Arts Education from Past to Present
Kant for Kids
Editor’s note: This article is the ninth in an occasional series on past treatments of major issues in arts education policy from antiquity through the twentieth century. Future essays will appear as occasion arises.
esthetics, we could say, is the philosophy of art (including poetry and literature), and philosophy can be defined as a way of reflecting and clarifying ordinary, everyday thoughts and feelings that we find hard to put into words. One such ordinary thought is the well-known fact that words have a larger, more expansive meaning in poetry than they do in daily life. When Robert Burns says his “love is like a red, red rose,” we do not imagine that she suffers from a bad sunburn; we think of all the other meanings (connotations, associations, and implications) of the words “red” and “rose” that seem to apply to love or someone whom we love. In the enlarged meaning of words used in poetry, all kinds of secondary meanings of the words spontaneously spring to mind. By itself (in isolation from the other words in the poem), “red” will suggest to most people who speak English a fairly standard range of associations or connotations—including passion, sexual attraction, life, anger, danger, warfare, excitement, and so forth. Although this
list of possible connotations (or secondary meanings) will not be identical for everyone, it will be very similar from person to person. This is an example of a very common understanding that we all have about the words used in poetry. When we try to express this or explain it clearly, however, most of us find we simply cannot do it. We might begin by saying, as is often said, that words in poetry “symbolize” other things not literally meant by the word (so, for example, “red” symbolizes excitement or danger). If we think of the way in which the red traffic light symbolizes stop, however, we can see that “symbols” in poetry do not work that way at all. The words used in poetry do not symbolize one thing to the exclusion of others but, rather, an indefinite range of related notions (all the way from life to love to excitement to war). So symbolism does not seem a very good way to articulate or explain this well-known but complex notion. One of the most important aestheticians in “modern” times (that is, roughly from 1500 to 2000) is the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, and it is precisely to clarify, articulate, and explain the expansive meanings of words used in poetry that Kant set as a major goal of his aesthetic theory. Kant was a professor of philosophy who lived and
wrote during the second half of the eighteenth century. He is best known in aesthetics for his distinction of “aesthetic experience” from other sorts of human experience as being “disinterested” and for his theory of taste. When we look at or listen to something—not for any practical benefit we may get from it but simply for the sheer delight we take in the experience itself—that experience, Kant said, whether of objects of nature or of works of fine art, is an “aesthetic experience.” In his theory of taste, Kant argues that our judgments of beauty are neither completely subjective nor completely objective, but enjoy a kind of “subjective universality” in which we acknowledge that the way we talk about works of art and objects of natural beauty presupposes a kind of objectivity not found in other sorts of value judgments. Judgments of sensibility, that Pepsi tastes better than Coke for example, on the other hand, are based simply on how the soda strikes one. Furthermore, since such judgments merely record the sensible effect of the soft drink on our respective palates, they are not meant to be value judgments about the soft drink itself but are simply psychological statements about the impression this kind of beverage makes on you or me (for example, if I happen to prefer Pepsi while you prefer Coke). As such, judgments of this...