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Dominic Mauro

PHI 302 / Zeccardi

April 27, 2006

Sibley and Kant: Aestheticians or Teenage Heartthrobs?

Frank Sibley and Immanuel Kant are two dead philosophers. The similarity seems to end

shortly thereafter: their ideas about taste, aesthetics, the process of judgments of taste, the nature

of aesthetic properties, and the finer points of each couldn’t be more different. Kant is an old-

school aesthetician who is concerned with identifying and qualifying beauty, while Sibley aims

to turn the world of aesthetics on its head with bold, possibly unsupported, claims. And yet

amidst all this, these two stand on common ground when it comes to remarkably fundamental

ideas and themes in their aesthetic philosophies.

Immanuel Kant’s definition of taste is that it is a reflective capacity that relies on the in-

tellect to engage in a certain special kind of thought: one that uses as its drive a feeling rather

than a rational procedure. Judgments made with the exercise of taste, then, differ from the sorts

of judgments one makes with their reason or intellect. For instance, upon entering an animal

shelter, I perceive a great number of small, furry, loud objects. They all have four legs and two

eyes and the like, but some of them will fit into the category of dog, and others will fit into the

category of cat.

This rational comparison of my perception (or, perhaps more accurately, the object of my

perception) to my concept of dog is what Kant calls a cognitive or logical judgment. Much like a

flow chart used by middle school children to identify various types of plants, these judgments are

step-by-step exercises in rationale. This does require a foreknowledge of the conditions that

govern Fuzzy Creature A’s prospective membership in the category of cat or dog, however.
Without this knowledge, or with faulty knowledge, there is no judgment of cat-ness or dog-ness

to be made.

This is all in contrast to the other kind of judgments: the aesthetic. They are not based on

the sort of object-condition comparison that the reason and intellect apply to determine cat-ness.

Rather, they are non-rational judgments which are governed by feelings. These judgments

(which use taste) are aesthetic, rather than cognitive: not only do they have no conditions to

compare either objects or feelings with, but Kant claims there is no analysis or cognition needed.

We only need a feeling to make an aesthetic judgment and exercise our taste: specifically, we

need to feel pleasure.

Not just any sort of pleasure, however. There are many different varieties of pleasures

that Kant realizes do not enable someone to make aesthetic judgments about the object in ques-

tion. For instance, he says that “hunger is the best sauce; and to people with a healthy appetite

anything is tasty provided it is edible.” 1 (Kant 207) The starving man can never be relied upon

to provide an aesthetic judgment of food, because his condition of hunger will unduly influence

his feelings, and Kant believes that only the freest of feelings (and, by extension,) judgments

may be admitted as demonstrations of taste.

It is to this end that Kant clarifies: a disinterested pleasure is the only variety of pleasure

that will give rise to aesthetic judgments. This kind of pleasure is not the sort that eating a meal,

no matter how delicious it is, will give you, as the disinterested pleasure is not a satisfaction of a

need or desire like hunger. Rather, disinterested pleasure is properly understood as one that is

not dependent on, and indifferent to, the object which we feel pleasure about. Kant claims “if a

judgment about beauty is mingled with the least interest then it is very partial and not a pure

1 Critique of Judgment p207

judgment of taste.” 2 He believes the aesthetic judgment is made only when there are no factors

influencing the taste of the observer.

Furthermore, Kant distinguishes three varieties of “liking” and splits them into interested

and disinterested, but these will be largely irrelevant to any comparison or contrast to Sibley and

his views. Suffice it to say that Kant views taste as one’s capacity to make judgments about an

object that are based not in reason, but in a sensation of pleasure derived from perceiving that

object. He subsequently will call the object that produces this feeling “beautiful.”

Frank Sibley adopts an almost entirely contrary position to Kant’s. It is most prudent to

start at the beginning, and I shall: Sibley’s concept of taste is that it is not a reflective capacity,

but rather, a perceptual ability. Not necessarily sensory perception like sight and hearing, but the

ability to discern and observe certain properties of objects. Sibley claims that, with a sufficiently

developed sense of taste, we can perceive aesthetic qualities. This enables us to make aesthetic

judgments about the object of our perception: by observing properties of objects about which we

make aesthetic judgments based on those properties.

This is not to say that all properties require taste to ascertain, however. Sibley has deftly

divided all the properties of the world into two categories: the aesthetic, which requires taste to

perceive, and the non-aesthetic, which doesn’t. Any idiot can see that the fire engine is bright red

and shaped like a box, because those are non-aesthetic properties which do not require taste to

observe. However, it takes a certain kind of idiot (one with taste) to perceive that the fire engine

has an aesthetic quality such as gracefulness or delicacy. They both observe the same size,

shape, color, and indeed, each non-aesthetic quality, but only the viewer with sufficient taste will

be able to perceive any of the fire engine’s aesthetic qualities.

