Disinterested Pleasure and Aesthetic Autonomy

Open Inquiry Archive.  Vol. 1, No. 5 (2012)

ISSN 2167-8812

Disinterested Pleasure and Aesthetic Autonomy in Georg Forster’s Voyage ‘round the World


by Sally Hatch Gray

Part I. Introduction

A twenty-one-year-old Georg Forster (1754-1794) began Voyage ‘round the World (1777), his astounding account of his travels aboard the Resolution and Captain James Cook’s second circumnavigation from 1772 to 1775, by stating their mission. Georg Forster’s father, Johann Forster, had been hired by the British Admiralty to be the naturalist for the journey. Georg Forster writes:

From him they expected a philosophical history of the voyage, free from prejudice and vulgar error, where human nature should be represented without any adherence to fallacious systems, and upon the principles of general philanthropy; in short, an account written upon a plan which the learned world had not hitherto seen executed.[Note 1]

As with most great journeys, not everything went as planned. It was the younger Forster, not his father, who would first publish their philosophical history of the journey. Yet, Georg Forster’s Voyage was indeed a travel narrative the likes of which had not been seen before. His efforts in remaining open-minded towards the peoples they would encounter were extraordinary, and this very attribute of his anthropologically-oriented work insures its continued significance in the annals of German intellectual history. Given his achievement in objectivity, the moments of distinct cultural prejudice found in Forster’s posture towards the peoples he encounters aboard the Resolution are especially revealing —not in regard to the peoples being studied, but in regard to the nature of the study itself. Indeed, Forster’s text may be read as a physical enactment of some fundamental Enlightenment-aged theories regarding the nature of sensate knowledge which figure prominently in an understanding of the limits of these new efforts in what would become the field of anthropology.

Focusing on establishing groundwork for a new science of the natural history of human beings, Forster was most interested in the objective verification of empirical data. For the most part, Forster used deductive logic in his analysis of his findings—a hallmark of an empirically-based modern scientific theory.[2] Interestingly, however, another budding field of study may also be found in Forster’s work as an inadvertent, underlying aesthetics figures prominently in Forster’s descriptions of the peoples whom he encounters along his journey. [3] This is not entirely surprising, as aesthetics, or a philosophy of beauty, originates as a philosophy of sensate knowledge. That is, aesthetics and anthropology are linked during their Enlightenment-aged origins.[4] Both are decidedly empirical, yet only aesthetics can provide access to an elusive, yet much-desired, transcendent truth.[5]

Indeed, I will argue here that the physical enactment of a philosophy of aesthetics in Voyage ‘round the World (and in Reise um die Welt), found specifically in Forster’s accounts of the explorers’ interactions with the women whom they deem beautiful, enact ideas of “purposiveness” and “disinterested pleasure” as they are later most eloquently elaborated in Friedrich Schiller’s 1795 epistolary treatise On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters (Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen). Such a reading can serve to illuminate these abstract and metaphysical ideas by placing them in the context of a contemporary empirical study, and serve to demonstrate the intimate link between aesthetics and anthropology at their conceptual foundations.

Part II. Positioning Forster: Kant’s Pre-Critical Anthropology and Schiller’s Aesthetic Education

The mixing of aesthetics in anthropology is not unique to Forster, and one useful example for this discussion may be found in Immanuel Kant’s characterization of aesthetic judgment in his well-received treatise on anthropology entitled Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime (Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen), published by the Berlin Academy in 1764. Describing feelings of a finer nature, those of the beautiful and those of the sublime, a young, pre-critical Kant maintains that these are feelings which arise in response to certain objects.[6] They are not part of the objects themselves, and thus can be used in an empirical study of human beings. To distinguish between the two feelings of the beautiful and the sublime, Kant makes lists of things, a flower, for instance, is beautiful, while a view of the snow-topped mountains through the clouds is sublime. Kant demonstrates that he is speaking about discrete phenomena which are “apparently uniformly judged” (“ziemlich gelichförmig beurteilt”) by people with taste.[7] Thus, he attempts to establish some systematic objectivity over the manifold of experience. As the treatise develops this aesthetical theme, Kant then uses it in a characterization of different groupings of people, including a discussion of the relative beauty of women.[8] “The Circassian and Georgian women have always been held exceedingly pretty by all the Europeans, who travel through their countries.”[9] Believing that whiter skin reflects a finer character in women, he observes that some cultures like the Persians, Turks and Arabians sought to better themselves through the slave trade of fair, whiter women. He then claims that the Persians were successful in this, and that this proves that the taste for the beautiful, as for the sublime, does not differ significantly among men.[10]

Thus, Kant’s Observations demonstrates an interest in using discussions of the beautiful and of the sublime, the theme of his Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790)—a text which  would be foundational to modern aesthetics—as a means for making judgments which can unify seemingly unconnected empirical data in his study of human beings. That is, in Observations, Kant uses aesthetics in his anthropology as a measurement tool in order to unify phenomena which otherwise would not reveal any connection. He uses it to demonstrate some objectivity—the judgment of the relative beauty of women does not vary among men, even across cultural lines—which then will allow him to establish his observations of humans more systematically, as a budding science. With Observations Kant established himself as a popular essayist, demonstrating a more poetical style than he would in his later work.[11] This most popular work by Kant reflects sentiments of his times, and provides context in which to read Forster’s observations of the relative beauty of women whom he encounters during his adventure aboard the Resolution.

