Skip to content
BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter June 9, 2022

Culture and the Unity of Kant’s Critique of Judgment

  • Sabina Vaccarino Bremner EMAIL logo


This paper claims that Kant’s conception of culture provides a new means of understanding how the two parts of the Critique of Judgment fit together. Kant claims that culture is both the ‘ultimate purpose’ of nature and to be defined in terms of ‘art in general’ (of which the fine arts are a subtype). In the Critique of Teleological Judgment, culture, as the last empirically cognizable telos of nature, serves as the mediating link between nature and freedom, while in the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, the connection between art and morality passes through culture. In either case, Kant offers distinct, yet interdependent, arguments for how culture demonstrates the amenability of nature to its supersensible ground: the central question Kant claims in the Introduction that the work seeks to answer. Thus, not only does this account advance a concept essential to both parts of the work; it also demonstrates how the two parts can be conceived as complementary, with each supplementing the other to solve Kant’s central question. As such, understanding the Critique of Judgment in terms of culture enables us to see how the two parts of the work do not merely share points of similarity or common themes, but presuppose one another in order to understand how nature is amenable to freedom.

1 Introduction

In the Introduction to the Critique of Judgment (KU),[1] Kant claims that his first two Critiques have left a problem unresolved. While the first Critique successfully showed that the coexistence of the sensible and supersensible domains can be conceived without contradiction and the second Critique that the supersensible can have practical reality, these conclusions have left open an “incalculable gulf” between the two domains: the domain of nature and the domain of freedom (AA, V: 175). The first two Critiques left open a point of tension by concluding both that theoretical cognition of the sensible world cannot be extended to the supersensible “just as if there were so many different worlds”, and that freedom should have practical reality in the sensible world (AA, V: 176). But this creates a problem: the possibility of the supersensible’s effect on the sensible must inform our theoretical cognition of nature; the “lawfulness” in nature’s form must be conceived as “at least in agreement” with the ends of free will (AA, V: 176). Kant situates the project of the Third Critique as offering a response to this problem, showing how the power of judgment can think the “unity” of or “transition” from the supersensible grounding nature to the supersensible contained in the concept of freedom, constituting a “bridge”, “intermediary”, or “mediating concept” between the two (AA, V: 176, 195, 177, 196).[2]

Making sense of how the KU responds to this problem is complicated by the fact that the work is split into two seemingly disconnected halves, the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment (KaU) and the Critique of Teleological Judgment (KtU), which some scholars have taken to advance two distinct, largely unrelated lines of argument (White Beck 1969, 496–8, Guyer 1979, 65). Yet, in the Introduction, Kant appears to characterize the operations of both aesthetic and teleological judgment as contributing to a shared aim. In each instance, the task of the power of judgment is represented as singular rather than plural: not that of providing or constituting two distinct ‘mediating concepts’, ‘intermediaries’, or points of ‘transition’, but one mediating concept, intermediary, transition. Call this the transition problem of the Critique of Judgment.

Indeed, scholars have increasingly turned to what they have called the ‘question’ or ‘problem’ of the ‘unity’ of the two halves of the work, advancing several prominent proposals for its unifying theme. Call this the unity problem of the Critique of Judgment. Ginsborg 2014 suggests ‘normative purposiveness’; Zuckert 2007 ‘purposiveness without a purpose’; Allison 2001, while professing agnosticism on the general question of the work’s unity, nevertheless alludes to the ‘purposiveness of nature.’[3] Yet, because these proposals have generally been conceived in abstraction from the central and unified task Kant situates for reflective judgment in both its aesthetic and teleological guises, they have established points of commonality or “common threads” (Ginsborg 2014, 228) between the two halves, rather than cohesive responses to this more general question. Zuckert, for example, claims that purposiveness without a purpose is what allows us to think “the unity of the diverse” of both biological and aesthetic phenomena (Zuckert 2007, 24); Ginsborg that normative purposiveness allows us to see that “aesthetic and biological purposiveness are applications of a single underlying concept,” and therefore that the two parts of the work “represent aspects of a single project” (Ginsborg 2014, 228). But establishing that purposiveness is common to the two parts, or that its treatment in either part can reciprocally inform the subject matter of the other part, does not yet explain how purposiveness relates to the problem of thinking the transition from nature to freedom stated as the task of the power of judgment in the Introduction. In other words, we cannot solve the unity problem without first taking up the transition problem.

In light of the transition problem, the unity problem might be reformulated as referring to the following interpretive question: how does either half contribute to a unified answer to the KU’s more general problem of the transition from nature to freedom? That is, we face the task of explaining at once the work’s general thesis for how both aesthetic and teleological judgment mediate from thinking the sensible to the supersensible, and the connection between these two seemingly distinct lines of argument: two separate, but interrelated, interpretive tasks.

As I understand the problem of unity, Kant situates each half as cooperating to give one answer to the transition problem. By characterizing the task of the power of judgment in general – both aesthetic and teleological – as the ‘intermediary’, or thinking the ‘transition’, between the two domains, Kant suggests that the two, despite their distinct domains, share a singular, unified aim. By abstracting the unity problem from the transition problem, the candidates for the unifying concept advanced so far have fallen short of demonstrating what this singular aim, so understood, could be.[4]

While I do not claim to conclusively resolve these intractable interpretive problems in this paper, they do inform the account I will advance of the role of culture in each half of the Third Critique. The role of culture has so far been overlooked with respect to both the unity and transition problems, perhaps because it has been regarded as marginal to the work’s function as a critique, namely to examine the power of judgment’s claim to an a priori principle.[5] Nevertheless, considering the role of culture in relation to both problems is instructive: as I show in this paper, Kant’s full account of culture extends over both halves of the work, where its treatment in each half crucially relies on aspects of its treatment in the other half, and where, in either instance, Kant’s account centrally involves reflective judgment’s role in thinking the transition from nature to freedom. In the KtU, culture is positioned as what teleological judgment must posit in order to transition from the externally purposive chain of nature to the unconditioned purpose outside this chain: the morally acting human subject (in other words, in order to think the transition from nature to freedom). In the KaU, culture characterizes the process by which aesthetic judgment thinks the transition by associating sensible representations with moral ideas, naming the morally significant effects of doing so on the empirical subject’s acquisition of moral character.

Culture is thus represented both as what the power of judgment posits in order to think the transition from the supersensible in nature to that in freedom, and as the process by which this transition actually takes place. Clearly, in order for this proposal to shed light on the prospect of unifying the two parts of the KU, the task of harmonizing nature and freedom is to be taken on the “empirical-anthropological level”, as Allison has suggested (Allison 2001, 205). More precisely, Gardner affirms that in the KU Kant “is concerned with the success conditions of the worldly moral enterprise”, since “the moral agent […] has been left adrift by the two earlier Critiques, in so far as each of these has merely sought to account for its own domain, without coordinating them” (Gardner 2016, 4 f.). And Zammito interprets “the one ultimate and persistent problem” in the KU as how the human subject could “reconcile his self-conception as noumenally free with his knowledge of his own natural materiality” (Zammito 1992, 267) – that is, how the autonomous moral agent and the empirically conditioned human being can relate within the order of nature.

A lack of assurance of the prospect of bridging this gulf in theoretical cognition – even in merely subjective terms – puts in danger our own practical motivation, as potential moral subjects, to realize our freedom. If the transition between nature and freedom remains unthinkable in theoretical terms, as an anthropological matter, it is easier to convince oneself that moral action is an unrealistic, abstract possibility, unable to lastingly affect the order of nature. As Rohlf has suggested, “The problem of explaining […] how it is possible to begin developing a moral disposition is precisely the problem Kant has in mind in the Introduction to the third Critique” (Rohlf 2008, 342) when he speaks of the incalculable gulf between freedom and nature.

An implication of my proposal is that the KU is situated as a work centrally about what certain commentators have postulated as the ‘anthropological basis’ of Kant’s ethics (cf. Wood 1991, 1999, 2003) or the empirical cultivation of virtue (cf. Herman 1993, 2007). That is, Kant’s philosophy of history and his conception of socialized human subjectivity help to elucidate the connection between the two halves of the work. Yet this option has been left largely unaddressed in the literature, both by commentators proposing a unifying concept for the KU,[6] and by commentators on Kant’s anthropology and account of moral character.[7]

This paper is therefore concerned to show how each of these links in the chain between nature, culture, and morality obtain, and what the implications of these relations are. My argument proceeds as follows: Sections 2 and 3 trace Kant’s argument for positioning culture in the KtU as the ‘ultimate purpose’ of nature, concluding that Kant’s account of this connection is helpfully fleshed out by the role of culture in the account of aesthetic judgment advanced in the KaU. Thus, Section 4 turns to the KaU, showing that the process by which aesthetic judgment constitutes a bridge from nature (empirical subjectivity) to freedom (morality) is also characterized in terms of ‘culture’, in a way similarly elucidated by the social, historical sense of culture of the KtU – particularly in the relation of aesthetic judgment to communicability and sociability.

