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Immanuel Kant

Kant & Love

Ivan Iyer has a beautiful Kantian understanding of love.

There are many ideas around love, and much has been said on the subject. What I wish us to briefly meditate upon here, is the idea of love as something inexplicable or unreasonable.

I suggested to a friend a while back that he didn’t need to be somebody else in order to be loved by the girl whom he adored, because the reasons why he loves her, and the reasons why she may (or may not) love him, are equally inexplicable. Sure, one can list the things that one likes (or loves) about someone: her intelligent eyebrows, a lonesome grey tooth, a piercing intellect, a lightning-like voice… But, is this why I love my beloved; or am I simply describing things I love about my beloved, with the reason why I love her still being unexplained? Accordingly, I argued that there is nothing one can do to be loved by a specific person. One is who one is, and one hopes for the best – that one is loved inexplicably, without reason, simply for who one is (which may not always be reducible to what one is).

But is this correct? Or, do I definitively recognize why I love the one whom I love? And what is it to love for no reason at all; what sense can be made of that philosophically?

Let me offer a suggestion by way of Immanuel Kant’s theory of pure aesthetic judgment.

Loch Landscape
Loch Landscape by Paul Gregory
Painting © Paul Greggory 2024

Kant’s idea of the Pure Aesthetic Judgment

In The Critique of Judgment (1790) Kant has an interesting theory of what one calls beautiful and why one calls it beautiful. According to Kant, why one judges something as beautiful is not based on objectively discernible features. Rather, the judgment of the beautiful is subjective and spontaneous – meaning, made without any interest in the purpose an object might serve, and also, made under no determinate concepts. For Kant, ‘determinate concepts’ are concepts which attach to an intuition (the appearance of an object) and therefore enable thinking about it by subsuming that particular intuition under a universal concept – such as ‘dog’ to stand for that particular dog (or ‘sunset’ etc). So this means that Kant won’t allow you to say a dog is beautiful just because it is a dog and you like dogs (or a sunset, etc).

However, pure aesthetic judgments of beauty, unlike cognitive judgments, do not involve subsuming a particular intuition (that is, a sensory experience) under a universal concept. The feeling of the beautiful is instead linked to a particular sensory experience for which no concept exists, and hence must be invented. Although, since every experience of the beautiful (every pure aesthetic judgment) is singular, a previous concept cannot be used again for it – even the newly invented one – because in that case, it would become a judgment under a determinate concept.

Kant also notes that there is a seeming contradiction in the judgment of the beautiful. While on the one hand the judgment of the beautiful is subjective, conceptually indeterminate, and disinterested, one expects general agreement about its beauty. Kant notes that one does not simply say that “this is pleasing to me”; one declares that “this is beautiful” – knowing full well that another may not share this opinion. One will in any case argue for this subjective judgment as if it has an objective basis. This constitutes what Kant identifies as the inherent contradiction in the judgment of the beautiful, or what he calls the antinomy of taste. To Kant, antinomies involve two equally apparently valid but contradictory propositions. Antinomies are rife, not only in the matter of aesthetic judgment, but in our general reasoning: Is the world finite or infinite in space and time? Is there such a thing as freedom, or is everything determined? Is there a first necessary being (ie a God), or is there no such a necessary being at all? Equally good reasons can be given to answer either side of all these questions. What makes them antinomies is precisely the fact that no final and resolute answer is possible concerning these contradicting propositions; one could argue for either with equal reasonableness.

What underlies these antinomies, Kant argues, is a pre-experiential foundation of our thinking and our experience of the world which he calls the supersensible substrate of humanity. It is itself unknowable, but underlies all our knowledge of the world, including our contradicting ideas, our ability to think as free beings, and our aesthetic judgments. Hence, with regards to our judgments of the beautiful, Kant argues that accepting them as being simply either ‘wholly subjective’ or ‘wholly objective’ is inadequate to explain how we pass the judgment. Rather, according to Kant, our judgment of the beautiful is based on indeterminate concepts, such that the judgment of the beautiful can be subjective and yet demand universal assent precisely because it seems to refer to nothing that already exists, but creates something new through this very judgment. I cannot make the same judgment of the beautiful twice. A judgment of the beautiful is always singular and never reproducible or replicable. This is necessary for a pure aesthetic judgment in Kant’s scheme. Such a judgment does not refer to merely that which agrees with us, which charms us, or which we judge to be objectively good.

But why does Kant dismiss the agreeable, the charming, and the good as impure, and so less than the beautiful?

Only for the reason that these kinds of judgments are based on bringing concepts one already knows about to the object and hence, they cannot be pure in the sense of being spontaneous. Rather, they are ultimately founded on what one explicitly seeks for, what one is interested in. But one does not, Kant might say, look for the beautiful: one simply finds it, encounters it. Sure, one may seek out beauty: but in that case, it has already become something that one finds agreeable, that one attaches certain concepts and interests to – including the very interest of seeking out objects with those qualities.

Love as Singular

This is more or less what I had in mind when I attempted to counsel my friend; that like the beautiful, the feeling of love has no objectively discernible basis and in its pure form is not the result of an interested seeking. As painful as it might be to not be loved back, it is just as unreasonable to have loved at all. One does not know why one loves, even though one may seek to answer, after the fact and to differing degrees of success, as to why one loves or does not.

Does one always find concepts adequate to describe one’s love, or does one seem to need new concepts and ideas to describe one’s feeling of love towards the beloved? And if – as is the case with beauty – love is in fact purely subjective, why is one surprised or exasperated when another does not see what one sees? Why do I expect universal understanding about a feeling – a subjective judgment that I have made with reference to no concepts, sensations, or ideas that are now recognizable, and which seem to be untranslatable in any known language? Is not the feeling of love and whom one judges to be lovable similar to the singular judgment of or encounter with the beautiful?

Does someone truly know what he judged as lovable and lovely in someone else? Did he make a choice to love her, and similarly, did she make a choice to not love him? Does not one instead make a judgment of love and only then find out what actually one loves about their beloved? If this were not the case, could we not then simply decide whom to love, when to love, and why to love? Is not love as vulnerable as the judgment of the beautiful insofar as you do not choose what you find beautiful, but simply find yourself in its presence, having encountered it without any premeditation, or prior interest?

I do not know if Kant himself wrote on love. Probably he did and he possibly encountered a similar antinomy as with the case of the beautiful: a subjective feeling that seems to serve no purpose and yet which compels the creation of new concepts to describe the singular feeling that I expect everyone to understand and see, as I see. In my view, Kant’s theory of the beautiful and its judgement offers a great analytical resource for those thinking about love philosophically. To return to the problem with which I began – when one expects love in return for love, and doesn’t necessarily receive it. Kant’s theory of the beautiful perhaps offers a sublime consolation in this regard, especially to those who find that their love is unrequited. If one cannot know why one loves whom one loves, then it seems nothing short of a miracle to be loved by the beloved, unreasonably and indeterminately. So, if love is as unreasonable and indeterminate as the judgment of the beautiful, is not the very risk of it being unrequited the most miserably fortuitous yet fascinating aspect of love? And is it possible to take solace that what may as well have been, is however not, for no better or worse reason?

So, I have attempted to offer a short philosophical consolation for unrequited love and try to suggest how fragile, fortuitous and singular love might be – thanks to Kant and his theory of the beautiful.

© Ivan Iyer 2024

Ivan Iyer is a PhD candidate at IIT Kanpur, India, where he is studying Immanuel Kant’s theory of the sublime.

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