Kant on Beauty and Biology: An Interpretation of the 'Critique of Judgment'

Kant on Beauty and Biology: An Interpretation of the 'Critique of Judgment'

by Rachel Zuckert

Kant's Critique of Judgment has often been interpreted by scholars as comprising separate treatments of three uneasily connected topics: beauty, biology, and empirical knowledge. Rachel Zuckert's book interprets the Critique as a unified argument concerning all three domains. She argues that on Kant's view, human beings demonstrate a distinctive cognitive


Kant's Critique of Judgment has often been interpreted by scholars as comprising separate treatments of three uneasily connected topics: beauty, biology, and empirical knowledge. Rachel Zuckert's book interprets the Critique as a unified argument concerning all three domains. She argues that on Kant's view, human beings demonstrate a distinctive cognitive ability in appreciating beauty and understanding organic life: an ability to anticipate a whole that we do not completely understand according to preconceived categories. This ability is necessary, moreover, for human beings to gain knowledge of nature in its empirical character as it is, not as we might assume it to be. Her wide-ranging and original study will be valuable for readers in all areas of Kant's philosophy.

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Review of the hardback: '… impressive in its intellectual scope, its clearly-written quality, its well-informed, considerable citation of the secondary literature in Kant scholarship and its manner of arguing for a variety of nuanced positions that arise within the text's many subthemes. It is a contribution that stands solidly on the shoulders of the presently leading Kant scholarship and that integrates itself well into it.' British Journal for the History of Philosophy

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Kant on Beauty and BiologyCambridge University Press
9780521865890 - KANT ON BEAUTY AND BIOLOGY - by Rachel Zuckert


In the introductions to his third Critique, the Critique of Judgment,1 Kant claims that this work completes his critical project, for here he articulates and defends the principle of purposiveness without a purpose as the a priori, transcendental principle of judgment, the third and last main cognitive faculty to be treated in the critical philosophy. This principle is a necessary, transcendental principle of judgment, Kant argues, because it governs, justifies, and makes possible our aspirations to empirical knowledge, from its most basic form – our ability to formulate any empirical concepts – to its most sophisticated form – a complete, systematic science of empirical laws. This principle is, Kant claims moreover, “exhibited” paradigmatically in two forms of judgment: teleological judgment concerning organic behavior, and aesthetic judgment of natural beauty.2 In teleological judgment, we judge organisms to be “natural purposes”; we judge that they function purposively. In aesthetic judging, we find objects to be purposive “for cognition,” or to be characterized by “purposive form.” The main text of the CJ comprises, correspondingly, two subsidiary Critiques, the Critique of Teleological Judgment (CTJ) and the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (CAJ), devoted to these two formsof judgment.

As in the other Critiques, then, the argument of the third Critique comprises a justification of an a priori principle, as one that does and must govern activity of one of our fundamental cognitive capacities. But the principle with which the CJ is concerned is rather different, Kant claims, from the principles of the understanding and of reason treated in his two preceding Critiques. The other two kinds of transcendental principles ground “doctrines” or bodies of knowledge: the principles of the Critique of Pure Reason ground a doctrine of physics articulated in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, and the principle of the Critique of Practical Reason, viz., the moral law, is applied and specified in the doctrine articulated in the Metaphysics of Morals. By contrast, the principle of purposiveness is solely a principle for critique and does not ground a doctrine: this principle can be justified as a transcendental, a priori principle necessary for the possibility of judging, but it neither constitutes a priori knowledge itself, nor grounds a body of such knowledge. Indeed, Kant claims that, unlike the objective principles of cognition and of morality, this principle is a merely subjective principle, one needed and employed by subjects, but not properly applicable to objects; we may judge objects, Kant argues, only as if they are purposive.

Kant holds, likewise, that the two forms of judging that exhibit the principle of purposiveness, teleological and aesthetic judgment, do not comprise or ground any doctrine concerning objects. Kant argues that biologists not only do, but must, employ the concept of a natural purpose in their investigations of organisms. But this concept is a merely regulative concept, which is itself “inexplicable,” and does not truly explain organic functioning. Thus, by contrast to the way in which the principles of the CPR ground and license the “metaphysical” laws of nature of the MFNS, the principle of purposiveness does not license claims that there are teleological laws governing (organic) nature.

Aesthetic judgments do, Kant argues, have a priori validity: these judgments make justified claims to universality and necessity. Hence Kant identifies the CAJ, specifically his deduction of the universal validity of judgments of taste, as the core of the CJ project. Indeed, Kant claims that the principle of purposiveness is the principle not only of judgment, but also of pleasure, as is revealed specifically and paradigmatically in aesthetic pleasure. The validity of aesthetic judgments is, however, merely subjective: when one judges that an object is beautiful, one claims, justifiably, that all other subjects ought to judge the object likewise, with pleasure, without making any objective claims concerning that object. These judgments neither constitute nor ground a doctrine of beauty or a science of aesthetics: though they make justified universal claims, they are neither grounded upon rules or concepts of the object, nor can they ground any such rules.

