More Aesthetic-Moral Fusion
Here are the substantive parts of the paper I presented, “Gentlemen Prefer Bronze: Aesthetic Sensibility as Moral Sense in the Analects” at the recent Pacific Division APA meeting in San Francisco.
Did I say “substantive”? The paper is very programmatic and my project is still in the early stages, so there is much argument and some clarity missing, to say the least. But I don’t mind at all discussing it with my betters — you know who you are. The panel that I was on, by the way, included two excellent and better papers by Stephen Walker and Alexus McLeod. Perhaps they too will share parts of their papers by and by…
…What is to be made of this aesthetic sensibility in terms of a philosophical understanding of early Confucianism? Does it merely provide an interesting social quirkiness to its practitioners—perhaps a quirkiness that, going further, undermines the primary significance of the rhetoric, or doctrines, used by the early followers of Confucius, as some seem to suggest. There have been suggestions and hints about how to integrate the aesthetic aspects of early Confucianism into a philosophical understanding of it, but not much of it has been especially clear about what we are attributing with this concept of aesthetic sensibility—a concept that, it would be plausible to say, isn’t distinguished clearly until the 18th century. So, in the first half of this paper, I’d like to try addressing this issue directly, using a somewhat simplified model of aesthetic sensibility based largely on Kant’s seminal account, in aesthetics theory, of “judgments of taste.” I want to make suggestions in the second half of the paper of how the Kantian model aids us in providing an interesting philosophical analysis of early Confucianism in terms of ritual appreciation and performance as involving activities and attitudes that can seem to be a fusion of the aesthetic and the moral.
Kant and Judgments of Taste
[Let me apologize to those who know Kant’s work on this topic much better than I do. Some of this will be simplistic and rushed for my purposes in this presentation. There is also germane intellectual background to Kant’s work involving British empiricism and its response to rationalism about beauty that I will ignore here. Of course any suggestions and corrections will be appreciated.]
According to Kant, there are three aspects of judgments of taste, two of which allow us to distinguish them variously from judgments of agreeableness, on the one hand and on the other hand, from moral judgments. The first aspect is a kind of “immediacy” of the judgment, “that judgments of beauty are not (or at least not primarily) mediated by inferences from principles or applications of concepts, but rather have all the immediacy of straightforwardly sensory judgments.” So, in his Critique of Judgment he states:
If someone reads me his poem or takes me to a play that in the end fails to please my taste, then he can adduce Batteux or Lessing, or even older and more famous critics of taste, and adduce all the rules they established as proofs that his poem is beautiful… . I will stop my ears, listen to no reasons and arguments, and would rather believe that those rules of the critics are false … than allow that my judgment should be determined by means of a priori grounds of proof, since it is supposed to be a judgment of taste and not of the understanding of reason. (165)
In this regard, judgments of taste, like judgments of agreeableness are primitive judgments in that they are not derived from higher principles or rules of judgment.
However, what distinguished judgments of taste from those of agreeableness is the former’s normative aspect, according to Kant. In making judgments of taste, a person:
…judges not merely for himself, but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Hence he says that the thing is beautiful, and does not count on the agreement of others with his judgment of satisfaction because he has frequently found them to be agreeable with his own, but rather demands it from them. He rebukes them if they judge otherwise, and denies that they have taste, though he nevertheless requires that they ought to have it… . (98)
On the other hand, Kant states, “With regard to the agreeable, everyone is content that his judgment, which he grounds on a private feeling, and in which he says of an object that it pleases him, be restricted merely to his own person.” So, he suggests, preferences based on agreeability to one’s private feelings lack a kind of universal feeling, a normativity that is expressed through the demand that others, if “they have taste,” ought to share one’s judgment. By contrast, Kant thinks, matters of taste involve speaking “of beauty as if it were a property of things.” One way to put his point might be that judgments of taste involve a direction of fit that mimics judgments of fact—about what properties things have—and so they carry with them the normative demand for agreement from others.
The third aspect of judgments of taste, on Kant’s analysis, is an important one for distinguishing them from moral judgments. He argues that judgments of taste are “merely contemplative” or to put it another way, “disinterested” in the sense that they do not have a relationship to any particular sort of desire. As James Shelley puts it:
According to Kant, to say that a pleasure is interested is not to say that it is self-interested in the Hobbesian sense, but rather that it stands in a certain relation to the faculty of desire. The pleasure involved in judging an action to be morally good is interested because such a judgment issues in a desire to bring the action into existence, i.e., to perform it. To judge an action to be morally good is to become aware that one has a duty to perform the action, and to become so aware is to gain a desire to perform it. By contrast, the pleasure involved in judging an object to be beautiful is disinterested because such a judgment issues in no desire to do anything in particular.
