant asserts that humans must bracket the role of Providence with respect to their actions (RLR, p. 92), for they themselves may be the authors of a different, thoroughly immanent conception of the ends of morality, the attainment of an "ethical commonwealth" or "ethical community" in this world (and this "ethical community" is called variously in German: eine ethische Gesellschaft, eine ethisch-bürgerliche Gesellschaft, or ein ethisches gemeines Wesen (RGV, p. 752)). It consists in a "union of men under merely moral laws" (RLR, p. 86) which "is extended ideally to the whole of mankind" (RLR, p. 88).
Human relations in the ethical community are governed by each person's feeling of an internal respect for the moral law. Kant's utopian community, then, transforms the idea of a Kingdom of Heaven into a worldly "Kingdom of virtue," (Reich der Tugend (des guten Prinzips)) brought about not by the coming of a Messiah, but rather by humans themselves, acting autonomously and communally.
The ethical commonwealth that Kant envisions hearkens back to Rousseau's ideal state in the Social Contract. Rousseau's radical democracy promised true autonomy for the individual, provided that all joined under the General Will or "volonté générale." In this way, every individual would be self-legislating. Similarly, for Kant, the highest good that humans alone may bring about (that is, without divine aid) is the ethical community wherein each acts from a respect for a self-given law the law that every person's own practical reason legislates.
Coercion plays no role in Kant's ideal community, as it does in Rousseau's society. Yet, as Dieter Henrich points out (Henrich, 1992), a marked trace of Rousseau's notion of a "civil religion" remains in Kant's own vision. That is to say, just as Rousseau held that society under the general will required some shared view of the ends of morality, Kant too believes that a "moral image of the world" is needed if we are to bring about an ethical community. As Henrich puts it, the "moral image of the world" is "founded ... only upon the agent's belief that it is possible to promote a state of the world such that merit and happiness are distributed in some way that is not in open conflict with moral principles" (Henrich, pp. 24-25). In the face of ever-present skepticism and sophistry, such a view, communally reinforced through a church, for Kant, is necessary in order to establish an ethical society. And it is in fostering such a "moral image of the world" that aesthetic experience comes to plays a key role for Kant in bringing about the end of morality. This final end of morality is also the final and autonomous end of reason itself. Here is how.
Despite their unjustifiable claims to knowledge, Kant believes that ecclesiastical religions are, in fact, a necessary stage in man's progress toward an ethical commonwealth since churches help in moral motivation and build like-minded communities. Unfortunately, ecclesiastical religions depend on some revealed text or body of doctrine that goes beyond the mere dictates of practical reason. Kant refers to these sorts of churches as "visible." In contrast, the natural religion of the church invisible relies solely on the dictates of conscience practical reason and is not bound up with any historical events or revelations. True religion, for Kant, consists in a moral attitude toward our fellows in which the commands of the moral law are viewed as sacred. This does not require a belief in God, but rather, a certain hope in the ethical community which leads one to the idea of God's possibility (RLR, p. 142 fn.).
One key element of ecclesiastical religions' success in motivating morality is that they attempt to make moral ideas sensible. Religions provide schemata, which Kant elaborates as spatio-temporal embodiments which serve as metaphors or analogies of invisible moral ideas. For instance, religious schemata such as prayer, church-going, baptism, communion and so on are analogies for the invisible spirit of service to God (RLR, p. 181).
Kant sees a great limitation ("eine von den unvermeidlichen Einschränkungen des Menschen") in human moral psychology in the natural need for sensible moral exemplars:
Accordingly, for example, it is not enough for people merely to hear a list of attributes pertaining to the supremely virtuous character; rather, they need their moral exemplars to be represented, say, in the person of Christ a brilliant hypostatization of moral ideas; the supersensible made flesh, embodied. Many contemporary philosophers like Martha Nussbaum would agree that our moral conception of persons needs to be made sensible for it to have any efficacy, for "very often in today's political life we lack the capacity to see one another as fully human, as more than 'dreams or dots'" (Nussbaum, 1995). For Nussbaum, the literary imagination provides a form of knowledge about others and situations distant from our own, without which we will be deficient in our roles as public, moral deliberators.
