Dates: 1724-1804

Nationality: German

Immanuel Kant (April 22, 1724 – February 12, 1804) was an 18th-century German philosopher from the Prussian city of Königsberg. Kant was the last influential philosopher of modern Europe in the classic sequence of the theory of knowledge during the Enlightenment beginning with thinkers John Locke, George Berkeley, and David Hume.

Kant discusses the subjective nature of aesthetic qualities and experiences in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, (1764). Kant’s contribution to aesthetic theory is developed in the Critique of Judgment (1790) where he investigates the possibility and logical status of “judgments of taste.” In the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment,” the first major division of the Critique of Judgment, Kant used the term “aesthetic” in a manner that is, according to Kant scholar W.H. Walsh, its modern sense. Prior to this, in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant had, in order to note the essential differences between judgments of taste, moral judgments, and scientific judgments, abandoned the use of the term “aesthetic” as “designating the critique of taste,” noting that judgments of taste could never be “directed” by “laws a priori.” After A. G. Baumgarten, who wrote Aesthetica (1750–58), Kant was one of the first philosophers to develop and integrate aesthetic theory into a unified and comprehensive philosophical system, utilizing ideas that played an integral role throughout his philosophy.

In the chapter “Analytic of the Beautiful” of the Critique of Judgment, Kant states that beauty is not a property of an artwork or natural phenomenon, but is instead a consciousness of the pleasure which attends the ‘free play’ of the imagination and the understanding. Even though it appears that we are using reason to decide that which is beautiful, the judgment is not a cognitive judgment,”and is consequently not logical, but aesthetical.” A pure judgment of taste is in fact subjective insofar as it refers to the emotional response of the subject and is based upon nothing but esteem for an object itself: it is a disinterested pleasure, and we feel that pure judgments of taste, i.e. judgments of beauty, lay claim to universal validity. It is important to note that this universal validity is not derived from a determinate concept of beauty but from common sense. Kant also believed that a judgment of taste shares characteristics engaged in a moral judgment: both are disinterested, and we hold them to be universal. In the chapter “Analytic of the Sublime” Kant identifies the sublime as an aesthetic quality which, like beauty, is subjective, but unlike beauty refers to an indeterminate relationship between the faculties of the imagination and of reason, and shares the character of moral judgments in the use of reason. The feeling of the sublime, itself divided into two distinct modes (the mathematical sublime and the dynamical sublime), describe two subjective moments both of which concern the relationship of the faculty of the imagination to reason. The mathematical sublime is situated in the failure of the imagination to comprehend natural objects which appear boundless and formless, or which appear “absolutely great.” This imaginative failure is then recuperated through the pleasure taken in reason’s assertion of the concept of infinity. In this move the faculty of reason proves itself superior to our fallible sensible self. In the dynamical sublime there is the sense of annihilation of the sensible self as the imagination tries to comprehend a vast might. This power of nature threatens us but through the resistance of reason to such sensible annihilation, the subject feels a pleasure and a sense of the human moral vocation. This appreciation of moral feeling through exposure to the sublime helps to develop moral character.

Kant had developed the distinction between an object of art as a material value subject to the conventions of society and the transcendental condition of the judgment of taste as a “refined” value in the propositions of his Idea of A Universal History (1784). In the Fourth and Fifth Theses of that work he identified all art as the “fruits of unsociableness” due to men’s “antagonism in society,” and  in the Seventh Thesis asserted that while such material property is indicative of a civilized state, only the ideal of morality and the universalization of refined value through the improvement of the mind of man “belongs to culture.”

Wikipedia contributors. “Immanuel Kant.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 Mar. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. <;

Thoroughly revising previous systems and erecting new terminologies, his ‘critical philosophy’ marks a turning point in Western thought. One of his major critical analyses, the Critique of Judgement (1790), has a singular place in the history of aesthetics. Earlier 18th-century writers, such as Edmund Burke, had treated both responses to nature and art as the province of aesthetic thought; Kant, who was indifferent to painting and music, went against subsequent trends in laying his emphasis on nature. Aesthetic judgements, he contended, rest on disinterested perceptual experiences, where we find ourselves contemplatively responding to the formal appearances of things with delight or aversion. Our feelings on this level are distinct from everyday pleasure where ‘everyone has their own tastes’, and from perceptions of objects made in the course of practical activity; instead, they allow the presence of the object to show forth, no longer obscured by our preconceptions. The ‘free beauty’ at which such contemplation aims is primarily exemplified in compact natural forms like sea-shells; Kant contrasts it with our delight at the sublime in nature, exemplified by the vastness of the starry sky. Analogously, art might either be ‘neat and elegant’ in character, or else reach for the sublime in the productions of the dynamic, rule-breaking genius. Art, however, possessed only ‘dependent beauty’, admixing conceptual elements with the forms of objects.

Kant’s analysis of the experience of beauty has retained a place in aesthetic discussions, and the example of his critical method has inspired various theorists of art such as Picasso’s interpreter Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1884–1976) and Clement Greenberg.

McAdoo, Nick. “Kant, Immanuel.” The Oxford Companion to Western Art. Ed. Hugh Brigstocke. Oxford Art Online. 12 Mar. 2010 <;

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