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Beauty and Duty in Kant's Critique of Judgement

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 September 2011

Henry E. Allison
Boston University


At the end of §40 of the Critique of Judgement, after a discussion of the sensus communis and its connection with taste, Kant writes:

If we could assume that the mere universal communicability as such of our feeling must already carry with it an interest for us (something we are, however, not justified in inferring from the character of a merely reflective power of judgment), then we could explain how it is that we require from everyone as a duty, as it were (gleichsam), the feeling in a judgment of taste. (5: 296; 162)

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1 All references to the Critique of Judgement are first to vol. 5 of Kants gesammelte Schriften (KGS), Deutschen (formerly Königlichen Preuissischen) Akademie der Wissenschaften, 29 vols (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter (and predecessors), 1902), and second to the page in the English translation by Werner S. Pluhar, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company inc. Although I make use of Pluhar's translation, I frequently modify it, sometimes significantly. References to other Kantian texts, with the exception of the Critique of Pure Reason, where references are to the A and B versions, are likewise to the relevant volume in KGS.

2 This disinterestedness thesis has been criticized on a number of grounds, which include a general scepticism about the possibility of disinterested likings and a specific questioning of whether the liking for the beautiful falls into that category. The basic problem is sharply expressed by Kulenkampff, Jens, who writes: ‘He who likes the state of aesthetic contemplation is as interested in the existence of some object … as he who likes to drink a bottle of wine’ (‘The objectivity of taste: Hume and Kant’, Nous, 24 (1990), 109.Google Scholar Although I cannot deal adequately with this topic here, it is easy to see that this line of objection largely misses the point of Kant's disinterestedness thesis, which turns mainly on the claim that an antecedent interest cannot serve as part of the ground of an aesthetic evaluation. The basic intuition is that if an interest is an ingredient in the assessment, then the ensuing judgement is no longer a pure judgement of taste. As such, the disinterestedness thesis functions to support the autonomy of taste, its irreducibility either to judgements of mere agreeableness or of goodness. Admittedly, the problem is complicated by the fact that in order to distinguish the liking for the beautiful from the liking for the morally good (which is likewise not based on any interest, even though it gives rise to a pure moral interest), Kant extends the disinterestedness thesis from the determining grounds to the consequences of judgements of taste. In other words, a judgement of taste must be disinterested in the dual sense that it is neither based on nor creates an interest in its object (5: 205n.; 46). Moreover, it is this latter claim that seems to conflict with the suggestion in the passage from §40 that the liking for the beautiful might be connected with an interest after all. I deal with this problem briefly in section 2.

3 These commentators include: Crawford, Donald W., Kant's Aesthetic Theory (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1974);Google ScholarRogerson, Kenneth, Kant's Aesthetics: The Roles of Form and Expression (Lanham, New York and London: University Press of America, 1986);Google ScholarKemal, Salim, Kant and Fine Art, An Essay on Kant and the Philosophy of Fine Art and Culture (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986)Google Scholar; and Savile, Anthony, Aesthetic Reconstructions: The Seminal Writings of Lessing, Kant and Schiller (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987), pp.129–91.Google Scholar

4 For a discussion of this issue and its treatment in the secondary literature as of 1982, see Rogerson, , ‘The meaning of universal validity in Kant's aesthetics’, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 40/3 (1982), 301–8).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

5 Guyer, Paul, Kant and the Claims of Taste (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), esp. 264–78.Google Scholar

6 This is basically the view of Crawford, see his Kant's Aesthetic Theory, esp. pp.66–9 for his overview of the five stages of the deduction as he sees it. On his reading, the ought question is addressed only in stage 5.

7 It should be noted that Kant here characterizes interest in terms of a pleasure (Lust) in the existence of something rather than, as in the initial formulation, as a liking (Wohlgefallen) connected with the representation of the existence (or continued existence) of an object (5: 204; 45). Nevertheless, this does not create any major difficulties, since Kant consistently treats Wohlgefallen and Lust as equivalent in his discussions of aesthetic response.