Significantly, the aesthetics which inadvertently arises out of Forster’s text resembles Kant’s pre-critical 1764 Observations but diverges significantly from Kant’s 1790 Critique of Judgment. In fact, Kant and Forster engaged in a debate over Kant’s skin-color based race theory in the 1780s, and Forster’s argument against Kant’s metaphysics and scientific theory during that debate helped Kant to form his theory of a teleological nature as elaborated in the second part of that text.[12] Forster rejected Kant’s metaphysical scientific method, and with it, his metaphysical view of nature. Friedrich Schiller also studied Kant’s work, and his 1795 response to Kant’s Third Critique, On the Aesthetic Education of Man in a Series of Letters, may be read as a critique of Kant’s aesthetics as well. Forster’s behavior toward, and discussions of, beauty in Voyage are more in line with those of Schiller, and of a pre-critical Kant, than with those of the 1790s Kant.  

In his 1790 Third Critique, after his debate with Forster over race and scientific theory, Kant argues that beauty remains universal, but judgments of the beautiful are reflective and subjective. They are not constitutive, they do not tell us how the world is, but rather are regulative, telling us how the world ought to be. These kinds of judgments are not taught, but rather exist as a priori legislative categories of the mind. Thus, they can be both subjective and universal. Beauty exists not as an objective reality for Kant, but as a subjective experience. As a demonstration of human freedom which connects empirical experience with a priori categories of the mind, beauty for Kant may be a symbol of morality. Schiller, in his Letters, makes a critique of Kant’s idea of beauty, understanding beauty as freedom’s appearance in the sensible world. He objected to Kant’s idea of a reflective, subjective judgment, believing our experience of beauty to be more than subjective reflections of a priori categories of the mind. In the end, Schiller fails to articulate an alternative metaphysics which could counter that of Kant.[13] Instead, he argues that analytic philosophy expressed in such technical terms reduces beauty to an abstraction, a mere skeleton of concepts, and fails to preserve her true nature in the process of analysis.[14] In other words, Schiller rejected Kant’s critical analysis for being too technical. For Schiller, beauty cannot be understood as a mere transcendental idea, it must have a physical reality too. Thus, discussions of the beautiful must perform beauty as well as describe it. Style can kill it, and Kant’s style indicates for Schiller, that his critical philosophy is incapable of accessing the essence of beauty. Explaining the limits of pure reason and nature of human existence, Schiller writes, “Reason does indeed demand unity; but Nature demands multiplicity; and both these kinds of law make their claim upon man.”[15] Kant’s idea of beauty is too focused on unity, thus it must be a priori and merely reflective. For Kant beauty cannot have objective reality, as that would limit it to time and space. Beauty, for Schiller, has objective reality, but it is, at the same time, still capable of revealing truth. For Schiller, beauty, found in art, allows insights into the limited nature of everyday thought and has the power to free people from their limited realities. It also has the power to release one from the demands of pure reason. Once freed from their profound limitations, the aesthetically educated are then capable of seeing truth.[16]

For Schiller, beauty is morality’s phenomenal form, and as such, beauty is the key to an “aesthetic education.” Schiller’s aesthetic education promotes the practice of a disinterested pleasure, and it focuses on the beauty of the female form, where the disinterest is defined literally as a kind of emotional disinterest in beautiful women as people, separating their personhood from their form. Forster’s text, as a description of the contact between European explorers and those who would be the colonized, provides a context for the kind of aesthetic education as described by Schiller, such that the island women become the actual objects training the eyes of the aesthetically educated European voyeurs. For him, as for Schiller, beauty has objective reality, it exists as empirical evidence for his natural history.

Part III. On Discovery: Beautiful Women and the Practice of Schiller’s Aesthetic Education

The Resolution’s first stop is Madeira. There, as with most places along the way, Forster is not impressed with the beauty of the women. He writes of the women there,

. . . in general they [the people of Madeira] are hard featured, but not disagreeable. Their women are too frequently ill-favored, and want the florid complexion, which, when united to a pleasing assemblage of regular features, gives our Northern fair ones the superiority over all their sex.[17]

Forster’s translation of this statement into his native German is more direct, in that instead of saying the women are “too frequently ill-favored,” he writes “the women are ugly” (“die Frauenspersonen sind häßlich”). They lack a “florid complexion” which is, for Forster, a marker of the most beautiful, and whitest, women in the world—those of Europe. Forster makes similar statements regarding the beauty of women in New Hebrides (Vanuatu), New Caledonia, Mallicollo, and Tierra del Fuego. His view of the women of Tahiti and the Society Islands stands out in contrast to these others, as he and the other officers, according to his account, are captivated by a fair-skinned beauty.

