A Return to Aesthetics

  • Jonathan Loesberg
  • Jan 1, 2006
  • Series: Volume 9 - 2006

Jonathan Loesberg, A Return to Aesthetics. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005. 289 pages.

If you are looking for a clear and concise book on aesthetics, look somewhere else. Jonathan Loesberg�s A Return to Aesthetics (Stanford University Press, 2005) is an attempt by the author to recalibrate aesthetic judgment in a way that shows the common postmodern rejection of the practice of aesthetic theory (which many postmoderns view as an inherently modernist practice) to be both unnecessary and self-referentially incoherent. At the same time, Loesberg endeavors to provide a more solid backbone to postmodern philosophy via Kantian aesthetic theory. However, Loesberg�s delivery of the material is so often opaque and convoluted that many times one must spend several minutes deciphering a single sentence and hours on a few pages. While a certain degree of murkiness is to be expected of a writer drawing as heavily from Kant as Loesberg does, one often wonders if the author honestly believes his style of writing to be the best way to cover the concepts.

In the first chapter of his book, Loesberg traces the historical treatments of aesthetic theory and natural theology. He notes that the latter was greatly dependent upon the former as a way to provide evidence for the moral governance of the world. From here he comprehensively addresses the ways in which aesthetic theory has been bound up in theistic design theory throughout the years. By the time that Loesberg arrives at Hume, the ripple effects created by Hume�s attack on natural theology can be seen in the realm of aesthetics. When Loesberg comes to Kant, the difficulties facing the Kantian attempt to shake off some of Hume�s skepticism appear all the more daunting.

Loesberg believes, however, that Kant was able to create an aesthetic theory that allows one to perceive an apparent design to nature and art, while at the same time bracketing the question of whether or not there is a design. This is what Loesberg refers to as �autonomous form,� or �subjective purposiveness.� This autonomous form is grounded in the Kantian framework, which holds that aesthetics is based on a feeling of pleasure in �the harmony of imagination and understanding� elicited by the understanding�s concept of the object and the imagination�s a priori intuition of what an object should be like. When these two faculties agree or match, the judgment regards this as the object�s �purposiveness... The object seems designed to give us this pleasure� (62-63). However, since this pleasure comes from the harmony of the faculties of the mind and not from anything inherent in the concept of the object, we cannot be sure whether or not this purposiveness is in the object itself.

Subjective purposiveness and autonomous form do not end here. All that is seen at this point is �a purposiveness that one is not sure the object has� (66). True subjective purposiveness is the entire process just given, but taken one step farther. Loesberg claims that subjective purposiveness comes from the harmony of the judgment�s recognition of apparent purposiveness (as outlined above) and the imagination�s a priori intuition of what purposiveness is. Since this harmony is perceived within the mind and not directly from the object, it is entirely subjective and may be spoken about without any reference to the actual design of the object that set this process in motion.

This theory of autonomous form in art is closely linked to what Loesberg calls �indifferent embodiment.� Indifferent embodiment is a Kantian treatment of the theory of symbolic embodiment. Symbolic embodiment holds that a symbol can fully represent and encapsulate an idea. Kantian indifference attempts to strip our thinking of the urge to get at the root or cause of this embodiment. To put it another way, indifferent embodiment seeks only to comprehend how we construe and interpret an object in light of our perception of said object as a piece of art. In doing so, indifferent embodiment refuses to give any thought to whether the object might truly embody an idea. Once again, we must bracket a question, namely, our concern as to whether or not the object actually embodies an idea. Instead, we concern ourselves only with our interpretations.

From here Loesberg turns to discussions of Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Loesberg�s intention is to show an intellectual progression from Kant to Nietzsche in terms of aesthetic and moral understanding. In doing so, Loesberg highlights the roots of Nietzschean perspectivism in Kantian aesthetic theory, noting that Nietzsche �takes the aesthetic concept of pure appearance [and] employ[s] it in a corrosive reading of the metaphysical desire to know essence... [He also] takes the ideas of indifferent appearance and embodiment from both Hegel and Schopenhauer to achieve this end� (132). Moreover, Loesberg argues that without Kant�s aesthetic theory, the postmodern critiques of the Enlightenment, which all draw heavily from Nietzsche, simply would not exist.

Loesberg spends the second half of the book dealing with Foucault�s and Bourdeiu�s views on aesthetics. While this part of the book is certainly lengthy and meaty, it is essentially the application of Loesberg�s understanding of Kantian aesthetics as the lens through which to view the work of these two writers. Loesberg asserts that both Foucault and Bourdeiu are best understood and evaluated when one sees that both men only offer a mode of apprehension by which to view the world, not a claim to knowledge of the objective state of affairs of the world. Or, to use Loesberg�s terms, they are offering indifferent embodiments of the world�s autonomous form.

There is, within this book, much to commend. Loesberg shows a voluminous knowledge of the history of aesthetics from the seventeenth century forward as well as an acute understanding of the growth of ideas throughout the past four centuries. This information is a bit difficult to uncover because of Loesberg�s writing style, but with some effort one does see a keen intellect beneath the difficult language. However, there are a couple of places where Loesberg leaves something to be desired, namely, in his failure to address contemporary thought in natural theology.

First, though Loesberg frequently makes mention of critiques of Kant from contemporary aesthetic writers, he does not bring up critiques from thinkers who believe the practice of natural theology to still be worthwhile. This is odd, to say the least, especially if aesthetics is as bound up with natural theology as Loesberg asserts it to be. Indeed, Loesberg consistently speaks of Hume and Kant as having destroyed or dismantled natural theology, but this view is hotly contested within philosophical circles these days and even a cursory glance of today�s intellectual landscape would alert one to this. (See, for example, In Defense of Natural Theology: A Post-Humean Assessment, ed. James F. Sennett & Douglas Groothuis, InterVarsity Press, 2005.)

Secondly, Loesberg makes mention, at least twice, of Plato�s famous Euthyphro dilemma (though not by name) as applying to the meta-ethics of Christianity. While Loesberg mentions this classic problem in his discussion of seventeenth century philosophers, he does so in a way that suggests that he holds this dilemma as something that still needs to be dealt with in theistic circles. If this is truly what Loesberg believes, then he either is oblivious to the tertium quid proposed by many ethical theorists or else he has reasons for rejecting it that he has not mentioned. (James G. Hanink and Gary R. Mar provide an example of this tertium quid in their excellent article �What Euthyphro Couldn�t Have Said,� Faith and Philosophy, 1987: 4(3); 241-261.)

If this dilemma is as fundamental to the problems in design theory as he claims it is and if natural theology is so crucial to the understanding of aesthetics, then to leave contemporary solutions out of his book is to leave A Return to Aesthetics, at best, only partially complete.

Chauncey Hutton
Denver Seminary
January 2006