Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 17: Nos 1-2) >> Philosophical Aesthetics and Simms's Poetry and the Practical >> Page 66

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Secondary Scholarship | 2009
Transcription 66 THE SIMMS REVIEW

The upshot of Kant's second critique was this: it elucidated an
aspect of human subjectivity that could not be elucidated by the purely
empirical knowledge Kant had described in his first critique. By postulat-
ing God, freedom, and immortality, the man who remained for empirical
knowledge only an object in space and time could know himself after all
as volitional man, living in an ethical world as well as a physical one. In
the ethical world, persons could rise above their merely natural selves by
simply choosing to relate to each other on the basis of purposes, inten-
tions, obligations, and duties. Not having a natural existence, the ethical
world had to be adequately conceived so that it might then become the
blueprint for particular actions in the world.
The exercise of practical reason requires of us that we be doers or
intenders, not just neutral beholders of whatever happens to be the case.
Voluntary action in the ethical world generates a greater sense of self-
consciousness than does the passive perception of objects in space and
time. Nevertheless, because the demands of morality are rigorous, there
is a degree of unfreedom that goes along with practical reason. We are
not free to behave in any manner whatsoever. We are bound, as it were,
by our duties and obligations. In a certain sense, we are always on the
clock, whenever we are engaged in fulfilling the tasks of practical reason,
in spite of the fact that we have chosen these tasks ourselves.
And this is where Kant's third critique comes in. Obviously, we
are not free to perceive the natural world any way we like, nor are we
free to be ethical in any arbitrary manner of our own choosing. Moral
action and sense-perception alike are characterized by certain defining
rules that cannot be set aside with impunity. However, in exercising what
Kant calls aesthetic judgment, we enter a zone of nearly perfect freedom,
wherein our minds may luxuriate or expatiate in the presence of an artis-
tic or natural phenomenon, without following a script. In entering this
zone, which is a zone of detached contemplation, we muse and specu-
late almost like gods in relation to what it is we are contemplating. We
become assessors of things, not mere labelers of things, and we take such
a delight in the exercise of our cognitive powers that our thinking greatly
exceeds that which is required for the bare perception of a physical object
or the bare determination of an ethical purpose. As Kant puts it, when our
cognitive powers are brought into play by an aesthetic judgment, "we lin-
ger over the contemplation of [it] because this contemplation strengthens
and reproduces itself' indefinitely (58). And especially when we con-