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Kant, Proust, and the Appeal of Beauty

Richard Moran
A familiar feature of the history of modern aesthetics is the cycle of
suspicion and defensiveness connected with the idea of beauty, as though
its very appearance suggested something exaggerated, something requiring deflation, which then provokes a certain polemical stance on the part
of both its defenders and detractors. People who would not be tempted by
a reductive account of other concepts (for example, of thought, or desire,
or action), may still feel that beauty has to be shown to be illusory or
explained as a mere guise of some other force or quality altogether in the
end. One might, for instance, have reasons to be suspicious of pleasure
itself, its role in culture, or the exaggerated claims for it, or one may have
metaphysical scruples deriving from the idea that beauty can be no property of things in themselves but can only be a projection of our own sensibilities upon the world. In different ways, then, there can seem to be a
certain extravagance built into the notion of the beautiful itself, as though
it were internal to its invocation that it claims more for itself than it can
deliver on. Familiar as these thoughts are, however, their import is far from
clear. The thought about projection, for instance, need not be any more
skeptical than the parallel claims that are made about secondary qualities
generally, the supervenience of which on our sensory dispositions is not
I had the pleasure of presenting some of this material at a Warren Quinn Conference at the
University of California, Los Angeles, where I benefitted from comments by Franklin Bruno; at
a Sawyer Seminar at the University of Chicago, hosted by David Wellbery and James Conant; in
a series of seminars at Johns Hopkins University hosted by Michael Fried; at a workshop on
philosophy and literature and film organized by Susan Wolf at the University of North
Carolina, Chapel Hill; and at the New York University Conference on Modern Philosophy and
Aesthetic Judgment, organized by Beatrice Longuenesse, John Richardson, and Don Garett,
where I had helpful comments from Rebecca Kukla. The paper benefitted from all these
occasions, particularly from the hosts in question, as well as from audiences at the University of
Illinois, University of Chicago, Stanford University, and the University of Illinois, UrbanaChampaign. For conversations either on those occasions or much earlier I am grateful to
Stanley Cavell, Fred Neuhouser, Alexander Nehamas, Paul Guyer, Jonathan Lear, Lanier
Anderson, Joshua Landy, Katalin Makkai, Meredith Williams, Robert Pippin, Wayne Martin,
Brent Kalar, Michael Williams, Hannah Ginsborg, Katalin Makkai, Thomas Teufel, Melissa
Merritt, Tim Scanlon, and David Sussman.
At early stages of the project conversations with Martin Stone helped orient me in the topic,
and toward the end of it conversations with Arata Hamawaki were crucial to giving shape to the
The paper is dedicated to the memory of Mary Mothersill.
Critical Inquiry 38 (Winter 2012)
2012 by The University of Chicago. 0093-1896/12/3802-0010$10.00. All rights reserved.