The Critique of Judgment

by Immanuel Kant

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Since its publication, The Critique of Judgment has been of highest importance to the philosophy of art and of religion. It met opposition as radically skeptical and destructive of theology; indeed, Immanuel Kant intended to set limits on religious thinking. It opened promising new pathways in aesthetics, still found highly worthy of exploration.

The work is based wholly on the psychology of faculties and the logic Kant adopted in Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; The Critique of Pure Reason, 1838) and Kritik der praktischen Vernunft (1788; The Critique of Practical Reason, 1873). The former treats the faculty of understanding, which, presupposing natural law, brings people their knowledge of nature. The latter treats reason (“practical” reason, will, or desire), which presupposes freedom and legislates for people in accordance with moral law. While writing the first two critiques, Kant believed that the faculty of pleasure and pain could have no critique, being passive only. However, he came to regard this faculty to be the same as judgment, which subsumes representations under concepts, always accompanied by a feeling-response. He declared finally that judgment could have a regulative critique of its own, showing its functions and limitations, even though the faculty brings us no objective knowledge. Indeed, The Critique of Judgment would show the ground of union between understanding and reason, although their presuppositions had seemingly forced them irrevocably apart.

The desire or will, when realized, is actually a natural cause, specifically that cause which acts in accordance with concepts. Concepts are of two kinds, natural concepts and concepts of freedom. The understanding carries on a theoretical legislation through natural concepts resulting in knowledge; the practical reason carries on a moral legislation through precepts resulting in choices of actions. Understanding and reason legislate over the very same territory of experience, yet without conflicting. However, the practical reason presupposes a supersensible substratum, which cannot be experienced but which is necessary as a condition of freedom of choice. The understanding can give knowledge only through intuition, which can never reach the thing-in-itself; the concept of freedom, on the other hand, represents its object as a thing-in-itself but cannot give it intuition. The region of the thing-in-itself is supersensible, but while we cannot know it, we can impute reality to it. This must be a practical reality founded on our necessity of acting, not on any source of substantive knowledge concerning it. To postulate such a substratum enables us to transfer our thought between the realm of nature and the realm of freedom and think according to the principles of each in turn.

The Principle of Judgment

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The deduction of the principle of judgment is crucial to the book. “Judgment in general,” says Kant, “is the faculty of thinking the particular as contained under the universal.” Either the universal or the particular might be given. If the universal is given, then the judgment that brings the particular under it is determinant; the judgment brings knowledge according to a priori law and with finality. However, if the particular is given, then the judgment must find for itself a law to judge by, in the absence of a concept. Hence it is reflective, and if the judgments delivered are to be regarded as laws, this must be on the assumption of some underlying unifying principle. The principle must be this: As universal laws of nature have their ground in our understanding (as shown in The Critique of Judgment ), particular empirical laws must be considered in accordance with such a unity as they would have if an understanding had furnished them to our cognitive faculties, so as to make possible a system of experience according...

(This entire section contains 562 words.)

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to particular laws of nature. The concept of an actual object contains its purpose; the principle of judgment that we take, then, on these suppositions, ispurposiveness in nature. (For nature to realize a purpose would be to carry out a “particular law of nature.”) If nature were guided by an understanding, then purposiveness would underlie its variety as the unifying factor. This concept of purposiveness is a priori—it provides a principle for reflecting upon nature without needing specific experience of nature. Yet we can never prove real purpose in nature; we only justify our way of thinking about it.

The faculty of judgment functions also as the faculty of pleasure and pain. When the understanding shows us an order of nature and the judgment apprehends it under the aspect of purposiveness, we feel pleasure because the attainment of any aim is bound up with the feeling of pleasure. Because the ground of this feeling is a principle a priori, the judgment is valid for every person. The imagination is the faculty of a priori intuitions; our pleasure arises when the judgment of purposiveness places the imagination in agreement with the understanding—shows a form such as an understanding would furnish.

