Kant very often appears as a conservative figure, a philosopher who works at multiple levels to reconcile differences – between dogmatism and skepticism, for instance, and between dimensions of thought, morality and beauty. Yet there is potential to interpret this system differently – not simply in terms of its complex, often claustrophobic architecture and its meta-level understanding of the underlying conditions of human experience, but also in terms of its elaboration of openings. While the system seems focused, at multiple levels, on homeostasis, this is only inasmuch as it also frames an energetics – a playing at the limit within the horizon of the finite.
I cannot hope to argue this properly here, but will simply point to an alignment between four of Kant’s key notions: the determination of the negative noumena; the clarification of the self-reflexivity of aesthetic pleasure; the elaboration of the sublime as a play between finite and infinite; and the conception of nature as a protean model for human genius.
- Negative noumena
The notion of the ’noumenal’ in Ancient Greek philosophy refers specifically to objects of thought rather than sensible intuition. Plato’s ideal forms provide a famous example. They inhabit a noumenal space. Plato regards the noumenal space of mathematical ideality as true and actual, while phenomenal reality appears as a space of illusion. Kant draws upon this ancient notion of the noumenal, while subtly altering and extending it. Instead of simply and directly indicating ideality as such, the noumenal represents that which is directly, intelligibly intuited without any recourse to sensible intuition. This at once captures the sense of ideality, which Kant describes as positive noumena, as well as the sense of something that appears precisely the opposite – a negative noumena. This is the curious field of thought that signals the limits of thought. It represents within thought that which that exceeds thought altogether. How can these two understandings be related? Because both positive and negative noumena elude phenomenal experience and because they each represent terrains of thought. The positive noumena imagines directly intelligible, ideal objects, while the negative noumena conceives ‘nothing’ as such – or more precisely that which is other to and exceeds thought. The Kantian notion of the negative noumena emerges in relation to the self-reflexive concept of thought recognising its own limits and positing this beyond as a form of thought. Whereas the related notion of ‘the thing in itself’ motions outwards to the unknowable character and intrinsic excess of the world beyond thought, the negative noumena names the thinking of this space as a limit and form of negation. Kant writes of this latter sense:
The concept of a noumenon is, therefore, only a limiting concept, and intended to keep the claims of sensibility within proper bounds, and is therefore only of negative use. (CPR, p. 261)
In summary, the negative noumena emerges within thought, but is focused upon that which exceeds thought. Crucially, however, this negative and excessive potential does not simply lie outside thought, but is somehow contained within it, emerging as an aspect of its restless dynamism. It signals both a limit and also an internal relation to excess that is itself protean and infinite. This corresponds closely to how Kant conceives the general character of aesthetic cognition, as well as to his specific conception of the play of sublime thought and the notions of nature and genius.
- Self-reflexive aesthetic pleasure
Kant argues that aesthetic pleasure does not emerge from a relation to sensible phenomena as such, but rather in terms of a free play of the faculties of imagination and understanding. It is a meta-level pleasure that is linked to the prolongation of indeterminacy. Kant links the faculty of imagination to phenomenal experience. It represents a form of receptive contemplation. But this contemplation only obtains aesthetic value inasmuch as it also has an active dimension, inasmuch as it works over phenomena, inasmuch as it discovers within them a sense of curious, intransitive purpose. For this play of interpretation to genuinely become aesthetic, for it to discover a coherent formal character, it must also involve an aspect of the faculty of understanding. How is this to be conceived? If the understanding is all about applying concepts to phenomenal experience, and if aesthetics is precisely about delaying any reduction to concepts and maintaining a pleasurable energetics of irresolution, then how can we conceive the role of understanding here? Perhaps in terms of the conception of the negative noumena? Aesthetic contemplation is thought finding the means to think beyond its own limits, yet not to represent this field substantively so much as negatively; more as a self-reflexive energy than as something known. This raises the issue of how the aesthetic can be bracketed as a special form or cognition? While it certainly characterises a particular form of judgement (informing statements of the kind, ‘this apple is beautiful’), it may have more general cognitive relevance. Just possibly, aesthetic play – the meta-level awareness that it enables – provides the very ground for the division between the phenomenal and noumenal. It is what shapes the prospect and non-experience of negatively cast excess. It stages the noumenal relation as intrinsic not only to the experience of aesthetic pleasure but to cognition generally.
- Sublime limit and infinite
The sublime, for Kant, describes the intimate relation between the recognition of limits and their capacity for overcoming. Importantly, overcoming is not a consequence of destroying limits, but of playing upon and exacerbating them. The gap, for instance, between the noumenal and the phenomenal is never literally overcome, but their relation is staged in such a way that an infinite prospect is opened up within thought – within thought’s own capacity to reflect upon itself, within its own capacity to link collapse to overcoming. The vastness of huge ocean storm – its terrible chaos – becomes pleasurable inasmuch as it presses us to think beyond number and coherent form. It serves as a metaphor for our own noumenal capacity, which is the very energy of thought. Thought is not simply recognition. It is not simply a robotic work of categorisation – of applying models that are already known. It involves an endless play of the limit that has its general basis in aesthetic cognition.
- Nature and genius
At one level Kant associates nature with a field of blind determination – with material things blindly interacting with one another. This is distinguished from the realm of human identity and freedom. Yet at another level, he represents nature as the very model for the protean dynamic of human thought and being.
Nature as whole is, of course, a concept. It is something thought, but it also refers to something that structurally exceeds thought. Philosophy has a deictic category. It points. It necessarily employs concepts to point, but this is not to say that everything it points towards is reducible to these constructs. We do not encompass nature with our concept of nature. Our understanding always fall short, is always limited, and always plays on the limit.
In its dynamic, excessive, irreducible character, nature provides the model for aesthetic genius. It figures as the active principle in matter – that which animates it. This is linked to its noumenal aspect, but clearly not in the sense of self-reflexive species of thought, so much as a constant challenging of thought (and as field that is ultimately painfully and ecstatically oblivious to thought). I suppose, arguably, the notion of nature could be regarded as a projection of thought – an invention of thought’s external basis. While it may have this character, and it certainly does within romanticism, this is not to say that it may not also represent something else, something that is irreducible to these endless self-reflexive circles.
In any case, nature very explicitly provides the model for Kant’s conception of artistic genius. The genius of art is based upon harbouring the tension of the noumenal – finding phenomenal metaphors for this relation, yet less as coherent, final images than motions of opening and indetermination. Here the notion of genius describes clear links between the negative potential and excess of the noumenal and the dynamic irresolution of aesthetic contemplation and the protean purposiveness of nature.
If these alignments never quite achieve adequate focus within Kant – if they are to some extent repressed – this is because Kant’s overriding concern is to provide a unified account. His critical project involves a double motion of questioning previous models and recommending a meta-level model that enables things to roughly remain in place. Within this context, the aesthetic appears chiefly as a figure of reconciliation. In an Aristotelian manner, it is the moment of catharsis that ties together the dimensions of being that the wider philosophical system (as a form of tragedy) has so painstakingly torn apart and delineated. Yet this is to only recognise one aspect of the aesthetic, when the implications of the aesthetic are always profoundly double. It both rescues the system and exposes its inherent gaps. It both manifests limits and plays at them. Its structure is cyclical. It draws on a carnival logic in which social transformation occurs within the context of a staged revolution, and the theatricality of any action is constantly undermined by its seriousness. There is no sense of ever taking deliberate steps forward. They are all repeated steps, but each time utterly different.