In August of 1773, after what Forster described as “a very tedious course in search of the southern continent” during “the uncomfortable season of the year,” in which they positively asserted the location of Antarctica, the sailors were eager to reach warmer climes and to see the green island of Tahiti.[18] For Forster, “It was one of those beautiful mornings which the poets of all nations have attempted to describe, when we saw the isle of O-Taheitee.” He describes the “delicious perfume from the land” and how “the mountains, clothed with forests, rose majestic in various spiry [sic.] forms.”[19] According to Forster’s account of their first contacts with the people, the sailors find the women very attractive. He notes that they had not seen their own country women in twelve months, and adds that their dress had a “perfect form, so justly admired in the draperies of the ancient Greek statues.”[20] He mentions that they were “adorned” or “disfigured” by “singular black stains,” which would later come to be known to them as tattoos. He describes the people as gentle and affectionate.

Tension in the text rises when affection turns to sexual arousal, as Forster continues with his description of the women’s state of dress—or of undress:

The simplicity of a dress which exposed to view a well proportioned bosom and delicate hands, might also contribute to fan their [the sailors] amorous fire; and the view of several of these nymphs swimming nimbly all round the sloop, such as nature had formed them, was perhaps more than sufficient entirely to subvert the little reason which a mariner might have left to govern his passions.[21]

Clearly Tahiti was a refreshing change for these men. As Forster describes it, he and the others enjoy the beauty of the island and its inhabitants. Yet Forster makes a careful distinction between the way the more educated naturalists and officers behave and the behavior of the common sailors. Forster notes that one of the women among those who were given a tour of the ship in their first encounter was fascinated by the bed sheets and wanted one. One of the sailors offered her one of his, but only if she would engage in sex with him. Forster describes this scene in some detail: “She hesitated some time, and at last with seeming reluctance consented; but when the victim was just led to the altar of Hymen, the ship struck violently on the reef, and interrupted the solemnity.”[22] Throughout the text, Forster sees the women who have sex with the sailors as victims, and here as well, the reader is left to wonder at the nature of her consent.

Forster contrasts the close, physically sexual enjoyment of the women by the sailors with the voyeuristic distance of the officers and naturalists. A few weeks after arriving in Tahiti, the Resolution has sailed to Matavai Bay, and the European explorers are treated to a night of dining and dancing. After the officers had dined, “the boat’s crew and servants feasted on the remains,” and a crowd had gathered who were also treated by the officers to some pork. Forster continues, “The sailors were complaisant only to the fair sex; and giving way to their natural disposition for sensuality, for every piece of pork required the performance of an indecent denudation.”[23] While this was going on, the chief, Orea, brought the officers into the dressing rooms of the ladies who were going to perform a ceremonial dance, known as a “heeva.” In the dressing room, they find a singular beauty:

Her colour resembled that of white wax a little sullied, without having the least appearance of sickness, which that hue commonly conveys; and her fine black eyes and hair contrasted so well with it, that she was admired by us all. She received at first a number of little presents, which were so many marks of homage paid at the shrine of beauty . . . .”[24]

Certainly his account of their voyeurism gives no hint of impropriety; indeed, the officers are obeying the will of their distinguished host, Chief Orea. The powerful British officers of the Resolution defer in this moment to the wishes of the island’s King, a man, clad simply in a toga-like dress, which reminded Forster of the Ancient Greeks. On a tropical island on the other side of the world, they participate in what would be a most scandalous scene, were they to apply their own customs to the situation. Instead, they have been transported out of their own realm and into that of the other. There they open themselves up to a sensuous experience. It is as if they are freed from their own reality to play in an imaginary realm. Here, in view of their customs, they are slightly undressed themselves, and are free to experience a moment of collective admiration which leads them to make sacrifices at the “shrine of beauty.”

