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History of Philosophy Quarterly
Volume 30, Number 1, January 2013
Nick Zangwill
ow good is Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of Immanuel Kant’s
doctrine that pleasure in the beautiful is disinterested? I shall
confine my attention to one short passage in the Genealogy of Morals
where Nietzsche turns his attention specifically to Kant’s writings on
disinterest, rather than those of other philosophers such as Arthur
Schopenhauer. I want to examine and assess Nietzsche’s critique of
Kant in this passage. We will see that Nietzsche’s criticisms are interesting and persuasive.
1. Introduction:
Kant’s Doctrine of Disinterestedness
We think of Nietzsche as a figure who has provocative and interesting
things to say about a huge range of subjects. We do not expect scholarly
care from him. He seems to be a kind of intellectual noble savage, a
volcano of intellectual energy, showering us with burning-hot interesting ideas, without waiting to make tiresome caveats and scrupulously
exact statements, without making tedious “academic” distinctions and
demarcations. That at any rate is the stereotype. And on many topics
that is his style. Yet in the passage we will focus on, for the most part,
Nietzsche is not crude, careless, or uncharitable in his reading of Kant;
and he has an interesting critique.
Kant’s doctrine of disinterestedness, as it figures in his Critique of
Judgment, is about pleasure in the beautiful; it is not primarily about
the judgment of taste or attention, as is sometimes thought (Zangwill
1992). It is, roughly, the idea that pleasure in the beautiful is not connected with desire, in the sense that it is not based on desire and it
(pleasure) does not produce desire of itself. (See further Zangwill 1995,
and Wood 2004, ch. 8.) Kant writes:
Taste is the faculty of estimating an object or a mode of representation
by means of a delight or aversion apart from any interest. The object
of such delight is called beautiful. (Kant 1928, 50)
Kant’s doctrine is often criticized. But, in my view, there is more to be
said for it than many think, and, suitably qualified, I think it can, to an
extent, be defended. My brief here is to examine Nietzsche’s criticism
of Kant’s doctrine.
Some might say that we cannot leap-frog over Schopenhauer in this
way because Nietzsche is reacting to Schopenhauer, who is building on
Kant. Nevertheless, I shall focus only on whether Nietzsche has good
points to make in what he says about Kant, and I shall leave Schopenhauer entirely to one side. In this, I depart from most commentators.
However, I assume that Nietzsche can distinguish Kant from Schopenhauer. The consideration of what Nietzsche says about Schopenhauer
might be interesting in its own right, but it would distract us and confuse
the issue over Nietzsche and Kant. I am aware that this runs against
the grain of what we might call the “continental” tradition of Nietzsche
interpretation, where Nietzsche is seem as occupying a position on a
pedestal as one in a line of Great Dead German Philosophers. Nevertheless, that is my approach. I take what Nietzsche says at face value
without imposing a grand narrative onto it.
Moreover, this paper will avoid a holistic interpretation of what
Nietzsche says about Kant on beauty and disinterest, whereby the
passage is connected with what Nietzsche says elsewhere about similar
and other topics. Many would argue that what Nietzsche says about
Kant on beauty and disinterest must be seen in the light of Nietzsche’s
treatment of “aestheticism,” or in the light of Nietzsche’s other views
on art and culture. Many would also argue that, although Kant’s view
of beauty and disinterest is Nietzsche’s narrow target, we should also
take into account Kant’s wider “transcendental” system and his views
on art and genius. My view is that, although all this would perhaps be
interesting, it would be comparatively messy and highly speculative. My
approach is more conservative and safer. I want to read closely rather
than risk a speculative integrative approach. I take it that, if Nietzsche
wrote something about Kant, then he meant that and not some other
thing, and we do not have to help him out by bringing to bear his other
writings on related topics or Kant’s other writings on related topics. In
sum, in a number of senses, my approach here will be “analytic.”
2. Universality
(a) My plan is to be completely flat-footed and quote the text, sentence
by sentence—for it is a short passage—adding my comments. Here,
then, is the passage in the Maudemarie Clarke and Alan J. Swensen
translation. The first sentence is this:
Schopenhauer used the Kantian formulation of the aesthetic problem
for his own purposes, although he most certainly did not view it with
Kantian eyes.
Nietzsche here marks a difference between Kant and Schopenhauer.
