Immanuel Kant’s Philosophy of the Aesthetic: A Look at 2 Ideas

Immanuel Kant’s work is difficult, but his philosophy is insightful. We look at two of his ideas on aesthetics, and see if they hold up under scrutiny.

Aug 28, 2021By Jack Boczar, BA Economics, BA Philosophy, PhD in progress
immanual kant philosophy mount holyoke


Immanuel Kant is one of the most famous philosophers of all time. Kant’s philosophy is known for its highly technical and specific language. Despite his seminal work in ethics and his profound influence on modern life, one of Immanuel Kant’s greatest works was written on aesthetics. The work is called the Critique of Judgement, and it outlines a totally new horizon of philosophical aesthetics. In this article I’ll give the reader a taste of what such a new horizon is like: first, by looking at Immanuel Kant’s idea of ‘disinterest’ in regard to art, and then pointing out some apparent flaws with it. I’ll then do the same with Kant’s idea of ‘universality.’


Immanuel Kant’s Philosophy on the Disinterested Nature of Aesthetic Judgment 

immanual kant portrait
Immanuel Kant, artist unknown, ca. 1790, via Wikimedia Commons


Immanuel Kant’s ‘third critique,’ titled the Critique of Judgement, is a book-length philosophical treatise which begins by laying down four ‘moments’ which Kant takes to be the hallmark of the Aesthetic. In the first, he opines that aesthetic judgments are disinterested, and the method he uses to arrive at that conclusion is phenomenology, or an investigation into the phenomena (of aesthetic judgment) themselves.


It is first helpful to discern what Immanuel Kant means by the term ‘disinterest,’ as my first exposure to it left me quite confused. The term does not refer to literal disinterest, i.e., a lack of feeling or emotional content, as this would lead to at least one paradox. If I view a piece of art or a scene in nature with a complete lack of any emotional content, then I could not obtain any pleasure or sensation.


critique of judgment german title page
The German Title Page of the Critique of Judgement, displayed in the Hackett edition, via Wikimedia Commons


Rather than interpret disinterest to mean a completely cold response (think of Spock in Star Trek), Kant wants us to see the aesthetic without interest, and understand that the (disinterested) judgment precedes the pleasure or sensation.  Immanuel Kant writes (section 9), “If pleasure came first… then this procedure would be contradictory.” By this, I take him to mean that the judgement would collapse into the merely agreeable if pleasure were to come before disinterested judgment. But I’m not sure how far Kant can push this idea. For a contemporary discussion on this, see Wenzel (2008).

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winter palace panorama
Winter Palace in Moscow, Alex Fedorov, via Wikimedia Commons


In this context, seeing the aesthetic without interest means not taking an interest in the object as an object. Immanuel Kant puts it succinctly when he states (section 2), “…whether my mere presentation of the object is accompanied by a liking, no matter how indifferent I may be about the existence of the object…”. Here, he is saying that in aesthetic judgments we do not care whether or not the object exists, and thus, we are disinterested in them.


guillaume seignac the wave
The Wave, by Guillaume Seignac, 1870-1924


Two situations will help clarify his point. As we look at Seignac’s The Wave, 1870-1924, and engage in aesthetic judgment, does it matter that the woman does not exist? Judging this work (the technical detail, the appearance of a suspension of time, and the subject) as beautiful, we clearly see that the answer is no. Kant’s own example was that of a ‘questioner’ asking another if a palace is beautiful. No matter what response is given, the questioner does not care if the supposed palace exists, simply if the presentation of it initiates the liking of aesthetics. Kant further supports this definition of ‘disinterest’ when he says, “In order to play the judge in matters of taste, we must not be in the least biased in favor of the thing’s existence, but must be wholly indifferent about it”.


view from mount holyoke met
View from Mount Holyoke, Thomas Cole, 1836, via Met Museum


I will now proceed by outlining some problems with Immanuel Kant’s philosophy on aesthetics. First, allow me to demonstrate why his support is weak with a thought experiment of my own. Imagine that before you are the most beautiful paintings you can think of. Some examples that come to my mind are Raphael’s painting The School of Athens, 1511, or Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, 1486. Now, if that particular work lay right before your eyes, would you truly not be interested in its existence?


