Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Robert S. Lehman reviews Eli Friedlander’s Expressions of Judgment

Eli Friedlander. Expressions of Judgment: An Essay on Kant’s Aesthetics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015. 144 pp. Hardcover $22.95. 

Reviewed by Robert S. Lehman

Having previously published monographs on Ludwig Wittgenstein, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Walter Benjamin, Eli Friedlander has shown himself to be especially skilled at presenting in a systematic form the work of some of the most unsystematic thinkers in the canon of modern philosophy. In his most recent book, Expressions of Judgment: An Essay on Kant’s Aesthetics, Friedlander sets his sights on one of philosophy’s greatest builders of systems: Immanuel Kant, and more particularly on what Kant himself took to be the lynchpin of his critical project: The Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). Friedlander presents his book—a slim one-hundred-twenty pages, including notes—both as an exposition of Kant’s aesthetic theory and as an original argument concerning the role played by “meaning” in aesthetic judgment (x). As to the former goal, Friedlander succeeds admirably. Expressions of Judgment follows more or less closely the organization of the first division of the “Third Critique,” with the first chapter dedicated to the analytic of the beautiful, the second to the analytic of the sublime, and the third to the fraught relationship between natural beauty and manmade art. In the fourth chapter, Friedlander interrupts this progression to examine two cases where the distinction between the beautiful and the sublime becomes blurry, “where the beautiful touches upon the sublime” (78): Kant’s discussion in §17 of the human form as the “ideal of beauty,” and Kant’s passing remarks in §14 on the sensation of color. Friedlander’s readings of these two seemingly inconsequential moments in Kant’s text are fascinating in their own right. They also illustrate one of Expressions of Judgment’s guiding principles: aesthetic judgment is best understood as a unifying activity, one that bridges the domains of beautiful and sublime, “subject and object, cognition and will, the natural and the artificial, intuition and concept, experience and idea, singular and universal, as well as the individual and the common” (12).

As to Friedlander’s other goal—to underscore the role of meaning in aesthetic judgment—I am not so certain that Expressions of Judgment hits the mark. I found myself wishing that Friedlander would explain in greater detail the meaning of “meaning” in his study. When he first introduces the term, it is as a bulwark against the “minimalist” conception of aesthetic judgment, according to which aesthetic judgment is simply a “deficient mode of the conceptual articulation of experience exhibited in cognition” (13). To focus instead on the meaningfulness of aesthetic judgment is to recognize that—far from being a partial form of cognition—aesthetic judgment mobilizes the entire faculty of representation. In so doing, it opens a “space of meaning” (31), one in which the judging subject and the object judged come together in a mutually reinforcing whole. Fair enough. This focus on the holistic character of aesthetic judgment is very much in keeping with Friedlander’s broad aim: to do justice to the unified character of Kant’s text. But at times, Friedlander seems also to suggest that the meaningfulness of aesthetic judgment is of a specifically linguistic sort, and that inhabitation of the space of meaning is, principally, “a mode of inhabitation of language” (xi). Early on in Expressions of Judgment, for example, Friedlander writes the following of our “wordlessness” in the face of beauty: “far from drawing apart language and feeling such wordlessness shows their intimate proximity” (xi). But is language really what Friedlander means here? Or is it just that, as contemporary readers of Kant, we are most comfortable thinking about cognition in linguistic terms? If Friedlander is presenting Kant as a philosopher of language (as a way of bringing Kant nearer to Stanley Cavell, for instance, to whom Expressions of Judgment is dedicated), then he is guilty of an anachronism, one at odds with his claim to be providing an exposition of the “Third Critique.” Of course, he is also in good company. It was Walter Benjamin, the focus of Friedlander’s previous book, who wrote in 1918 that “the great transformation and correction which must be performed upon the [Kantian] concept of experience, oriented so one-sidedly along mathematical-mechanical lines, can be attained only by relating knowledge to language, as was attempted by Hamann during Kant’s lifetime.”[1] Perhaps Friedlander has a similar goal in mind when he introduces a notion of meaning into aesthetic judgment. If so, he might state this goal more directly.

Expressions of Judgment is very much a book about Kant’s aesthetics and not about the uses to which this aesthetics has been put or the debates to which this aesthetics has given rise. Friedlander admits to having made a calculated decision to avoid referring to the numerous commentaries that have already been written on Kant’s text “in order to maintain a pace of exposition suited to making the unity of Kant’s text perspicuous” (x). And yet, the horizon of Expressions of Judgment is decidedly post-Kantian. Each of the book’s four chapters begins with an epigraph from a post-Kantian theorist (from Friedrich Schlegel, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Walter Benjamin). The notes include short (and not so short) engagements with the writings of Friedrich Schiller, Clement Greenberg, Stanley Cavell, Michael Fried, and others. And Friedlander states candidly his belief that “the significance of artistic and critical endeavors of romanticism and modernism can be illuminated by way of Kant’s work” (xi). It seems relevant, then, to ask what Friedlander’s reading of Kant adds to this illumination. On the one hand, Friedlander’s reading does not add much. Unlike Thierry de Duve’s Kant after Duchamp, for example, which explains in exquisite detail the ability of a modified version of Kantian aesthetic judgment to account for the readymade, the monochrome, and pop art, Friedlander does little to challenge Kant’s aesthetic theory with contemporary artistic practices. On the other hand, though (and usually only in passing), Friedlander does in the notes to his study provide some attractive suggestions of how Kant’s aesthetics might be put in dialogue with more recent writing on art. In a note on Kant’s sublime, he argues that, insofar as it occasions the subject’s self-dramatization, the sublime can be aligned with what Fried has described as the “theatricality” of the minimalist art object. In another note, he entertains a reading of Greenberg’s “kitsch” in light of Kant’s notion of fanaticism [Schwärmerei]. And in still another, he sketches rapidly the similarities between Kant’s aesthetics and Cavell’s thinking of the ordinary. These readings are not worked out in any kind of detail. They recommend, rather, topics for some future conversation. Of them, we might say what Kant said of aesthetic ideas: that they occasion much thinking. Turning to them, Friedlander presents Expressions of Judgment as an essay in the truest sense.

[1] Walter Benjamin, “On the Program of the Coming Philosophy,” Selected Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, et al., ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, 4 vols. (Cambridge, 2005), 1:107-08.