It is a fact of moral psychology, for Kant, that since humans are made of such exceedingly "crooked timber," we generally need the aid of images and stories to fashion ourselves into something straight. By providing particular, sensible manifestations of moral ideas, religions help people to visualize a "moral image of the world," which, in turn provides encouragement for doing one's duty. Religions thereby teach analogically through narratives and parables, frescos and hymns, and do so in a way that builds a community of believers. That ecclesiastical religions unify people under an ideal made sensible is the reason, for Kant, why they constitute a necessary step on the historical path to (Kant's ultimate goal of) natural religion (RLR, p. 97). However, strictly speaking, Kant maintains that such representations are not necessary for moral action; there is, after all, a categorical imperative to do one's duty regardless of how vivid the good will or the consequences of morality are to us.
There are, however, many dangers associated with ecclesiastical religions' use of analogies. Analogies may render sensible false conceptions of the ends of morality (for example, the conception that doing the good aims ultimately at gaining God's favor, reaping rewards on earth, or attaining personal salvation). There is also the all-too-human hazard that people will mistake the representation for the thing itself. Kant uses the example of rituals and practices which are supposed to make plain to people their obligation to a morally worthy conduct toward one another, but instead merely inspire a fetishism of ritual (RLR, p. 94).
Natural religion, for Kant, is superior to all ecclesiastical faiths, for its dictates derive from pure practical reason and are thus available to all humans. But following all that Kant has said concerning human moral psychology thus far, natural religion still requires a means of making moral ideas sensible, for it is difficult for people to act on an idea of the good without experiencing it as embodied in some fashion. Aesthetic experience, and particularly experience of natural beauty, according to Kant, would fulfill such a role.
Aesthetic experience (of the beautiful) for Kant holds the potential to play the same functional role in natural religion as Scripture does for ecclesiastical religions. Here, in a nutshell, are the elements of the experience of the beautiful. In the pure aesthetic judgment of the beautiful, the subject experiences the free-play of the faculties. The wealth of intutions presented to the understanding send the imagination on a quest to interpret them, but the understanding finds no determinate concept, but merely shuttles back and forth between partial interpretations and the never-fully-exhaustible, sensuous intuitions. This constitutive activity of aesthetic experience itself serves as a symbol of morality (our own autonomy), and indeed, I argue, of the moral world. The free-play of our faculties takes place even though we are confined by the matter of representations given to us in intuition. We therefore feel freedom as active in us though we remain in the realm of an empirically-conditioned world. It provides the bridge between the Kantian spheres of freedom and nature, and results in a unifying experience of harmony between them. In short, the experience of the beautiful gives us hope that the world will not frustrate our moral ends, it gives us a glimpse of our potential to bring about a better world, possibly the best world.
Moreover, there are several important advantages to the alliance of experience of the beautiful and natural religion, over that of religious schemata and ecclesiastical religions. Whereas Scriptural accounts, for Kant, may only be convincing to a certain cultural group who has been initiated into the faith, aesthetic experience, particularly and significantly that of nature, is cosmopolitan. In addition, aesthetic experience potentially provides a universal forum for communication it depends on the sensus communis (awkwardly translated into English as "Common Sense") and thereby holds the potential for breaking down barriers of communication between individuals and classes (CJ, section 60, esp. 227), and thus includes a community-building function. This idea in Kant has been forcefully criticized by Richard Shusterman in his 1989 article "Of the Scandal of Taste" and in his Pragmatist Aesthetics (1992) as proclaiming what is, in fact, a class-based privilege (to contemplate disinterestedly) as a universal human capacity. Thus, he argues, the disinterested aesthetic of Kant is highly political, an expression of bourgeois will-to-power. Before addressing this criticism, however, let us look at Kant's view in greater detail.
