Summer University Reboot

David Bremner

Purposiveness without a Purpose, with a Purpose

13 August

How to rescue newness from whiggishness?

In the Critique of the Power of Judgment Kant defines beauty as the characteristic of something appearing to be purposeful, but without us being able to classify what its purpose is. Kant thinks that pleasure is produced when the understanding understands – or gets a feeling of – its own generic power by generating an open-ended succession of ideas, without understanding any thing in particular. The purposeless purposiveness of a spatio-temporal form is the detonator unleashing this self-satisfaction: judgment wants to subsume it under a concept, but finds it can’t manage it, much to its own delight (with itself).  

However, Hegel criticizes Kant for assuming that the actual operativity of our own faculty of cognition is directly epistemically transparent to itself without mediative detour. But still, purposiveness is always keyed to our purposes: it’s anthropocentric. A consequence of Hegel’s criticism is therefore that discerning between the pointlessly purposive-like and the straightforwardly pointlessly pointless cannot rely upon clues that could be simply read-off of given spatio-temporal shapes. Rather, our own capacity to create can only measure itself across a temporal sequence turning exteriorly given facts into new internally developed determinacies. The proof is in the pudding, and this also seems to be why Adorno in his book Aesthetic Theory says (to paraphrase) that the starting point for making an artwork has to be tacky and haphazard in the same way as the tinny music you hear in MacDonalds while in a hurry.         

All of this implies that heteronomous servitude (merely habitual associations; fortuitous contingency; passive receptivity) cannot be mediated with activity (full-blooded inference; logical necessity; spontaneous construction). There’s no way of deducing the new thing which is going to be produced from the old thing out of which it is (only metaphorically) going to be made to sprout. 

But I want to suggest that in order to avoid substantializing the newness of the new thing as a quasi-natural inexhaustible goldmine, a move which would re-intricate heteronomy and activity, we need to use Wilfrid Sellars to show how the contents of forms, just as much as the forms of contents, are always the products of a truth-making decision. That the déclencheur (haphazard tackiness) itself be also seen to be an unwitting product of our syntheses de-calcifies and de-metaphysicalizes it.