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Utopia & Lost Futures: On the Philosophy of the Natural-Beauty

June 2023. Lecture notes from David Suica



"May words always bounce off nature, betray its [silent] language to that from which it qualitatively separates itself - no critique of natural teleology can do away with the fact that southern countries know cloudless days that are as if they were waiting to be perceived.

By coming to an end as radiantly undisturbed as they began, they suggest that all is not lost,

that all can be well" (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory)


For Kant, aesthetic experience is eminently an experience without a concept. The object of an experience of beauty is not constituted by concepts that we base on the object for the purpose of its unity for us, but is solely related to the subjective feeling of pleasure or displeasure that the object gives the perceiving subject. Nevertheless, according to Kant, aesthetic experience is based on an objective dimension that makes it possible to attribute the feeling of pleasure or displeasure triggered by the sight of the beautiful object to any other rational subject.


This objective dimension is anchored at the interface between the form of the beautiful object and the powers of imagination (imagination and understanding) of rational subjects, which underlie all conceptual cognition of the world. More precisely, it is anchored in the process that the form of the beautiful object triggers in the imaginative powers of the subject and which Kant describes as a free play of these imaginative powers:

"The powers of cognition that are brought into play by this concept are here in free play, because no particular concept restricts them to a particular rule of cognition" (Critique of Judgement, B29).

This interplay between the perceived form of the object and the powers of imagination, as well as between the powers of imagination themselves, which underlies the pleasurable aesthetic experience, testifies to the fact that human reason is situated in its freedom in the world of objects that it seeks to recognise; that it is in an original contact with it, which forms the basis for all subsequent conceptual knowledge, instead of hovering above this world and imposing concepts on it purely externally. The aesthetic experience "dwells with the view, abandons itself to its structure and judges it aesthetically without imposing a (conceptual) form on it. And part of the certainty that aesthetic judgement makes this dwelling on the sensually given possible arises from the exclusion of complete conceptualisation" (Bernstein, Das Naturschöne, pp. 75-76).


On the one hand, aesthetic experience thus marks the limit of conceptual knowledge, which in its abstraction from the sensually given can never be certain of its contact with the world, and at the same time forms the basis of all "knowledge in general" (Critique of Judgement, B27, 28) by revealing this original contact between the powers of knowledge and the world in the experience of pleasure in the aesthetic object. This dual position of the experience of the beautiful, as both limit and ground, is nowhere more blatantly revealed for Kant than in the experience of the beautiful in nature (in contrast to the experience of the beautiful in art). For "nature, which [...] is lavish in variety to the point of opulence and is not subject to any constraint of artificial rules" (KU, B72, 73), prevents the intellect, through the richness of its impressions, from proceeding to its conceptualisation without great effort and thus keeps imagination and intellect in free play, which forms the basis of aesthetically experienced pleasure.


In the aesthetic experience of nature, the subject finds its real, not purely self-generated other, instead of encountering everywhere only the forms in the world set by the mind itself, and at the same time recognises, qua aesthetically experienced pleasure, that it has a place in this world that is not itself: "Precisely because Wild Beauty can be judged aesthetically but eludes conceptual subsumption, we can be sure that our experience of sensuous multiplicity in reflective unity, that is, the sensuous experience of free lawfulness, is in harmony with the world and nature; instead of the mind finding only its own determinations mirrored a priori in the natural world. The 'luxuriance' of nature prevents us from imposing our concepts on it" (Bernstein, 2021, p. 77) and signals to us through its beauty, as it were, that it would be accessible to a properly posited reason.


The fact that the last sentence is formulated in the conditional signals at this point that we are leaving the framework of Kantian aesthetics and moving on to a historicised view of the beauty of nature, as found in Adorno's Aesthetic Theory. For the question arises as to what happens to the experience of natural beauty in a world in which nature is no longer only idealised, but is increasingly becoming the material product of a society that is largely hostile to it. The experience of natural beauty does not remain unaffected by such a process. The boundary that it was still able to show to the conceptual hubris of the early bourgeoisie, its critical function one could say, threatens to disappear and the direct contact with the world that it signalled becomes ideology in a society that destroys this contact together with the world on which it is based: "The direct experience of nature, stripped of its critical peak and subsumed into the exchange relationship - the word "foreign industry" stands for this - became non-bindingly neutral and apologetic: nature became a nature reserve and an alibi. Ideology is the beauty of nature as a subreption of immediacy through the mediated" (Adorno, 2016, p. 107).


Nevertheless, the beauty of nature, as the experience of that which is not always already produced by man himself, remains "the trace of the non-identical in things under the spell of universal identity" (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory). However, the more the spell of identity spreads, the more precarious this experience becomes: "As long as it prevails, there is no positive non-identity" (ibid.). The natural beauty becomes a paradoxical figure: its experience remains fleeting and at no point can one be certain of it, and yet in this precariousness it remains the place of hope against a course of time that threatens to undermine not only our place in the world but this world itself: "Therefore, the natural beauty remains as scattered and uncertain as that which is promised by it outstrips all that is inner-human. [...] The natural beauty shares the weakness of all promise with its ineradicability." (Adorno, Aesthetic Theory)

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