On these grounds, Section 5 contests two central points in the secondary literature that have obscured the role I attribute to culture with respect to the two interrelated unity and transition problems. Against the general consensus that Kant’s views shift away from grounding taste in the empirical conditions of sociability in favor of attributing a purely a priori principle to taste, I claim that the nature of Kant’s shift has been misunderstood. Against the ‘asocial’ or individualistic conception of culture, I advance an explicitly social conception of culture with both individual and collective dimensions. Section 6 concludes with a final assessment of the relation between taste, culture, and moral actualization.

2 Culture as the Ultimate Purpose of Nature in the Critique of Teleological Judgment

I will begin by working my way backwards from Kant’s introduction of the concept of ‘culture’ in the KtU. In § 83, Kant identifies culture as the ‘ultimate purpose’ [Endzweck] of nature, “the purpose by reference to which all other natural things constitute a system of purposes” (AA, V: 429). Why? Kant tells us that the ultimate purpose of nature is to be found in the human being, as the entity which has the dual aspects of being both natural and free; if this is the case, the only candidate for the ultimate purpose has to be “that which is to be promoted as a purpose through the human being’s connection to nature” (AA, V: 430). This, Kant tells us, is “culture”, or “the production of the aptitude of a rational being for any purposes in general (thus those of his freedom)” (AA, V: 431). Thus, culture just is the aptitude for acquiring and carrying out purposes in general, including purposes ‘of freedom’.

But what is an ‘ultimate purpose’ of nature? An ultimate purpose would be the culminating purpose still to be found within nature itself, contrasting with the final purpose [letzter Zweck] of nature, which, Kant tells us, is not to be sought “within nature at all” – and thus must ultimately lie in the supersensible (AA, V: 431). The ultimate purpose, then, as the final link in the natural chain of purposes, mediates between nature as a system of purposes and its final purpose external to it.

Are we justified in concluding that nature has an ultimate purpose, and, relatedly, that it composes a system of purposes in the first place? This requires us first to consider why Kant thinks we can conclude that nature has a final purpose. Kant’s argument to this effect depends on two distinct concepts: external and internal purposiveness. It is external purposiveness between natural entities, where “one thing of nature serves another as a means to a purpose”, that leads us to the thought of each entity as a link to some further entity, in a natural chain (AA, V: 425). However, it is internal purposiveness, within a given natural organism, that leads us to the thought that all of nature might serve some final purpose – because it is only internally purposive organisms that constitute “natural purposes” [Naturzwecke] (AA, V: 378).

To unpack this, consider internal purposiveness: purposiveness within a natural organism, or an “organized and self-organized being” (AA, V: 374). Every part composing a bird, for example, is at once both means and end, such that the bird is “cause and effect of itself” and nothing within it is “in vain, purposeless, or to be ascribed to a blind mechanism of nature” (AA, V: 370, 376). Thus, when considering the anatomy of birds, we might say that their hollow bones, the positioning of their wings, and the structure of their tails all exist in order to enable them to fly; no organ or natural process within such an organism serves a function extraneous to the whole (AA, V: 360). Each part (wings, bones, tail) only exists because the whole (the bird) exists, yet the whole can only exist if each part composing it contributes to its general maintenance. The parts and the whole therefore both reciprocally ‘cause’ each other and exist as ‘effects’ of each other. Such natural beings appear to be perfectly designed but have no discernible designer. Indeed, unlike an object that really is a (known) product of design, such as a wristwatch, a ‘natural purpose’ demonstrates abilities (such as self-reparation, self-regeneration, or spontaneous movement) above and beyond what a humanly produced object can achieve.

It is the (merely “regulative”) judgment of a natural purpose that first provides the thought of a purpose of nature [Zweck der Natur] in § 65: “Organized beings are […] the only beings in nature that, even when considered by themselves and apart from any relation to other things, must still be thought of as possible only as purposes of nature. It is these beings, therefore, which first give objective reality to the concept of a purpose that is a purpose of nature” (AA, V: 376). Kant’s thought here seems to be that there is no way to think of the perfection of even “the internal form of a mere blade of grass” as arbitrary or unintentional; the only way its existence is humanly intelligible is as a purposive being, or product of design (AA, V: 378). Kant subsequently claims that “this concept of a natural purpose leads us necessarily to the idea of all of nature as a system in terms of the rule of purposes” (AA, V: 378 f.). But if the thought of a natural purpose leads us to think of a purpose of nature, how is this connected to the thought of ‘nature as a (purposive) system’? Kant elaborates that the only way to make sense of the perfection of natural organisms is in terms of subjective maxims related to nature as a whole, rather than objective explanations, such as: “Everything in the world is good for something or other; nothing in it is gratuitous” (AA, V: 379). Thus, in order for the perfection, self-organization, and purposiveness that we (regulatively) attribute to natural organisms to be intelligible, the same attributes must be thought in relation to nature generally. Just as an organism such as a bird constitutes a teleologically ordered system, so must nature (§ 67); just as such an organism appears to be “self-organizing”, nature, too, “organizes itself” (AA, V: 374 f.).

Thus, the internal purposiveness of natural organisms helps us to vindicate the external purposiveness inherent in the thought of the systematicity of nature. ‘Externally purposive relations’ consist, for example, in thinking that “the grass is necessary for the livestock, just as the latter is necessary to the human being as the means for his existence”, comprising a chain of natural links, such as the grass or the livestock, which each serve some other link higher up (AA, V: 378). Since each link is only necessary relative to some other link, the complete chain of links must be necessary in order for thinking of nature in this way to be legitimate. The problem, however, is that it is unclear whether the final link in the chain is necessary: “One does not see why it is necessary that human beings exist”, since it seems unclear which further natural being they serve (AA, V: 378). As a result, the chain cannot arrive at “any categorical end, but all of this purposive relation rests on a condition that is always to be found further on” (AA, V: 378). Since this final condition must be “unconditioned”, the very concept of a final condition “lies entirely outside of the physical-teleological way of considering the world” (AA, V: 378). But then it cannot be a natural purpose, either, since it is no longer within nature. Indeed, Kant concludes, this does appear to be the case: “Even if we go through all of nature, we still do not find in it, as nature, any being that could claim the distinction of being the final purpose of creation [Endzweck der Natur]” (AA, V: 426).

Thus, if nature is a system of purposes, it does not serve some purpose internal to it, but an external final purpose. Nature, taken as a whole, much like the relations among its constitutive parts, is a means to some other end. The final purpose of nature, then, since it isn’t empirical, can’t be known by us. As a result, the question of a next-best option arises: what is the final point, still within nature, and therefore the final link still within the empirical domain, that has to be conceived as mediating between nature and the supersensible purpose for nature’s existence? This next-best, penultimate point is what Kant identifies as the ‘ultimate purpose’ of nature, and will subsequently attribute to ‘culture’.

3 Why Is Culture the Ultimate Purpose?:Three Proposals

If Kant thinks we are licensed to conclude that nature has purposes, how does this implicate culture as the ‘ultimate’ purpose? First, consider Kant’s argument for the final purpose of nature. Kant reiterates that the final end of nature as a system must be “unconditioned”, and therefore located outside the entire natural order of conditions, or purposes (AA, V: 435). This is due to the fact, Kant claims, that a “final end of an intelligent cause necessarily […] must be such that in the order of ends it is dependent on no further condition than merely the idea of it” (AA, V: 435). In order to escape the relativity of external purposiveness, a mode of thinking of nature reliant merely on subjective maxims rather than on an objective ground, this natural chain must culminate in something of unconditional value, namely, freedom or morality. Thus, Kant attributes the final purpose to “the human being, though considered as noumenon”, that is, the human being as moral subject, since this is the “only natural being in whom we can nevertheless cognize [erkennen], as part of his own constitution, a supersensible capacity (freedom)” (AA, V: 435). It is because the human subject is at once empirical, subject to the conditions of nature, and noumenal, since she can nevertheless choose to act in accordance with her supersensible capacity for freedom, that the human being, under her noumenal, moral aspect, can be judged to be the final purpose.