8 Cf. Arendt, Hannah, Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, ed. Beiner, Ronald (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), pp.76–7.Google Scholar

9 Paul Guyer has recently argued that Kant is here referring to and criticizing the account of Herz, Marcus, Versuch über den Geschmack (1776Google Scholar, 2nd edition 1790). See his ‘Nature, art, and autonomy’, in Kant and the Experience of Freedom: Essays on Aesthetics and Morality (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp.241–8. Although I find this suggestion reasonable, I do not think that it materially affects the points at issue.

10 In addition to the conception of unsocial sociability, this Rousseauian side of Kant is perhaps best in evidence in the account of the vices of culture depicted in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 6: 27. These vices are all said to be rooted in the corruption of the predisposition to humanity, which seems to be the Kantian analogue of Rousseau's amour propre.

11 See e.g. 5: 175–6; 14–15, and 195–6; 36.

12 For a characterization of the highest good as a totalizing concept see Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, 6: 5.

13 I discuss Kant's argument for the claim that there are such ends and some of its implications for his moral theory in ‘Kant's Doctrine of Obligatory Ends’, Idealism and Freedom: Essays on Kant's Theoretical and Practical Philosophy (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 155–68.

14 There is a tension in Kant's account, which likewise applies to his discussions of the highest good, between a conception of these duties as fully realizable and one of them as pointing to the ideals of perfect peace and justice, which can be continually approximated but never fully attained. I discuss this issue in ‘The gulf between nature and freedom and nature's guarantee of perpetual peace’, Proceedings of the Eighth International Kant Congress Memphis 1995, ed. Hoke Robinson (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1996), vol. 1, pp.37–49.

15 I analyse this issue in more detail, with a particular emphasis on the problem of perpetual peace, ibid. For a discussion of Kant's moral teleology see also Diising, Klaus, Die Teleologie in Kants Weltbegriff, Kant-Studien Ergänzungshefte, 96 (Bonn: H. Bouvier u. Co. Verlag, 1968), esp. pp. 104–5.Google Scholar

16 For a critique of Kant's argument in §42 based on similar considerations, see Crawford, , Kant's Aesthetic Theory, pp.148–9.Google Scholar In contrast to Crawford, however, I take this to indicate that the argument has not yet been formulated rather than that it simply fails. Accordingly, the argument advanced in the rest of this section may be read as a response to Crawford and other critics (including Guyer) who accept his line of criticism.

17 See Kant's Theory of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp.167–8; Idealism and Freedom, pp.122–3.

18 For my detailed discussions of this issue see Kant's Theory of Freedom, chapter 8, ‘Radical evil’, and ‘Reflections on the banality of (radical) evil: A Kantian analysis’, Idealism and Freedom, pp.169–82.

19 In the Metaphysic of Morals (6:384) Kant characterizes the contrast between virtue and lack of virtue or moral weakness as one of logical opposition and that between virtue and vice as real opposition. According to this view, the failure to act beneficently on a given occasion, unless it reflects a principled refusal to help others, manifests a simple lack of virtue rather than vice. For a discussion of this issue see Hill, Thomas E. Jr., ‘Imperfect duty and supererogation’, in Dignity and Practical Reason in Kant's Moral Theory (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1992), pp.147–75.Google Scholar

20 The same analysis applies, mutatis mutandis, to that other indirect duty in the Kantian moral scheme: the requirement to cultivate (or at least not neglect) one's own happiness. According to Kant's account of this in the Doctrine of Virtue, what is required is to ward off poverty, since this is a great temptation to vice (6:388). Although there is no explicit reference to radical evil here, it is clear that for Kant an openness to such temptation is precisely what is meant by the propensity to evil. Kant also refers to the cultivation of one's own happiness as an indirect duty in Groundwork, 4: 399; and Critique of Practical Reason, 5:93. I briefly discuss this indirect duty in Idealism and Freedom, p. 123.