Forster’s contrast of the officers’ proper, distant voyeurism with the sailor’s base, physical sensuality mirrors Schiller’s concept of disinterested pleasure as he describes it in his Letters. For Schiller, aesthetic education, and thus, the moral development of the educated male, depends on a sublimation of physical sexuality. Physical sexuality entails an appreciation of female-gendered beauty as a means to an end and disallows an intellectual appreciation of beauty as an end in itself. The idea that fine art is complete in itself, and cannot exist for any purpose outside of itself, and the related idea of disinterested pleasure, that the work of art may serve no interest in the observer, may be found as early as 1785 in Karl Phillip Moritz’s essay, “Effort in the Unification of all Fine Arts and Sciences under the Concept of that which is Complete in Itself”(“Versuch einer Vereinigung aller schönen Künste und Wissenschaften unter dem Begriff des in sich selbst Vollendeten”) which was published in the Berliner Monatschrift. Here, Moritz began a movement in aesthetics in which fine art would be disassociated from usefulness. Thus, in order to appreciate the kind of beauty that reveals truth, beauty must be experienced as an end in itself. Schiller writes,

The beauty of a living woman will please us as well, or even a little better, than a mere painting of one equally beautiful; but inasmuch as the living beauty pleases better than the painted, she is no longer pleasing us as autonomous semblance, no longer pleasing the purely aesthetic sense; for the appeal to this sense, even by living things, must be through sheer appearance, even by real things, purely in virtue of their existence as idea.[25]

The process of aesthetic education is a process whereby the form of the woman is separated from her living person.[26] The aesthetically educated, heterosexually-oriented male voyeur then experiences a greater truth, leaving his everyday reality to experience something more profound, much the way Forster describes how the British officers react to the fair-skinned woman at the heeva. Upon his return to the German lands where his translation of Voyage, Reise um die Welt, into his native tongue catapults Forster to fame, the celebrated naturalist, explorer and writer became a friend of Schiller’s. Forster then developed his own aesthetic theory out of his readings of Schiller’s poetry. He defended Schiller from an attack on his poem “The Gods of Greece“ (“Die Götter Griechenlands”) in an 1789 essay entitled “Fragment of a Letter to a German Writer, or Schiller’s Gods of Greece” (“Fragment eines Briefes an einen deutschen Schriftsteller, oder Schillers Götter Griechenlands”) and then published “Art and the Age” (“Die Kunst und das Zeitalter”)  in Schiller’s Thalia in 1789. In “Art and the Age,” he writes, “The concepts of the whole, the harmonious, and the perfect [Vollkommenen] are brothers to the beautiful. These relationships occupy the understanding; which finds the beautiful in their center; but long beforehand it [the beautiful] found the heart and melted in nameless delight.”[27] The beautiful impresses itself on the heart, encompassing ideas of the whole, the complete harmony, and the perfect, while bypassing all rational conception of them. The men’s deference before the woman transformed into a work of art is, then, the deference shown by finite beings before a revelation of “the whole, the harmonious and the perfect.

Evidence for the special significance of beauty the eyes of European explorers may be noted in the idealized role given Tahiti and the Society Islands in the shaping of European ideas of natural man.[28] The Tahitians were mythologized in Europe after the French captain Louis Antoine de Bougainville first arrived there in 1766, inspiring French theorists such as Jean Jacques Rousseau and Denis Diderot. Tahiti seemed to provide a living so bountiful as to free its inhabitants from the need to protect private property. Furthermore, the people there were seen to be free from social constraints such as the bonds of marriage, technology, and civilization overall. After accompanying Cook on his first voyage around the world in 1770, botanist Joseph Banks depicted them as the quintessential noble savage.[29] Forster’s work further propagates this myth.

Part IV. Purposiveness: An End Necessarily Without Purpose      

Demonstrating an idealized form of beauty, Forster’s descriptions carry cultural specificity over to class specificity. As a Jacobin, Forster believed in the essential equality of all men and women. He later attempted valiantly to realize his political theories by joining the French revolution and was subsequently ostracized in a frightened Germany, his hero-explorer status revoked. Forster’s radical egalitarianism contrasts starkly, however, with his display of an exclusionary disinterested pleasure performed on the female form. Thus his egalitarian politics are both affirmed, and fully eclipsed, by his inadvertent aesthetics. Indeed this pattern in which an autonomous aesthetics will be valued for its own sake—often in spite of its logical incongruity with other practical goals—is characteristic of the dynamic relationship between Enlightenment-aged aesthetics, anthropology, and ideals of political freedom.[30] In order to illuminate how this pattern plays out in Forster’s work, and how it is also mirrored in that of Schiller, a discussion of Forster’s analysis of the goals of Cook’s exploration as a whole becomes necessary.