This point relates to the prior discussion of natural means-ends relations in § 67, since Kant concludes there that any given means-end chain necessarily culminates in the human subject. The same conclusion is reached whenever we consider what purpose is served by any given natural entity. Thus, if we consider what the purpose for the ‘vegetable kingdom’ might be, we might answer ‘for the animal kingdom’ it nourishes. Yet this does not give us a conclusive answer, since the same question can merely be re-posed: why do “herbivorous animals” exist? (AA, V: 426 f.). This chain of questions, Kant claims, must always end with the “human being”, since “he is the only being on earth who forms a concept of ends for himself and who by means of his reason can make a system of ends out of an aggregate of purposively formed things” (AA, V: 427). The human being, unlike anything else in nature, can utilize any given natural entity to ingenious ends: sustenance, clothing, housing, and so on. As a result, any particular natural chain, no matter if grass-livestock, vegetable-omnivore-carnivore, or any other grouping of means-ends relations among natural beings, culminates in the human being. The human being constitutes the only plausible candidate in nature for a purposive agent, a being who can form a concept of a given purpose or intention and act on it. Consequently, the human being is the “ultimate purpose” of nature: the last purpose in any chain of external purposes that can still be cognized empirically (AA, V: 427).

However, the connection here, between the human being as culmination of means-end chains and the morally acting human being as final, unconditioned purpose of nature, remains incomplete. If ‘culture’ is to serve as the link connecting the chain of nature to the moral subject, it must be the cultivation of morality. Yet, on the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be any straightforward connection between morality and the ability to utilize any natural object towards a given end, and Kant seems not to give us a direct line of argument for what the connection might be. What is missing is an account showing how the ‘culture’ Kant has in mind fits the criterion of the culture of moral disposition. To anticipate my course of argument, Kant offers a much more detailed account of the connection between culture and moral preparation in the KaU, one that fruitfully fills in the argument he advances in the KtU.

Thus, I will now show why culture cannot be conclusively understood as the ultimate end connecting nature to freedom in the KtU in abstraction from the account of culture Kant advances in the KaU. To show this, we can consider the candidates offered in the KtU for how culture and freedom might relate. On Kant’s first formulation, culture just is the human subject’s innate capacity to act on her understanding in accordance with freely chosen purposes. Culture, on this view, consists in the human subject’s “aptitude and skill for pursuing various purposes for which he can use nature (outside or within him)” (AA, V: 430). Thus, the concept of culture analytically contains the following characteristics of the human subject in general:

Man is indeed the only being on earth that has understanding and hence an ability to set himself purposes of his own choice […] and if we regard nature as a teleological system, then it is man’s vocation to be the ultimate purpose of nature, but always subject to a condition: he must have the understanding and the will to give both nature and himself reference to a purpose that can be independent of nature, self-sufficient, and [thus] a final purpose. (AA, V: 430)

This conception of culture appears to be no different from the rational capacities found in all human subjects. That is, barring certain exceptions, all human beings have ‘understanding’ [Verstand], and thus the use of concepts; relatedly, human beings have the ability to voluntarily set themselves purposes, by forming a concept of purposes and acting on them; finally, from the raw material of the teleological system formed by nature, the ‘aggregate of purposively formed things’, all human beings have the ability to spontaneously create a ‘system of purposes’ as they refashion nature in accordance with human interests. Thus, Kant identifies the “capacity for acting in accordance with purposes” with culture, but also characterizes this capacity as equivalent to having “a will” (AA, V: 370).

The problem with this interpretation of culture is that it appears extraneous to the story relating purposiveness in general to morality. That is, if all culture apparently consists in are the rational faculties (understanding, will, purposive action) already found in all human subjects, it seems unclear in what sense culture is supposed to ‘mediate’ between nature and freedom. If what makes the human being the ‘lord of nature’ is the fact that one has a will, or the capacity to act purposively in accordance with one’s understanding, it would seem not to matter whether one attempts to develop this capacity or not. After all, the analysis provided in the KrV of the cognitive faculties of the human subject bears no explicit mention of culture as a condition of possibility. Thus, it remains unclear what culture specifically adds to the subject’s innate capacity to act in accordance with her will or understanding.

Another candidate might have something to do with the way in which the arbitrary purposiveness of human subjects seems to comprise a domain of choice, thereby offering a manifestation of human freedom. The human being, in her capacity to choose new purposes, at the same time shows that she can depart from the deterministic ordering of nature altogether. While a woodpecker cannot be said to have chosen to burrow holes into trees, the ways in which humans utilize nature are arbitrary in a way that demonstrates their freedom: “The human being, through the freedom of his causality, finds things in nature completely advantageous for his often foolish aims (colorful bird feathers for the decoration of his clothing, colored soils or juices of plants for painting himself)” (AA, V: 368). In this respect, the human being’s “own arbitrary inspirations” were “by no means predestined by nature” (AA, V: 368). The free action of the human subject contrasts starkly with the necessity that characterizes the means-end relations between all other natural entities; only the human subject can choose a given means-end relation and thus stand in relation to an in principle indefinite number of means-end chains. The domain of choice the human subject thereby produces is, at the same time, a domain of freedom.

This response gets us a bit closer to understanding how to get from general purposiveness to moral actualization. However, it is still incomplete, since there is nothing in the mere fact of choosing various purposes and refashioning nature towards human benefit that prepares human subjects to act morally: utilizing wood to construct a house doesn’t seem to have much to do with acting on the categorical imperative. As a result, it’s not clear what this ‘purposive’ capacity to repurpose natural artifacts has to do with morality.[8]

Kant next, however, qualifies and reformulates his initial definition of culture, and on this basis, rejects one of the ‘dead ends’ we considered above: that a mere aptitude or ‘skill’ must be posited in teleological judgment’s mediation from nature to freedom. First, Kant tells us that culture’s function is specifically to prepare the human subject to be moral: “That which nature is capable of doing in order to prepare [vorbereiten] [the subject] for what he must himself do in order to be a final end is culture [Kultur]” (AA, V: 431). Thus, as we concluded above, culture must enable the human subject to go beyond the initial capacities endowed to her by nature. Second, on this basis, Kant’s initial definition of culture is slightly, yet crucially, reformulated: ‘culture’ no longer refers only to the aptitude of acting purposively; it is now “the production of the aptitude of a rational being for any ends in general (thus those of his freedom)” (AA, V: 431; my italics). That is, culture can no longer be identified merely with an innate capacity, mere ‘aptitude’, or ‘skill’; it now refers to a process or undertaking by which that aptitude is shaped.

With this reformulation in place, Kant can now newly qualify his initial remarks on culture’s role in our moral edification. As originally formulated, culture was equivalent to a ‘skill’, specifically the ‘skill for pursuing various purposes for which [humans] can use nature’. However, Kant now rejects the notion that promoting skill alone is sufficient for moral edification: “Not every kind of culture is adequate for this ultimate end of nature. The culture of skill [Kultur der Geschicklichkeit] is certainly the foremost subjective condition of aptitude for the promotion of ends in general; but it is still not sufficient for promoting the will in the determination and choice of its ends” (AA, V: 432). As we noted above, it’s unclear why a skill for, say, building houses necessarily facilitates moral actualization.

Instead, what is needed for moral realization, Kant says, is that we be inculcated with the propensity to act on the correct purposes. The fulfillment of this condition is what Kant now terms “the culture of training (discipline) [Kultur der Zucht (Disziplin)]”, which “consists in the liberation of the will from the despotism of desires” that render us “incapable of choosing for ourselves” (AA, V: 431). Discipline, then, is a “negative” endeavor, by which we are made capable of separating our rational wills from animalistic inclinations (AA, V: 432). It is this aspect of ‘culture’ which more directly relates nature to freedom, since it trains us to “develop our humanity”, our rationality (AA, V: 433). In so doing, and drawing on the biological connotations of Zucht (a term that can also mean ‘cultivation’ or ‘breeding’, as of agriculture or livestock[9]), “we find nature acting purposively” (AA, V: 433).

Here, it appears, we have settled on a conception of culture as an important inflection point in thinking the transition from nature to freedom. How, exactly, is this to be achieved? Kant informs us that, through discipline, nature “strives to give us an education [Ausbildung] that makes us receptive to purposes higher than those that nature itself can provide” (AA, V: 433). This ‘education’ consists in the “fine arts and sciences”:

Nature within us pursues the purpose of making room for the development of our humanity […]. For we have the fine arts and sciences, which involve a universally communicable pleasure as well as elegance and refinement for society, and through these they make man, not indeed morally better [sittlich] for life in society, but still amenable to it [gesittet]: they make great headway against the tyranny of man’s propensity to the senses, and so prepare him for a sovereignty in which reason alone is to dominate. (AA, V: 433)

Kant’s characterization of the function of the arts[10] in this passage involves three crucial points: first, the function of the arts is to ‘civilize’ (or ‘culture’) the human subject; second, this ‘civilizing’ function is distinctive, in that it is something other than practical (the arts do not necessarily make man ‘morally better for life in society’); but, third, it is nevertheless related to the practical, in that it ‘prepares’ the subject for morality and quells the inclinations that comprise his nature (‘man’s propensity to the senses’).

