Gilles Deleuze: Tracing Genesis in Kant’s Critique of Judgment

Derek Hampson

Gilles Deleuze introduces his essay on the first part of Kant’s Critique of Judgment: “The Idea of Genesis in Kant’s Esthetics,” by outlining the diverse points of view which inform Kant’s writings on aesthetic experience. For example the judgment of taste proposes an aesthetic of the spectator, whereas the theory of genius accounts for aesthetics from the viewpoint of the creator. Kant also proposes an aesthetic of the beautiful in nature and an aesthetic of the beautiful in works of art. In addition, the aesthetic experience is at times seen through the form of an object, and at other times through the relationship between sensible matter and the Idea. Deleuze goes on to say that these viewpoints, along with the “necessary transitions” between each, need to be accounted for, in order to establish the systematic unity of the Critique of Judgment. He further emphasises the importance of explaining the work’s organisational structure; the Analytic of the Beautiful split by the Analytic of the Sublime, with the theory of art and genius at the end.

The Critique of Judgment is the last of Kant’s three critiques. Underlying the thinking of the first two, is what Deleuze calls the doctrine of the faculties. This is the idea that our knowledge and morality are a product of our faculties: understanding, reason and imagination, working together in a complex harmony, under the legislative control of one of them. Yet a fundamental, almost contemporaneous criticism appears, which is that Kant presumes this harmonic relationship between the faculties and extrapolates the structure of their relationship from there. This means he fails to show how this harmonic relationship between the faculties comes about, i.e. what is the genesis of this agreement in us, as real experience in the here and now.

In his essay Deleuze claims that the Critique of Judgment anticipates this criticism, through its tracing of three geneses of aesthetic experience, in its construction of the judgment of beauty. In order to uncover these moments of genesis in Kant’s work, Deleuze engages in a similar process of tracing. Deleuze’s essay follows the essential structure of the first part of the Critique of Judgment; which leads from a purely formal aesthetic of the beautiful, to what Deleuze calls a “meta-aesthetic of contents, colour and sounds.” The first can do no more than describe the workings of a judgment of taste, whereas the latter leads to a genesis of a sense of beauty in nature, from the spectator’s viewpoint, and in art, from the viewpoint of the artist.

Deleuze’s tracing outlines the same structures of aesthetic experience that Kant follows, but with a different outcome. For Kant, his solution to the problem of genesis completes the line of development set in motion by the previous critiques. For Deleuze it does more than this, it provides them with a ground, one which makes their legislative structures possible, and which establishes a “super-sensible destination of our faculties … as the real heart of our being.” In this essay I will engage in a process of tracing similar to Deleuze’s; tracing his tracing of Kant’s search for genesis, but with the aim of clarification, i.e. a clear and distinct outline, rather than a new dimension.

The Analytic of the Beautiful I — the problem described
Deleuze, following Kant’s lead, first examines the structure of a judgment of taste, i.e. when we say “this is beautiful.” He defines a judgment of taste as the expression of an “agreement of two faculties in the spectator”; the faculty of imagination and the faculty of understanding. The idea of agreement implies a harmonic relation between the two. Because it expresses a relation between two of our faculties, a judgment of taste is subjective; but it is also objective, we expect that others will share our judgment. In the agreement between our faculties the understanding has no conceptualising function, instead, as indeterminate, it lends a sense of legality to the judgment’s apparent objectivity. The imagination, without a concept to constrain it, engages in a free and unrestrained reflection of the object’s form, while agreeing with the understanding as to the judgment’s universality.

Therefore in a judgment of taste “a free imagination agrees with an indeterminate understanding.” This agreement results in a feeling of pleasure; there are no concepts involved in the judgment, therefore the agreement can only be felt. The feeling of pleasure is an expression of the objective universality of the judgment of taste, this is how it is shared. Because it is universal there is an expectation that others will share the same feeling of pleasure in the beautiful thing. Therefore a judgment of taste “begins only with pleasure, but does not derive from it.”

