Kant was perhaps the first philosopher to note the distinctive puzzle, verging on paradox, which marks our dealings with art. Works of art seem to place us under an obligation to interpret them and yet we are convinced that our interpretations will never be exhaustive. Kant attempts to account for this peculiar phenomenon by talking of "purposiveness without purpose" or of the aesthetic idea as "a representation of the imagination to which no concept is adequate." We are constrained to see some pattern or organization in a work of art and this is typically understood as a teleological or purposive organization which we may feel tempted to attribute to the intentions or experiences of some rational agent; yet we do not complete this attribution because it seems as if there is always some additional or more complex purposive pattern which escapes our comprehension. For Kant the phenomenon is to be understood in terms of the types of judgment and the need to find some link between the worlds of nature and of freedom; and it is important for his theory that he demonstrate that art is beautiful only insofar as it approximates to the beauty of nature. Others with similar metaphysical interests have introduced concepts like Schopenhauer's will or Hegel's absolute idea to cover roughly the same ground. Those who are dissatisfied with such speculative schemes have suggested that the puzzle can be dissolved either by discovering a way of identifying the meaning of a work of art, by adopting a completely relativistic account of artistic meaning, or by abandoning talk of meaning and interpretation in favor of talk about aesthetic surfaces or physical objects.

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 1974

Publisher Statement

Copyright © 1974 The American Society for Aesthetics. This article first appeared in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 33, no. 1 (Autumn 1974): 33-42. doi:10.2307/428944.

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