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“A work can be torturously complex, extravagant, excessively vulgar even…or it can be so simple and plain, almost to the point where it is devoid of any embellishment or decoration, I wouldn’t have an issue with either, but when it is neither that it is considered utterly mundane and ugly.” Huat Lim. The only important person that I could remember who might ever have written about or tried to define beauty was Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, in his book a critique of judgment. (Further, beautiful objects have to be distinguished from beautiful views of objects (where the distance often prevents a clear perception)… It is just as when we watch the changing shapes of the fire or of a rippling brook: neither of which are things of beauty, but they convey a charm to the imagination, because they sustain its free play.) So, I am of the view that it would be utterly and totally pointless in trying to repeat whatever that he had written or said in his thesis, but in a gist, it is said that beauty is something we can behold in our minds, or in the intellectual eye, or yet it is something we cannot fully describe (although Kant attempted it), prescribe or define except through comparison to causes and effect, drawn from other natural phenomena, such as laughter and feelings of bliss.(this essay was drafted earlier in 2007 and since updated)

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One thought on “beauty according to kant

  1. I’m responding to both your thoughts about beauty and its relationship to laughter and bliss and the sound-bite from your radio interview last week where you summed this relationship up as “good buildings should make us feel good”.
    I believe categorically that our essential role as architects is to promote aesthetics to the wider public through city building. For me, the first thing about aesthetics is that it is of fundamental value to the human spirit. The second is that aesthetics is an experience that can be generated geometrically. In promoting the first, I take a Jungian perspective, which admits to a collective unconscious greater than, but accessed through, the individual. For me, “spirit” refers to this greater collective.
    In promoting aesthetics, we can start with the mundane fact that we live and work in a world defined by market values, and note that religious institutions, in particular, have traded on the value of aesthetics to the human spirit since time immemorial. This transaction is only after the fact however, because we also know that we are primed for beauty as part of the mating / survival game. So, aesthetics runs deep, as the cave art of primitives reveals to us. So deep it defies intellectualisation as Kant and others observe.
    Having said that, I think that the religious wisdom tradition is humanity’s greatest attempt to define aesthetics. As an architect, I am influenced by the sacred geometry of Egyptian / Greek civilisation, as handed down to me via Modernism. Vedic civilisation also has its sacred geometry of Yantra and Mantra and then there is the Chinese tradition of Feng Shui. How many others there are I don’t know and I also don’t know the extent to which these esoteric traditions share similar insights, but there must be many.
    So much of our more mundane understanding of the world also rests on geometry. Take physics, chemistry, optics and music for example. And with Mandelbrot’s discovery of fractal geometry in nature, we can now visualise natural growth patterns over time and across phenomena at all scales, ranging from galaxy formation to coastlines to tree formation to blood circulation and living cells, etc.
    From this perspective, I believe that we, as living proof of these fundamental geometries, and as self-aware beings, sense our fundamental geometric nature aesthetically and find it and the world beautiful. Therefore, aesthetics is a pathway to revealed truth about ourselves and the universe. And the truth revealed is geometric.
    So, getting back to the mundane world of city building and the marketing of aesthetics, and your sound-bite, Huat. I agree. I agree because, for me, architecture is a matter of us and our buildings aligning with the life-generating geometry of the universe. I think its that which makes us feel good. And when these patterns synchronise, they direct forces and flows of information and energy as the basis of well-being for the greater good. And the greater good refers to our collective unconscious, our spirituality.
    Feng Shui, Yantra and the Golden Ratio are well-tried geometries for achieving these ends in architecture and city building. Now we have fractal geometry. The next question to ponder is how we, as architects, in a globally interconnected world work respectfully with such different geometric traditions to bring out the best we can, especially in the face of the civilisational crisis at hand. Will it help?

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