The judgment of taste represents purposiveness without mediation of a concept. However, purposiveness may also be represented objectively as the harmony of the form of an object with the possibility of the thing itself, according to some prior concept that contains the basis of this form. A concept of an object may be realized in two ways: A person may make an object that fulfills his or her preconceived concept, or nature may present an object realizing a concept that we supply. Thus we can regard natural beauty as the presentation of the concept of subjective purposiveness, and natural purposes as the presentation of the concept of an objective purposiveness. Hence, The Critique of Judgment is divided into the “Critique of the Aesthetical Judgment” (considering the former), involving the feeling of pleasure, and the “Critique of the Teleological Judgment” (treating the latter), involving the understanding and reason, according to concepts. Although the aesthetical judgment is the special faculty of taste, the teleological judgment is not a special faculty but only the reflective judgment in general, judging of certain objects of nature according to reflective principles.

Aesthetic Judgment

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True to his critical logic, Kant considers in turn the quality, quantity, relation, and modality of the judgment of taste, in a subdivision called the “Analytic of the Aesthetical Judgment.” Then in its “Dialectic,” he resolves an antinomy or contradiction that arises in aesthetics.

By the aesthetical, Kant means that element whose determining ground can be no other than subjective. Consequently, the aesthetic apprehension does not depend on existential relations of the judged object with other things (its usefulness, for example) but only on the relation of the representation of the object to the observing subject. In contrast, the pleasant and the good always involve a representation not only of the object but also of some connection of the judging subject with that object; hence, they bring an interested rather than a free satisfaction. Taste is the faculty of judging of an object, or of the method of representing one, by a satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) which as to quality is entirely disinterested. The object of such satisfaction is called beautiful.

Because the satisfaction does not depend on a particular relationship with a particular subject, it may be thought of as resting on something present in everyone and hence binding universally. Because this element inheres in the subject, not in the objects judged, the quantity is a “subjective universality.” What we postulate is that all rational minds are constituted alike in the relation of their cognitive faculties. For a representation to be capable of becoming a cognition at all requires imagination for bringing together in ordered fashion the manifold of phenomena, and understanding for providing a concept under which the representations may be united. However, this requires as its condition a free play in the action of imagination and understanding. Aesthetic pleasure must be communicable among all minds so constituted. What the judgment of taste asserts as universally valid is not some attribute of the object (as in the claim that something is pleasant or good), but rather the claim of our presupposition of the communicability of aesthetic pleasure among subjects. As to quantity, then, the beautiful is that which pleases universally without requiring or providing a concept.

A purpose is a concept of an object insofar as the concept is regarded as the cause of the object. When we can think of an object only as though caused by a concept, for us that object has purposiveness, even though we cannot know whether it has purpose. That is, it has purposiveness without purpose. The mere form of purposiveness is given, and it is that in which we take pleasure. As to relation, beauty is the form of the purposiveness of an object, so far as this is perceived in it without any representation of a purpose.

The modality of the judgment of taste is necessity. It is, however, neither objective necessity nor practical necessity, like those respectively of understanding and reason, but exemplary necessity. It requires the assent of all “to a judgment which is regarded as the example of a universal rule that we cannot state.” This assent may be expected only on the assumption introduced above, the communicability of our cognitions. Under this presupposition, an individual has a right to state his judgment of taste as a rule for everyone and thus assert of all subjects the particular judgment arising from his or her own experience. The beautiful, then, is that which without any concept is cognized as the object of a necessary satisfaction.

Judgment of the Sublime

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The judgment of the sublime has the same quality, quantity, relation, and modality as that of the beautiful, but there are important differences. The beautiful pleases through its form and its bounds, but the sublime is found when a formless object is represented as boundless, even though its totality is present in thought. Hence, while beauty is a satisfaction in quality, the sublime is a satisfaction in respect to quantity. Furthermore, in the sublime, the form may seem to violate purposiveness and be quite unsuited to our presentative faculty. It rather should be said that the object is fit for the presentation of a sublimity found in the mind, producing in us a feeling of purposiveness of our powers, independent of nature.