Aesthetics textbooks sometimes conflate what Kant and Schopenhauer
say under some catch-all notion of “disinterestedness”; but Nietzsche
does not do this. This is important for our discussion, since we should
distinguish the interpretation and evaluation of Nietzsche on Kant
from the interpretation and evaluation of Nietzsche on Schopenhauer.
(b) The second sentence is this:
Kant thought he had honoured art when among the predicates of
the beautiful he privileged and placed in the foreground those which
constitute the honour of knowledge—impersonality and universal
There seems to be a confusion here between art and beauty. Kant was
not primarily talking about art in the Critique of Judgment, which
focuses mostly on beauty and judgments of taste, which may be either
about art or nature (Kant 1928, sections 1–42 and 55–60; his theory
of art occupies only sections 43–54.) Still, it is true that, for Kant, the
primary dimension of assessment of art is beauty. So, we can put this
seeming confusion to one side.
Kant does indeed think that pleasure in the beauty of either art or
nature rests on what is universal, present in all rational beings; and,
in that sense, it is indeed impersonal. According to Kant, this is how it
is possible for it to claim universal validity (Kant 1928, section 6). This
is roughly where Nietzsche’s problem with Kant lies. But, to focus more
precisely on what worries Nietzsche, we need to make a distinction.
In the Critique of Judgment, Kant claims that judgments of taste
make a claim to correctness. The judgments are put forward as universally valid for all human beings (in section 6–8 and 32). In this respect,
Kant follows the eighteenth-century British aestheticians. I do not
think that Nietzsche is objecting to that. (I discuss the contrary view
in section 3 of this paper.) However, Kant also thinks that beauty is
universally available. This is a different idea, and it is this that Nietzsche rejects, in my view. What Nietzsche dislikes about what he calls
the “impersonality and universal validity” of the judgment of taste is
not the claim to correctness or universal validity but the idea that the
beauty of things is universally available. Both ideas are found in Kant.
(Kant writes, “[The subject] must regard [the liking] as resting on what
he may presuppose in every other person” [Kant 1928, 51].) The idea
of the universal availability of beauty is also a Renaissance humanist
idea, to be found in Leon Battista Alberti and others (see Mitrovic 2004,
(c) Nietzsche next says,
Whether or not this was on the whole a mistake cannot be dealt with
At face value, Nietzsche is not making an evaluation either way here
about Kant’s impersonality and universality claim. Perhaps he does mean
to condemn it and will do so. But this is left open at this point. Notice
the qualification “on the whole.” This hints that he thinks that there is
some truth in Kant’s account. One possibility would be that he is at least
pulling apart the ideas of universal validity and universal accessibility.
Nietzsche’s view may be subtle. Alternatively, Nietzsche might be putting a question mark over the idea that knowledge is always impersonal.
Someone might say, “Ah, but Nietzsche is being ironic.” But it should
be a methodological rule never to be sure when a writer is being ironic.
We might be reading in more irony than is there. (A comparison: the
troubled nature of much Wittgenstein interpretation should caution us
against this; when, on the page, Wittgenstein says things that seem to
run counter to the standard interpretation, it tends to be dismissed as
ironic or perhaps the voice of his “interlocutor,” when it should at least
be controversial whether it is so.)
(d) Nietzsche continues:
I only wish to underscore that Kant, like all philosophers, instead
of envisaging the aesthetic problem starting from the experiences of
the artist (the one who creates), thought about art and the beautiful
from the view point of the “spectator” and therefore, without it being
noticed, got the “spectator” himself into the concept “beautiful.”
Kant’s spectator-centered approach, thus described, does not seem
unreasonable to me, at least. Surely, beauty is what spectators appreciate. But Nietzsche might point out that I am a philosopher, so he
might expect me to find it reasonable to sympathize with Kant. Since
Nietzsche contrasts the point of view of the spectator with that of the
artist, the question we need to consider is this: When we are thinking
about the judgment of taste or beauty, why do artists’ experiences matter particularly?
Two objections to focusing on the artist’s experiences are these:
(1) Those who want buildings designed for them will employ
architects, not art and architectural writers or critics, such
as Nikolaus Pevsner. But if they want to know about the
architectural virtues of buildings, they should ask Pevsner
not an architect. Perhaps artists or architects are too egotistically bound up with their artistic projects to be fair judges. In
Britain, in particular, there is a notable gulf between the architectural tastes of architects and that of the general public.
