Kant, Immanuel (1724–1804)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DB047-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2004
Retrieved March 20, 2019, from

12. Taste and autonomy

Under the rubric of ‘reflective judgment’, defined as that use of judgment in which we seek to find unknown universals for given particulars rather than to apply given universals to particulars (5: 179–80), the Critique of the Power of Judgment deals with three apparently disparate subjects: systematicity in scientific concepts generally, natural and artistic beauty, and teleology or purposiveness in particular organisms and in nature as a whole (see Teleology). Even more than the idea of reflective judgment, however, what ties these subjects together is again the idea of autonomy.

In the the first Critique, Kant had suggested, with but few exceptions, that the search for systematicity in scientific concepts and laws - the subordination of maximally varied specific concepts and laws under maximally unified general ones - is an ideal of reason, not necessary for empirical knowledge but still intrinsically desirable. In the third Critique, he reassigns this search to reflective judgment, and argues that we must adopt as a transcendental but indemonstrable principle that nature is adapted to our cognitive needs (5: 185; 20: 209–10). By this reassignment Kant indicates that systematicity is a necessary condition for the acceptance of empirical laws after all, and thus a necessary condition for experience itself. Kant thereby suggests that our empirical knowledge is neither passively received nor simply guaranteed, but dependent on our active projection of the unity of nature.

Kant next turns to judgments of taste as both a further expression of human autonomy and further evidence that the adaptation of nature to our own cognitive needs is both contingent yet reasonably assumed. Judgments of taste, beginning with the simplest such as ‘This flower is beautiful’ and progressing to more complex ones such as ‘This poem is beautiful’ and ‘This landscape is sublime’, are connected to autonomy in two ways: while they claim universal agreement, they must always be based on individual feeling and judgment; and while they must be made free of all constraint by theoretical or moral concepts, they are ultimately symbols of moral freedom itself.

Kant begins from an analysis of the very idea of an ‘aesthetic judgment’. As aesthetic, judgments of taste must both concern and be made on the basis of the most subjective of human responses, feelings of pleasure, but, as judgments, they must still claim interpersonal agreement (5: 203, 212–16). To retain their link to feelings, judgments of taste can never simply report how others respond, but must be based on one’s own free response to the object itself; in this way they express individual autonomy (5: 216, 282–5). But to claim universal agreement, they must be based on cognitive capacities shared by all, yet by a condition of those faculties that is pleasureable because it is not constrained by rules (5: 187). Such a state is one of ‘free play’ between imagination and understanding, in which the imagination satisfies understanding’s need for unity by presenting a form that seems unitary and coherent without any concept, or, even where a concept of human use or artistic intention is inescapable, that seems to have a unity going beyond any such concept - artistic genius lies precisely in such transcendence of concepts (5: 317–18). With debatable success, Kant argues that this ‘free play’ must occur under the same circumstances in all human beings (5: 238–9, 290), and thus that judgments of taste can have the ‘quantity’ of universality and the ‘modality’ of necessity while retaining the ‘quality’ of independence from direct moral interest and ‘relation’ to merely subjective, cognitive interests rather than objective, practical ones.

How does aesthetic judgment so understood both express autonomy in a moral sense and also give further evidence of the contingent adaptation of nature to our own needs? Kant answers the latter question with his idea of ‘intellectual interest’: the very fact that beauty exists, he argues, although it cannot be derived from any scientific laws, can be taken by us as evidence that nature is receptive not only to our cognitive needs but even to our need to see a possibility for success in our moral undertakings (5: 300). Kant’s answer to the first question, how taste expresses autonomy in its moral sense, is more complex but also more compelling than this.

Like other eighteenth-century authors such as Edmund Burke, Kant draws a fundamental distinction between the beautiful and the sublime (see Sublime, the). Beauty pleases us through the free play of imagination and understanding. In our response to the sublime, however - which for Kant is not paradigmatically a response to art, but to the vastness and power of nature - we enjoy not a direct harmony between imagination and understanding, which are rather frustrated by their inability to grasp such immensities, but a feeling of them which reveals the power of reason within us (5: 257). And this, although it would seem to involve theoretical reason, symbolizes the power of practical reason, and thus the foundation of our autonomy, in two ways: our power to grasp a truly universal law, such as the moral law, and our power to resist the threats of mere nature, and thus the blandishments of inclination (5: 261–2).

In this way, the sublime symbolizes the sterner side of moral autonomy. But the experience of beauty is also a symbol of morality, precisely because the freedom of the imagination that is its essence is the only experience in which any form of freedom, including the freedom of the will itself, can become palpable to us (5: 353–4). Kant thus concludes his critique of aesthetic judgment with the remarkable suggestion that it is in our enjoyment of beauty that our vocation as autonomous agents becomes not just a ‘fact of reason’ but a matter of experience as well.

Citing this article:
Guyer, Paul. Taste and autonomy. Kant, Immanuel (1724–1804), 2004, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DB047-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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