On the Kantian Sense of Beauty

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was one of the most important figures of the Enlightenment. A mathematician and philosopher, he spent his life in the Prussian city of Königsberg where he became an eminent professor. His philosophical stance introduced an element of novelty in the stuffy debate between empiricist and rationalist thinkers, reshaping the way we see and evaluate knowledge. His main work of aesthetic, the Critique of Judgment, is an investigation about aesthetic judgments and the limits of their validity. Kant investigates the way humans perceive and describe beauty through taste, which is a rational faculty. Following this path, he encounters the fine arts as the triggers of aesthetic experience. Even though the Critique of Judgment is not an art treatise, nor a history of the arts, it incorporates them into a cohesive theory of beauty and perception.

Bond of Union – Maurits Escher

According to Kant, aesthetic judgments are guided by taste, an intellectual faculty which allows humans to perceive beauty. However, Kant does not consider beauty to be an inherent quality of artworks nor any other external being. This means that the aesthetic judgment does not concern the object that has caused it in the first place. This is rather a catalyst, which allows taste to operate. The aesthetic judgment does not point toward the outside world but infers something about the subject, who becomes the object of the predicament too. Therefore, the aesthetic judgment is reflective because of its own nature. In this perspective, Kant needs to redefine the status of beauty. Normally, one would say in front of a work of art: “this is beautiful”. According to the philosopher, this is actually a mistake of form and its relation with the intellect needs further inspection.

Sky and Water – Maurits Escher

The perception of beauty is a reflective act provoked by an external object. Following this consideration, Kant connects beauty to the perception of good in a moral perspective. Kant believes that humans naturally strive toward morality. It is a humanistic idea, which relates rationality to the ethical concept of good. In this regard, the experience of beauty is a moment of revelation and the epiphany of the moral dimension which each human experiences as part of being a rational creature. This allows Kant to devise a condition of universality behind the idea of beauty. In fact, while he states that taste is indeed subjective, he succeeds in relating the meaning of beauty to his more grounded ethical background, which is described in the Critique of Practical Reason. In this context, the arts become humanoria, in other words, expressions of common sense and the cradle of further reasoning over morality and good.

Metamorphoses – Maurits Escher

In conclusion, Kant’s aesthetic theory goes beyond the empiricist-rationalist debate, re-locating the discussion on the very premises of knowledge and art-appreciation. In fact, he abandons the idea of beauty as a substantial component of reality, connecting it to the structures of the human mind and the innate tendency to develop a moral sense. Kant overlooks any technical commentary about the arts, showing once again his philosophical perspective. Often, he has been considered a precedent of the formalist school of criticism but it is vital to remember that his writings stem from a different intention. We have limited knowledge about Kant’s personal taste and relation to the arts and it is important that we do not assume too much about him as a man of the eighteenth century. Nonetheless, his contribution casts a light on the early years of aesthetic as an object of debate in the history of European philosophy.


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Bond of Union

Sky and Water


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Alessandro M. Rubin Written by:

Cambridge History of Art alumnus. Passionate early-modernist, curious about contemporary art and aesthetic theory.

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