Many architects tend to speak like adolescent proto-Nietzscheans (often because they imbibed Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead at
an impressionable age), dismissing ordinary people’s architectural judgments as shallow and sentimental. Unfortunately,
British architects’ judgments about architecture are not better
than nonarchitect’s judgments—indeed they are often worse—
hence, the British wry comment “It probably got an award”
said of ugly recent buildings.
(2) Reflective phenomenology does not support the idea that artists’ experiences are a better guide to beauty than nonartists’
experiences. There is the phenomenon of artistic understanding destroying the appreciation of beauty, as when one learns
how an effect was produced. For example, I can remember
hearing a certain musical phrase that intrigued me. It seemed
to have a distinctive magical effect. What was it? How was it
done? I sat down and worked it out. Thereafter, that music
never sounded magical to me in the same way. The music was
thereafter disenchanted for me. I knew how the trick was
done. Being a musician had damaged my musical experience
in this case.
So, not only is it difficult to see why the artist’s aesthetic judgments are
generally preferable to nonartists’ aesthetic judgments, it seems not to
have the support of everyday observation or intuitiveness. However,
Nietzsche goes on precisely to address this. It is, thus, evident that his
text is not an unstructured rant or ramble.
Before we proceed, let us note that there is another way to take
what Nietzsche says about beauty, art, and spectators. A more metaphysical way to interpret Nietzsche is as expressing sympathy for a
form of “aesthetic realism.” Nietzsche implies that he wants to get the
spectator out of the concept of beauty. But realism is a commitment to a
spectator-independent notion of beauty—something that might be created by artists but, having been created, is independent of them. This
independence is a hallmark of realism about the aesthetic. Nietzsche
might add that proper superior artistic spectators think of beauty as
something independent of them that they are aware of. The text thus
far is compatible with this metaphysical reading. But if we look at
what ensues, we see that Nietzsche’s point is primarily normative. To
say that, however, is not to deny a metaphysical interpretation. The
normative and the metaphysical are not opposed. (There are some who
interpret Nietzsche as a value nihilist, but I see little to be said for that
(e) Nietzsche next writes:
If only this “spectator” had at least been sufficiently familiar to the
philosophers of the beautiful, however—namely, as the great personal
fact and experience, as a wealth of most personal intense experiences,
desires, surprises, and delight in the realm of the beautiful!
One interpretation would be that Nietzsche is describing the artist
spectator rather than the nonartist spectator, and the characteristics
that Nietzsche mentions are supposed to be respects in which artist
spectators are superior. (We might wonder whether it is fair to say that
the nonartist spectator lacks these characteristics: are these not also
characteristics of a connoisseur like Pevsner?) My view is that, in fact,
the artist/nonartist contrast is a distraction in understanding this passage. It is not really doing work for Nietzsche that it appears to be doing.
What is important is the kind of character that Nietzsche associates
(rightly or wrongly) with each kind of spectator.
We might note that this is an odd list since it includes delight in the
beautiful along with other psychological events. This does not fit comfortably with this interpretation.
(f) Nietzsche continues:
But I fear the opposite was always the case: and thus we receive from
them, right from the beginning definitions in which, as in that famous
definition Kant gives of the beautiful, the lack of a more refined selfexperience sits in the shape of a fat worm of basic error.
On the present interpretation, Nietzsche is criticizing Kant for focusing
on the judgment of nonartists because it foregrounds those who lack
“intense experiences, desires, surprises”—those who “lack of finer sensitivity.” (Let us put aside the question of whether this is fair to critics
like Pevsner.) On this interpretation, the contrast between the artist
spectator and the nonartist spectator is not the important point; instead,
this distinction serves to illustrate what he is really concerned with,
which are the qualities of mind of the true judger and experiencer. This
interpretation fits with an elitist theme in some of Nietzsche’s other writings—the idea being that only to the kind of spectators that Nietzsche
describes are real beauties available. Only people of a certain artistic
sort are able to reach the kind of (“intense”) states that are required to
appreciate more elusive beauties.
An alternative interpretation is that the problem with nonartists
is not their lack of refined sensitivity but their lack of self-knowledge.
Nietzsche accuses Kant of lack of knowledge (“familiarity”) of the spectator. How then are artists relevant? It is not that they are a different
type of spectator, more intense and passionate than most, but that they
have greater self-knowledge and, thus, know that desire is involved in
their pleasure in beauty. (Artists have a “more refined ‘self-experience.’”)