The main goal of Cook’s second circumnavigation was to explore the reaches of the South Pacific and map any land that might be found there. The South Pacific being such a large body of water, it was thought at the time that there could be another, as yet undiscovered, inhabitable continent in it somewhere. The goal of the naturalists was to create a new natural history incorporating the environments of newly discovered, and rediscovered, exotic lands, documenting their land forms, plant and animal life, and people. Of course Europeans had explored many islands of the South Pacific before—several recent efforts including Philip Carteret for the British in 1766-69, Louis Antione de Bougainville for the French from 1766-1769, Cook’s first circumnavigation from 1768-1771—so these explorers were aware of the lifestyles of many of the peoples who lived there. Thus, they were not merely interested in charting and documenting, they wanted to make some improvements too. To conclude his introduction, Forster writes,

And here I cannot but observe, that considering the small expence [sic.] at which voyages of discovery are carried on, the nation which favours these enterprizes [sic.] is amply repaid by the benefit derived to our fellow-creatures. I cannot help thinking that our late voyage would reflect immortal honour on our employers, if it had no other merit than stocking Taheitee with goats, the Friendly Isles and New Hebrides with dogs, and New Zeeland and New Caledonia with hogs.[31]

The European explorers believed that they could improve the lives of the people whom they encountered by introducing new live-stock to the islands. As he continues, he mentions that these voyages of discovery are disinterested and done in the name of science. He concludes,

A single remark, which may be of extensive use to posterity; a single circumstance, which may make happy our fellow-creatures in those remote parts of the world, repays the toils of the navigation, and bestows that great reward the consciousness of good and noble actions.[32]

In the German translation, he punctuates this conclusion with an exclamation mark. This was more than a simple journey of exploration, the explorers and naturalists aboard Cook’s second circumnavigation are to make people happier too. Forster states that future gifts of black cattle and sheep sent to Tahiti could also lead to “the improvement of their intellectual faculties” while in German he says it will lead to the “moral improvement” (“moralischen Verbesserungen”) of those people.[33]

This exchange would conceivably be reciprocal, as demonstrated by the experience of O-Maï, a native of Tahiti, who traveled with the Resolution on its homeward journey to the British Isles. Forster describes O-Maï as having “a quick perception” in English, in German he uses, “einen schnellen Verstand,” a quick understanding, and “a lively fancy” or in German a lively “Einbildungskraft” or “imagination.”[34] For Forster, O-Maï is an example of the natural goodness of his people from Tahiti and is a quick study as to the manners of high-society London. However, according to Forster, the Tahitian is unable to comprehend how to fully transform his society into an “advanced” one. Forster is disappointed in that O-Maï does not bring back the information the Tahitians would need to increase their agricultural production and provide more wealth for their people. Instead, he is fascinated by trinkets. Forster criticizes him:

The multiplicity of objects which crouded [sic.] upon him, prevented his paying due attention to those particulars which would have been beneficial to himself and to his countrymen at his return. He was not able to form a general comprehensive view of our whole civilized system, and to abstract from thence what appeared most strikingly useful and applicable to the improvement of his country. His senses were charmed by beauty, symmetry, harmony, and magnificence; they called aloud for gratification, and he was accustomed to obey their voice.[35]

Evidently, O-Maï enjoyed the toys, exercised his imagination and had fun in England. He seems to have behaved in London as Tahitians in general behaved in Tahiti, as Forster described it; the Europeans were much impressed with how enjoyable life amongst them was. However, Forster bemoans O-Maï’s lack of interest in more serious subjects concerning the transformation of Tahiti into a society developed more along the lines of England. Forster continues in this passage to say that O-Maï showed no interest in learning about agriculture or manufacturing and he underwent no moral improvement. Indeed, why should O-Maï, or his island, change only to be more like Foster and Western Europe? Interestingly, when Forster was in Tahiti, he was impressed with how little the people needed to do to provide for themselves; he describes it as a natural Eden. Yet, Forster still believes O-Maï needs to change his island, and that he misses the point of a fabulous educational opportunity.

Indeed, Forster’s stated practical goals of Voyage present consistent problems. The islanders neither developed an understanding of European industry nor ever exhibited much of desire to do so. The explorers, for their part, did not provide a good example. The sailors engaged in prostitution, contributed to the spread of venereal diseases, and generally made the islanders worse off than they were before.[36] Yet the practical reality does not lead Forster to question his assumptions concerning the potential power Forster seems to assume Europeans have to aid the islanders in their moral improvement. This position Forster establishes for Europeans in his new natural history seems to derive its power not from empirical reality, but from an inadvertent aesthetic theory which privileges “the beautiful” as moral. Thus, Forster’s work demonstrates how practical reality has little effect on the world of Schein, or illusion, confirming the gulf between universal, transcendent beauty and objective reality.

