Study Guide

Immanuel Kant Influences

Principia Mathematica

One thing a lot of people don't seem to know about me is that I studied physics very closely. Heck, I even taught physics for a while.

Now, to know anything about physics means to be intimately acquainted with Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica. One of the key ideas I took from Isaac was that of the physical universe as a mechanical system, as governed entirely by laws. This idea is reflected in my emphasis on causality as a central, necessary feature of our experience.

Still, Isaac had some beliefs that, shall we say, stood in need of correction. In particular, he was committed to the view that space and time are "absolute," entities that exist in and of themselves. I argue that even while they are necessary features of our experience, space and time have no inherent existence, since they are only aspects of our intuition.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau

A very underrated thinker, Jean-Jacques was. It is true that in his ethical theory he emphasized sentiment rather than reason, but to his credit, Rousseau talked a lot about how, in being virtuous, you become a master of yourself (source).

Needless to say, I am far too original a philosopher to ever steal an idea from someone else, but I will admit there is a certain relation here to an idea central to my ethical system—the notion of autonomy. For me, "autonomy" refers to the way that the moral will gives laws to itself, rather than just taking commands from things outside of itself.

Rousseau even anticipates—only to a small extent, of course—my own brilliant emphasis on contradiction as the mark of the non-moral act. Smart man, old J-J.

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten

Baumgarten's Aesthetica was a major influence on my aesthetic theory, as definitively set forth in my Critique of Judgment. What? You've never heard of him? I guess I do tend to have that effect on people, overshadowing their puny efforts with my monumental intellect. But it's not as if it's intentional: I have the highest respect for Alexander.

Anyhow, Baumgarten was the first to use the term "aesthetics" to refer to the study of taste—i.e., of judgments about beauty (source). I followed him and used this bit of terminology myself. More than that, Baumgarten claimed that there can be rules of taste—and he also claimed that that aesthetics could ultimately become a science.

It's with this last claim that Baumgarten goes astray. His is a noble endeavor, certainly, but it's wrong—all wrong—from the start. That's because Baumgarten begins by supposing that aesthetic judgments are undeveloped cognitive claims—as if they involve a kind of primitive rationality. Translation: he thinks that aesthetic judgments are something like half-formed thoughts.

I claim, by contrast, that judgments of taste do not involve cognition at all. According to my theory, beautiful objects cannot be brought under a concept. Instead, aesthetics is actually concerned with a special kind of feeling of pleasure and displeasure—what I call "satisfaction in the beautiful" (source.)

In aesthetic judgments, we are not attempting to make objective claims about a work of art. Such judgments instead always relate to a subject. Saying The cat is black is different from saying That painting of a cat is beautiful. We can't say that the painting is beautiful because it is large, painted well, realistic, or whatever. We just understand that it is beautiful when we look at it because it gives us a specific feeling of aesthetic pleasure.

This is not to make the vulgar assertion that taste is just a matter of subjective opinion. Can you imagine that I, Immanuel Kant, would say the same thing about art as the average man on the street? But nevertheless, aesthetics centers on feeling, and thus, contrary to what Baumgarten contends, it can never be a science.

"A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful"

You probably think of Edmund Burke as a political figure. Well, to be honest, you probably don't think of Burke at all. That's okay—it's not like he's my closest buddy. But I will admit that I find his treatise on aesthetic theory to be quite intriguing.

Edmund is concerned with "the sublime," a notion I explore as well. For Burke, there is a huge difference between the beautiful and the sublime. The sublime, he claims, is essentially a reaction to something that terrifies us. You might be asking yourselves, "What? If I say that Ke$ha's 'Tik Tok' is sublime, I'm saying that the song terrifies me? Sure, the thought of Ke$ha might be terrifying—but the song?"

But maybe Burke's idea is not as crazy as it seems. I think he's right when he says that the sublime does not lie in the object itself, but rather in our reaction to it, in the feeling it may cause. And while I think he makes a mistake in limiting the discussion just to the sense of terror, again it seems that he is on to something here.

To put it more in my terms (which are ever so much clearer), Edmund is getting at the idea that part of what makes something truly terrifying is our inability to wrap our imaginations around it. In other words, what he is describing—or trying to describe—is the connection between experiencing the sublime and experiencing some sort of transcendence.

Now, Burke doesn't realize that this experience can be occasioned by all sorts of things—nature, works of art, the idea of the infinite, and so on. But he does bring out the way in which the sublime is always marked by a recognition of the limits of our own minds.

The odd thing is that seeing how our understanding falls short can feel oddly liberating, so—and this is what Burke helped me to articulate—experience of the sublime can be ambivalent. It is not pure delight, like the experience of beauty; it involves a mixture of discomfort and intense pleasure.