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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2005

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In The Critique of Judgment, Immanuel Kant argues that self-interest is not relevant to making aesthetic judgments; whatever one experiences indifferently is aesthetic. Pleasantness appeals to the senses. The green color of a meadow is a sensation; the pleasurable aspect of the color is a subjective impression. To think of something as good, one must understand the object. To find beauty in something, one needs only the senses. Beyond beauty, the good must have purpose. Only after satisfied interest can one distinguish the person of taste from the person lacking taste. The object of disinterested liking is beautiful. The validation of beauty comes from consensus. In terms of validation, beauty resembles truth.

Taste—noting something as salty, tart, or sweet, for example—is private and individually different. The experience of beauty or taste can be generalized, however, by consensus. Thus, beauty seems part of things. Judgments of taste report emotional states, and beauty connects to the sensations of the experiencing subject. Titillation and emotion are not part of beauty. Kant distinguishes free beauty and dependent beauty: Free beauty does not need conceptualization; dependent beauty requires purpose. Examples of free beauty are colorful birds, colorful fish, colorful wall coverings, or music without theme or lyrics. With these forms of art, one needs no purpose, only taste. Human beings or beasts of burden have purpose. Their beauty relies on one’s judging contingent purposes. Beauty can also be a form of a purposive object if a viewer perceives beauty without awareness of purpose. Though the parts of a flower have purpose, the viewer ignorant of botany sees beauty only. Every inflexible routine is contrary to taste and provides boredom. Natural beauty always outweighs artificial routine.

Next, Kant focuses on the sublime. The beautiful and the sublime please directly, but the sublime attracts and repulses: That it, the beauty of the sublime attracts, and its forcefulness repulses. The sublime—an erupting volcano, for example—exhibits this duality. What is called sublime is that which is great, and such greatness is comparative, not absolute. Consensus validates judgments about greatness.

The truly sublime makes all else seem small. What one sees in a telescope or a microscope is sublime. That is, the sublime transcends measures of sense. Kant uses the example of the pyramids, which one must view from a particular distance to experience their sublimity. If one is too close, the view turns mathematical; if one is too far, the view is unclear. With the right distance, the view is sublime. The noumenon (the thing in itself) is immeasurably vast; it is unimaginable and thus sublime. Aesthetically, numbers become irrelevant or must change. Even war, when orderly and limited by rights of noncombatants, has aspects of the sublime. A thunderstorm is sublime until one understands its nature. The terrors of nature—massive mountains, huge deserts, fathomless gorges, raging streams—are sublime if one contemplates them from a position of safety. Being immersed in these sublime events or places inspires terror.

An object of one’s pleasure is an object for comfort, an object of beauty, an object of the sublime, or an object of goodness (iucundum, pulchrum, sublime, honestum). Acts inspired by emotion are weak. Novels, tearjerkers, or platitudinous morality plays weaken heart and spirit and distract from moral duties. Beauty is not morality, for outstanding artists may be quite common, arrogant, stubborn, and full of other flaws. Colors have associations with one’s moods: White is innocence, and red through violet may be sublime, courageous, giving, friendly, modest, steadfast, or tender. The song of birds is joyous and appreciative of life. All these characteristics are best in nature; imitations are not interesting.

Acting outside rules, genius has originality. Although original nonsense remains nonsense, genius channels nature through hidden sources that science cannot reproduce. Thus, for example, one can learn to become Sir Isaac Newton; one can never learn to be Homer because Homer is a natural force. To judge beauty, one needs taste; to produce beautiful objects, one needs genius. Some artistic works come from genius without taste; others exhibit taste without genius. A genius brings forth institutions of learning for good minds, who learn the rules of what genius has developed. A student going beyond imitation to channeling nature can surpass a master.

Kant divides the arts into the arts of speech, imaging, and sense impressions. Arts of speech are oratorical and poetical arts. Arts of imaging are sense-authentic arts such as architecture or sculpting, or they are sense-deceptive arts such as painting or landscaping. Arts of sense impressions appeal either to hearing (music) or to sight (coloring). These fundamental arts combine, so that theatrical spectacle is oratory and sense impressions, song is poetry and music, opera is theatrical spectacle and song, and dance or ballet are sense impressions, music, and spectacle. Tragedy is closest to the sublime because it combines poetry, music, spectacle, and oratory. When the arts do not serve morality, they are purely for diversion. Poetry holds the highest rank because of its honesty. A play of imagination and of forms, poetry is in harmony with reason. Taking second rank is music, for it abstracts the modulations of language and plays with sensations. Painting, for Kant, takes third place.

As oratory, humor is the art of turning suspense into nothing. Kant uses the example of an Indian opening a bottle of ale. Foam escapes voluminously, and the Indian appears surprised. The Englishman asks, “What’s so surprising?” The Indian responds, “I’m not surprised at its escape from the bottle; I am surprised at how you got it into the bottle.” In another of Kant’s examples, a man has invited guests to a funeral. He wants the guests to look mournful. He complains, saying “I gave the guests some money so that they would try to look very sad; however, the more money I gave them, the less sad they appeared.” Suspense turns into release—as nothing.