How does art’s function take on these three aspects? Here, Kant cites several points. First, he mentions the ‘development of our humanity’ by which our animalistic inclinations are curbed. Next, he cites the fact that art involves a ‘suitability and sophistication for society’ [Geschliffenheit und Verfeinerung für die Gesellschaft]. Finally, Kant refers to the notion that the arts elicit a ‘universally communicable pleasure’.

However, it is not yet explained why any of these criteria, ‘humanity’, ‘suitability for society’, or ‘universal communicability’, relate to morality. In the case of ‘humanity’, it remains unclear which aspect of being human needs to be ‘developed’. Similarly, it’s not clear why ‘suitability and sophistication for society’ foster morality, nor the ‘universal communicability’ of a pleasure – particularly when Kant has so far emphasized the need to distance oneself from sensuous inclinations. Thus, the account we get in the KtU of the arts’ relation to morality, as a form of ‘culture’, still appears incomplete.

4 Culture and Moral Actualization in the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment

In the KaU, Kant says more about the connection between culture, beauty, and morality, suggesting – with the extension of the explanation from the KtU to the KaU – that culture could help elucidate the unity problem as well as the transition problem. Thus, while I have established that Kant’s discussion in the KtU of culture’s relation to morality refers to the morally edifying function of the arts, I need to examine this from the other direction. In what sense is aesthetic judgment of beauty a mode of ‘culture’, and how does this account relate to the conclusion reached in § 83? Moreover, does this account explain how aesthetic judgment thinks the transition from nature to morality, thereby shedding light on the transition problem? As we will see in this and the following section, Kant’s response to these questions invokes the same terms as § 83: universal communicability, humanity, and society.

A few remarks on my focus on artistic beauty over natural beauty on what follows. First, Kant restricts his usage of Kultur in the KaU to refer to the effects of the arts, whereas the aesthetic effects of nature instead often presuppose ‘culture’. The only exception is to be found in one passage where Kant also refers to the beauty of nature as a form of culture:

In the aesthetic part it was said that we would look on nature with favor insofar as we have an entirely free (disinterested) satisfaction in its form. For in this mere judgment of taste there is no regard for the end for which these natural beauties exist, whether to arouse pleasure in us or without any relation to us as ends. In a teleological judgment, however, we do attend to this relation, and then we can regard it as a favor of nature that by means of the exhibition of so many beautiful shapes it would promote culture. (AA, V: 380; final emphasis mine)

While this passage is not found in the KaU, but in a footnote in the KtU, it nevertheless suggests that aesthetic experience of nature is also comprised in culture. However, since the preponderance of textual references to ‘culture’ invoke artistic objects, it seems that what Kant principally has in mind are the effects of the arts on the subject, rather than nature. I will therefore focus on Kant’s account of how aesthetic judgment of the fine arts can be said to involve ‘thinking the transition’, and the role culture plays in this account. However, I leave open the possibility that a parallel account could be provided of how nature also cultures subjects by way, perhaps, of its role as a symbol of morality, putting greater emphasis on § 59 (whereas, here, I emphasize § 49).

Such an account, however, would need to take into consideration that aesthetic experiences of nature require that the subject think of nature in analogy to art,[11] which Kant reiterates throughout the KU (AA XX, 200 f., 215, 251, AA V: 370, 375).[12] The concept posited, as the power of judgment attempts to grasp the transition from nature to the morally good in the aesthetic domain (as Kant suggests in § 59), would then seemingly need to pass through the domain of what Kant calls ‘art in general’, or the culture of skill, of which I say more below.

Second, important aspects of the aesthetic experience of nature, such as the sublime or the intellectual interest in natural beauty, presuppose culture as a precondition for thinking the transition, rather than themselves constituting culture in doing so.[13] For example, Kant asserts repeatedly that the experience of the dynamical sublime in particular is only possible if the subject is already cultured: “Without the development of moral ideas, that which we, prepared by culture [Kultur], call sublime will appear merely repellent to the unrefined [rohen] person” (§ 29, AA V: 265). The sublime is therefore contingent upon a process of culture already underway. Kant writes that “the judgment on the sublime in nature requires culture [Kultur] (more so than that on the beautiful)”, and that we therefore “presuppose it in everyone who has any culture [Kultur]” (AA, V: 265). Kultur describes what the dynamical sublime requires of a given subject, not its effects on the subject.[14] Thus, Kant’s account of such experiences does little to elucidate what culture as such is, or involves – the question left open by the KtU.

Many commentators have argued that it is the aesthetic experience of nature over art that holds moral significance for Kant (Allison 2001; Guyer 1982, 1993). If the form of preparation nature provides in these instances is not itself ‘culture’, but potentially even more morally significant than culture, the connection between culture and moral development may be left looking tenuous. However, for the purposes of my argument, I do not need to show that culture is better suited for moral preparation.[15] I need to show instead, first, that as judgment attempts to cognize the transition from nature to freedom, as this process is represented in either half of the KU, culture names the inflection point between the two (responding to the transition problem); and second, that culture occupies this role in both parts of the KU (responding to the unity problem). I have shown the role it plays in the KtU; now I will examine the role it plays in the KaU.

Kant suggests that the beautiful arts can maintain their status as beautiful only if they involve thinking ‘moral ideas’.[16] Kant claims, “If the beautiful arts are not combined, whether closely or at a distance, with moral ideas, which alone carry with them a self-sufficient satisfaction, then the latter [charm or emotion] is their ultimate fate. They then serve only for diversion” (§ 52, AA V: 326). If beautiful art is only diversion, or charm, it has presumably been demoted from beauty to agreeable sensation, since Kant reiterates that charm or diversion alone cannot qualify as beautiful (AA, V: 212, 223–5, 293). Indeed, Kant even adds that, absent moral ideas, the once-beautiful “object by and by [becomes] loathsome, and the mind […] dissatisfied with itself”, no longer producing the disinterested satisfaction that comprises the defining characteristic of beauty (AA, V: 326). Thus, the beautiful arts must sustain a diachronic connection to moral reasoning.

In § 49, Kant characterizes the capacity of beautiful art to promote ideas as spirit, “the animating principle in the mind”, which “purposively sets the mental powers […] into a play that is self-maintaining and even strengthens the powers to that end” (AA, V: 313). Kant claims that “this principle is nothing other than the faculty for the presentation of aesthetic ideas”, or representations of the imagination that lack a determinate concept, and for which, “consequently, no language fully attains or can make intelligible” (AA, V: 314). Aesthetic ideas “animate the mind by opening up for it the prospect of an immeasurable field of related representations”, giving “the imagination an impetus to think more, although in an undeveloped way, than can be comprehended in a concept” (AA, V: 315). In so doing, the imagination is brought to embark on a line of thought that can never be fully brought to a determinate conclusion. That is, the beautiful artwork encourages the imagination in perpetuating its activity of thought to the point where its aesthetic ideas “approximate a presentation of concepts of reason (of intellectual ideas)”, thereby aligning itself with the activity of reason (AA, V: 314). By contrast, it is the principle of spirit which works of art that fail to be beautiful lack: “One says of certain products, of which it is expected that they ought, at least in part, to reveal themselves as beautiful art, that they are without spirit” (AA, V: 313).

In short, the process set in motion by a beautiful artwork amounts, Kant suggests, to the transformation of nature, the creation of “another nature, out of the material which the real one gives it” that thereby “strive[s] toward something lying beyond the bounds of experience” (AA, V: 314). Among the possibilities for ‘another nature’ is the second nature, the “harmoniz[ation]” of a “kingdom of ends” as a “kingdom of nature”, Kant refers to in GMS (AA IV, 436), which moral reasoning presupposes. Indeed, the aesthetic ideas Kant cites as paradigms for his theory of spirit are explicitly practical in nature, including the “idea of reason of a cosmopolitan disposition”, “the consciousness of virtue”, “the kingdom of the blessed”, “love” (as well as rational ideas that promote reflection on moral evil, such as “envy and all sorts of vices”, “fame”, “the kingdom of hell”) (AA, V: 316, 314). In presenting these ideas, aesthetic judgment mediates between a given sensible representation, namely the beautiful artwork, and moral reasoning – as Kant positions the general task of judgment in the Introduction to the KU.

This conclusion can also be taken to shed light on the question of the unity of the work as a whole. Kant characterizes the general process of beautiful art’s promotion of moral ideas through ‘spirit’ as culture – the same term he utilizes in § 83’s argument for culture as the ultimate purpose of nature. It is the criterion of ‘culture’ that distinguishes the beautiful arts from the merely agreeable: “In all beautiful art what is essential consists in the form, which is purposive for observation and judging, where the pleasure is at the same time culture [Kultur] and disposes the spirit to ideas”, whereas agreeable sensation “is aimed merely at enjoyment” (AA, V: 326, my italics).

