Aquinas’s Kantian Music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 16

One of the implications of the abstract formalism of Thomas’s theory of music, and a point that will also have an important application to the Ainur’s Music of Tolkien’s creation-myth, concerns what some scholars have suggested is a kind of proto-Kantian, metaphysical “disinterest” involved in Thomas’s view of music in particular and his aesthetics in general. The concept of disinterest is a central tenet in the idealist aesthetics of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” in epistemology, since we can never know things as they exist in themselves and apart from us (the noumena), but only as they appear to us (the phenomena), if true objectivity in knowledge is to be possible, it is to be found not in the mind’s conformity to the objects of its knowledge but in the known object’s conformity to the mind’s particular ways of knowing. Kant was led to a similarly extreme and idealistic theory of beauty, according to which the “pure” aesthetic experience is one that is entirely “disinterested” in the question of the object’s mind-independent existence, which can’t really be known and which therefore must be held to be irrelevant to the question of beauty. In detaching pure aesthetic pleasure from the question of the object’s existence in this way, Kant’s goal was to allow the object’s beauty to be enjoyed for its own sake and without threat of being subsumed within and exploited by what Kant held to be the alien, heteronomous needs or ulterior purposes of the perceiving subject. An example of such an “impure” aesthetic experience for Kant was what he called the “agreeable,” defined as anything that pleases the senses. By referencing the aesthetic experience to the senses, the agreeable causes the subject to take an “interest” in the thing’s existence, inasmuch as a thing must exist for it to have an effect on the senses. The consequence of such interest, however, is that in referencing it to one’s own self via the senses, the aesthetic experience ceases or fails to be something truly universal, autonomous, free, and rational, and becomes instead something narrowly human, subjective, heteronomous, and constrained. In such cases, the aesthetic object is treated not as an end to be contemplated, but as a means to be subordinated to dictates of the human subject’s sub-rational inclinations, with the result being that the independence of the aesthetic object is negated. For Kant, the pure aesthetic experience, by contrast, is one that is concerned only with the sheer structural or formal qualities of the object’s appearances and the state of cognitive free-play or balance these appearances help establish between the mind’s faculties of imagination and understanding.[1] Such objects or appearances are said to be truly “beautiful.” Over against the simply beautiful, however, Kant also distinguished an even more ineffable aesthetic experience which he labeled the “sublime,” in which the imagination is entirely, even violently overwhelmed by the immensity of the aesthetic object, or more accurately, by the immensity of the mind’s capacity to present an appearance in this concept-defying and awe-inspiring way.[2] In both the sublime and the beautiful, therefore, and consistent with Kant’s broader idealist epistemology, yet arguably revealing what we shall see for Tolkien is the metaphysically tragic motive latent within it, pure aesthetic pleasure is a function of the mind alone rather than of any supposed, extraneous and (aesthetically speaking) unnecessary relationship between the mind and an externally existing, mind-independent reality.

[1] On Kant’s aesthetics, see Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition, 117-151. As Kant himself explains his concept of disinterest: “But if the question is whether something is beautiful, what we want to know is not whether we or anyone cares, or so much as might care, in any way, about the thing’s existence, but rather how we judge it in our mere contemplation of it (intuition or reflection)…. All he [i.e., the inquirer into things concerning beauty] wants to know is whether my mere presentation of the object is accompanied by a liking, no matter how indifferent I may be about the existence of the object of this presentation. We can easily see that, in order for me to say that an object is beautiful, and to prove that I have taste, what matters is what I do with this presentation within myself, and not the [respect] in which I depend on the object’s existence. Everyone has to admit that if a judgment about beauty is mingled with the least interest then it is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste. In order to play the judge in matters of taste, we must not be in the least biased in favor of the thing’s existence but must be wholly indifferent about it.” Kant, The Critique of Judgment,45-6.

[2] “When we speak of the sublime in nature we speak improperly; properly speaking, sublimity can be attributed merely to our way of thinking, or, rather, to the foundation this has in human nature. What happens is merely that the apprehension of an otherwise formless and unpurposive object prompts us to become conscious of that foundation, so that what is subjectively purposive is the use we make of the object, and it is not the object itself that is judged to be purposive on account of its form.” Ibid., 142.


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