The Nature of Looking

If you could instead have a permanent mental image that you could always recall, would this be better, worse, or the same compared to the grand painting? Would you rather look at the painting on Instagram or in person? I think most people would agree that the actual object is far superior to a mental image or photo. Furthermore, when I told you to think about the most beautiful painting you could, you chose a specific work and therefore proved that you have an interest in it. These two observations show that Immanuel Kant’s hard philosophy on being wholly indifferent about the object is untenable.


I could be interpreting Immanuel Kant a bit unfairly, as his claim to disinterest might be interpreted not to mean disinterest in the physical object, but possibly the subject of the work, e.g., Venus in Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, 1486. Do we not care whether the subject, be it a person, place, or thing within the art exists?


the school of athens rafael
The School of Athens by Raphael, c. 1509-11, via Musei Vaticani, Vatican City


It appears to be unclear. I do wish that I could step into Raphael’s The School of Athens, 1509-11 (my favorite artist) and speak to the philosophers, or behold the stunning sublimity of Paolo Veronese’s Hall of Olympus, 1560-61, with my own eyes (you can learn more about the latter here).  Second, adopting an attitude where aesthetic judgment requires that we are not biased at all in favor of the thing’s existence leads to some very peculiar outcomes.


Making Aesthetic Judgments

From this forced belief, it follows that our aesthetic judgments would be ‘clouded’ if we were to investigate art for the sake of a project in an art class, or if we were to judge our significant other as beautiful. It would even seem that we could only judge a painting the very first time we see it since first impressions would prevent us from being disinterested. And it seems that we couldn’t judge our favorite paintings, since they are our favorite, and we don’t view them in a disinterested fashion. Moreover, it is impossible not to bring any biases or pre-judgments into any situation, and therefore it cannot be the case that we make completely disinterested aesthetic judgments, or even that we can.


altar aftrican Ikegobo
Altar to the Hand of Ezomo Ehenua (Ikegobo), 18-19 c., via Met Museum


These problems do not mean that Immanuel Kant’s first philosophy should be completely disregarded, and the idea that some aesthetic judgments have to contain an element of disinterest is a brilliant insight. But it does need to be reformulated. Since it is impossible to enter into judgments with radical disinterest, we have no choice but to live with it. Perhaps a more encompassing definition of disinterest would be ‘disinterest insofar as not consuming it for my own sake (as a mere means) but reflecting on it as an end in itself.’ This would bring the realm of the aesthetic, or the aesthetic particular into the “Kingdom of Ends,” (another concept in Immanuel Kant’s philosophy), as we would view such things as ends in themselves, rather than mere means.


Examining the Concept of Disinterest

The disinterested nature of aesthetic judgments seems to lead to even more paradoxes. As Kant points out in his second critique, there is a sort of illusion to the disinterest in the moral sphere of philosophy. We don’t really know if we are truly acting for the sake of duty alone, or out of some ulterior motive. The same can be said about the aesthetic – we may not know if our judgments are purely disinterested; after all, we have many blind spots and cognitive biases.


For example, judging my significant other to be literally ‘the most beautiful girl in the world’ is most likely due to my interest in her. Or, judging Western Art to be ‘the best in the world’ could be due to the cultural exposure I have had to it; if I grew up in Africa, my judgment might be different. It would appear that these paradoxes are fatal to the Kantian moments, at least from this limited standpoint.


Kant’s Philosophy on the Universality of Aesthetic Judgment

van gogh wheat field with cypresses
Wheat Field with Cypresses, van Gogh, 1889. via Met Museum


Another of Kant’s moments is the universality of aesthetic judgements. According to Kant, judgments about sensation alone, or judgments about the things that gratify us carry no ‘ought’ claim on others, and we do not care whether others agree with them.  In other words, my claim that Snickers is the best candy has no force on another to agree, nor should I care about that. On the other hand, though, judgments about the beautiful do have a claim to universality. When we judge something to be beautiful, we are saying that everyone ought to view it as such.