Following a theme concerning the sailors’ relations with island women, Forster describes a dismal scene in New Zealand in which young women cry and wail in protest as their fathers and brothers offer them to the sailors for sex in exchange for trinkets. Forster has sympathy for the girls and young women, but his narrative remains somewhat matter-of-fact. He writes:

Some among them, however, submitted with reluctance to this vile prostitution; and, but for the authority and menaces of the men, would not have complied with the desires of a set of people who could, with unconcern, behold their tears and hear their complaints. Whether the members of a civilized society, who could act such a brutal part, or the barbarians who could force their own women to submit to such indignity, deserve the greatest abhorrence, is a question not easily to be decided.[37]

He depicts the sailors as especially hard-hearted in their ability to ignore the sufferings of these young women forced into unwanted sex. Forster then speculates as to the class of these people who could sell their young girls for trinkets. He then suggests that this trade would not take place without the lure of the Europeans’ exotic objects, and goes on to note that the peoples who do not come into contact with the explorers are generally far better off. People have been killed, their morals corrupted, and they have derived no real benefit from their contact with Europeans. He then he concludes,

. . . I fear that hitherto our intercourse has been wholly disadvantageous to the nations of the South Seas; and that those communities have been the least injured, who have always kept aloof from us, and whose jealous disposition did not suffer our sailors to become too familiar among them, as if they had perceived in their countenances that levity of disposition, and that spirit of debauchery, with which they are generally reproached.[38]

Such an admission demonstrates Forster’s heroic struggle with open-mindedness, as well as the impossible contradictions for his project at every turn. As the vanguard for moral improvement, the Europeans inflict degeneracy throughout.

Interestingly, despite the disaster in the South Seas brought on by the Resolution’s visit, Forster does not give up on his view of education and the moral responsibilities of the northern Europeans to provide an example, as evidenced by his discussion of O-Maï’s largely unsuccessful education in London. Such inconsistencies, I would argue, evolve from the inherent problem of aesthetic education, as it essentially involves transforming the real world into one of illusion. In the end, the practical goals are simply replaced by an ideal. Thus, failure in practice does not present a foundational problem for the purposive end of aesthetic education. Much the way beauty cannot be questioned, as it is not an analyzable concept at all, the moral superiority of the European explorer is not subject to practical validation.

Part V. Conclusion

Describing this process in which aesthetic autonomy replaces practical reality with respect to Kant’s Third Critique, Critique of Judgment in his 1999 book, Reconstituting the Body Politic: Enlightenment, Public Culture and the Invention of Aesthetic Autonomy, Jonathan Hess writes,

Rather than forging a bridge between the noumenal realm of reason and the phenomenal realm of nature, art infinitely defers this bridge, taking the place of nature by casting itself as the ideal domain for aesthetic judgment. The meditating function of aesthetic judgment hinges on its ability to read symbolically. It seems that it is ultimately the art work – not nature – that provides the perfect domain for this activity.[39]

Forster’s 1777 text, seen as an inadvertent performance of aesthetic judgment and not as an explication of it, presents only the beginning of this process. Kant’s articulation of beauty as a symbol for morality in his Critique of the Power of Judgment is a conscientious attempt to bridge the acknowledged gulf between the transcendent, noumenal world of reason and the phenomenal world of nature. Yet, even Kant’s symbol fails to do this, replacing the practical, political realm with the aesthetic realm and introducing an autonomous world of art. The problem, specifically, in Forster’s work is that it is supposed to introduce a natural history. As such, the natural history becomes part fiction, reinventing the European as quintessential human, and remaking the Tahitian as an original function thereof.

The effective abandonment of any real advancement in the lives of the South Sea Islanders as a measure for Forster’s scientific endeavors in natural history mirrors Schiller’s abandonment of any practical component at the end of his Letters. Ostensibly the goal of that work was the creation of an “educated” populace more prepared to lead itself. In other words, the goal, although a distant one, was political freedom. Schiller’s letters, addressed to an unnamed member of the aristocracy, could not advocate for a republican-style government given the violent revolution taking place at the time in France.[40] Replacing a problematic practical reality with a world of illusion, a symbolic aesthetic freedom, Schiller concludes that perfect freedom can be attained in the free play of the imagination and the understanding in the aesthetic realm. An aesthetic education as an end in itself grants the male citizen, now having been freed from his sexual and more animalistic drives, a greater freedom of intellect and imagination than any practical situation could provide.

Despite his emphasis on empirical evidence and practical applications, Forster’s work, like Schiller’s, supports an autonomous world of art. In his 1789 essay, “Little Writings on Art and Literature” (“Kleine Schriften zu Kunst und Literatur“), Forster writes: “Each poem should be instructional; it should enrich us with new connections of ideas, wake the feeling of the beautiful in us, exercise our intellectual powers, sharpen, strengthen us, through its glowing, lively representation, the concepts of the truth [des Wirklichen] in the painting.”[41] Art allows its beholders a chance to practice their intellectual strength and enriches their field of ideas. Poetry should be educational; it should awaken a sense of the beautiful, and once awake, this sense will provide a living representation. When Forster describes the beauty of the women at the heeva, it is from this aesthetic perspective that he speaks. This living representation, in so far as it becomes an ideal, then replaces the living.


