Although in the Critique of Judgement, Kant sought to include beauty and art within a system understtod by an all-encompassing reason, Kant’s effort is generally deemed nowadays to fall short of this goal. On the other hand, his apparent failure to bring beauty and art convincingly into the domain of rational judgement points to something more interesting. For two millennia after Plato first demonstrated the separation of art and truth in the Republic, no one thought it necessary to make a case for their philosophical reconciliation; that is until the Enlightenment. As Adorno points out:

'All enlightenment is accompanied by the anxiety that what set enlightenment in motion in the first place and what enlightenment ever threatens to consume may disappear: truth. Thrown back on itself, enlightenment distances itself from that guileless objectivity that it would like to achieve; that is why, under compulsion of its own ideal of truth it is conjoined with the pressure to hold on to what it has condemned in the name of truth. Art is this mnemosyne.' (i)

Kant’s insistence upon the transcendental subject and the subject’s relation to aesthetic enjoyment is crucial to  art’s inclusion in the development of the Enlightenment and hence to modernity and modernism. The result was twofold.

'In securing an autonomous domain of aesthetic judgement, a domain with its own norms, language and set of practices, Kant was simultaneously securing the independence of the domain of cognition from aesthetic interference.' (ii)

Thus the separate categories of knowledge as truth and the phenomenon of aesthetic judgement were sustained. However, Kant’s recognition of a specialised domain of aesthetics acknowledged that there was another approach to truth judgement that was independent of rational cognition. This was to have unforeseen consequences. According to J.M. Bernstein, a reading of the Critique of Judgement from a modern perspective shows that:

' (...) it begins to engender what we have come to think of as the fundamental conceptual vocabulary of continental philosophy, the philosophy that challenges enlightened modernity through recourse to the phenomena of art and aesthetics.' (iii)

In seeking to explain art through reason Kant provides a loophole in the structure of an increasingly rationalistic system of values, or Enlightenment, through which art can escape. But this means that it is not only art that escapes rational definition: By being able to comprehend art without being able to provide a rational explanation for it, reason itself appears to transcend its own limits. Thus in seeking to incorporate art in a philosophical system where reason is the ground, Kant reveals a characteristic of reason that disrupts the boundaries of the system inscribed in it’s own name.

What we know as Continental philosophy has examined this disruption, this gap, by rigorous critique. Beginning with Nietzsche and moving through phenomenology and post-structuralism, this critique extends not least to epistemology, and the way we are accustomed to think of knowledge as the outcome of or equivalent to cognition.

'Cognition consists in grasping the individual, which alone exists, not in its singularity which does not count, but in its generality, of which alone there is science (…) And here power begins.  The surrender of exterior things to human freedom through their generality does not only mean, in all innocence, their comprehension, but also their being taken in hand, their domestication, their possession. Only in possession does the I complete the identification of the diverse. To possess is, to be sure, to maintain the reality of this other one possessed, but to do so while suspending its independence. [In a civilisation which the philosophy of the same reflects, feedom is realised as a wealth. Reason, which reduces the other, is appropriation and power.]' (iv)

The focus of this critique, i.e. what has been left out of the discourse of reason, is the same as what has always been included in art, and which is by its nature indeterminate and unquantifiable. The indeterminate nature of art therefore contains a ‘more than’ what is presented materially or empirically. Crucially, however, this ‘more than’ is not a transcendent that art refers to, such as an ideal of beauty or perfection, or even ‘art’ as a theme, but is somehow integral to its actual form.

'For the more is not simply the nexus of the elements, but an other, mediated through this nexus and yet divided from it. The artistic elements suggest through this nexus what escapes it (…) It is not through a higher perfection that artworks separate from the fallibly existent but rather by becoming actual (…) they are not the other of the empirical world: everything in them becomes other.' (v)

The "other" referred to here by Adorno I have pursued through art and through philosophical discourse, mainly that of Derrida and Levinas, as alterity, in an effort to show that the truth of art is the same as the truth of philosophy: or rather that this truth, any truth, and particularly ‘The Truth’ is not an absolute, perhaps cannot even be called truth, but belongs to what we can only for the time being refer to as Alterity. It could well be that Alterity and Transcendence, as suggested in a collection of essays by Levinas (vi), are the same thing.

Transcendence is integral to life, and this is communicated by art.


i  Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. R. Hullot-Kantor, (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota, 1977, p.80.

ii  J. M. Bernstein, The Fate of Art: Aesthetic Alienation from Kant to Derrida and Adorno, (Boston; Polity Press, 1993), p. 8.

iii  Ibid., p;10.

iv  Emmanuel Levinas, Collected Philosophical Papers, trans. A. Lingis, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne Univ. Press, 1998), "Philosophy and the Idea of Infinity", p. 50.

v   Adorno, op. cit., pp. 79, 81.

vi  Emmanuel Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence, trans. Michael B. Smith, (London: Athlone Press, 1999).