Kant’s analysis of music provides an illuminating example of how he situates the respective connections between art, spirit, culture, and moral ideas. When judged in terms of ‘culture’, Kant takes music to fall between the beautiful and the agreeable: “If […] one estimates the value of the beautiful arts in terms of the culture that they provide for the mind […] music occupies the lowest place among the beautiful arts (just as it occupies perhaps the highest place among those that are estimated according to their agreeableness)” (AA, V: 329).[17] This is due to the fact that, as an artistic medium characterized by its “charm” rather than its beauty, music relies on “determinate ideas” (such as melody, harmony, and tone) rather than “indeterminate” ideas (such as morality) (AA, V: 328, 329 f.). It is thus ultimately “transitory” and the ideas it presents “burdensome” (AA, V: 330). That is, because Kant holds that music does not promote aesthetic ideas of the indeterminacy requisite to approximate ideas of reason (including morality), music lacks the enduringly beautiful status enjoyed by those artistic media at the top of the aesthetic hierarchy, such as poetry (AA, V: 326). Since music lacks a close connection to ideas of reason, it thereby lacks spirit, and – with it – culture, and is denied an enduring or diachronic status as beautiful.

Kant’s analysis of music suggests that a lack of any one of these elements – culture, beauty, or spirit – indicates that the other two will also fail to be present. This is because culture, in the domain of the fine arts, just is the capacity of these media to promote rational ideas, in particular moral ideas, by way of spirit, a capacity by which they gain an enduring status as beautiful, constituting a holistic process of enculturation both aesthetic and moral (see Diagram 1). It seems to be constitutive, then, of the beauty of an artwork that it have spirit, and thereby be able to culture its subjects; likewise, if an artwork promotes the moral ideas of its beholders, by extension, it is beautiful, and cultures them.

Diagram 1: The diachronic connection between beauty and moral ideas as ‘culture’
Diagram 1:

The diachronic connection between beauty and moral ideas as ‘culture’

Kant further defines the spirit of a beautiful artwork in terms of communicability. The genius required to produce it consists in “hitting upon the expression for [ideas], through which the subjective disposition of the mind that can thereby be produced […] can be communicated to others” (AA, V: 317). This “talent” for rendering the “unnameable” in a given mental state “universally communicable”, Kant says, “is really that which is called spirit” (AA, V: 317, my emphasis). When beauty, whether in an artwork or in nature,[18] is able to produce a universally communicable mental state, it thereby provides us with a “relation that is natural to everyone, and that is also expected of everyone else as a duty” (AA, V: 353). Consequently, the beautiful “please[s] with a claim to the assent of everyone else”, and “the mind […] esteems the value of others in accordance with a similar maxim of their power of judgment” (AA, V: 353).

Given that one of the key points Kant cites in characterizing culture as the ultimate purpose of nature in the KtU is the fact that the culture of discipline occurs through the ‘universal communicability of pleasure’, this is an important finding: the KaU also identifies universal communicability as a prerequisite to aesthetic judgment’s mediation between nature and freedom, suggesting that Parts I and II of the work complement one another in advancing a unified response to the transition problem.

Yet, as I will now argue, Kant’s account of the communicability of aesthetic judgment goes beyond the outward similarities between beauty and morality that might otherwise be taken to constitute ‘thinking the transition’. Instead, Kant suggests that communicability itself offers a constructive moral contribution. An implication of this added dimension of the transition problem is that thinking the transition can already prepare a given agent to effect a transition, by facilitating the moral actualization of the empirical subject. Indeed, Kant suggests that the way in which aesthetic judgment ‘thinks’ a transition from the sensible to the moral can itself have morally significant effects (that it already can be a transition, at least in part): “Taste as it were makes possible the transition from sensible charm to the habitual moral interest without too violent a leap by representing the imagination even in its freedom as purposively determinable for the understanding” (AA, V: 354; my emphasis). This shouldn’t come as a surprise to us: in the Introduction, Kant does not merely say that judgment ‘thinks’ the transition between nature and freedom; he says that judgment “make[s] possible” and “effect[s] a transition” (AA, V: 176, 179). Appreciating these dual aspects of the transition problem will help us to understand in what sense ‘culture’ in the KtU picks out the same object as ‘culture’ in the KaU. Thus, in what follows, I will emphasize the connection between thinking the transition in aesthetic judgment and effecting it. The sense of ‘culture’ involved in aesthetic judgment that falls out of this discussion, as we will see, picks out the sense of ‘culture’ posited in teleological judgment.

Kant frames both the beautiful and the merely agreeable arts in terms of the communicability of the judgments they elicit. As we saw, only in the former case, that of the beautiful, does Kant claim that the mode of communication promoted constitutes ‘culture’. The agreeable arts, by contrast, involve forms of communication that constitute mere ‘diversion’: for example, games that merely pass the time,

entertaining stories, getting the company talking in an open and lively manner, creating by means of jokes and laughter a certain tone of merriment, in which […] much can be chattered about and nobody will be held responsible for what he says, because it is only intended as momentary entertainment, not as some enduring material for later reflection or discussion. (AA, V: 305)

Kant explicitly specifies that these merely agreeable arts foster communication. However, the value of the communication promoted is only ‘momentary’ rather than ‘enduring’, since the actual content of what is said is inconsequential (‘nobody will be held responsible for what he says’). Thus, the fact that the agreeable arts foster communication does not entail that they foster culture: “Nor does the agreeable contribute to culture, but it belongs to mere enjoyment” (AA, V: 266).

By contrast, while the beautiful arts also involve communication, Kant stresses that the form of communication involved is distinct in that it uniquely contributes to ‘culture’. For example, Kant claims, “Beautiful art, by contrast, is a kind of representation that is purposive in itself and, though without a purpose, nevertheless promotes the culture [Kultur] of the mental powers for sociable communication” (AA, V: 306, my italics). That is, Kant emphasizes that both the agreeable and beautiful arts promote ‘sociable communication’, but only the beautiful arts, as we saw above, are associated with culture, while merely agreeable sensation “is aimed merely at enjoyment” (AA, V: 326). ‘Culture’, then, refers here to the inculcation of moral character by encountering “enduring material for later reflection or discussion” in our experience of the beautiful (AA, V: 305). To anticipate my argument below, in referring to the ‘communicability’ of aesthetic judgment, Kant also has in view such opportunities for culture, conceived in terms of reciprocal exchange and edification – not just the abstracted representations of others’ viewpoints, as the communicability of aesthetic judgments has typically been understood.

The fact that the term Kultur is employed in this manner in crucial passages in the KaU – the very passages that establish the moral role of the beautiful arts – puts us on more solid textual grounds for affiliating the respective uses of ‘culture’ in KtU and KaU. One way to make sense of this connection, I suggest, is by considering a possible structural affinity between, on the one hand, the distinction between the beautiful and agreeable arts in the KaU, and on the other, the distinction drawn in the KtU between the cultures of discipline and skill:

Diagram 2

Modes of Culture


Modes of Art


Individual Moral Contribution?

Culture of skill

Art in general

(inc. agreeable arts)

No: ‘mechanical’, ‘mere diversion’, luxury

Culture of discipline

Beautiful arts; ‘nature as art’

Yes: development of


This proposal can help clarify both how Kant understands the moralizing function of communicability and how Kant conceives of the interrelation of the KaU and the KtU.

Kant defines “art [Kunst] in general” in § 43 of the KaU in terms of “skill”: “Art as a skill of human beings is also distinguished from science (to be able from to know), as a practical faculty is from a theoretical one, as technique is distinguished from theory” (AA, V: 303). “Art” is distinguished from knowledge in that it requires know-how or skill – that is, a “practical”, or technical, capacity – in addition to merely theoretical knowledge: “That which one can do as soon as one knows what should be done is not exactly called art. Only that which one does not immediately have the skill to do even if one knows it completely belongs to that extent to art” (AA, V: 303).

