K is for Kant

| February 10, 2014

Sharing aesthetic experiences as a means to foster empathy

“… when [a man] puts a thing on a pedestal and calls it beautiful, he demands the same delight from others. He judges not merely for himself, but for all men, and then speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Thus he says that the thing is beautiful; and it is not as if he counts on others agreeing with him in his judgment of liking owing to his having found them in such agreement on a number of occasions, but he demands this agreement of them. He blames them if they judge differently, and denies them taste, which he still requires of them as something they ought to have; and to this extent it is not open to men to say: Every one has his own taste. This would be equivalent to saying that there is no such thing as taste, i.e. no aesthetic judgment capable of making a rightful claim upon the assent of all men.” (Kant 1790, p. 52; see also pp. 136–139.)

In this passage, Kant depicts  men and women as uncapable of accepting the intrinsically subjective nature of judgement. We are all familiar with the type of discomfort or bafflement we may feel when something (be it a painting, book, song etc..) we feel so strongly about doesn’t trigger the same reaction in others. Why is it so important for us that others share our judgement? What motivates this need for the universal validation of our preferences? Furthermore, if we took the time to try and understand why another person doesn’t share our view, would this make us more accepting? Perhaps.

I am concerned that the rise of new technologies is projecting us into an era where it’s getting harder for new generations to develop the ability to empathize with one another. The child who posts a hateful comment against someone else is no longer exposed to the other’s negative affective reaction, which would usually and ideally teach him/her not to repeat the unpleasant experience (see funny video – link below). I was therefore thinking of an activity aimed at excercising children’s ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Perhaps it could be designed so that a classroom is presented with various works of art (it could be anything, from photographs to songs or music videos). Each student would then have to pick one which represents his/her favourite and one which represents his/her least favourite. A discussion would then be set up so that students with opposing views explained to each other why they found this particular piece so good vs bad. The aim of this excercise shouldn’t be that of pulling people on your side causing them to change their minds, but of trying to understand and therefore accept and respect individual preferences. I’d like to stress the fact that I am, by no means, against the use of technology. On the contrary, I think that adequate implementation of technological tools may undoubtedly enhance the learning experience. In fact, perhaps this excercise could be designed on some sort of online platform.

To end on a funny note, here is a clip of the comedian Louis C.K. where he talks about how cell phones are distrupting children’s ability to empathize –>        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HbYScltf1c