About the author: 

Sally Hatch Gray, Ph.D. is a native of North Carolina who received a B.A. in philosophy from Kenyon College in Gambier, OH and an M.A. and Ph.D. in German Literature from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Upon graduation in 2004, she worked for two years as the Associate Director of the Program in the Humanities at UNC-CH before becoming an Assistant Professor of German at Mississippi State University in Starkville, MS. Her research has focused on intersections between aesthetics and anthropology in 18th-century German-speaking lands in works by Georg Forster and Immanuel Kant. She is currently working on an article on Friedrich Schiller’s literary critique of Kant’s Critique of Judgment in order to illuminate blurry boundaries between literature and philosophy.  Email her here.

[1].  Georg Forster, A Voyage Round the World I, ed. Nicholas Thomas and Oliver Berghof, asst. Jennifer Newell (Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai‘i Press, 2000), 5-6. Forster wrote the text originally in English and then translated it, with some help from Rudolf Erich Raspe, in 1777 into his native German. The German text differs somewhat from the English one. In this article, I will work from the English text, but I may quote from the German text where the two diverge and where the differences are significant for this paper. Georg Forster, Reise Um die Welt, in Georg Forsters Werke: Sämtliche Schriften, Tagebücher, Briefe II (Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1974), 8.  I will refer to this critical edition of Forster’s collected works as “AV.”

[2].  For a discussion of Forster’s open-mindedness and the modern aspects of his scientific theory, see Dagmar Barnouw, “Eräugnis: Georg Forster on the Difficulties of Diversity,” Impure Reason: Dialectic of Enlightenment in Germany, eds. Daniel W. Wilson and Robert C. Holub (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1993), 322-243.

[3].  For a discussion of how an inadvertent aesthetics arises out of Forster’s text, please see Sally Hatch Gray, “Aesthetics, Anthropology, and the Limits of Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism in Georg Forster’s Reise um die Welt,” in New Perspectives on the Eighteenth Century 9:1 (Spring 2012) 31-53. See also Tanja van Hoorn, Dem Leibe abgelesen: Georg Forster im Kontext der physischen Anthropologie des 18. Jahrhunderts (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 2004), 34-39. Van Hoorn discusses the aesthetic norms found in Forster’s texts.

[4].  For discussions of the relationship between anthropology and aesthetics in the eighteenth century, see A. Owen Aldridge, “Primitivism in the Eighteenth Century,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas III (New York, Scribner, 1973-74), 605. See also Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s depiction of the Hottentots in his 1766 work on aesthetics, Laokoon oder Über die Grenzen der Malerei und Poesie.  See also Sander L. Gilman, “The Figure of the Black in German Aesthetic Theory,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 8 (1975): 373-396.  See also Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, ed. James T.  Boulton (Notre Dame:  Indiana, 1958).  See also Immanuel Kant’s 1764 essay, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime or Beobachtungen über das Gefühl des Schönen und Erhabenen, in Akademieausgabe von Kants Gesammelten Schriften (AA) II, (Berlin:  de Gruyter, 1902), 205-256.

[5]. See Gray, “Aesthetics, Anthropology, and the Limits of Enlightenment Cosmopolitanism.”

[6].  Kant, Beobachtungen, AA II, 208.

[7].  Kant, Beobachtungen, AA II, 237.

[8] . The link between colonial ideas of race and gender has been widely discussed. See Susanne Zantop, Colonial Fantasies:  Conquest, Family and Nation in Precolonial Germany, 1770-1870 (Durham:  Duke University Press, 1997), see also Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather:  Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York:  Routledge, 1995), and  Mary Louise Pratt, in Imperial Eyes:  Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York:  Routledge, 1992). Ladelle McWhorter, in “Sex, Race, and Biopower: A Foucauldian Geneology,” Hypatia 19:3 (Summer 2004), 38-62, has made this connection more concrete, offering a “genealogical account” of how the two concepts developed in relation to “political forces of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”  She concludes, “Sex and race do intersect, as feminists so often say. As a result of this shared history and consequent similarity in structure and potential function, in present-day discourse and institutions, race and sex intersect primarily at points where people think in terms of normality and abnormality or deviance, where people have major managerial goals for large populations, and where there is a strong desire to control human development” (54).

[9].  Kant, Beobachtungen, AA II, 237. Kant writes, “Die zirkassische und georgische Mädchen sind von allen Europäern, die durch ihre Länder reisen, jederzeit vor überaus hübsch gehalten worden.”

[10].  Kant, Beobachtungen, AA II, 237-8.

[11].  For a discussion of the reception of Beobachtungen, see John Zammito, see Kant, Herder, and the Brith of Anthropology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), 104-113.