Given that Kant equates “art in general” with “skill”, I suggest that “art in general” can be aligned with what Kant eventually names the “culture of skill” in § 83. In § 44, Kant substantiates this connection by characterizing art, under its “mechanical” guise, as what is required to “make a possible object actual” – or, in other words, as what is required to produce man-made or cultural objects in general: “If art merely performs, in a fashion adequate for our cognition of that object, the actions that are required to make a possible object actual, then it is mechanical [mechanische] art” (AA, V: 305). Mechanical art is to be contrasted with “aesthetic” art in that the latter “has the feeling of pleasure as its immediate aim” (AA, V: 305). Thus, Kant recognizes modes of ‘art’ that produce man-made objects (that is, cultural products) of the sort that can serve as the objects of our ordinary cognitive judgments. The ‘mechanical arts’ are what Kant has in mind in his characterization of the culture of skill in § 83, where he evokes the “necessities of life” produced “as it were mechanically [mechanisch], without requiring any special art” by the majority of the human race (AA, V: 432).[19]

In both cases (in the KaU and the KtU), Kant is adamant that skill (art) alone lacks a stable connection to bringing about the actualization of morality in the empirical world.[20] Instead, both are distinguished from their higher modalities, those that relate more immediately to the moral domain: the highest mode of culture in the KtU is not skill, but discipline; the highest mode of art in the KaU is comprised by the beautiful arts, rather than the merely agreeable (§ 44).[21] Moreover, each of the two highest modalities of both culture and art – the culture of discipline and the beautiful arts – invoke the other. We can think of ‘culture’ as referring to the subjective or subject-directed dimension: that is, as a process that has effects on the subject, as, for example, on their physical capacities (‘skill’) or rational capacities (‘discipline’). ‘Art’, meanwhile, can be taken to refer to the objective or object-directed dimension: the objects that either occasion the subjective process (‘nature as art’, ‘beautiful art’, ‘arts in general’, or ‘agreeable art’ all tend to give rise to different effects on subjects), or to the products of this process.

To see why the arts can also be the products of culture rather than just its cause, consider the following passage from the concluding section of the KaU (§ 60) which invokes the same three concepts – humanity, communicability, and sociability – Kant named in the discussion of culture as discipline in § 83 of the KtU:

The propaedeutic for all beautiful art, so far as it is aimed at the highest degree of its perfection, seems to lie not in precepts, but in the culture of the mental powers through those prior forms of knowledge that are called humaniora, presumably because humanity means on the one hand the universal feeling of participation and on the other hand the capacity for being able to communicate one’s inmost self universally, which properties taken together constitute the sociability [Geselligkeit] that is appropriate to humankind, by means of which it distinguishes itself from the limitation of animals. (AA, V: 355)

Here, culture is positioned as the prerequisite for creating beautiful art rather than as the effect of a beautiful artwork on the subject; as before, however, ‘culture’ picks out the subject-directed dimension (what is required of the subject), while ‘art’ picks out the object-directed (the product). Moreover, this passage suggests that in the KaU culture is also conceived as a capacity for fostering one’s ‘humanity’, promoting specific modes of communication among subjects in a social context. In the KtU (as we saw), the development of ‘humanity’ is characterized in terms of a “universally communicable pleasure” which renders the individual “socialized” [gesittet]; in the KaU, in terms of the “capacity to communicate one’s inmost self universally” which constitutes our ‘sociability’ (AA, V: 433, 355). Indeed, Kant also invokes the criterion of the communication of feeling in his definition of ‘humanity’ in MS: “Humanity can be located […] in the capacity and the will to share in others’ feelings (humanitas practica)”, identifying the “duty of humanity” as that of “sympathetic feeling” (VI: 456). Thus, in both the KaU and the KtU, subjects are ‘cultured’ by developing their humanity – which, in both cases, involves the honing of their capacity for distinctive modes of intersubjective exchange.

To sum up: we have seen how thinking the transition in both aesthetic and teleological judgment is characterized in terms of ‘culture’ (the transition problem). We have also begun to see how the account of culture advanced in either half of the KU can be taken to refer to the same concept, albeit different aspects thereof (the problem of unity). While the KtU gives us a straightforward account of how ‘culture’ must be posited in thinking the transition in teleological terms, in the KaU thinking the transition is already bound up with potentially effecting the transition. The moral ideas occasioned by a beautiful artwork (an instantiation of ‘thinking the transition’) are produced by a universally communicable configuration of the faculties. But ‘communicability’ here is not an abstraction: instead, Kant insists on actual experiences of communication, which Kant classifies as ‘culturing’ us by aiding in the expression of our humanity. Thus, in the KaU, thinking the transition in aesthetic judgment is characterized as ‘culture’; but here ‘culture’ is already morally significant, in a way not yet established in the KtU.

In passing from communicability to humanity in our reconstruction of the KaU’s argument for thinking the transition in aesthetic judgment (particularly in the judgment of a beautiful artwork), we have hit on two of the three points (universal communicability and development of humanity) on which Kant concludes his discussion of culture as the ultimate purpose of nature connecting nature and freedom in the KtU. In order to conclude our consideration of the way in which culture bears on the question of the unity of the two halves, what remains is, first, to take up one principal objection to the interpretation of aesthetic judgment I have proposed, before turning to the final point: the sense in which culture has to do with “amenability to society”.

5 An Objection, and the Social Character of Culture

My consideration of culture as point of unification might be taken to run dangerously close to Kant’s initial (1769–71) view of taste, which he abandoned prior to the composition of the Third Critique (Guyer 1979, 1982).[22] Kant’s initial view located taste in social intercourse, in the “actual experience of society”, and was thus thoroughly empirical, requiring no a priori principle (Guyer 1979, 20). Therefore, Kant initially traced the pleasure of aesthetic judgment not to the subject’s experience of a beautiful object, but to the mere fact of its communicability: the possibility of being able to communicate this pleasure to others. In the absence of such a possibility, no experience of pleasure, and thus no taste, would be possible; as Kant asserts repeatedly in the Reflexionen dating to this period, the experience of taste would therefore be impossible in solitude.[23] Guyer 1982 and 1993 dismisses this early view as hopelessly circular, insofar as it attributes aesthetic pleasure solely to the fact that others also experience the same pleasure – to the fact of aesthetic agreement. Thus, Guyer attributes the innovation of the KU to the fact that Kant successfully identifies an a priori principle for taste, one that allows him to adopt the revised position that being in society has no effect on one’s aesthetic response.

Construing the distinction between Kant’s early and late positions in this manner, however, runs into several problems. First, it robs us of the resources to make sense of the distinction between the communicability of aesthetic judgments and their intersubjective validity. As Kant stresses, intersubjective validity is a necessary criterion for judgments of beauty: such judgments lay claim to (subjective) universality, and thus to validity for all cognitive subjects, even though they cannot be determined by concepts (§ 8). This claim derives from the free play of imagination and understanding occasioned by a beautiful object; since we all share the same cognitive makeup, the universal validity of such judgments can be demanded even if we in fact disagree on the object in question.[24] The claim to universal validity also gives rise, in part, to the communicability of aesthetic judgments: the ability to “communicate” a state of mind requires “a universal point of relation with which everyone’s faculty of representation is compelled to agree” (AA, V: 217). Therefore, even though aesthetic judgments lack concepts, and are therefore merely subjective, because they can demand universal validity, they nevertheless retain the form of a judgment rather than a feeling. They thus share, with empirical or determining judgments, the propositional structure necessary for communication between cognitive subjects to be possible.[25]

However, intersubjective validity, while necessary, is not sufficient for communicability. Guyer 1982, among others, treats the two terms as interchangeable,[26] but as he concedes, communicability is a stronger criterion than intersubjective validity: for a judgment to be communicable, it must be able to be communicated, not just valid for more than one cognitive subject. For example, the aesthetic response of Robinson Crusoe lays claim to universal validity, but in the absence of any occasions in which communication with others would be possible, whether it would be communicable is less clear.[27] By stressing that judgments of taste are not just intersubjectively valid, but also communicable, Kant emphasizes that aesthetic judgments are intimately related to actual occasions for communication among judging subjects. This helps to explain why Kant makes a point of insisting that the sensus communis should not be taken to mean just “common [gemeiner] sense”, but “communal [gemeinschaftlicher] sense” (AA, V: 293). That is, common sense is not just common among subjects (intersubjectively valid), although this is a necessary criterion; it is also actively shared, presupposing the possibility for communication in a community [Gemeinschaft] of cognitive subjects.

Thus, taste’s new positioning as an a priori, rather than thoroughly empirical, principle in the Third Critique does not preclude either its social function or positioning in society. On the one hand, the sensus communis is defined as the “faculty for judging that in its reflection takes account (a priori) of everyone else’s way of representing in thought” (AA, V: 293). This can be achieved a priori because employing common sense has to do with “one holding his judgment up not so much to the actual as to the merely possible judgments of others” – our ‘reflecting on others’ representing’ may or may not accord with the actual, empirical representations of others (AA, V: 294). Yet Kant also considers whether this faculty, in addition to providing a theoretical principle for cognition,[28] could also serve as an “ideal norm” structuring our aesthetic judgments, “a regulative principle for us to provide a common sense in ourselves for higher ends” bestowed on us by “a yet higher principle of reason” (AA, V: 240). Taken in this latter sense, taste would play a normative role, by fostering collective reflection on whether the object should, in fact, be considered beautiful. This may constitute an implicit premise in Kant’s argument for the symbolic function of beauty in § 49 and § 59: our apprehension of a beautiful object (an empirical representation) is normatively structured by common sense; the normative demand implicit in common sense so conceived – namely, that others should agree with our judgment – motivates our engagement in intersubjective communication. In the process, aesthetic judgment fosters constructive modes of social relation among subjects, with the capacity to ‘culture’ them and incite a process of self-cultivation through ‘discipline’. In the ApH, Kant argues that “taste contains a tendency toward an external advancement of morality” consisting in its capacity for promoting “communication with others” and “making the human being amenable [gesittet] to his social situation [gesellschaftliche Lage]” (VII: 244).