The ambiguous, necessary, yet subjective – or “as if” – character of the principle of purposiveness, and thus of Kant’s project in the CJ, may explain, in part, the anomalous reception of this work. The CJ has prompted discussion, dissent, and emulation in the history and philosophy of biology, in scholarship on Kant’s philosophy of science or epistemology, and – most of all – in aesthetics. The CAJ is the focus of ever-increasing scholarship, and has been influential on further work in aesthetics, in providing a sharp formulation of a central problem – the justification of the subjectively universal claims of aesthetic judgments – and prompting further articulations of such key concepts as disinterested pleasure or beautiful form. Many thinkers, from Goethe to Cavell and Lyotard, have found the CJ appealing and provocative in its suggested visions of nature as organized or living, and of human subjectivity as fundamentally communicative or creative. But the CJ remains the least studied among Kant’s critical works. Unlike Kant’s other Critiques, this work has often been treated by scholars not as a unified work nor as central to Kant’s critical project, but rather piecemeal, as an aesthetics or philosophy of biology or a discussion of empirical knowledge. Nor, more broadly, has the CJ spawned new philosophical works on this combination of topics (beauty, biology, and empirical knowledge) or neo-Kantian “doctrine” concerning purposiveness.3

It has been argued, more strongly, that the CJ is a fundamentally disunified work, a collection of discussions treating distinct questions: whether judgments involving pleasure can justifiably require others’ agreement (the CAJ); whether or how we can attain a complete empirical science (the introductions); why and to what degree teleological explanation of organisms is justified (the CTJ).4 Kant’s attempt to unify these discussions by reference to the principle of purposiveness has been considered unsatisfactory, moreover, because it merely exploits the vagueness and ambiguity of this principle. Kant appears to employ this principle to mean, variously, the “as if” designedness by God, pleasureableness, suitability to cognitive purposes, and teleological causation, as is convenient in a particular context. Thus many scholars who attempt to connect Kant’s concerns in the CJ in some way do so independently of the principle of purposiveness: this principle is employed in teleological judgments of organisms, to be sure, but it is not the principle of reflective judgment, nor do its vague, ambiguous meanings help to construe Kant’s account of aesthetics.5

These are real problems: Kant’s principle of purposiveness is more ambiguous than Kant’s other a priori principles, Kant’s questions in this work less easily identifiable as core philosophical questions, let alone a single such question, than are those addressed in the other two Critiques (“What can I know?” and “What ought I to do?”). And the CJ, as Kant himself notes, is a work of tortuousness of expression extreme even for a Kantian text.

In this book, I shall attempt to justify Kant’s claims concerning the intention of this work and its integrity, by proposing a novel interpretation of Kant’s principle of purposiveness and thereby of the CJ as a whole. I shall argue that the work may, then, be understood precisely as presenting a sustained argument that this principle is the a priori, transcendental principle of judgment, a subjective yet necessary condition for the possibility of empirical knowledge.6 This principle is a necessary, transcendental principle of judging, I argue, because it makes our comprehension of order among natural diversity possible, for it is the form of the “unity of the diverse” as such, or “the lawfulness of the contingent.” The nature and functioning of this principle, as a principle of order among diversity, and of subjective abilities to discern such order, I argue, is developed in Kant’s two subsidiary Critiques. We attribute purposiveness to organisms in order to describe their unity of diversity, i.e., the organized interrelation of diverse parts in organic functioning; and in aesthetic judging we represent an object as unified precisely with respect to its diverse, sensible, contingent aspects. This principle is, however, a merely subjective and regulative principle because, first, given Kant’s theory of objective judgment, it cannot be applied justifiably to objects (whether organisms, beautiful objects, or natural objects in general), and therefore comprises and grounds no knowledge claim about them. Second, this principle is subjective in a positive sense: it serves as a structure of the subject’s practice of judging. That is, in order to explain how the subject can represent a unity of diversity, the subject must be understood as judging purposively without a purpose, or, I shall argue, as engaged in a future-directed anticipation of an indeterminate, non-conceptually ordered whole.