In part 2 of The Critique of Judgment, Kant argues that purposiveness is teleological, and that one can recognize purpose in nature as one reflects. Teleology, the study of design and purpose, does not contribute to scientific exploration, for teleology reasons by way of causality. Purpose is relative: For example, detritus, collecting at river deltas, shrinks the ocean; thus, plants receive more land. From the plants’ perspective, this process has purpose. From the perspective of marine life, this process is contrary to purpose. Purposiveness depends on perspective. Applying one’s sense of purpose to nature makes sense from the human perspective; from a variety of other perspectives, nature is random.

A thing has purpose if it is its own cause and effect. A tree has seeds, which bring forth a tree. The tree is not rationally purposive; it exhibits a reciprocal relationship of cause and effect. Artificial objects cannot have such reciprocity; otherwise, for example, clocks would come from clocks as trees from seeds. Inanimate things are not purposive either; humans merely superimpose an anthropocentric scheme when they reason, for instance, that a glacier “holds” its water “for” humans, animals, and other living things. Reflecting metaphorically that a natural object serves human interests is certainly different from assuming that nature acts on such purpose, which is an unscientific assumption.

One also reasons poorly if one invokes a god for nature’s purposiveness and then uses purposiveness to prove that same god’s existence. Teleology is a metaphor that helps one to imagine natural phenomena. Such a metaphor cannot reasonably lead to a prime mover. Unifying nature with a primal being, as philosopher Baruch Spinoza suggests, is not helpful either. When all is purposive, then the distinction of purposiveness and nonpurposiveness disappears. Purpose requires rationality. If one speaks of nature’s purposes, one turns nature into a rational being. If one assumes that nature follows divine purposiveness, then one cannot understand nature’s laws, for these are now divine will, and thus unpredictable. The teleological thread is part of thinking, not part of nature.

Kant distinguishes reason (Verstand) as sense and rationality (Vernunft) as speculation. Reason’s task is to pull rationality back into reality. Reasoning shows nature as made of competing forces; nature is not something that gives character to its parts. An overall purpose in nature would turn nature into technology. Assuming creation and a creator does not help humans understand because the creator’s intentions would be unclear. If one goes from the regularities of nature to conclusions about the creator, then one ends up explaining tautologically and trivially what one has already understood in analyzing nature. Teleology applies only to rationality; teleology does not help in the understanding of nature. Teleology is not part of theology because such rationality tries to go beyond nature. Reasoning beyond nature is fanciful imagining (Schwärmerei). Teleology does not belong to the natural sciences, for it reflects through explanation without generating knowledge.

Diversity and similarity of natural structures suggest that a single principle underlies natural processes. A primal mother-entity may have led to a step-by-step development of diverse animals and plants and humans. That development might have led from relationship of all to specificity. Kant alludes to philosopher David Hume by pointing out that, if nature required a guiding rationality, then nature’s guiding rationality would require another guiding rationality, ad infinitum. Instead of a guiding rationality, one should have to look for nature’s autocracy. Such a search would lead to the kind of error that is called pantheism. Purposiveness is solely part of rationality.

One could think that plants are for animals, that animals are for predators, and that humanity is the balancing entity for all—a final purpose. One can also insist that animals exist for the control of plants, that predators exist for the control of animals, and that humans exist for the constraining of predators in cases where humans are not a final purpose. Most probably, nature does not consist of balanced purposes; such a system would have to be paradise. Human purposiveness is culture. Because nature does not protect humans from disease, pestilence, and hunger, nature, therefore, does not recognize humanity as its purpose. Because people suppress each other, conduct wars, and inflict harm, culture does not govern nature. Only by way of a maturing culture will autonomous humans find a paradiselike happiness on Earth.

Physicotheology is rationality’s attempt to draw conclusions from the purposiveness of nature to an overall final purpose of nature. From rationality’s purposiveness, one draws conclusions about the prime mover, thus going beyond the facts. Teleological explanations cannot move beyond nature. Ethicotheology attempts something similar with morality, yet only rational beings can be self-governing by moral laws. Drawing conclusions about the character of an eternal, omnipotent, moral being transcends one’s facts. Humanity may require gratitude, obedience, and humility; thus, humans imagine a god. Perhaps such an image of fantasy helps humans imagine a stronger morality. Moral law as a condition of freedom lets all rational but finite beings strive toward the highest good by free acts. As warranty of this highest good, some people assume a deity, a redundancy because one has already accepted the moral law. Perhaps assuming a creator helps one commit to moral law. This idea, however, relies on the structure of rationality, not on an existing god.

Kant appears to prefer the notion of rational beings instead of humanity because he does not reject the possibility of animals with rationality. He makes a point of rejecting the Cartesian idea that animals are biological machines. Kant also recognizes that erroneous proofs of a god’s existence will not affect common sense; ignoring proofs and errors, people will continue to believe. Kant may have made this last observation after receiving a letter from Emperor William I of Prussia. The letter, signed by someone named Wellner in 1794, tells Kant not to teach atheism, and that if he does, he will lose his job. The third and last edition of Kant’s The Critique of Judgment was published in 1799, well after he received this letter.

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