Thus, if one looks at the “aesthetic problem” from the point of view of the
artist, the personal and individual nature of our aesthetic life would be
obvious. On this interpretation, the list “personal intense experiences,
desires, surprises, and delight in the realm of the beautiful!” makes
more sense since what is known is the way our pleasures in beauty are
integrated with the many desires in play in our lives.
There is something to be said for both interpretations.
(g) Nietzsche continues:
“The Beautiful,” Kant said, “is what pleases without interest.” Without interest!
Recall here what disinterestedness means for Kant—a disinterested
pleasure is one that lacks a direct connection to desire. This is because
pleasure in beauty is supposed to be rooted in our nature as rational
beings, which we share with everybody, and it is not rooted in what is
idiosyncratic, special to me. Universal validity is supposed to be derived
from disinterestedness (Kant 1928, section 6).
3. Discussion: Nietzsche, Hume, Kant, Relativism
Let us now step a little way away from the text to discuss and offer some
critical assessment of what we have covered so far.
Compare and contrast Nietzsche’s “wealth of most personal intense
experiences, desires, surprises,” with Hume’s description of the ideal
critic: “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice,
perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle
critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever
they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty” (Hume
1985, 241). We can imagine Nietzsche endorsing “intense” over “delicate”
sentiments. In fact, Hume’s account allows for considerable refinements
of our sensibilities. Still, there is no denying the large difference between
Hume and Nietzsche. An especially clear contrast with Nietzsche is
Hume’s requirement that “[a] perfect serenity of mind” is necessary for
being a good judge of beauty (Hume 1985, 232). For Hume, we should
judge when we are cool and collected. However, perhaps someone in a
manic exalted state can grasp higher beauties not available to those in
a cool, serene frame of mind that Hume seems to require. There is some
evidence, I gather, that successful artists are more disposed to be manicdepressive than scientists and ordinary people. The question is this: Does
that make them better judges, as opposed to being better creators? Are
moody and emotional judgers better at judging? Philosophers for the most
part aspire to the more “Apollonian” rather than “Dionysian” frame of
mind and are themselves of the cool, serene, and detached disposition that
Hume requires for judging beauty. (I have not found a place where Kant
makes a similar claim, but the idea of contemplative pleasure seems to
imply it.) There is certainly a question about the requirement of coolness.
Perhaps there are more profound beauties that are best appreciated in
an ecstatic or trance-like state, rather than a state of cool serenity.
Consider lack of prejudice, an important virtue in a critic for both
Hume and Kant, which dramatizes the contrast with Nietzsche. This
was one of Hume’s desiderata, and it resurfaces in Kant’s claim that
“[e]veryone must agree that if a judgement of the beautiful is tinged
with the slightest interest, then it is very partial and not a pure judgement of taste” (Kant 1928, 43). Nietzsche would, I think, argue that
prejudiced critics may be able to grasp beauties beyond the reach of cool,
fair, impartial, dispassionate, and impersonal spectators of the sort that
Hume or Kant recommend. Suppose certain critics have a prejudice in
favor of some group X (nation, religion, and so forth). Then, such critics
may be influenced in favor of a work by someone that they believe to
belong to that group. They might as a consequence be unfair to those
not of group X, judging their work to be worse that they would if they
believed them to be the work of someone of group X. Those critics are not
impartial judges and are politically bigoted and unjust. Nevertheless,
it may be that they have an enhanced appreciation of X art and may
be able to find beauties in those works that are lost on more impartial
spectators. Nietzsche would, I think, say that fair-mindedness is all
very well, but, if it comes at the expense of the intense passions that
we need to reap the more subtle and deeper pleasures in more profound
beauties, then impartial judges are not ideal judges. What are vices of
a critic, in Hume and Kant’s way of thinking, may in fact be necessary
vices if one is to have the virtues of an excellent judge. Philippa Foot
suggests that Nietzsche believes that the virtues are an essential disunity in that having certain virtues may mean having corresponding
vices (Foot 2002, 58). It is similar with taste. A true judge should not
be overly fair. Justice is not the first virtue of the ideal aesthetic judge.
Indeed, justice may even sometimes be a vice if it stands in the way of
passionate and partial engagement with works.