The idea of an agreement between our faculties is constant across Kant’s three Critiques. These faculties — understanding [Verstand], reason [Vernunft], imagination [Vorstellung] — differ in nature and yet are thought to function harmoniously. In the first two Critiques harmony is achieved under the direction of one of the faculties. In the Critique of Pure Reason it is the understanding that directs the imagination and reason for a speculative purpose. In the Critique of Practical Reason it is the faculty of reason that directs the understanding for a practical purpose. Yet this theory of permutations, ordering the faculties’ interactions, leads to a problem. In order for them to enter into such determinate agreements, they must first be capable of free and spontaneous agreements; “without legislation, without purpose.” Therefore the example of the free and indeterminate agreement of the faculties, given in a judgment of taste, must be the ground of all judgments.

The relationship between the faculties, in the first two Critiques, is characterised by their submission to particular types of objects, under the guidance of a dominant faculty for a particular purpose. In the Critique of Judgment, the judgment of taste has no interest in an object’s existence, it is completely disinterested; furthermore, as none of the faculties are in charge, it has no purpose. The faculty of the imagination, freed from the control of the understanding and reason, instead of becoming legislative of them, signals that they too must become free. The result of this is that a judgment of taste releases the spectator into what Deleuze calls a “new element;” in which our relationship to the objects we come across is one of contingent agreement with all our faculties together, rather than a necessary submission to one of them. Alongside which our faculties have a free and indeterminate harmony amongst themselves. In a judgment of taste we have a new-found freedom in our dealings with the object that is immediately before us.

Every such agreement of the faculties defines what Kant calls a common sense, an “a priori agreement of the faculties together.” As a priori, common sense obliges us to accept the universal objectivity of its judgments by right. Consequently the existence of an aesthetic common sense means that a judgment of taste can claim the same universality and necessity: “we harshly judge someone who says: I don’t like Bach, I prefer Massenet to Mozart.”

The question then becomes about the nature of this aesthetic common sense; where does its universality come from? There are two ways in which such a question might normally be answered; either logically or practically. Yet neither avenue is open for aesthetic common sense, because of its disinterested and purposeless nature. This means that it can only be presumed. Yet this is an unsatisfactory solution; if the aesthetic common sense promises to explain why “our faculties are different in nature, [yet] still spontaneously enter into a harmonious relation,” it is not enough to presume such an agreement, we must show how it is produced in us.

It is at this point that the first part of the Analytic of the Beautiful ends. It has set out the structure of the judgment of taste from the spectator’s point of view, uncovering the free agreement of the faculties, central to which is the imagination’s reflection of the object’s form. But it also uncovers a problem. The free agreement of the faculties in a judgment of taste must be the ground for all the agreements between the faculties and therefore of all a priori judgments. It is not enough to presume such an agreement, instead its genesis must now be traced directly from aesthetic experience.

The Sublime — genesis sketched
The first part of the Analytic of the Beautiful uncovers the free and indeterminate agreement of the faculties in a judgment of taste, but can go no further, leaving us with Deleuze’s as yet unanswered question: “whence originates the free indeterminate agreement among the faculties?” This question asks about the genesis of the free agreement between the faculties. To answer Deleuze’s question, the faculty of reason comes into play in the Analytic of the Sublime.

Reason, up to now, has had no role in the formation of an aesthetic judgment. Its appearance here is in response to our being confronted with conditions of formlessness and deformity in Nature. We experience the Sublime as the negative/positive feeling we have when faced by the “immense ocean, the infinite heavens.” The size and scale of these are beyond the imagination’s capacity to reflect; it can apprehend, i.e. take in what is there, but it cannot comprehend its formlessness, it cannot understand it in its totality. Thus the imagination comes up against the sensible world as a barrier, a limit to its capacity to reflect.