2 Critique of Judgement p205

It would be prudent to note at this point that there is an extra distinction Sibley makes

within the sphere of what might ordinarily (or historically, at least) be called an “aesthetic” qual-

ity. He notes that the traditional standby of beauty is a “thin” concept, which is merely self-

evaluative, and doesn’t actually describe the object which Kant or Hume or whomever is observ-

ing. Rather, it is a statement that declares a favorable or unfavorable reaction to the object. This

is in stark contrast to “thick” concepts, such as graceful or elegant, which relate both qualities

and properties of the object that is being observed. These are both descriptive concepts that are

subject-neutral: that is to say that even if I have an unfavorable reaction to the object, I can still

(provided I have sufficient taste to do so) recognize its gracefulness or elegance. Therefore,

these two, at least, are substantive (thick) concepts that do more than just relate how the subject

feels about the object.

With that out of the way, Sibley further describes the function and use of taste. For in-

stance, while we need taste to perceive any given aesthetic property, we do not need it to per-

ceive any non-aesthetic property. This is because the entirety of non-aesthetic properties are

condition-governed; they have specific requirements (conditions) that can be identified and ap-

plied to infer the status of the property in any given object: either present or not. Squareness is a

condition-governed property: it is a necessary and sufficient condition for a two dimensional ob-

ject to have both four equal sides and four equal angles to be a square. The use of logic and ap-

plication of an inference or other faculty of the intellect means that we may safely conclude taste

was not involved, because conditions were.

This is because taste is a perceptual capacity, and so by definition, we use it not to deter-

mine which conditions are satisfied and which ones are not; we use it to observe the presence of

properties: for Sibley, aesthetic properties. The determination of conditions and whether or not
they are satisfied is a task for the intellect, not a perceptive mode of the brain. The very notion

would strike Sibley as ludicrous: it would be like asking the sense of smell to do algebra. This is

not to say that the senses are completely uninvolved, however. We need to be able to observe the

fire engine to see that it is red, just as we have to observe it to see that it is elegant, or use our

other senses to make that judgment. Sibley has not suggested that we are possessed of a sixth

sensory faculty that only perceives the aesthetic.

It would seem, then, that Kant and Sibley could not be more diametrically opposed on

their views of the aesthetic and practically everything contained and implied therein. For in-

stance, even where they agree on the necessary involvement of taste in the process of making an

aesthetic judgment, Kant believes that taste is an intellectual capacity of an aesthetic (not logical

or cognitive) nature: a reflection on the sensory perception that we are being fed through our

eyes, ears, and other mucus membranes. Taste is, very specifically, the ability to feel the pleasure

caused by the imagination and the understanding being unable to agree on exactly what we are

seeing. It is a verdictive judgment that does not state anything about the object that is being per-


Sibley’s take on taste, however, is as an ability to perceive certain qualities in an object:

the aesthetic properties that are not condition-governed. This is very much a statement about the

object in question: in fact, Sibley explicitly excludes “thin” concepts such as beauty (Kant’s

principle example) from being aesthetic, as a statement like that is only verdictive, and judg-

ments of taste are, by definition, statements about the properties of an object. The two are mutu-

ally exclusive, as a Kantian judgment of taste is a statement about how object O makes you feel,

whereas a Siblian judgment of taste describes the object O and its aesthetic properties.

What’s more, not only do these judgments not describe the same things, they aren’t even

based in the same functions of the brain. Kant claims that the judgments of taste are based on the

experience or sensation of his concept of “disinterested pleasure.” The inability of the imagina-

tion and understanding to come to an agreement about an object causes that sensation, and a per-

son with a developed taste will be able to feel this pleasure. The intellect is by definition in-

volved in this action, as the comparison that the imagination and understanding undergo can be

thought of as a kind of reflection; the judgment is grounded in the intellect.

For Sibley, however, a judgment of taste is the judgment of the presence of a given aes-

thetic quality within an object. The intellect is explicitly left out of this judgment - the brain is

only involved to the extent that the brain is involved in identifying whether the color red is in-

volved in viewing the fire engine, that is to say, the very basic function of processing sensory

perceptions. As a judgment of taste is a judgment of the presence of an aesthetic quality, there is

no reflection to be had. The act of making an aesthetic judgment is, very simply, grounded in the

perceptual capacity of the subject.

Also worth noting is that Kant recognizes no distinction between thick concepts and thin

concepts. This is due in part to the zeitgeist in the field of aesthetics at the time: the focus was on

defining and quantifying beauty. As such, Kant ultimately comes to the conclusion that when we

make a judgment of taste, we arrive at the decision that the object that gives us that disinterested

pleasure is to be called “beautiful.” For Sibley, this would certainly be a thin concept: Kant is

not talking about any specific quality the object has, but rather the feeling that it produces within

him. Kant would probably not even consider Sibley’s thick concepts to have anything to do with

the aesthetic: the idea of aesthetic/non-aesthetic dualism was just slightly after his time, and con-

cepts like graceful and elegant had little to do with the traditional aim of beauty.