The possibility that has been missed is that, on Kant’s mature view, taste can serve a ‘socializing’ function in a sense that is not ‘merely empirical’, that is, in fact, normative, and that is therefore distinct from his early view.[29]

On Kant’s early view – the view he ultimately rejects – aesthetic pleasure consists in the mere fact that others experience the same pleasure; our pleasure in the beautiful would therefore derive from our empirical observation of how others react to the communication of our own judgments. In § 42 of the KU, while Kant affirms that we can indeed derive an ‘empirical interest’ from taste in this manner, he emphasizes that, for taste to occupy a stable role in moral cultivation, we cannot trace our pleasure to the mere prospect of communicating our pleasure; instead, our pleasure must derive from our direct experience of the beautiful object.

However, this point is compatible with the claim defended above, that beauty must have the capacity to promote shared reflection of a certain sort in order to count as beautiful. It can both be true that one’s aesthetic reflection is principally about the beautiful object, and that aesthetic reflection normatively motivates communication with others. As I showed, beauty’s connection to morality consists in part in the fact that it helps develop our humanity through communication. Here, the object-directedness of aesthetic reflection does not preclude the possibility that certain aspects of beautiful objects might be elucidated by confrontation with external viewpoints, and that aesthetic reflection can thereby evolve on their merits.[30] Indeed, the distinction between beautiful and agreeable art – whether the object promotes shared, enduring reflection or forgettable, merely sociable conversation – is one Kant’s initial view lacks the resources to draw. This helps to explain the numerous passages where Kant makes claims similar to those Guyer takes him to have wholeheartedly rejected: in the ApH, for example, published eight years after the KU with Kant’s own corrections, Kant retains the view that taste is “a faculty of making social judgments [gesellschaftlichen Beurtheilung]” that “presupposes a social circumstance [gesellschaftlichen Zustand] (talking with others)” (VII: 240 f.).

The considerations I have raised here help to clarify the nature and role of Kant’s conception of culture. Kultur is not merely an individualistic, or even “asocial”, form of moral improvement, as it has sometimes been construed (cf. Geuss 1996, 155). For Kant, ‘culture’ embodies both individual and social dimensions: taste ‘cultures’ subjects to the morally good by fostering collective forms of reflection, and thus communication with others.[31] This explains, then, why Kant himself uses the term in both senses, implicitly positing a continuity between the two dimensions.[32]

In addition to its textual merits, construing culture in this manner has the added advantage of aligning the term as it is employed in the KaU more closely to how it has been construed in the KtU. As commentators have noted (Yovel 1989, Honneth 2007), the discussion of Kultur in § 83 of the KtU reiterates the account of moral and social progress Kant elaborates in his writings on history. § 83 features a brief argument for the unsocial sociability thesis, citing the necessity of “inequality” and resulting unrest among social subjects, since this is bound up with “the development of the natural predispositions in the human race” by which the “purpose of nature itself, even if it is not our end, is attained” (AA, V: 432). The ultimate purpose of nature, as the concluding purpose in the chain connecting nature and freedom, occurs not just by means of self-cultivation, but also by means of the moral progress suggested by Kant’s teleology of history. Thus, culture, as the ultimate purpose of nature, must be situated on a collective, historical scale in addition to an individual one.

I posit, then, that Kultur be reconceived as a process occurring along two interrelated vectors: the individual and the social. Thus, while some scholars have distanced Kant’s sense of ‘culture’ as “the active sense of cultivation” from its contemporary usage (as “the totality of human achievements in language, art, institutions, and so forth in a given time and place”, Munzel 1998, 282), what, in my view, does greater justice to the various ways Kant employs this term is to acknowledge an interdependence between these two dimensions.[33] That is, Kultur refers in part to an individual’s activity of self-cultivation and disciplining of her desires. Yet this activity is inextricable from a larger social process: if we take common sense to be a ‘regulative ideal’ presupposed in aesthetic judgment, one facilitating the communication of our inner states and, with it, the development of our humanity, it’s not clear what such a function would look like in isolation.[34] Indeed, one way to make sense of what it means to consider common sense as a regulative ideal is in terms of Kant’s historical teleology, also a regulative principle, one that allows us to posit a continuity between unsocial sociability and the sociability presupposed by cosmopolitanism. That is, Kant postulates that the course of history is to be characterized in part by our progressive attempts to improve avenues of communication to handle political conflict (for example, through the establishment of a cosmopolitan state). Kant’s philosophy of history can be construed as resting on the presupposition of common sense as a normative principle: in order for a cosmopolitan state to be achieved, our capacity for communication must be improved. But, as we have seen, this resembles the outcome resulting from the exercise of aesthetic judgment: one of the key consequences of aesthetic experience Kant cites is that it also allows us to cultivate our sociability.[35] If this is correct, common sense would have both aesthetic and political, individual and social, axes – and thus the ‘culture’ in which common sense is implicated also must be situated along these axes. Indeed, Kant himself suggests this in aligning ‘common sense’ with the maxim of enlightenment guiding our collective, burgeoning cosmopolitanism in § 40.[36]

We are now in a position to see that ‘culture’ has both aesthetic and political, individual and social, dimensions. The individual and social axes interrelate: social progress requires individual self-cultivation, as Kant exhorts the reading public in WA. But, as we saw in the conclusion to Section 3, self-cultivation is also self-discipline. The ability to ‘discipline’ one’s choices, ascertaining which ends (or purposes) are the correct ones on which to act, is honed by exercising the universal communicability of our feelings, socializing ourselves (including by exposure to social institutions, such as the fine arts), and developing our humanity by sharing our innermost feelings to others. Construing Kant’s position thus allows us to make sense of otherwise cryptic statements, such as Kant’s claim in MA that the “ultimate goal of man’s moral destiny” is “the advance of culture […] until art, when it reaches perfection, once more becomes nature”, or the assertion in IG that “all the culture and art which adorn mankind and the finest social order man creates are fruits of his unsociability. For it is compelled by its own nature to discipline itself, and thus, by enforced art, to develop completely the germs which nature implanted” (VIII: 117, 22; my italics). Thus, ‘culture’ is incomplete without considering both dimensions: social or historical progress requires individual moral progress, while individual moral progress is contingent upon the shaping, in a given social setting, of our capacities for purposive action.

6 Concluding Remarks

Having examined the role of culture to the twin prospects of thinking the transition and unifying the two parts of the KU, I will close with a few considerations as to how to evaluate the connection between taste, culture, and morality. Guyer argues that just because taste may be “helpful” in overriding sensuous pleasure, a prerequisite to complying with the moral law, this doesn’t make it a “necessary condition” for doing so; indeed, he suggests that Kant’s positing of a requisite causal connection between taste and morality “could only undermine a basic aspect of Kant’s moral philosophy”, given morality’s grounding in the atemporal noumenal realm (Guyer 1979, 342). However, as Guyer has more recently suggested (see Guyer 1993), even if aesthetic response is not strictly speaking a necessary precondition of virtue, in the 1790s Kant comes to hold that it is implausible for human subjects to consistently act on the categorical imperative without specific forms of preparation. As Guyer notes, in the Doctrine of Virtue, part II of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant advances a “full panoply of duties”, where these include distinct duties of self-perfection and self-cultivation (Guyer 1993, 33). Kant’s mature conception therefore puts greater emphasis on the idea that we must work to become good by developing our moral disposition; autonomy must thereby be understood as “graduated”, requiring a course of progression (Guyer 2013, 72).

Kant’s moral philosophy thereby places greater weight on culture as a crucial component of developing moral character, including the exercise of taste and the experience of beauty. Among the ‘panoply of duties’ Kant cites in the Doctrine of Virtue, aesthetic response and production provide us with an opportunity to cultivate our faculties or natural powers (our pragmatic or natural perfection, VI: 444 f.) and our respect for nature (the ‘indirect duty’ identified in VI: 443), but also – through the occasions these provide for shared reflection and enduring communication – to cultivate our esteem and consideration for others (the duty of humanity or sympathy, VI: 456, and of respect, VI: 462), as well as to socialize ourselves (the duty of social intercourse, VI: 473). This last, the concluding duty of the Doctrine of Virtue, involves conceiving of oneself as part of “an all-inclusive circle” of those who have a “cosmopolitan disposition [weltbürgerlichen Gesinnung]” (VI: 473). Kant suggests, then, that the duty of self-socialization is connected to the realization of cosmopolitanism, which cannot be achieved in isolation, and that this can occur by “cultivat[ing] a disposition of reciprocity – agreeableness, tolerance, mutual love and respect”, as well as “sociability” (VI: 473). If beautiful artworks must elicit enduring communication,[37] this imposes a requirement on the object, but also on the subjects who form such judgments – namely, that we conceive of others as having points of view that can put limits on or challenge our own, and that we thereby view each other as ends rather than mere means.[38] Situating taste within a broader conception of culture, understood in a social sense, thereby allows us to comprehend it as contributing to a historical progression while still being immediately relevant to individual self-perfection.