We therefore associate this experience of the sublime with sensible nature, i.e. the ocean or the sky as they appear; but it is an association only by projection. The real source of this limitation is reason, the faculty which makes us look beyond experience, towards Ideas; concepts without intuitions. As such, reason, in response to formless nature, enters into a spontaneous agreement with the imagination, but it is an agreement characterised by discord. Reason drives the imagination to use its powers of reflection to unify the intuition of the sensible world with an Idea of reason, but because the sensible world is without form it is unable to do so. Thus the imagination is confronted by the limit to its power, and at the same time the greater force of reason.

Yet, as Deleuze says, “an agreement is born at the heart of this discord,” i.e. this conflict is the genesis of their free agreement, in that both are directed beyond the sensible. Reason confronts the imagination with the limit of its power, while the imagination awakens reason as the faculty able to conceptualise a “supersensible substratum” of the sensible world, i.e. Ideas of reason. The imagination, through the violence of reason is raised to a “transcendental function,” with its own limit as its object. In attempting to make sense of the formless object, the imagination can only reflect the inaccessibility of the infinite Idea of reason, which it projects onto nature.

Thus for a moment the barriers of the sensible, which define the limit of the imagination, are set aside. The imagination feels unlimited in this “negative presentation” of the infinite. It is negative because the imagination can only represent the inaccessibility of the infinite to itself, despite this it still “expands the soul.” Like reason it discovers a destination beyond the sensible, i.e. a moral destination. This leads Kant to indicate that the sense of the sublime, as opposed to the sense of the beautiful, is “inseparable from a cultured viewpoint.” Whereas the unrefined person “sees only pain, danger and misery” in the forces of nature, the cultured person is able to project the pleasure of the painful harmony of their faculties onto the formless discord before them, as evidence of higher forces at work.

The sublime is engendered in the free spontaneous agreement of the faculties of reason and imagination; an agreement characterised by the imagination’s inability to schematise the Idea of reason, a concept without intuition. This painful harmony, derived from formless nature, sketches a model for the genesis of the free agreement between the faculties in a judgment of taste, one in which the faculty of reason plays a central role. As such it is an activity that enlarges our sense of what is before us, making us think beyond the immediacy of what is given. In our experience of the sublime this thinking cannot find a home and is therefore negative in its outcome. The challenge now is to look for a positive outcome of thinking, one that is engendered in a judgment of taste.

The Analytic of the Beautiful II — a transcendental genesis
The Analytic of Beauty resumes; Deleuze asks if the example of the genesis of the sublime, in the free and spontaneous interplay of reason and imagination, each pushing the other to its limit, can be adapted to discover a similar principle for the genesis of the sense of the beautiful in ourselves. A judgment of taste is in part subjective, derived from the free agreement of the imagination and the understanding, and the consequent feeling of pleasure, but it is also objective, the imagination reflects a natural object. This means the principle for the genesis of the free a priori agreement between imagination and understanding, as a going beyond what is given i.e. transcendental, must also be one that incorporates a relationship towards nature. Therefore the deduction of aesthetic judgment starts with the deduction of the relationship between an aesthetic judgment and nature.

We are able to take pleasure in natural things, i.e. we find them beautiful; we experience the free and spontaneous harmony of our imagination and understanding in response to nature’s productions. Unlike the experience of the sublime, the experience of nature is positive, we are able to reflect the form of the natural object. This internal feeling of beauty gives us a feeling of a purpose in this relationship between our faculties and nature. But it would be wrong to mistake this feeling for a purpose for nature or for beauty. Deleuze says the agreement between our sense of beauty and nature is special; it is without a goal, it is purposeless. Both our faculties and nature are just obeying their own laws. What we see in the products of nature, i.e. the accidents of nature, is the aptitude that nature has to produce beautiful forms, which we can then reflect on. The subjective relationship between our faculties and natural objects is purely one of contingency, rather than necessity, it just so happens that nature has the capacity to produce things we find beautiful. Our experience of natural beauty is disinterested; yet there is a feeling of purpose that accompanies the agreement between our faculties and the objects of nature. Rather than a purpose for beauty or for nature, the idea of this agreement defines a purpose for reason, i.e. “a rational purpose connected with the beautiful.”