As I shall suggest, this reading not only allows one to understand the CJ as a unified project, but can also illuminate otherwise puzzling claims in Kant’s central discussions in this work. For example, by placing Kant’s treatment of biology in the context of an investigation of subjective judging activities concerning the diverse as such, this interpretation can identify what precisely, on Kant’s view, prompts and requires us to describe organisms in teleological terms (their unity of diversity). By drawing greater attention to Kant’s discussion of biological purposiveness, we may also gain a richer understanding of the nature and function of this principle in Kant’s accounts of aesthetic experience and of empirical knowledge. In both cases, Kant might seem to claim – and is often read to claim – that we find objects purposive because they are, vaguely, in some way suitable to us. Kant’s accounts of these forms of judging consequently appear rather abstract, unmoored from the character of objects and not substantively governed by the principle of purposiveness. By contrast, I shall suggest, both forms of judging ought to be understood as engaged with objects (respectively, the beautiful object, and the system of empirical concepts) that are represented as teleologically structured, and are so represented by an irreducibly teleological activity of judging.

In proposing this interpretation, I mean to justify Kant’s own claims concerning this work, and its principle, but I do not mean thereby to argue away the merely critical, problematic, or even philosophically marginal character of the CJ. As is suggested by his paradoxical phrase describing the principle of purposiveness – the “lawfulness of the contingent” – Kant’s central philosophical problem in the CJ is one that stands at the limits of Kantian philosophy: in the CJ, Kant attempts to explain how we may come to comprehend the empirically given, the particular, the contingent as such – i.e., precisely that which is marginal to, or lies beyond, the universal forms, concepts, or laws with which Kantian (and much other) philosophy is concerned.7 As I shall argue, Kant’s response to this question represents, too, a problematic, transitional moment within his critical project: in characterizing the subject as purposive without a purpose, Kant introduces a new conception of temporal, teleological subjectivity as a necessary ground for empirical knowledge, which points beyond his critical framework.

This interpretation may, then, explain the tortuousness of this text, and it can also indicate the historical significance of this work within the German philosophical tradition – not indeed as doctrinal, but as a pivotal moment in that tradition. For the CJ may be understood to comprise both a transformation of one of the core philosophical concepts in that tradition, that of teleology, and, thereby, a transitional link between the pre-Kantian rationalist metaphysics of perfection and the post-Kantian metaphysics of the subject.

Kant’s identification of purposiveness as the lawfulness of the contingent, or the form of unity of diversity, links Kant’s project in the CJ, first, to the German rationalist tradition. The constellation of topics Kant treats in the CJ – the order of nature as a whole in its contingent character, the normative standards that govern empirical concepts, the ontological unity of organisms, and the nature of sensibility in aesthetic experience – are all, on the rationalist view, cases of superior, paradigmatic order or unity, i.e., “perfection,” and are explained to be such because of God’s purposes.8

The rationalists hold that teleology – in the form of rational choice in accord with purposes – is necessary in order to explain the existence and specific nature of the contingent, to explain why these possible things exist or are actual rather than others. For choice concerns contingent (possible but not necessary) options, and provides a reason why one of these options is actual – not only because it was chosen, but also because it is good: the rational agent chooses in accord with purposes, because something is good. On the rationalist view, the most decisive rational agent is God, whose choice explains the contingent character of the world as a whole: this world is as it is, in its contingent character, because God chose it, and God so chose because this is the best of all possible worlds. Such purposive choice, moreover, not only provides a rational explanation for (i.e., “lawfulness” of) the contingent, but also engenders a unity of diversity in the world: this is the best of all possible worlds because it contains the most reality, or is the harmony of the greatest multiplicity (diversity); in Wolffian terms, it is perfect.

For the rationalists, perfection (as harmony of multiplicity) functions, moreover, as an ontological standard concerning the unity of individual things, and an epistemic standard for our representations in ways that echo Kant’s concerns in the CJ. A true individual, a truly unified object, is one in which all of the parts serve the whole, for reasons, by design. The rationalists famously identify the soul (or monad) as the true ontological individual, but organisms are also favored examples of objects that are truly unified (harmonies of multiplicity), as opposed to mere aggregates. God’s ordering of the world grounds epistemic norms as well. It licenses investigation of nature guided by teleological concepts, indeed suggests that contingent things are most satisfactorily so explained. Thus, for example, Leibniz argues that in investigating nature, we may assume that nature takes the most efficient, most comprehensible course. Perfection also characterizes the best form of knowledge, to which we aspire, viz., God’s knowledge of a thing, a fully articulated, rationally interconnected cognition of the object or of nature as a whole, in all its contingent (as well as necessary) aspects. Finally, for the rationalists, our representation of the beautiful is a sensible version of such ideal rational knowledge, a sensible representation of an object as an interconnected, unified whole in its sensible character.