This requires stating, for Kant, partly because what is involved in judgments of taste is taking pleasure in an object to which we attribute beauty. Pleasure in other contexts seems interested, in the sense that it produces desires for certain sorts of action. However, the important contrast for us here is with moral judgment, which is interested on Kant’s view in its practicality—in its practically necessary relation to the faculty of desire.
So on a Kantian, working model of aesthetic judgment as a distinct sort, such judgments have three characteristics:
- Immediacy – the judgment is not derived from higher principles or rules
- Normativity – the judgment carries a normative claim that others’ judgments ought to agree with it
- Disinterestedness – the judgment does not stand in a relationship of psychological or practical necessity to desires of any particular sort
These characteristics allow us to distinguish aesthetic judgments from mere personal preference judgments and moral judgments. We might also try to link this account of judgments to a Kantian account of the associated sensibility, in the following way, as Nick Zangwill does with the normative aspect of such judgments:
Since judgments of taste are based on responses of pleasure, it would make little sense if our judgments were more or less appropriate but our responses were not. The normative claim of our judgments of taste must derive from the fact that we think that some responses are better or more appropriate to their object than others. Responses only license judgments which can be more or less appropriate because responses themselves can be more or less appropriate. If I get pleasure from drinking Canary-wine, and you don’t, neither of us will think of the other as being mistaken. But if you don’t get pleasure from Shakespeare’s Sonnets, I will think of you as being in error — not just your judgment, but your liking. I think that I am right to have my response, and that your response is defective. Someone who thinks that there is, in Hume’s words, “an equality of genius” between some inferior composer, on the one hand, and Bach, on the other, has a defective sensibility… .
So, we may speak of aesthetic judgments as being making normative claims because we think of the responses, or sensibility, upon which they are based as being normatively judgeable, either as being the right responses or as defective. A corresponding Kantian, working model of aesthetic sensibility then would be to characterize it similarly to aesthetic judgments as having three aspects:
- Immediacy – the sensibility constitutes a direct response to the world and is not a derived response from application of higher principles or rules
- Normativity – the sensibility can be deemed as correct or defective
- Disinterestedness – the sensibility does not necessarily include motivations of any particular sort
With this model in hand, we can turn to an analysis of roles that aesthetic judgments and sensibility might play within early Confucianism, in particular here, in the kinds of things Confucius seems concerned with in the Analects.
Confucius, the Aesthetic, and the Moral
On any reading of the Analects, ritual propriety, li 禮, must play an intimate role in the final overall ethical vision of the gentleman, or junzi 君子, who seems to embody the virtues dear to Confucius. Ritual propriety carries much of the load for characterization of early Confucianism as prominently fixated on aesthetic education and cultivation. But how are we to understand that role of ritual propriety in the larger ethical vision of the Analects, in light of the model of aesthetic sensibility that we wish to apply to the analysis? After all, haven’t we now an account of aesthetic judgment and sensibility that is distinct from moral judgment and sensibility?
According to Kwong-loi Shun, there are two ways in which interpretations have generally gone regarding ritual propriety in relation to what may seem to be the central moral virtue in the Analects, the virtue of benevolence, ren 仁. On the one hand, some have taken the relationship to be an instrumental one, in which the Analects presents ritual propriety “as standing in a mere instrumental relation to the ideal of ren.” On such a reading, training in ritual propriety serves the development of benevolence by cultivating the kinds of actions that can express that benevolence, both during cultivation of benevolence and after it is brought to completion in the gentleman. So, a passage like 3.3 provides some impetus for this reading:
3.3 – The Master said, “If a man be without the virtues proper to [benevolence], what has he to do with the rites of propriety? If a man be without the virtues proper to [benevolence], what has he to do with music?”
On the other hand, one might regard the relationship to be one that Shun calls a “constitutive” one, in which benevolence is, more intimately, constituted by the practice of ritual propriety. On such a reading, training in ritual propriety is just the same thing as training in benevolence. Analects 12.1 seems to indicate something like this:
Yan Yuan asked about [benevolence]. The Master said, “To subdue one’s self and return to [ritual] propriety, is [benevolence]. If a man can for one day subdue himself and return to [ritual] propriety, all under heaven will ascribe [benevolence] to him. Is the practice of [benevolence] from a man himself, or is it from others?” Yan Yuan said, “I beg to ask the steps of that process.” The Master replied, “Look not at what is contrary to [ritual] propriety; listen not to what is contrary to [ritual] propriety; speak not what is contrary to [ritual] propriety; make no movement which is contrary to [ritual] propriety.” Yan Yuan then said, “Though I am deficient in intelligence and vigor, I will make it my business to practice this lesson.”