However, it isn’t the case that the universality of an aesthetic judgment is the same as other judgments. It doesn’t seem like the judgement “This computer is grey” carries the same claim to universality as “X is beautiful.” With cognitive and moral judgments, Kant is able to argue that they are universal because of the very faculty used to produce them, but in the third critique, he cannot perform that same move as judgments about the beautiful do not get subsumed under a concept (cf. Kant’s “Deduction of Taste” in which he follows a different strategy for understanding aesthetic concepts than found in his philosophy of knowledge).


wanderer above fog caspar friedrich
Wanderer above the sea of fog, Caspar David Friedrich, c. 1817, via Kunsthalle Hamburg


Kant’s argument for the universality of aesthetic claims rests on the presupposition of his claims to disinterest. He says, “For if someone likes something and is conscious that he himself does so without any interest then he cannot help but judge that it contains a basis for being liked for everyone.” The argument runs like this: I assume disinterest in the object, which means that I have no private reasons to call it beautiful. But since I do call it beautiful, the reasons for doing so must be public. And if they are public then they are available to everyone. Therefore, such a judgment is universal.


Three objections can be made: (1) One can reject the assumption of disinterest that this argument relies upon. If done, it is very possible, even likely, that private reasons may be found, hence allowing the conclusion not to follow. (2) Just because no private reasons can be discovered does not mean that they do not exist. (3) We simply don’t seem to claim that our aesthetic judgements are universally valid for everyone in the same sense that cognitive judgments are. There is an element of taste in the aesthetic that isn’t present in other judgments.


Aesthetic judgements are different from moral judgements or cognitive judgements because, as Kant points out, their “universality cannot arise from concepts.” We often intend for aesthetic judgments to be taken as universals, but unlike a cognitive judgment such as ‘grass is green,’ a person who disagrees will not be seen as unreasonable or mistaken in his cognition due to the element of taste and subjectivity involved. In other words, aesthetic judgments simply have an appearance of being universal, but aren’t so in the sense that cognitive or moral judgments are.


coca cola by andy warhol
Coca-Cola, Andy Warhol, 1962, via MoMA


Another issue to be found in Kant’s work is that he does not argue very well for why agreeable judgments do not contain universality. Two people arguing over their choice of drink – Coke or Pepsi – are engaged in judgments about the agreeable, and if they claim universal assent to their preferences, Kant would simply say that they are being irrational. But we do this all the time, and because we come up with reasons to support our tastes, it doesn’t seem irrational at all. Perhaps, this, and much more, is an example of Kant being “forced by the system” (Systemzwang).


Immanuel Kant and The Philosophy of Art – Further Applications? 

apollo and daphne by bernini
Apollo and Daphne, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1622-25, via Borghese Gallery


Kant is tough. As I mentioned above, the reader faces lots of difficulties when engaging with Kant’s complex philosophy. But a close reading of his work is invaluable to those interested in aesthetics. As I’ve shown, the applications of Kant’s insights are vast, ranging from painting, sculpture and more.


Because Kant wrote this in the 18th century, he couldn’t have predicted the rapid changing of the art world. This leaves the reader with a task. Can they take Kant’s work and make it relevant to the modern era by applying it in novel ways? What would Kant have to say about Jackson Pollock? What about Turrell’s work? And what about the sublime, which itself is discussed in the entire second half of Kant’s critique? I leave it to the reader, now exposed to one of the titans of philosophical aesthetics, to decide.

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By Jack BoczarBA Economics, BA Philosophy, PhD in progressJack is a philosophy student. He graduated with a dual BA degree in economics and philosophy from the University of Toledo, and will be starting his PhD at the University of Georgia in the Fall. His main areas of interest are aesthetics, metaphysics, and medieval philosophy.