Saturday, April 14, 2012

Kantian Disinterestedness

Nick Zangwill's contribution to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on aesthetics says this about Kant's notion of "disinterestedness":

An idea that plays large role in Kant's discussion of the subjective universality of the judgement of taste is that of disinterestedness, and so some words about this idea are in order. Kant claims that (a) pleasure in the beautiful is ‘disinterested’, and (b) only pleasure in the beautiful is ‘disinterested’. (Kant 1790, pp. 42–50.) And this plays a large role in Kant's project, for Kant connects disinterestedness with the claim to universal validity of the judgment of taste. However, before we go any further is crucial to recognize that the German word “interesse” has a special meaning in 18th Century German, and should not be confused with similar sounding English words or even contemporary German words. For Kant an interesse means a kind of pleasure that is not connected with desire: it is neither grounded in desire, nor does it produce it.

We should distinguish Kant's ambitious thesis that only pleasure in the beautiful is disinterested from his less ambitious claim simply that pleasure in the beautiful is disinterested — for it seems that there could be other disinterested pleasures. The less ambitious claim, however, is certainly controversial enough. The more uncontroversial component of that less ambitious claim is that pleasure in the beautiful is not grounded in the satisfaction of desire. It is plausible, surely, that when we take pleasure in something we find beautiful, we are not pleased that we have got something that we desire. Moreover, Kant wants pleasure in the beautiful to be open to all (so there should be no ‘aesthetic luck’), and if desire varied from to person, it seems that we could not require that pleasure from everyone, as the idea of universal validity requires. Hence the claim to universal validity would be lost if pleasure in beauty were not disinterested in the sense of not being based on desire.

However, it is not so clear that pleasure in the beautiful cannot produce desire, which Kant requires for disinterestedness. The issue here is whether it can produce desire from itself. Kant admits that we have certain general concerns with beauty that mean that desire may follow from a judgment of beauty; but, according to Kant, such desires do not have their source solely in the pleasure in the beautiful (Kant 1790, pp. 154–162, on ‘empirical interest’ and ‘intellectual interest’). So the less ambitious thesis is controversial because of the second component.

Moreover, whether only pleasure in beauty is disinterested, because no other kind of pleasures are disinterested — the ambitious thesis — is even more controversial. These are live issues.

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