21 At the end of §42 Kant does claim that we do in fact require this direct interest, since ‘we consider someone's way of thinking (Denkungsart) to be coarse and ignoble if he has no feeling for the beautiful in nature’ (5: 302–3; 169–70).

22 Kant's limitation of an intellectual interest and the associated ‘duty, as it were’ to develop taste to natural beauty has frequently been criticized in light of his theory of genius, according to which nature, in the subject, gives the rule to art (Cf. 5: 307, 309; 175, 177). The point here is supposedly that the theory of genius involves the overcoming of the rigid art-nature dichotomy with which Kant seems to operate in his account of interest. For a recent statement of this view see Kneller, Jane, ‘The interests of disinterest’, Proceedings, vol.1, pt. 2, pp.782–4.Google Scholar At least part of the response to this line of criticism is indicated by G. Felicitas Munzel in her commentary on Kneller's paper (‘The privileged status of interest in nature's beautiful forms’, ibid., pp.789–90). As Munzel notes, Kant uses ‘nature’ in a variety of senses, and in the case of the interest in natural beauty it concerns the beautiful forms of particular objects of external nature or the physical world. By contrast, ‘nature’ as applicable to the genius concerns the inner nature of the individual. In addition, I would also note in this context the importance of distinguishing between what are sometimes called Kant's ‘reception aesthetic’ and his ‘creation aesthetic’. To appreciate the beauty of a work of art involves, for Kant, recognizing it as a product of human intention, and this is what blocks the possibility of an intellectual interest in such beauty. The theory of genius, however, is the cornerstone of Kant's ‘creation aesthetic’, so that the idea that works of genius are somehow based on ‘nature’ (in one sense of the term), simply does not enter into the evaluation and, therefore, cannot provide the basis for an intellectual interest in artistic beauty.

23 Kant insists in all three Critiques that at least this much is necessary, if ideas are to bave any regulative or even practical function. Thus, in the first Critique, he claims that the transcendental ideas each provide an ‘analogon of a schema’ (A665/B693), in terms of which their regulative function is to be understood. Similarly, in the second Critique, he presents the view, already present in the Groundwork, that even the moral law must be thought according to an analogy (or ‘Typic’) as a law of nature if it is to be genuinely action guiding. See the Critique of Practical Reason, 5: 67–76.

24 This brief account is to be contrasted with the detailed and in many ways informative discussion of this topic by Munzel, G. Felicitas, ‘“The beautiful is the symbol of the morally-good”: Kant's philosophical basis of proof for the idea of the morally-good’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 33 (April 1995), 301–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Although there is much of value in Munzel's paper, particularly in the discussion of Kant's use of analogy and symbol in various works, I believe that the account is vitiated by a failure to note a significant difference between the third Critique's account of symbolization and that found in other Kantian texts. As she quite correctly notes, the usual function of a symbol for Kant is to provide some sort of cognition by way of analogy of the purely intellectual object symbolized. Accordingly, she takes the function of the analogy with the beautiful to be to help determine, relative to us, the meaning of the idea of the morally good (Sittlich-Gute), and, on her account, it does so in virtue of the analogy in causality between the way in which the morally good and the beautiful are produced. As a direct consequence of this, she is led to conclude that only artistic beauty can symbolize the morally good because only in the case of artistic production do we find the requisite analogy with moral production (see esp. pp.321–6). This result is, however, not only highly counter-intuitive but also without textual support. Since Kant was so emphatic in linking an intellectual interest in beauty specifically with natural beauty, it is only reasonable to assume that if he had intended to limit the symbolic relation to artistic beauty he would have said so. In addition, this reading fails to help explain why Kant should claim that regarding the beautiful in this way (as symbol) is both natural for everyone and regarded as a duty (a topic which she fails to discuss). In my judgement, this reading is based on a twofold mistake: (1) a failure to recognize that Kant's concern in §59 is not with attempting to augment our cognition of the morally good (the symbolized) but rather with underscoring the significance of its symbol (the beautiful); (2) the location of the analogy in the respective modes of causality necessary to produce the symbol and the symbolized rather than in the form of reflection on each. Thus, Munzel may be correct in arguing against Guyer (p.321 n. 30) that the analogy Kant intends is between the morally good and a beautiful object rather than between moral and aesthetic judgement per se, but she fails to note that the point of this analogy lies completely in the parallelism in the reflection on these two objects.