“Aesthetic pleasure is disinterested but we feel a rational purpose when the productions of nature agree with our disinterested pleasure.”

The interest or purpose of reason works towards giving Ideas an objective reality, that is, in this case, it looks for moments when an agreement between nature and our disinterested pleasure can be made manifest. It does this by connecting the idea of the agreement without a goal, between our faculties and nature, synthetically to the judgment of beauty. As it is external to the agreement of the faculties, this purpose of reason is not part of the aesthetic judgment. Consequently it is reason, which sees in the agreement without a goal a principle by which it secures the genesis of a free indeterminate agreement, between the understanding and the imagination.

The question then becomes, how is this relationship actualised? The purpose of reason connected with the beautiful is concerned with what the beautiful, as disinterested, is indifferent to, “the free materials of nature;” colour, sounds; the colour of flowers, the sounds of birds. These escape the imagination’s formal reflection, which has no interest in the existence of sensible matter. When we encounter a flower we can judge it as beautiful according to its form, this is an aesthetic judgment. We can also focus on its colour as an empirical concept, which allows us to say what it is, e.g. a “white lily;” a synthetic judgment. But the colour also makes us think; we can relate the colour of the flower to a completely different concept, an Idea of reason, a concept for which we have no intuition. Instead the imagination detects a resemblance by analogy between the form of the original concept of colour, i.e. the whiteness of the flower, and this new concept.

“The white lily is no longer simply related to concepts of color and flower, but awakens the Idea of pure innocence, whose object, which is never given, is a reflexive analogue of white in the fleur-de-lis.”

The Ideas of reason are therefore “the object of an indirect presentation in the free materials of nature.” This indirect presentation is called symbolism, and is the effective purpose of beauty, which Deleuze calls a meta-aesthetic judgment.

Consequently in a judgment of taste directed towards nature, the understanding is made indeterminate and the imagination is made free by the purpose of reason, which in turn frees itself. The understanding is made indeterminate, i.e. free from its conceptualising function, by reason extending its concepts to infinity. The imagination is freed from its schematising function, by reason giving it the freedom to reflect the form of an object without intuition, i.e. without the control of the understanding. All find a shared focus, the source of their harmony, their common sense, in the “supersensible unity of all the faculties,” beyond what appears, which is the soul: “the life-giving principle that “animates” each faculty.” Deleuze sums it up this way:

“The free materials of sensible nature symbolize the Ideas of reason; and in this way they allow the understanding to expand, the imagination to free itself. The interest of the beautiful bears witness to a suprasensible unity of all our faculties, to a ‘focal point in the suprasensible’, from which flows their free formal accord or their subjective harmony.”

Thus it is in the “seduction of aesthetic judgment,” i.e. the connection of the beautiful to the Ideas of reason, that a genesis of the free agreement of the understanding and the imagination occurs; explaining what the Analytic of the Beautiful could not.

Genius — the communication of genesis
Deleuze says “the theme of the presentation of Ideas in sensible nature is fundamental in Kant’s work.” There are a number of ways in which these presentations are made: in the Sublime the inaccessibility of the Idea of reason is projected onto nature. In the rational purpose connected to beauty the “free materials of nature” (sounds, colours etc) symbolise the Ideas of reason. Yet this presents a problem; if reason is the key to an a priori agreement of the faculties, then we have to ask under what condition does this agreement take place? The answer is under the condition that the agreement is produced in response to nature. This means that the meta-aesthetic principle of reason connected to the beautiful does not account for the feeling of beauty we have in front of works of art. Therefore another principle is needed to account for a judgment of taste in relation to works of art.