Shun goes on to try to provide a third alternative that can reconcile these apparently opposing readings. Chenyang Li has argued subsequently that Shun’s reconciliation is not quite successful and proposes an alternative model of the relationship. Here, I don’t want to assess these arguments by Shun and Li. Instead, I want to use the relationship between ritual propriety and benevolence as a launching point from which to consider what the relationship between an aesthetic sensibility and a moral one could be in the circumstances and context in which Confucius was apparently making such pronouncements.
One problem with the Kantian model of aesthetic judgment and sensibility that is worth exploring is the extent to which it is adequate—or more to the point, inadequate—for understanding the role of performance and the performer as in one sense passively making aesthetic judgments, or exercising aesthetic sensibility, and at the same time actively responding to those judgments. The perspective of the performance and the performer is important given the way in which ritual propriety involves performance as well as the performer’s own assessment of his or her own performance. Confucius’s disciple Zengzi’s words in Analects 8.4 are to the point here:
…There are three principles of conduct which the man of high rank should consider specially important: that in his deportment and manner he keep from violence and heedlessness; that in regulating his countenance he keep near to sincerity; and that in his words and tones he keep far from lowness and impropriety. As to such matters as attending to the sacrificial vessels, there are the proper officers for them.
There’s an element of self-regulation during performance which incorporates both the aesthetically passive attitude of “taking in” one’s own performance and the aesthetically active attitude of creating the performance, or to put it in Kantian terminology, of putting the beauty into the object of the judgment, the object here being a dynamic event as opposed to an artifact.
Given this perspective, we may wish to modify our understanding of at least the third characteristic of the Kantian model, that of disinterestedness. Aesthetic judgment may indeed be disinterested in the passive enjoyment of beauty, having no necessary psychological or practical bearing on motivation. But in the act of performance, as the agent of the creation of beauty, it seems like there must be necessary practical bearing on the motivation of the agent. Adjustments are made in response to perceiving aspects of one’s own performance that, to the performer’s aesthetic sensibility, appear as requiring checking, embellishment, or any number of other modifications that respond directly to the performer’s aesthetic experience of his or her activity.
But now, if we’ve complicated the characteristic of aesthetic judgment and sensibility that distinguishes it from moral judgment and sensibility, then there seems to be the possibility of conceptual fusion—whether that is confusion or a more benign type of fusion—between the aesthetic and the moral. The practical necessity for action of a certain sort might be regarded as aesthetic or moral depending on context—assuming that we can specify those contexts in ways that are independent of aesthetic or moral judgment now. Or in our case, if the relationship between ritual propriety and benevolence is intimate enough, practical necessity for action can seem both aesthetic and moral. Or so I’ve tried to suggest….
 Most notably in Robert Eno (1990) The Confucian Creation of Heaven, Albany: SUNY Press.
 An exception is Ha Poong Kim (2006) “Confucius’s Aesthetic Concept of Noble Man: Beyond Moralism,” Asian Philosophy 16:2 (111-121). Partly, I’m inspired to provide an aesthetic-moral “fusion” account of Confucian concerns in the Analects as a response to Kim’s argument that the aesthetic and moral are separable therein.
 My understanding of Kant’s views here owes much to two very clarifying entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The Concept of the Aesthetic” by James Shelley (2009) and “Aesthetic Judgment” by Nick Zangwill (2007).
 Shelley (2009) – I use the term “immediacy” following Shelley.
 Immanuel Kant (1790) Critique of the Power of Judgment, trans. P. Guyer, and E. Matthews, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
 Ibid (97).
 Ibid (95).
 Shelley (2009)
 Zangwill (2007)
 (56) Kwong-loi Shun (2002) “Ren 仁 and Li 禮 in the Analects,” in Confucius and the Analects: New Essays, edited by Bryan Van Norden, Oxford University Press, (53-72).
 Chenyang Li (2007) “Li as Cultural Grammar: On the Relation between Li and Ren in Confucius’ Analects,” Philosophy East and West 57:3 (311-329).