For Kant pure aesthetic experience consists essentially in the free play of the faculties. This exercise of the aesthetic imagination may not be present in encounters with straightforwardly didactic religious art, which may foster an aesthetically servile disposition. The stories and rites of religions may actually hinder one's intellectual development by promoting the passive assimilation of a sensuously-pleasing, pre-established constellation of practices and beliefs instead of instilling the courage of sapere aude, the Enlightenment motto: "Dare to Know" or "Dare to use one's own understanding". This "ready-made" quality of ecclesiastical religions obscures the fact, for Kant, that true religion, as true morality, comes from an internal disposition toward the good.
The proper role of the aesthetic for Kant is to take its lead from practical reason and thereby to make sensible a consideration of moral ideas. This role is not direct or didactic. Aesthetic experience can only have a proper link to morality when it is autonomous, and yet, (in what may seem to some a paradox) by virtue of its disinterestedness, it is directed by reason toward moral ideas in a symbolic movement. Aesthetic disinterestedness may be defined as an attitude of a subject who attentively, contemplates an aesthetic object in and for itself, without regard to further interests that the subject might have, e.g. an interest in possessing it, using it to gratify an appetite etc. That a disinterested aesthetic attitude provides an important link to morality, is where the Kantian aesthetic-Enlightenment link challenges many of our basic intutions. After all, aesthetic contemplation for contemplation's sake seems to be as aestheticist and escapist as its production-side equivalent of art for art's sake. If it has a link with morality, it might very well be a negative one, right?
The symbolic link of disinterested aesthetic free-play and morality, for Kant, consists in a feeling of freedom and its efficacy in the world on the part of the subject. Natural human limitations are what lead Kant to look toward this experience in a scenario about the progressive, social Enlightenment of humankind. And a Kantian critique of ecclesiastical religion and religious art should be borne in mind for contemporary aesthetic educators when deciding just what sort of aesthetic experience is most conducive to moral agency.
Effective aesthetic education should not sacrifice the subject's free play to the specific commitments of the artwork, for if the meaning of a text is too clear and does not allow for a sufficient degree of imaginative free-play, then one of the deepest links to morality, and a key Kantian insight, is lost: The symbolic link between aesthetic and moral autonomy; that is, the analogy between the feeling of one's own freedom in interpretation and the feeling of human freedom to bring about a better world.
Shusterman attempts to unmask this link at its historical source in the Enlightenment as nothing but thinly-veiled, bourgeois will-to-power, by arguing that (a) the disinterested contemplation of the Kantian aesthetic is something only available to the leisured classes, since they alone can be free from daily wants and troubles, and they alone enjoy the requisite education, time and money to contemplate and play freely with an aesthetic object, and thus, (b) a disinterested aesthetic is merely a tool of the upper classes to dominate the lower. That is to say, by positing a universal faculty of aesthetic judgment, Kant thereby provides the upper classes with justification for dominating the benighted lower classes for their inability to be disinterested. I question Shusterman's argument on two grounds: First, for his overall argumentative strategy, and second for its application to contemporary U.S. society.
The mere fact that some activity is or has been associated uniquely with a dominant and/or oppressive group, or even further, that this activity has been used precisely to exclude and thereby to dominate others, does not entail that the activity itself is inherently oppressive. To wit, the activity of writing in ancient Egypt was practised only by an elite class and constituted a tool for domination, but this does not entail that writing, though once used as an instrument of oppression is, in itself, inherently oppressive. Similarly, Shusterman seeks to draw the conclusion that the conception of aesthetic experience as disinterested and contemplative is inherently oppressive; it constitutes a means for the bourgoeoisie to oppress the lower classes. But, as I have argued, from the mere fact that there has been a correlation between disinterested aesthetic experience and the leisured classes, and even from the fact that, historically, such a conception has been used to dominate the lower classes, who had neither the time or training to contemplate works of art or even nature disinterestedly, from this, it does not follow that disinterested aesthetic experience is inherently oppressive any more than writing itself is inherently oppressive.