This is found in the meta-aesthetic principle of Genius. The interest of reason is the authority by which nature provides judgment with a rule, genius is the subjective disposition by which nature (as in a “gift of nature”) provides art with rules. “Genius provides the materials with which the subject it inspires produces beautiful works of art.” What genius presents is aesthetic Ideas, intuitions without concepts, an intuition of a nature other than the nature given to us. It creates a nature in which the phenomena are unmediated events of the spirit; love, death, the “kingdom of the blessed,” given a body and a dimension. Thus “genius is the exemplary originality of a subject’s natural gifts in the free use of the cognitive faculties” i.e. the understanding and intuition.

The aesthetic Ideas of Genius are intuitions without concepts, they unite with Ideas of reason, concepts without intuitions. “The rational Idea contains something inexpressible, but the aesthetic Idea expresses the inexpressible, through the creation of an other nature.” Like the process of symbolisation, the aesthetic Idea makes us think, by extending the concepts of the understanding and by freeing the imagination from the legislative constraints of the understanding. Thus the theory of Genius bridges the gap between the beautiful in nature and the beautiful in art.

Yet this connection is not wholly symmetrical, for in the case of genius we “leave behind the spectator’s point of view.” This means that genesis, the liberation of the imagination and the extension of the understanding, occurs first in the artist. Genius then, in an “exceptional intersubjectivity” calls out to other geniuses to be born, a call which can go unanswered for long periods of time. Thus genius both creates and provides an example. In the former it exhibits its great “difformity,” its lack of conformity, by creating both the Idea and the matter with which the work of art is made. In the latter, while the call of genius waits to be answered, its examples, in the works of art it produces, inspire imitators, gives rise to spectators, creating judgments of taste everywhere.

“So, we are not simply in the desert while the call of genius goes unanswered by another genius: men and women of taste, students, and aficionados fill up the space between two geniuses, and help pass the time.”

Genesis originates in genius but then acquires a universal value, which engenders a genesis of the agreement of the faculties in the spectator.

Conclusion — geneses unified
Deleuze’s investigation of the Critique of Judgment discovers three parallel geneses, i.e. moments when the agreement between the faculties are actualised:
1. The Sublime; genesis in the discordant agreement of reason and the imagination, from the viewpoint of the spectator.
2. Rational purpose connected with the beautiful; a genesis of the agreement of the understanding and imagination, according to the beautiful in nature, from the viewpoint of the spectator.
3. Genius; a genesis in the agreement of the understanding and imagination, agreement according to the beautiful in art from the viewpoint of the artist.

Each genesis occurs at the point when the faculties find a focus beyond what appears, i.e. in the meta-aesthetic presentation of Ideas. Their uncovering indicate the free agreement between the faculties as the ultimate ground for the Critiques, in which each assumes its “primeval” identity, free from the legislative duties of the first two critiques:

“A primeval free imagination that cannot be satisfied with schematizing under the constraints of the understanding; a primeval unlimited understanding that does not yet bend under the speculative weight of its determinate concepts … ; a primeval reason that has not yet developed a taste for commanding, but which frees itself when it frees up the other faculties”

Finally, Deleuze accounts for the Critique of Judgment’s systematic structure as one in which the three geneses are unified, each following on from the other. The Analytic of the Beautiful can only show the need to account for the genesis of the free agreement between the faculties. An example of genesis is then given in the subjective experience of the sublime, which pushes us towards an ultimately negative experience of the infinite. A positive genesis is secured through the meta-aesthetic purpose of reason connected to the beautiful, through the free materials of nature. The capacity of nature to produce beautiful things awakens the interest of reason, and thereby “expands the understanding, and liberates the imagination,” in a genesis of a free and indeterminate agreement between the two. These aesthetic experiences are purely from the standpoint of the spectator. Beauty in the work of art is seen from the vantage point of the artist. It is the meta-aesthetic principle of genius which causes the faculties to agree in relation to the aesthetic Ideas of a work of art; while giving this agreement a “universal value,” which can in turn be communicated to the faculties of the spectator, a third genesis of agreement.