Monday, January 31, 2005

Kant on Maxims of Taste

The following maxims of common human understanding do not properly come in here, as parts of the Critique of Taste, but yet they may serve to elucidate its fundamental propositions. They are: (1) to think for oneself; (2) to put ourselves in thought in the place of everyone else; (3) always to think consistently. The first is the maxim of unprejudiced thought; the second of enlarged thought; the third of consecutive thought. The first is the maxim of a never passive reason. The tendency to such passivity, and therefore to heteronomy of the reason, is called prejudice....As regards the second maxim of the mind, we are otherwise wont to call him limited (borné, the opposite of enlarged) whose talents attain to no great use (especially as regards intensity). But here we are not speaking of the faculty of cognition, but of the mode of thought which makes a purposive use thereof. However small may be the area or the degree to which a man's natural gifts reach, yet it indicates a man of enlarged thought if he disregards the subjective private conditions of his own judgment, by which so many others are confined, and reflects upon it from a universal standpoint (which he can only determine by placing himself at the standpoint of others). The third maxim, viz. that of consecutive thought, is the most difficult to attain, and can only be attained by the combination of both the former and after the constant observance of them has grown into a habit. We may say that the first of these maxims is the maxim of understanding, the second of judgment, and the third of reason.

Kant, Critique of Judgment. J. H. Bernard, tr. Hafner Publishing Co. (New York: 1964), pp. 136-137.

One of the interesting things about this is that when Hume in his essay on a standard of taste discusses what marks off bad taste from good taste, his comments essentially boil down to these same three issues: bad taste is plagued by prejudice, limited experience, and inconsistency, while good taste involves working toward objectivity, drawing from wide experience (one's own and that of others), and reasoning with consistency. And Kant is right, I think, that these three elements are characteristics of good thought generally. It would be great if in politics people would cultivate themselves according to these elements. Unfortunately, one must say of good political taste what is often said of common sense: everyone assumes they have it, especially those who don't.

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