Wordsworth’s Critique of Pure Kant

An Obligation to Enjoyment is a Patent Absurdity
To explore some of the more specific distinctions and assertions Kant makes in his “Critique of Aesthetic Judgement” from the Critique of Judgement – such as the differences between agreeable and beautiful and good, or that taste in the beautiful must be disinterested – it’s important, first, to establish an apparent basic foundation of Kant’s study of epistemologies, which is reflective of enlightenment thinking: separation, catagorization and hierarchy. In order to understand aesthetics, Kant first divvies up the ways in which we can recognize and label that which we find aesthetically pleasing (or repugnant) and creates an implicit hierarchy. Subjective feelings and emotional response are not just different from cognition and intellectual response, they are segregated, and it is apparent that Kant privileges reason and logic (concept and cognition) over the subjective (sensation and representation). The agreeable, that which is of personal predilection, is determined solely through sensation and results in individual gratification. The good, which conforms to a concept, or a rule of understanding, is absolute and universal and can only be arrived at through cognition, or use of the intellect, which is ruled by reason and logic, the Enlightment’s guiding forces. Yet a seed of romanticism can be found in Kant, not in privileging emotional response and intuition as ways of knowing (that, I believe, is beyond him), but in recognizing an intersection of the subjective and the intellect.

One might propose his idea of the “subjective universal” as that intersection, but really, the subjective universal is masquerading as a melding of two different epistemologies. Whereas the universal conventionally may be associated with the absolute, which, according to Kant, is moral truth or moral goodness and can only be known by their concepts and cognition, Kant departs from epistemology and instead refers to communicability. This remains confusing to me, because in order for something to be communicable, it must have the capacity to be understood by all, and would therefore be absolute (at least in Kant’s world), but Kant makes a distinction that I believe rests on his idea of sensus communis, which is the idea that the community shares a knowledge that is empirical and based on common experiences that result in common sensations and emotional responses and are consequently communicable and becomes universal. Kant remains comfortably in the realm of one epistomology, that of the sensational.

Where I find the seed of romanticism is in Kant’s admittance that the judgement of beauty resides not solely in the realm of the subjective (which, for most of his critique, he appears to insist on), but also in the realm of the intellect. What is very unromantic about Kant’s assertion is that the purely aesthetic is relegated to the realm of the sensational, but the estimation of beauty, the paragon of aesthetic judgment, can only be achieved with an influence of “pure ideas of reason.” Essentially, the rational wins out, yet the very strict borders separating the functions of the subjective experience and the intellect become more porous, creating opportunities for symbiosis, cross-pollination and pollution.

To answer the question of whether or not taste in the beautiful must be disinterested, I would rather stay in the realm of Kant’s arguments than to voice my own opinion (which would be to say no, it’s impossible; disinterest is biologically impossible, that we have visceral reactions to stimuli that affect our brain activity and so our unconsciousness, and so our associations, and so our ways of knowing, and so our intellect, and that even disinterest is, at some level, a form of interest – so there, I voiced it, apophastically). Kant invokes the imagination as a way to determine what is normative (and what I find most disturbing about his critique), and whatis “normative” is a fundamental criteria for beauty. He then backpedals to say that truly normative figures aren’t beautiful because their mediocrity lacks the potential for genius, but he doesn’t take it back – beautiful people must be exemplars of normativity. I argue that if Kant invokes imagination, he in invoking interest in the form of conclusions and ideas based on subjective experiences, memory and interpretation. Interest can’t be avoided, even for Kant.

An Acknowledgment of the Beauty of the Universe
Wordsworth, in his “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” directly addresses and counters several of Kant’s point, and it is clear from the get-go that Wordsworth values the subjective/feeling over the objective/rational that Kant privileges. In defending the purpose of a preface, Wordsworth rejects the assumption that he harbors the “selfish and foolish hope of reasoning [his reader] into an approbation of these particular Poems.” Yet Wordsworth’s negation of the rational as a basis for delight is actually in accord with Kant. Kant also relegates delight in the realm of the subjective. The accordance continues when Wordsworth asserts that while poetry is the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” any poetry worth value has been produced by a man who “had also thought long and deeply.” This idea parallels Kant’s idea that the ideal of beauty involves the “expression of the moral,” which dwells in the realm of the rational, thus “an estimate formed according to such a standard can never be purely aesthetic.” Wordsworth departs from Kant, however, when he grants feelings primacy as a way of knowing. While any poetry of worth must be produced by a thinking man, thoughts are “the representatives of all our past feelings.” Here, then, is evidence of the seeds of Romanticism directly countering a major claim of the Enlightenment, that everything can be known through systematic, rational study. This then, is a radical flight from Kant’s conceptualization of epistomology. Kant’s categorical separation of the subjective and the objective ways of knowing is subverted with Wordsworth asserts that the subjective forms the basis of our objective way of knowing (i.e. our feelings form our thoughts, our thoughts lead us to an understanding of the human condition). Wordsworth explained this in another way, stating that the feelings present in his poetry “gives importance to the action and situation, and the note action and situation to the feeling.” Feelings, therefore, are not only a way to decipher meaning, but also make meaning.

Wordsworth’s radical notions don’t stop with a refutation of Enlightment ideals. He also dismisses the high-falutin’ notions of poetic diction, elevated language, the personification of the abstract, and esoteric subject matter that characterized much of the poetry in the late 18th century. For Wordsworth, the ideal subject matter was Man in Nature, unpolluted and uncomplicated by artificial social norms and mores. It is the elemental passions of the common man, not the fabricated passions of the poet that Wordsworth valued. He aimed to capture the reality and truth of the common man, to translate it, and he insisted that common language was best suited to capture common experience.

Yet the role of the Poet goes beyond that of a translator of passions. Or I should say, the translation of passion goes beyond the purpose of mere diversion. If passion (i.e. feeling) is the seat of knowledge and both the source and the subject matter of poetry, then the object of poetry is truth. Wordsworth’s truth difference from Kant’s truth, which is absolute and universal and external. Wordsworth’s truth is also universal, but it is internal, found inside Man, in his heart, his emotions, his intuitions. In his nature and in Nature. It is the Poet’s responsibility to defend human nature against the artifice of society and the rationality of civilization. The Poet returns the Reader to the Reader’s experience of the natural, which is always based in subjective feelings.


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