By way of illustrating Nietzsche’s view, it may be useful to compare
it with a common contemporary view according to which, if a thing is
beautiful, then standard observers under standard conditions experience it in a certain way. Nietzsche would deny this. He thinks that
exceptional people in exceptional conditions may have insight into
beauties that are not available to standard observers under standard
conditions. Perhaps to appreciate great artistic or natural beauty, it
takes an aristocratic soul and an aristocratic sensibility and heightened ecstatic experiences. The highest beauty may be elusive and only
available to a few exceptional people in exceptional circumstances
in exceptional psychological states. Somewhat similarly, some have
claimed that, under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, people can
have experiences that reveal more to them (through “the doors of perception”) than in their normal sober state. I am skeptical about that.
But it is certainly a possible view. Why prioritize statistical normality?
Perhaps a drugged person is a better judge than an undrugged one
in certain matters. Why not? Similarly, perhaps a manic-depressive
prejudiced bigot is a better judge of beauty than someone who is cool
and calm and fair and impartial and terribly nice.
Before we rejoin Nietzsche, there is one common kind of criticism
of Kant that I want to mention to contrast it with the much more interesting criticism that I think Nietzsche is proposing. Some Marxists
and feminists criticize Kant’s claim that judgments of taste lay claim to
correctness or universality, which they connect with disinterestedness
(Eagleton 1984; Bourdieu 1984, 1996; Wolff 1984). These writers also
see Kant’s pretension to neutrality—the idea that pleasure in beauty
is disconnected from interest—as, in fact, concealing the dominance of
once kind of “interest” (bourgeois? male?), one that “silences” others
(Devereaux 2003; Korsmeyer 2004).
However, in Kant’s defense, we can point out that there is much to be
said for the idea that judgments of taste aspire to a kind of correctness,
one that judgments of the merely agreeable do not (Kant 1928, sections
2–6). This is not a controversial addition to the judgment of taste but
essential to it. Relativism is implausible at least as a thesis about what
is implicit in the act of judgment. Moreover, since only pure judgments
of taste are completely disinterested, Kant can happily admit impure
judgments of taste. So Kant’s doctrine not only need not be found objectionable by those who want to import dominance-oppression politics
into aesthetics; they could perhaps even use his doctrine to help their
cause, since they could complain about the impurity of people’s actual
judgments, which are warped in bourgeois, patriarchal, or whatever
ways. It must be noted that this type of criticism usually also involves
a very crude unsympathetic interpretation of Kant, one that makes
of him a pop-Kant substitute. (Eagleton 1984 and Bourdieu 1984 and
1996 are particularly unimpressive on this score; see Zangwill 2002 for
a critique.) In fact, Kant can be easily defended against these kinds of
criticisms. However, my point in mentioning them is not just to complain
about the inadequacy of a common kind of discussion and criticism of
Kant—which would be uninteresting—but to provide a clear contrast
with Nietzsche’s much more interesting criticism.
Nietzsche offers an elitist critique of the leveling idea of the universal
availability of beauty. That is, he regards some beauty as “difficult,” as
has often been claimed by those in various twentieth-century modernist movements, in visual art and architecture, music, and literature.
Nietzsche seems to be objecting to Kant’s Enlightenment and humanist
universalism, according to which beauty is within reach of everyone.
That is too democratic for Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s criticism of Kant is,
thus, the complete opposite of that of the Marxist and feminist critics.
They think that Kant’s view that aesthetic judgment claims correctness
and universality is somehow badly exclusionary. Not enough! Nietzsche would reply. Some beauty, higher beauty, can be grasped only by
a select few.
4. Desire
Let us now return to the text.
(h) Nietzsche continues:
Compare this definition with one made by a real “spectator” and
artist—Stendhal, who in one place calls the beautiful une promesse
de bonheur [a promise of happiness].
It is hard to reconstruct a Stendhalian theory on the basis of the little
that Nietzsche says here. Nietzsche seems to be assuming that happiness involves interested pleasure in some way because it is connected
with desire.
(i) Next,
What is rejected and crossed out here, in any case, is precisely the
one thing that Kant emphasizes in the aesthetic condition: le désintéressement.