Regarding the ability of the contemporary American public to have such aesthetic experience, it is important to keep in mind that the average American has enough leisure time to watch approximately three hours of television a day. Is it fair to say, then, that this contemporary population is really so lacking in the time necessary to contemplate disinterestedly? Also, bastions of aesthetic contemplation such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art are open to the public on Fridays and Saturdays until 8:45pm! And the admission price of many museums are significantly less than the cost of a Hollywood feature film. For literature, one can go to the public libraries or even buy classic works for as little as a dollar a piece! Furthermore, is this population equally lacking in its ability to become more aesthetically educated? Shusterman's basic criticism of Kantian, disinterested aesthetics might have been quite valid in Kant's day, and even in John Dewey's day (when museums closed as soon as the factory whistle was blown) but it does not take into consideration the real growth in the amount of leisure time most people have enjoyed in Western democracies, and the possibility and desirability for a more democratic aesthetic education.
Walter Benjamin also argues famously in his "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" that the masses cannot but receive artworks in a "state of distraction" making the notion of aesthetic free-play and contemplation rather obsolete for most people. Indeed, the environment in which aesthetic products are generally received today in postmodern societies is a "state of distraction." The speed and diversity of images and information has increased tremendously, amounting to a perpetual perceptual onslaught via television, printed media, radio, film, and the Internet. Many, if not most, contemporary receivers may be too dispersed and distracted to give their full attention to anything but highly entertaining and rather straightforward products. But should we embrace the state of distraction and allow this public to be passively entertained into a stupor? In a liberal, democratic society which depends for its dynamic existence on the ability of citizens to judge for themselves, there is a real moral and political danger in our inability to contemplate disinterestedly (un-distractedly). Critics like Shusterman, who, in the name of democratic conviction, take most people in this society as not being up to the task of the experience of free-play of the imagination, and not being educatable in such aesthetic experience, are frankly giving up on the Kantian Enlightenment ideal of "sapere aude," the democratically shared ability to think and judge for oneself.
(1) I would like to thank Professors Wolfgang Mann, Arthur Danto, Charles Larmore, Lydia Goehr, Thomas Pogge, and my husband Steven Wagschal for reading versions of this paper, and for their insightful comments and criticisms.
I. Works Cited
Henrich, Dieter Aesthetic Judgment and the Moral Image of the World: Studies in Kant (Stanford: Stanford U P, 1992).
Kant, Immanuel Critique of Judgement, trans. J. C. Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1928).
Kant, Immanuel Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, trans. Theodore M. Greene and Hoyt H. Hudson (New York: Harper & Row, 1960).
Kant, Immanuel Die Religion innerhalb der Grenzen der blossen Vernunft Hrsg. Wilhelm Weischedel (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp taschenbuch, Werkausgabe in 12 Bänden, 1993) VIII.
Nussbaum, Martha C. Poetic Justice: The literary Imagination and Public Life (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995).
Shusterman, Richard "Of the Scandal of Taste: Social privilege as nature in the aesthetic theories of Hume and Kant" Philosophical Forum Vol. XX, No. 3, Spring 1989, pp.211-229.
II. Works Consulted
Austin, Michael "Art and Religion as Metaphor" British Journal of Aesthetics 35:2, April 1995.
Cohen, Ted "Why Beauty is a Symbol of Morality" in Essays in Kant's Aesthetics eds. Cohen and Guyer (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1982).
Guyer, Paul Kant and the Experience of Freedom: Essays on aesthetics and morality (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1993).
Korsgaard, Christine M. Creating the Kingdom of Ends (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1996).
O'Neill, Onora Constructions of reason: Explorations of Kant's practical philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1989).
Schaeffer, Jean-Marie L'Art de L'Age Moderne (Paris: Gallimard, 1992).
Wood, Allen W. "Rational theology, moral faith, and religion" in Paul Guyer ed. Cambridge Companion to Kant (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1992).