The sublime has two kinds: the mathematical and the dynamic. Whereas that of the beautiful is restful, the judgment of the sublime stirs a movement of the mind that is judged as subjectively purposive and is referred either to the cognition, generating (A) the mathematically sublime, or to the will, generating (B) the dynamically sublime.

With regard to (A), we can always think something still greater than whatever the senses give us. While we cannot have an intuition of the infinite, which is absolutely great, we can comprehend it logically. To do this without contradiction presupposes a supersensible faculty. Thus we refer to the ideas of reason (God, freedom, immortality). Comparing the objects of nature, however grand, with these ideas, we gain a feeling of respect for our own destination according to the law of reason.

With regard to (B), on observing in nature mighty objects from which we are in no danger, if we can think of a case in which we would fear them, we feel the emotion of the sublime. It calls up a comparison with our own power, which is small physically but which, in our rational faculty, has a superiority to nature even in its immensity, in the sublimity of the mind’s destination.

The judgment of either kind of sublime is thus not so much upon the object but on our state of mind in the estimation of it. Like the judgment of the beautiful, the judgment of the sublime postulates a common faculty, in this case the feeling for the legislation of reason—that is, for what is moral.


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The sequel of the study of purposiveness in nature without purpose is the study of the basis of judging nature as having purpose—the “Critique of the Teleological Judgment.” We have absolutely no grounds to ascribe purpose objectively to nature, but must regard purpose as a principle supplied by ourselves for bringing this phenomenon of nature under rules wherever the laws of mechanical causality do not suffice to do so.

A purpose is a concept that functions as a cause of that of which it is the concept. In order to see the possibility of a thing as a purpose, it is a requisite that its form is not possible according to natural laws and that the empirical knowledge of its cause and effect presupposes concepts of reason. The things regarded as natural purposes are organized, living beings. The understanding takes causes to be immediate preceding conditions (efficient causes) of their effects, but the reason can think a final cause. For a thing to be a natural purpose, its parts must be possible only through their reference to the whole, and they should so combine in the unity of the whole that they are reciprocally cause and effect of each other. Thus nothing is in vain in it. The being so constituted may be regarded as the product of both efficient causes and final causes, an organized and self-organizing being—in a word, a natural purpose. Organized beings give the basis for teleology, as they first afford objective reality to the concept of a natural purpose. >From regarding them, we are carried further, reflectively to regard the mechanism of all of nature as subordinated according to principles of reason.

The reflective judgment must subsume presentations under a law not yet given; hence, it must serve as principle for itself. Therefore it needs maxims for its reflection, so as to attain to concepts and cognize nature even according to empirical laws. Among its maxims the following antinomy arises. Thesis: All production of material things and their forms must be judged possible according to merely mechanical laws. Antithesis: Some products of material nature cannot be judged to be possible according to merely mechanical laws. However, these are maxims, not substantive propositions. The concepts involved in maxims of the judgment (including “mechanical laws”) are not accorded objective reality but are merely guides to reason. Now the thesis may be acceptable as a maxim of the determinant, and the antithesis of the reflective judgment. Hence, no contradiction in fact exists between them.

To unite the mechanism of nature and the principle of purposes, teleology places the supersensible tentatively at the basis of phenomenal nature, but of it we can have no theoretical knowledge whatever. We should explain everything in nature by mechanism as far as this is in our power. However, we should acknowledge that some things, which we cannot even state for investigation without a concept of a purpose of reason, must finally be accounted for by purposes.

For anything in nature, if we ask why it exists, the answer is either that it rose solely out of nature’s mechanism without design, or else that it has somewhere a designed ground as a contingent being. If the latter, we can say either that its purpose lies in itself, a final purpose, or that the ground of its existence is external to it in another natural being. Apparently, humanity is the only reality we can regard as the ultimate purpose of creation here on earth, for humans are the only creatures “who can form a concept of [their] purposes and who can, by [their] reason, make out of an aggregate of purposively formed things a system of purposes.” That within us that is to be furthered as a purpose must be either what nature could perhaps satisfy, our happiness, or else our aptitude and skill with which we can turn nature to all kinds of purposes, our culture. However, if we make happiness our whole purpose, a purpose dependent upon nature, this renders us incapable of positing our existence as a final purpose and of being in harmony with it. The culture of skill, and particularly of the will, of discipline, makes us receptive of higher purposes than nature itself can supply. Through culture of the beautiful arts and the sciences, we are prepared for a reign in which reason alone shall have authority.

