Bombadil contra Kant, Otherness vs. Disinterest

Metaphysics of the Music, part 34

The delight in the otherness of things which comes to the fore in the Vision of the Ainur is also identified as a defining feature of the Elves, the “Children of Ilúvatar,” as when Tolkien describes them in one place in terms of their “devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and as ‘other’—sc. as a reality derived from God in the same degree as themselves—not as a material for use or as a power-platform. They also possess a ‘subcreational’ or artistic faculty of great excellence” (Letters 236). As in the case of the Ainur and their Music, here too Tolkien recognizes the importance of appreciating the beauty of a thing for its own sake and without reference to one’s own needs, “purposes,” or “use,” yet for Tolkien the freedom or autonomy of the aesthetic object is achieved in a way quite distinct from and even opposed to the aesthetic disinterest demanded by Kant. For Tolkien’s Elves, like the Ainur, their love for things other than themselves is not in spite of their intractable otherness, but precisely on account of it, “as a reality derived from God in the same degree as themselves—not as a material for use or as a power-platform.”[1] The affirmation of the existence of one’s other is not a threat to the “disinterested” appreciation of the object, but is rather the necessary condition for such an appreciation. This point receives particular emphasis in our final illustration of the Tolkienian theme of the love of otherness, the character of Tom Bombadil, who is described by Tolkien as “an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (Letters 192, emphasis original). Bombadil is an “allegory” of “pure (real) natural science,” by which Tolkien evidently does not mean the modern, Baconian and Kantian instrument for the domination or mastery of nature, but something more akin to the Aristotelian theoretical science of Boethius and Aquinas—a contemplative rather than utilitarian knowledge of the natural world for its own sake and thus “entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge.”[2]


[1] Thomas Hibbs, incidentally, comes close to making the same point in a different context when contrasting Tolkien’s and Kant’s respective approaches to ethics: “For all his stress on freedom and duty, Tolkien does not operate with a Kantian dichotomy between autonomy and heteronomy; indeed, certain forms of autonomy signal the vice of pride. In place of Kant’s isolated individual will, which in order to be free must turn from God, nature, and society, Tolkien gives us characters who can only understand themselves and their duties by seeing themselves as parts of larger wholes, as members of nations and races, as participants in alliances and friendships for the good, and ultimately as part of a natural cosmos.” Hibbs, “Providence and the Dramatic Unity of The Lord of the Rings,” 173.

[2] Tolkien elaborates on the proximity of his childhood interest in fairy-stories on the one hand and nature on the other in the following endnote to his essay: “I was introduced to zoology and palaeontology (‘for children’) quite as early as to Faërie. I was keenly alive to the beauty of ‘Real’ things,’ but it seemed to me quibbling to confuse this with the wonder of ‘Other things.’ I was eager to study Nature, actually more eager than I was to read most fairy-stories; but I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faërie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy-tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. Nature is no doubt a life-study, or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not ‘Nature,’ and which therefore is not obliged to study it, and is, in fact, wholly unsatisfied by it” (Tolkien Reader 94-5).

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.