“One thing” is hardly fair. For Kant, disinterestedness is one necessary
condition of pleasure in beauty, and there is much more to Kant’s account
than that. Nietzsche seems to be picking up on one aspect of Kant’s view
of pleasure in beauty and ignoring the rest. Nevertheless, it is true that,
for Kant, pleasures in beauty not only are not based on desires but also
do not produce desire by themselves (although Kant does allow that they
may produce desire in conjunction with an “empirical” or “intellectual”
interest, in sections 41 and 42 of the Critique of Judgment). Nietzsche’s
Stendahl would be relevant to Kant’s views on disinterestedness if we
interpret Nietzsche as saying that pleasure in beauty produces desire of
itself and, in this sense, pleasure in beauty “promises happiness.” Nietzsche, in fact, confirms that this is what he means later in the same section,
while discussing Schopenhauer. He writes, “[T]he beautiful arouses the
will (‘interestedness’).” It would still be possible to claim that pleasures
in beauty are not grounded in desire, though they do produce desire. But
that takes away the purity of the operation of taste, on Kant’s picture, as
a faculty completely distinct from our practical and appetitive lives. The
autonomy of the faculty is compromised.
(j) Nietzsche asks,
Who’s right, Kant or Stendhal?
The reader hopes that Nietzsche’s answer to this question will help
elucidate the Stendahlian theory.
(k) What Nietzsche then says is disappointing in this respect, since he
moves on to what seems like a new point, or one that is only loosely
Admittedly if our aestheticians never tire of throwing into the balance in Kant’s favour, that under the influence of beauty people can
look at even robeless female statues “without interest,” then we may
laugh a little at their expense.
This seems unfair as a criticism of Kant, for Kant can happily concede
that some pleasures in contemplating nude female statues are interested
pleasures. Kant allows for both disinterested pure pleasures and impure
interested pleasures in the same thing. This is one point at which the
apparent confusion of art and beauty, noted at the beginning of this
paper, is important. For works of art are complex and may have many
aspects other than their beauty. This seems a lapse on Nietzsche’s part.
On the other hand, he says “our aestheticians,” so it is not clear that
Kant himself is his target.
A complication is that, although pleasure in contemplating the statue
of the nude female may be pleasure in the beauty of the statue, such
beauty may be what Kant calls dependent beauty. Dependent beauty is
the beauty that a thing has as a thing of a teleological kind (Kant 1928,
section 16). Beauty that is not “dependent” is “free” beauty. Furthermore, we can distinguish the (dependently) beautiful representation
of a nude woman from the representation of a (dependently) beautiful
woman. The statue may have both of these. It may also have free beauty
(= nondependent beauty), and the appreciation of that free beauty may
be disintinterested. The statue may have beauty of different kinds, and
the pleasures taken in the statue may be of different kinds.
Perhaps Nietzsche does not see this, or else he is criticizing Kant
for allowing such distinctions. But such distinctions are crucial, and
they cast much light in aesthetics. It is obvious that we may take
nonaesthetic pleasures in contemplating the nude statue, pleasures
that are not disinterested. Furthermore, it is not obvious that we cannot also take pleasure in the statue’s free beauties, if any, where those
pleasures are disinterested. It is not even clear that one cannot have
pleasures in the beauty of the representation of the nude woman that
are disinterested, even if one risks being laughed at a little. Why not,
exactly? True, the erotic aspect should not be ignored. But a work of
art is a complex thing, and we can appreciate many different aspects
of one work in different ways.
Thus, Nietzsche’s point about nude statues seems weak if Kant himself is his target. For Kant has a complex and variegated theory of the
pleasures we take in art. However, Nietzsche seems not to be singling
out Kant here but unnamed followers of Kant, who think of themselves
as agreeing with Kant. So perhaps this is not meant to be an objection
to Kant himself.
(l) Nietzsche then writes,
The experiences of artists in connection with this delicate matter are
more “interesting,” and Pygmalion was in any case not necessarily
an “un-aesthetic” human being.
Again, Kant can concede that many pleasures taken in the contemplation
of statues of female nudes and also flesh-and-blood nude females are
interested pleasures. Kant would agree that Pygmalion’s red-blooded
appreciation of fleshly female erotic beauty (a case of dependent beauty)
is not disinterested. Still, some disinterested pleasures in contemplating
nude female statues seem possible.
(m) Nietzsche continues:
Let’s think more highly of the innocence of our aestheticians that is
reflected in such arguments.