As is well known, in the CPR Kant sharply opposes all but one of these rationalist doctrines. Our knowledge, Kant argues, should not be understood as an approximation to God’s knowledge, but as different in kind: we are not intuitive intellects (as God is thought to be), but discursive intellects, who must receive information sensibly, and who organize and comprehend such information by “reflection,” by forming and then using discursive concepts or universal, relatively abstract rules. Therefore, the rationalist standard of perfect knowledge – knowledge of objects through fully individualized concepts, in which all of the properties of the object are derivable from that concept – is an illegitimate standard for human knowledge. In claiming that truly unified objects are fully determinate, rationally interconnected, individual wholes, Kant argues moreover, the rationalists illegitimately render our “mere” forms of reflection, our logical forms of organizing empirical concepts, as a substantive, metaphysical concept of a thing.9

On Kant’s view, then, the rationalists propound an in principle unreachable goal for human cognition, and a corresponding, illegitimate ontology, for they fail to recognize the distinctive character of human cognition, specifically the distinct characters and roles of our receptive sensibility and discursive understanding. Correspondingly, Kant famously argues, the rationalists “intellectualize” sensibility, taking it (wrongly) to be merely “confused,” proto-rational representation. A fortiori, then, the rationalists are wrong to understand our apprehension of beauty as a sensibly perfect representation, for this understanding rests both on the (wrong) conception of our rational cognition as similar to God’s knowledge (perfect), and on the (also wrong) conception of sensible representation as confused rational representation. Indeed, the rationalist concept of perfection is itself, Kant argues, too vague, alone, to guide our judgments: we require a concept – of a kind of object or of the moral good – in order to judge that something is perfect, viz., is a good instance of that kind, has the multiplicity of properties that satisfy those conceptually specified requirements. The concept of perfection may not, then, serve as an a priori first principle, whether of ontology or for epistemology.

Kant argues too that the rationalists make illegitimate assumptions concerning our abilities to know God’s intentions. The principle of teleological ordering of nature may, Kant allows, guide our investigation of nature as a “regulative principle.” (This is the one respect in which Kant concurs in the CPR with the rationalist view sketched above, and it plays, too, a large role in the CJ.) But we may not claim to know that nature is teleologically ordered, by God’s choice. What we can know a priori is that nature or the sum of all objects presented in space and time is governed by the formal laws that render space and time and the objects therein unified. Because Kant takes these laws to ground a mechanistic physics, the nature that we can and do know may, more specifically, be said to be Newtonian in character. The rest is a matter of empirical cognition, of contingent fact.

In the CJ, however, Kant seems to recognize that this conception of nature – and of our cognition of it – leaves out salient aspects of our experience that testify to a greater order than that established by mechanical laws; such laws give us no ground to expect, as Kant emphasizes, that nature be beautiful or contain organisms. These more highly unified and articulated experiences or entities might promise, too, that we may aspire to greater knowledge of natural order and that we may conceive of nature in the consoling terms of the rationalists, as a world pervasively rational and meaningful, organized in accord with purposes.

Consistently with his philosophical commitments, however, in the CJ Kant does not endorse a metaphysical claim that there are purposes in nature, much less that these are God’s purposes – a critical limitation expressed in Kant’s conclusions concerning the merely subjective status of the principle of purposiveness, to which I alluded above. We do not know, and cannot objectively claim anything concerning, the purposes of nature. Likewise, Kant identifies purposiveness not as an ontological characteristic of objects or nature, but as an epistemic principle that governs the unity of representations or judgments.

Kant’s reformulation of rationalist teleology as the subjective, epistemic principle of purposiveness not only reflects his critical commitments, but also has substantive, transformative effects on the concept of teleology itself. On Kant’s account, purposiveness is a principle by which human subjects render comprehensible that which is not immediately comprehensible to us – viz., whatever intelligibility there might be in the empirically given world beyond that which derives from our a priori concepts. Thus, first, Kant places emphasis not on the purpose of the object, i.e., the good it serves, the reason why it exists or why a rational agent created it, but, rather, on the kind of order a purpose constitutes among parts or properties of an object, i.e., an order of diversity and of contingency. As a result, on Kant’s view, we may and do represent such order in cases where we cannot identify any purpose for the object, i.e., in aesthetic and teleological judging, wherein we represent objects as complex unities of diversity, even though we do not identify a good (purpose) that the ordered parts are meant to serve.

Correspondingly, Kant takes this purposive ordering not to be engendered by an agent acting according to a prior reason (God acting in accord with the good), but to be represented by a subject’s purposive activity of judging without a purpose, i.e., by the subject who aims at an unspecified end. Thus Kant both transforms the concept of teleology and narrows its (proper) extension: Kant’s concept of purposiveness without a purpose is teleology not in the sense of serving a previously identified good, but of aiming towards an indeterminate future end, and this new form of teleology characterizes only and specifically human, judging subjects. Such purposiveness does not characterize the non-human natural world, for material nature cannot, on Kant’s view, be understood so to “strive” for the future, towards an indeterminate end. Nor does this purposiveness characterize

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Meet the Author

Rachel Zuckert is Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Northwestern University.

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