25 Although the analogy goes both ways, the symbolization relation is asymmetrical, since the symbol, as exhibition of a concept (or idea), is always something sensible (or sensibly instantiable), while that which is symbolized can be something non-sensible. This is the answer to Ted Cohen, who asked why a good will should not be taken as a symbol of a beautiful object. See ‘Why beauty is a symbol of morality’, in Cohen, Ted and Guyer, Paul (eds.), Essays in Kant's Aesthetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p.232.Google Scholar

26 Kant does not indicate just what he means here by the morally good (Sittlich-Gute) and the candidates in the literature include freedom (Guyer, , ‘Nature, art, and autonomy’, Kant and the Experience of Freedom, p.252)Google Scholar; the idea of the supersensible ground at the basis of morality (Crawford, , Kant's Aesthetic Theory, p.157)Google Scholar; the realized object of the will determined by pure practical reason (Munzel, , ‘The beautiful is the symbol of the morally-good’, pp.317–20Google Scholar). Of these, I take the latter to be closest to the truth, since Kant is concerned here with the object of morality, in the sense of a realized moral good, reflection on which is analogous to reflection on a beautiful object.

27 Presumably, this is the point to which Kant alludes at the end of §22, when, after noting that the indeterminate standard of a sensus communis is presupposed by the judgement of taste, he mysteriously asks whether there is in fact such a common sense, which serves as constitutive principle of the possibility of experience, or whether there is ‘a still higher principle of reason that makes it only a regulative principle for us to bring forth, for higher purposes, a common sense in the first place?’ (5: 240; 90) Kant does not deal with this and related questions at this point, since that would be out of place in the analytic of the beautiful. Nevertheless, it is clear that the ‘higher purposes’ are moral and that the account of the beautiful as the symbol of the morally good is intended to support the second alternative, which involves the claim that there is a moral requirement to develop taste (here identified with a common sense).

28 This, again, is to be contrasted with the views of Crawford, , Kant's Aesthetic Theory, pp. 153–9.Google Scholar He takes the claim that the beautiful symbolizes morality to mean (in part) that it expresses the idea at the basis of all morality and he takes this to ground a duty to be sensitive to and cultivate an interest in the basis of morality. In addition to (in my view) mistakenly linking this argument with the deduction of taste, Crawford neglects Kant's characterization of the requirement to develop taste and the ensuing feeling for beauty as a ‘duty, as it were’.

29 It also applies to the sublime, but I am not discussing that here.

30 Munzel, as already noted, denies that it applies to natural beauty (see n. 28), while Guyer denies that it applies to artistic beauty, ‘Nature, art, and autonomy’, Kant and the Experience of Freedom, p.268.

31 This is the view of Crawford, , Kant's Aesthetic Theory, p.153Google Scholar, where he cites this very passage as evidence that Kant himself realized that the deduction of judgements of taste requires a linkage with morality to be completed.

32 This has been noted by Kemal, Salim, ‘Aesthetic necessity’, Kant-Studien, 74 (1983), p.l84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

33 I here follow Bernard in taking wovon to refer back to the capacity (Beurteilungsvermögen), as opposed to Meredith, who takes it refer back to the sensible rendering (Versinnlichung). Pluhar leaves it ambiguous, keeping the pronoun.