Nietzsche seems to be admitting that a distinction can be made between
pure pleasures and impure ones since it is possible to be innocent. It is
possible to view the statue innocently and also in a knowing sexual way.
Both are possible. If so, what is the criticism of Kant and the argument
in favor of Stendahl?
(n) Next,
For example, let us give Kant credit for knowing how to teach—with
the naïveté of a country priest—about the characteristic properties
of the sense of touch!
Two preliminary comments:
First, “For example” seems to refer back to “our aestheticians” in the
previous sentence and, thus, seems here to include Kant as one of them,
as opposed to interpreters of Kant who might not get Kant right. This
closes off an interpretative possibility left open earlier.
Second, it is not obvious which passage of Kant Nietzsche had in mind.
Nietzsche may have been thinking about a passage in the Anthropology
from a Pragmatic Point of View (Kant 2006), where Kant talks about
the sense of touch as a way of knowing about physical shape
It is not clear exactly how Nietzsche’s remark about touch bears on
Kant’s views on disinterestedness. Is the suggested point that many
pleasures of touch are not disinterested, being sensual or erotic? But
why should that generate a difficulty for Kant? Kant can admit an erotic
dimension to some of our pleasures of touch but distinguish that from
pure pleasures in beauty, which typically derive from sight and hearing,
not touch. Perhaps Nietzsche sees the point about touch as bearing on
the possibility of viewing nude female statues disinterestedly. Perhaps
when we look at the statue, we imagine touching it. Perhaps it is difficult
or even impossible to enjoy particularly luscious female nude sculptures
in a pure disinterested way. But strictly speaking, Nietzsche is not
criticizing Kant here. Reading this sentence in its most straightforward
way, Nietzsche is praising Kant for his naiveté in what he says about
touch. That is to put possible irony to one side. But even if we suppose
that Nietzsche was playfully mocking Kant, there is no reason to think
that the implied point is that there is no nonerotic conception of the
pleasures of touch.
(o) Nietzsche resumes:
And here we come back to Schopenhauer, who stood much closer
to the arts than Kant and still did not get out from the spell of the
Kantian definition.
Since Nietzsche’s attention shifts away from Kant to Schopenhauer, I
end my sentence-by-sentence commentary.
5. Discussion
One way to take what Nietzsche seems to be implying here is that he
thinks that what appears to be pure disinterested pleasure is, in fact,
erotic or sexual pleasure, which puritan thinkers like Kant are blind
to and do not recognize. Many think of Nietzsche as a proto-Freudian.
But we need to see good reasons to accept a sexualized view of pleasure
in beauty in general. I suppose it is possible that pleasure in beauty
somehow has an erotic aspect that we are not aware of. Is Nietzsche,
like Aquinas, denying the existence of free beauty (see McCloskey 1987),
but then, unlike Aquinas, claiming that all beauty is somehow erotic? I
see no reason to think that Nietzsche thinks this. Nor is it plausible. We
appreciate the beauty of many natural things, such as flowers, trees, and
hills. What have they got to do with the erotic? One can view flowers,
trees, and hills in a sexual way. But one need not, and it is implausible
that we must do so in order to appreciate their beauty. Perhaps the
pleasures taken in many Western figurative representational paintings
have a sexual or erotic aspect, given the usual themes of those paintings.
But we will need very strong reasons for thinking of pleasures taken
in many natural beauties, abstract design, and absolute music (that is,
music without words) as covertly sexual. (Musicologists sometimes argue
for the prevalence of sexual content in absolute music, but I suspect
that those claims reveal more about the musicologists than the music!)
Alternatively, perhaps no general claim about beauty and the erotic is
being claimed. Instead, the erotic beauty of nude female statues is supposed to be a particular telling example of a case where the defender of
disinterested beauty might have difficulties. But what is the point that
we are supposed to take from such examples? It is that the will is not
distinct from pleasures in beauty, quite generally. It is obviously not in
the case of erotic beauty. And the idea seems to be that we can generalize
and think that other cases are mired in desire, but less obviously so. But
how could we show that? How could we justify the generalization? And is
erotic beauty really a form of beauty or merely a case of the agreeable?
What, then, is Nietzsche’s point here? I think that he is not denying
the possibility claim—that we can view nude female statues disinterestedly or even that pleasures in beauty are completely severed from desire
and the will. Instead, what we have is a continuation of the praise of the
passionate spectator, which is not a denial of the possibility of the disinterested spectator. Above all, Nietzsche is not making a general claim
about the nature of aesthetic judgment and aesthetic pleasure. In that
sense, he is not criticizing Kant’s analysis of pleasure in the beautiful.