Additionally, Kant declares the connection between taste and the ability to experience the

pleasure associated with viewing an object to be very necessary. He does not claim that having

taste necessarily requires that one ever experience this disinterested pleasure, just that we have

the potential to experience it. Sibley, however, maintains a subject-neutral position with regard

to any sort of feeling or pleasure associated with the observing the object. His claim is that per-

ceptual capacity that we call taste does not involve any sort of pleasure or displeasure, and that

it’s entirely possible to observe something with an aesthetic property which does not arouse any

disinterested (or interested) pleasures within us. The judgment of taste for Sibley is merely a

perception that object O has aesthetic property A: this is no more dependent on a pleasure than

the observation that object O2 has the non-aesthetic property of redness. And I note that these

are not necessarily separate, either; if the observer has a fondness for red, it’s entirely possible

that there be a connection. Sibley simply calls this connection contingent (on some fondness for

some property, for instance) rather than necessary.

Yet despite this seemingly unending parade of contrary arguments, definitions, and postu-

lations, Kant and Sibley do stand on some common ground. For instance, Sibley says that an

aesthetic property can never be condition-governed: the rational, logical mind takes no part in the

evaluation of the satisfaction of any qualifications for object O to have aesthetic property A;

more accurately, there are no such qualifications. Likewise, Kant claims that there is nothing the

rational, logical part of the brain can investigate or participate in with respect to the appraisal of

the aesthetic. Rather, it is precisely the dumbfoundedness of the understanding (and the useless-

ness of the imagination in assisting) in identifying object O that produces the feeling which Kant

will need to use his taste to reflect upon and judge for its aesthetic merit.

Therefore, Kant is committed to the belief that there can be no conditions that govern the

aesthetic value, because to have any would contradict the clause about aesthetic judgments not

utilizing the cognitive, logical parts of the brain. Likewise, Sibley commits to the same concept,

but only because he has separated the aesthetic and the non-aesthetic groups of qualities, and

maintaining the distinction between condition-governed and non-condition-governed properties

is necessary to keep them that way.

It’s not exactly a prerequisite, but once he makes the first move to separate the aesthetic

from the non-aesthetic properties, keeping them separated involves removing the logical, rational

parts of the brain from the process of the aesthetic judgment. If he doesn’t, Sibley’s claims about

aesthetic judgments fall through, because aesthetic properties are supposed to require a special

ability called taste in order to perceive. So this separation makes sure that the aesthetic proper-

ties require taste, and not ‘taste or rational capabilities to evaluate condition-satisfaction.’

Lastly, and not entirely least, both Kant and Sibley believe that judgments about the aes-

thetic are necessarily universal. For Sibley, this is because any aesthetic judgment is descriptive:

it is a statement about the object O that has aesthetic property A. Since this is a real property of a

real object, it’s impossible that its aesthetic property A could be anything less than universal, and

likewise, the judgment about this object would similarly have to be universal. To claim subjec-

tivity within Sibley’s view is to claim that the properties are permitted to exist for some observ-

ers and not for others: can a fire engine appear red to me, and not red to you? We’re certainly

incapable of comparing our individual concepts of “red,” but to say that one of us is able to per-

ceive a quality that the other can’t is to posit a very ontologically pessimistic world.

For clarification, this could happen if one of my senses is defective: the blind man’s per-

ception of the fire engine is certainly permitted to differ from mine with regard to color. Like-
wise, my perception of the fire engine is allowed to not completely coincide with yours if my

taste is unrefined or similarly malfunctioning. These are differences in perception, but whether

or not a property is perceived, it still exists. That much is a universal aesthetic for Sibley.

Kant argues in favor of what he calls “subjectively universal” aesthetic judgments: he

claims that when we believe something is beautiful, we do not hold that belief as an opinion, but

rather as a universal imperative. It’s not that we think everyone else should defer to our judg-

ment, but that everyone ought to agree with us because we are correct. This specific kind of be-

lief that not only are we right, but everyone else is obligated to recognize this is proof enough for

Kant that while our judgments are subjective, they may also be regarded as universal, provided

one’s taste is well-developed enough. 3

In conclusion, Kant and Sibley are still very dead. They are also very much different in

their philosophies of taste, judgments of taste, aesthetic judgments, and the distinction (if any)

between aesthetic and non-aesthetic properties. It’s all too easy to examine their philosophies

and see nothing but the glaring differences in just about every conclusion they reach. But even

these two can find some common ground on the conditions that govern aesthetics (or lack

thereof) and the universality of aesthetic judgments.

3 Critique of Judgment Section 22