34 The point is noted by Guyer, , Kant and the Claims of Taste, p.386.Google Scholar

35 Kant defines aesthetic ideas as ‘representations of the imagination which prompt much thought, but to which no determinate thought whatsoever … can be adequate’. He also characterizes such an idea as the ‘counterpart’ of a rational idea, meaning thereby that just as no intuition is adequate to the latter, so no concept can be adequate to the former (5: 314; 182). He further claims that in forming such ideas, the imagination ‘emulates the example of reason in reaching for a maximum’ (5: 315; 183). Presumably, it is this emulation of reason that accounts for the reflective isomorphism. Very roughly, the basic idea would be that in an aesthetic reflection on the sensible rendering of a rational (moral) idea, the imagination expands its vistas in a way that is analogous to and suggestive of the procedure of reason in its endemic quest for the unconditioned. For a helpful discussion of Kant's doctrine of aesthetic ideas, see Lüthe, Rudolf, ‘Kants Lehre von den ästhetischen Ideen’, Kant-Studien, 75 (1984), pp.6573.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

36 Admittedly, however, Kant does seem to have done just that in a letter to Johann Friedrich Reichhardt, dated 15 October 1790 (11: 28). In the relevant portion Kant states:

I have been content to show that without moral feeling there would be nothing beautiful or sublime for us, that our, as it were, lawful entitlement to approve (gleichsam gesetzmässige Anspruch auf Beyfall) of anything that bears these names is based on just this moral feeling, and that taste is that subjective aspect of our moral nature, which we consider under the name ‘moral feeling’ as inscrutable. The ability to make judgements of taste, though not founded on objective concepts of reason, such as are required by evaluations according to moral laws, is still founded on an a priori principle of judgement (albeit an intuitive and not a discursive one) and is not in any way grounded on the contingencies of sensation'. (Translation by Manfred Kuhn, supplied to me by Arnulf Zweig.)

Even though this provides what is undoubtedly the strongest textual support for the view that Kant affirmed a moral foundation for taste, it is almost completely ignored by those who argue for such an interpretation. In fact, the only commentator with whom I am familiar who refers to it is Konrad Marc-Wogau, who cites it as evidence of the ambiguity of Kant's postion rather than of his full commitment to a moral grounding for taste. See Vier Studien zu Kants Kritik der Urtelskraft (Uppsala: A. B. Lundequistka Bokhandeln, 1938), p.148. Although this letter certainly cannot be completely dismissed, particularly since it stems from the same year as the publication of the third Critique, two factors leads me to downplay its significance: (1) In sharp contrast to the Critique, Kant here lumps together the sublime and the beautiful. This suggest that they relate to moral sense in essentially the same way, which is clearly not the position held in the Critique. (2) After relating taste to moral feeling, Kant goes on to insist that the ability to make judgements of taste is founded on an a priori principle of judgement, rather than objective concepts of reason. Not only does this accord perfectly with what Kant says in the Critique, but it is difficult to square with what he had just said about moral feeling. This would seem to require the identification of the a priori principle of judgement with moral feeling, which would be quite problematic, to say the least.

37 This is particularly characteristic of Guyer, who fails completely to distinguish between these functions. See his ‘Nature, art, and autonomy’, Kant and the Experience of Freedom, esp. pp.265–71.

38 It might be objected at this point that the doctrine of radical evil is only developed in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone and, therefore, some two years after the Critique of Judgement. I have argued in Kant's Theory of Freedom (ch.8), however, that this doctrine was implicit in Kant's moral writings from the Groundwork on.

39 I have emphasized ‘explicit’, because I believe that the account of the supersensible can be explicated in terms of the analyses of nature's traces and hints, which certainly point to what Kant terms the ‘supersensible substrate of nature’, and the weaning, elevating function of taste, which helps to increase our awareness of our own ‘supersensible [moral] vocation’.

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