Nietzsche’s purpose, I believe, is normative, not so much a philosophical
inquiry into the general nature of pleasure in beauty. Nietzsche admits
the possibility and actuality of disinterested aesthetic appreciation but
issues an evaluative challenge.
Compare Hume, once again: Jerrold Levinson has argued that the real
problem with Hume’s theory of taste, according to which we aspire to be
“ideal critics” (where this is cashed out in terms of the various features
of such a critic) is not that it is not descriptively adequate but that it
does not answer the “normative question” about why we should want
to be such an ideal critic or value being such an ideal critic (Levinson
2002). By analogy, Nietzsche is not, in these passages, criticizing Kant’s
account according to which pleasure in the beautiful is disinterested.
Instead, he is raising the normative question of why such pleasures
should have the lofty or even supreme value traditionally accorded to
them by Kant. There are also impure erotic interested pleasures, and the
question is why we should value pure disinterested pleasures more than
these. This is not a critique of the illusory purity of Kant’s judgment of
taste (as many Marxists and feminists say). He grants the existence of
such pleasures, of such judgments, and of the faculty for making such
judgments; but he questions their value.
Kant’s account cuts off pleasure in beauty from desire in that the
pleasure is not based on desire, nor does it produce desire by itself in
the way that pleasure in the agreeable does (Kant 1928, section 3; see
Zangwill 1995). We can take Nietzsche to be denying not that aesthetic
pleasure, as characterized by Kant, exists, but rather that aesthetic
pleasure has the value Kant attaches to it, a value greater than that of
interested pleasures.
Kant’s more substantive account of the nature of the aesthetic pleasure is that it is the “free play of the cognitive faculties” (Kant 1928,
section 9, 35–38). It is not merely that Kant has transferred the characteristics of knowledge in general to art, as Nietzsche says, but that
aesthetic pleasure is a particular activity of the cognitive faculties, which
produce knowledge. But what it is that produces knowledge is thought
to be universal, sharable, not highly personal intense experiences of
the sort that Nietzsche thinks that appreciating beauty involves. And
that is Nietzsche’s problem—that something so widely sharable could
not have the value of something preciously personal and particular.
Kant’s reply cannot just be that that we need the pure aesthetic
pleasures because of their role in our entire cognitive system. While
such an account of their value gives them an essential function in our
cognitive economy, that value is unacceptably instrumental. The value
is not inherent in the pleasure itself. Nietzsche would also complain that
that value is unacceptably dislocated from the other things we value
greatly, the “personal intense experiences, desires [and] surprises” in
our lives, which lie far both from the impersonal world of knowledge
and the world of the rational will.
What we can take from this whole passage is the following.
First, there is an interesting critique of the impersonal and impartial
aspect of Kant’s disinterestedness doctrine, as opposed to the claim to
universal validity of the judgment of taste. For Kant, judgments of taste
rest on something universal in human nature. So, correct judgments
of taste, like the capacity to do the morally right thing, are available to
all. Nietzsche disputes this democratic view. He thinks that beauty may
be highly personal, elusive, and not universally available, and perhaps
is available only to aristocratic souls in unusual enhanced ecstatic experiences. On this point, Nietzsche poses an insightful and interesting
challenge to Kant’s idea that pleasure in beauty has its source in what
we all share.
Second, Nietzsche comments on beauty, desire, and erotic beauty are
doing something different. Nietzsche’s point is a normative one and does
not critique the adequacy of Kant’s account of pure disinterested pleasure. The point is to question the high value accorded to such pleasures,
by contrast with pleasure that are intimately and immediately bound up
with desire, such as the erotic pleasures of viewing nude female statues
or felt by artists toward their models or to their imaginary creations.
Here, too, there is a case to answer. Whence the superiority of the pure
over the impure?
In sum, we should be impressed by both Nietzsche’s idea of an elusive
beauty that is not democratically available and his advocacy of impure
pleasures. These two related criticisms have force and those who would
defend Kant need to address them.*
Durham University
* Many thanks for very helpful comments from Lilian Alweiss, Daniel Came,
Victor Dura Vila, two referees for this journal, and especially Rachel Zuckert
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