The Moral Law

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The moral law, as the rational condition of the use of our freedom, obliges us a priori (as shown in The Critique of Practical Reason) to strive for the highest good in the world possible through freedom. The highest physical good is happiness. However, reason supposes virtue to be the worthiness to be happy, and it is impossible to represent virtue and happiness as connected by natural causes or as harmonized in life. Thus, to represent to ourselves a final purpose consistent with the moral law, we must assume a moral world cause. While the final purpose cannot be regarded as having objective reality, it has subjective practical reality by being embodied in our actions toward the highest good. Through it we gain the possibility of thinking the world has a purposive order, although we gain no proof of the existence of its original Being. “For the existence of the original Being as a Godhead, or of the soul as an immortal spirit, absolutely no proof in a theoretical point of view is possible.” Faith (as habitus or disposition, not act) is the moral attitude of reason toward belief in something unattainable by theoretical cognition. The mind assumes that, since it is so commanded, the duty to attain the highest good is possible to fulfill. It has grounds for such a faith in the faculty of the reason freely to legislate in accordance with the moral law. Only freedom, among the three pure rational ideas—God, freedom, and immortality—proves its objective reality by its effects in nature; thus it renders possible the reconciliation in thought and nature of God, immortality, and freedom.


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Additional Reading

Allison, Henry E. Idealism and Freedom: Essays on Kant’s Theoretical and Practical Philosophy. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. An important interpreter of Immanuel Kant explores relationships between Kant’s theory of knowledge and his moral philosophy.

Bohman, James, and Matthias Lutz-Backmann, eds. Perpetual Peace: Essays on Kant’s Cosmopolitan Ideal. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997. The contributors appraise Kant’s theories about and hopes for a universal rationality that would encourage shared moral understanding and reduce political conflict.

Cassirer, Ernst. Kant’s Life and Thought. Translated by James Hayden. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. Written by an important twentieth century philosopher, this book offers a readable intellectual biography of Kant.

Caygill, Howard. A Kant Dictionary. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995. A reliable reference guide that helps to clarify key concepts and ideas in Kant’s philosophy.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1964. Copleston devotes several lucid chapters to Kant and his significance in the history of philosophy.

Guyer, Paul. Kant and the Claims of Taste. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979. A careful and detailed study focusing on Kant’s understanding of beauty and goodness and how we make judgments about them.

Guyer, Paul, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Kant. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Helpful essays by contemporary Kant scholars shed important light on key aspects of Kant’s theory of knowledge, metaphysics, ethics, and religious thought.

Hare, John E. The Moral Gap: Kantian Ethics, Human Limits, and God’s Assistance. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A study of the strengths and weakness of Kant’s influential moral philosophy.

Jones, W. T. A History of Western Philosophy: Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1969. Provides a good starting point for readers who want a clear and basic introduction to Kant’s philosophy.

Kemp, John. The Philosophy of Kant. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. A brief, readable account of Kant’s theory of knowledge, moral philosophy, and aesthetics.

Kuehn, Manfred. Kant: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. The first major biography of the philosopher in fifty years. Includes extensive notes and a bibliography.

Schönfeld, Martin. The Philosophy of the Young Kant: The Precritical Project. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A study of the philosopher’s work before the Critique of Pure Reason.

Schott, Robin May, ed. Feminist Interpretations of Immanuel Kant. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997. Essayists bring the perspectives of feminist scholarship to bear on Kant’s method and thought.

Walker, Ralph. Kant. New York: Routledge, 1999. An excellent biographical introduction to the thoughts of the philosopher, clearly presented and requiring no special background. Bibliography.

Wolff, Robert Paul, ed. Kant: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967. Important scholars contribute essays on a wide range of themes and issues in Kant’s philosophy.