Consequently, the culture of discipline is not limited to aesthetic experience. Discipline can also include other forms, such as moral education, advanced as the “culture [Kultur] of genuine moral dispositions”, in the Doctrine of Method of the KpV (AA, V: 153), or even “the evil that is visited upon us partly by nature, partly by the intolerant selfishness of human beings” (AA, V: 433). Yet Kant nevertheless repeatedly situates aesthetic experience as an important model for, or paradigm of, discipline in the moral domain. Kant characterizes “the first true steps” taken “from barbarism to culture” as involving first the culture of skill, second the exercise of taste, in order, finally, to formulate principles of practical reason: “All man’s talents are now gradually developed, his taste cultivated, and by a continued process of enlightenment, a beginning is made towards establishing a way of thinking which can with time transform the primitive natural capacity for moral discrimination into definite practical principles” (IG, VIII: 21, my italics). In the KpV, Kant elaborates what the culture of moral dispositions involves as giving “to virtue or the cast of mind according to moral laws a form of beauty”, producing “a satisfaction that can also be communicated to others” (AA, V: 160), a claim that harmonizes with the account Kant advances for the moral significance of beauty by way of its universal communicability. Kant seems to think that aesthetic experience provides us with an important example by which we can render the notion of moral preparation comprehensible to ourselves.

We can therefore construe the transition problem, and the problem of unity it informs, without reducing the distinct domains of morality and taste to each other. Indeed, this was the initial problem Kant posed to a critique of the power of judgment: namely, that “the concept of nature [determines] nothing in regard to the practical laws of freedom” (AA, V: 195). Nothing within the domain of nature, including aesthetic experience or, for that matter, other specific forms of moral preparation, can determine that moral action will follow; actualizing one’s own freedom thereby remains the ‘unconditioned’. Instead, what is invoked by both aesthetic and teleological judgment in thinking the transition from nature to freedom is a notion that helps to clarify the appropriate preconditions for empirical subjects to acquire a moral disposition. In placing such emphasis on aesthetic judgment as a central source of ‘culture’, Kant seems to conceive of his aesthetic theory as an instructive model, perhaps even a paradigm case, to elucidate what the preconditions for moral disposition are, and for thereby thinking – “making sensible” – how an individual and collective transition from nature to freedom might take place (AA, V: 351).[39]


Kants gesammelte Schriften, ed. by Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 29 volumes. Berlin, 1900–.


Anthropologie in pragmatischer Hinsicht


Idee zu einer allgemeinen Geschichte in weltbürgerlicher Absicht


Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten


Kritik der praktischen Vernunft


Kritik der reinen Vernunft


Kritik der Urteilskraft


Muthmaßlicher Anfang der Menschengeschichte


Metaphysik der Sitten




Gemeinspruch: Das mag in der Theorie richtig sein, taugt aber nicht für die Praxis


Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?


Zum ewigen Frieden: Ein philosophischer Entwurf

Allison, H. E. 2001. Kant’s Theory of Taste: A Reading of the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment. Cambridge, UK.10.1017/CBO9780511612671Search in Google Scholar

Arendt, H. 1971. [1978]The Life of the Mind, vols 1 and 2. Ed. M. McCarthy. New York.Search in Google Scholar

–. 1992. Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy. Ed. R. Beiner. Chicago.10.7208/chicago/9780226231785.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Cohen, T. 1982. “Why Beauty Is a Symbol of Morality.” In Essays in Kant’s Aesthetics. Eds T. Cohen/P. Guyer. Chicago, 221–36.Search in Google Scholar

Förster, E. 2000. Kant’s Final Synthesis: An Essay on the Opus Postumum. Cambridge, UK.Search in Google Scholar

–. 2011. The Twenty-Five Years of Philosophy: A Systematic Reconstruction. Cambridge, MA.10.4159/harvard.9780674064980Search in Google Scholar

Gardner, S. 2016. “Kant’s Third Critique: The Project of Unification.” Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 78: 161–85.10.1017/S1358246116000254Search in Google Scholar

Geuss, R. 1996. “Kultur, Bildung, Geist.” In Morality, Culture, History: Essays on German Philosophy. Cambridge, UK.10.2307/2505359Search in Google Scholar

Ginsborg, H. 2014. The Normativity of Nature: Essays on Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Oxford.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199547975.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Guyer, P. 1979. Kant and the Claims of Taste. Cambridge, MA.Search in Google Scholar

–. 1982. “Pleasure and Society in Kant’s Theory of Taste.” In Essays in Kant’s Aesthetics. Eds. T. Cohen/P. Guyer. Chicago, 21–54.Search in Google Scholar

–. 1993. Kant and the Experience of Freedom: Essays on Aesthetics and Morality. Cambridge, UK.10.1017/CBO9781139172516Search in Google Scholar

–. 2013. “Progress Toward Autonomy.” In Kant on Moral Autonomy. Ed. O. Sensen. Cambridge, UK, 71–87.10.1017/CBO9780511792489.006Search in Google Scholar

Herman, B. 1993. The Practice of Moral Judgment. Cambridge, MA.10.2307/2026397Search in Google Scholar

–. 2007. Moral Literacy. Cambridge, MA.Search in Google Scholar

Honneth, A. 2007. “The Irreducibility of Progress: Kant’s Account of the Relationship between Morality and History.” Critical Horizons: A Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory 8.1, 1–17.10.1558/crit.v8i1.1Search in Google Scholar

Kemal, S. 1986. Kant and Fine Art: An Essay on Kant and the Philosophy of Fine Art and Culture. Oxford.Search in Google Scholar

Mendelssohn, M. 1761 [reprinted 2001]. Philosophical Writings. Trans./ed. D. O. Dahlstrom. Cambridge.Search in Google Scholar

Munzel, G. F. 1998. Kant’s Conception of Moral Character: The “Critical” Link of Morality, Anthropology, and Reflective Judgment. Chicago, IL.Search in Google Scholar

O’Neill, O. 1989. “Reason and Politics in the Kantian Enterprise.” In Constructions of Reason: Explorations of Kant’s Practical Philosophy. Cambridge, UK, 3–27.10.1017/CBO9781139173773.002Search in Google Scholar

Recki, B. 2001. Die Ästhetik der Sitten: Die Affinität von ästhetischem Gefühl und praktischer Vernunft bei Kant. Frankfurt/M.Search in Google Scholar

–. 2006. Die Vernunft, ihre Natur, ihr Gefühl und der Fortschritt: Aufsätze zu Immanuel Kant. Paderborn.10.30965/9783969758038Search in Google Scholar

Rohlf, M. 2008. “The Transition from Nature to Freedom in Kant’s Third Critique.” Kant-Studien 99(3), 339–60.10.1515/KANT.2008.024Search in Google Scholar

Savile, A. 1993. Kantian Aesthetics Pursued. Edinburgh.10.1515/9781474472289Search in Google Scholar

Vaccarino Bremner, S. Forthcoming. “Kant, Conceptual Revision, and Art After Modernism.” Kantian Review.Search in Google Scholar

White Beck, L. 1969. Early German Philosophy: Kant and His Predecessors. Cambridge, MA.Search in Google Scholar

Wood, A. 1991. “Unsociable Sociability: The Anthropological Basis of Kant’s Ethics.” In Philosophical Topics 19(1), 325–51.10.5840/philtopics199119122Search in Google Scholar

–. 1999. Kant’s Ethical Thought. Cambridge, UK.10.1017/CBO9781139173254Search in Google Scholar

–. 2003. “Kant and the Problem of Human Nature.” In Essays on Kant’s Anthropology. Eds. B. Jacobs/P. Kain. Cambridge.10.1017/CBO9780511498190.004Search in Google Scholar

Yovel, Y. 1989. Kant and the Philosophy of History. Princeton, NJ.Search in Google Scholar

Zammito, J. H. 1992. The Genesis of Kant’s Critique of Judgment. Chicago.Search in Google Scholar

Zuckert, R. 2007. Kant on Beauty and Biology: An Interpretation of the Critique of Judgment. Cambridge, UK.10.1017/CBO9780511487323Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2022-06-09
Published in Print: 2022-06-30

© 2021 Sabina Vaccarino Bremner, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Downloaded on 28.11.2023 from
Scroll to top button