[12]. Kant’s first essay on race was “On the different Races of Men” (“Von den verschiedenen Racen der Menschen,” 1775). In 1785 Kant published his second essay on the subject, “Definition of a Concept of a Human Race” (“Bestimmung des Begriffs einer Menschenrace,” 1785).Forster responded to that essay in1786 with “Still more about the Human Races” (“Noch etwas über die Menschenraßen”). There Forster argued against Kant’s skin-color-based race theory. Kant responded to Forster in 1788 with “On the use of Teleological Principles in Philosophy” (“Über den Gebrauch teleologischer Prinzipien in der Philosophie“). Kant then worked from the idea of a teleological nature, which he developed in that essay, in the second half of his Critique of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft, 1790). See Sally Hatch Gray, “Kant’s Race Theory, Forster’s Counter, and the Metaphysics of Color” in The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 53. 4 (Winter 2012, forthcoming).

[13]. See Frederick Beiser, Schiller as Philosopher: A Re-Examination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 3.

[14].  Friedrich Schiller, Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen in einer Reihe von Briefen (On the Aesthetic Education of Man:  In a Series of Letters), English and German facing, ed. and trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby (Oxford:  Clarendon, 1967), 4.

[15].  Schiller, Letters, 19.

[16].  Schilller, Letters, 52-61.

[17]. Forster, Voyage I, 25. Reise, AV II, 47. Forster writes, “Im Ganzen sind sie plump doch nicht widerlich gebildet.  Die Frauenspersonen sind häßlich; es fehlt ihnen die blühende Farbe, welche, nebst der gefälligen regelmäßigen Gestalt, dem weiblichen Geschlecht unserer nördlichen Gegenden den Vorzug über alles andre Frauenzimmer giebt [sic].”

[18].  Forster, Voyage I, 137-142.

[19].  Forster, Voyage I, 143.

[20].  Forster, Voyage I, 144.

[21].  Forster, Voyage, 149.

[22].  Forster, Voyage, 146.

[23].  Forster, Voyage, 221.

[24].  Forster, Voyage I, 221. Forster, Reise, AV II, 328-9.

[25].  Schiller, Letters, 198.

[26]. Andreas Gailus, “Of Beautiful and Dismembered Bodies:  Art as Social Discipline in Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man,” Impure Reason:  Dialectic of Enlightenment in Germany, eds. W. Daniel Wilson and Robert C. Holub (Detroit:  Wayne State UP, 1993). Gailus concentrates on the violent metaphors in Schiller’s text, and argues that Schiller’s aesthetic education, and the contemplation of art “enforces the rational control over his (the beholder’s) senses by making this control itself a source of pleasure” (147).  Man must learn to enjoy his rejection of the fair sex, and the process whereby he learns this is violent. These violent images, then, engender social discipline in an effort toward individual freedom.

[27].  Forster, “Die Kunst und das Zeitalter,” AV VII, 16.

[28]. The idea that natives of cultures deemed less advanced by the European explorers should be idealized as original humans, child-like humans, and more natural was a common tactic. It was most famously employed by Jean Jacques Rousseau, Denis Diderot, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller and Moses Mendelssohn among many others. See A. Owen Aldridge, “Primitivism in the Eighteenth Century,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas III (New York, Scribner, 1973-74), who describes the role of the islands of the South Seas in the “soft primitivism” concept: “the best life is life without toil, the sort of life that was sometimes depicted as characteristic of the islands of the South Seas where the climate is gentle, the earth spontaneously productive, and the animals friendly, the sea full of fish easily caught” (578). See also the Blackwell Companion to the Enlightenment, ed. John W. Yolton (Cambridge, UK: Blackwell, 1992), 516. See also Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1985).

[29].  See Joseph Banks, A Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, In his Magesty’s Ship The Endeavour (London:  A. Wheaton & Co., 1985).

[30]. Jonathan Hess, Reconstituting the Body Politic: Enlightenment, Public Culture and the Invention of Aesthetic Autonomy, (Detroit:  Wayne State University Press, 1999).

[31].  Forster, Voyage I, 12. Reise, AV II,17.

[32].  Forster, Voyage I, 12. Reise, AV II,17.

[33].  Forster, Voyage I, 12. Reise, AV II,17.

[34].  Forster, Voyage I, 11. Reise, AV II, 15.

[35].  Forster, Voyage I, 11. Reise, AV II,15.

[36].  Forster, Voyage I, 121-2. Reise, AV II, 187-8.

[37].  Forster, Voyage I, 121. Reise, AV II, 186.

[38].  Forster, Voyage I, 121-2. Reise, AV II, 187-8.

[39].  Hess, Reconstituting the Body Politic, 239.

[40]. One of Schiller’s sponsors at the time was Friedrich Christian II., Duke of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderberg-Augustenburg, and in his Letters, Schiller worked from some earlier letters on aesthetics he had written to Augustenburg in order to thank him for his support.

[41].  Forster, “Kleine Schriften zu Kunst und Literatur,” AV VII, 12.


Text copyright 2012 Sally Hatch Gray

Image: Map published for Hogg’s account of Cook’s Voyages, c.1780. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons.

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