The Outline And Discussion Of Kant

’s Conception Of Genius Essay, Research Paper


Outline and Discuss Kant’s conception of Genius

As part of his Critique of the Aesthetic Judgement, Kant sets out to

explain what constitutes a fine work of art, and in doing so he asserts

that “fine arts must necessarily be regarded as arts of genius.” (page

168, ‘The Critique of Judgement’, Immanuel Kant). He then goes on to

justify this, and to explain what genius consists of, and how a work of

genius is arrived at.

Kant begins by stating that for the representation of any work of art

to be possible, it must have certain rules at its foundation. However,

with fine art, the beauty of the object is judged independently of any

concept, and therefore a work of fine art cannot have been derived from

any rule which had a concept as its basis. From this it follows that “fine

art is only possible as a product of genius”, where “genius is a talent for

producing that for which no definite rule can be given.” (page 168). It

follows from this notion of genius that as no definite rule can be given,

the author will not be able to explain how the ideas that created the fine

work of art came to them.

Kant now goes on to make an important distinction between the

work of a genius and the work of what he terms “a man of brains.” (page

169). As rules cannot be laid down to enable others to create works of

genius, the work of genius differs crucially from the work of a scientist.

We may refer to Newton as “a man of brains…[but] all that Newton has

set forth in his immortal work on the Principles of Natural Philosophy

may well be learned…but we cannot learn to write in a true poetic vein.”

(page 170). Scientists can explain the steps that they followed and

methods that they used to reach their discovery, but no fine artist can

show how their ideas came to them as they themselves do not know.

We can therefore see that no matter how important the work of a

scientist, it can never be termed the work of a genius.

So what is the rule with no concept as its basis that is behind a

work of fine art? As we cannot actually set out this rule due to its lack

of a concept, Kant feels that the only way in which it can be understood

is by experiencing the works of geniuses directly. In this way the works

become exemplary models, which a pupil can then use for following,

though not for imitation. Alternatively the work of a genius may inspire

other geniuses to create their own original works of genius.

15/06/93 However, Kant does not want to say that a work of genius

is devoid of any rules whatsoever. “Genius can do no more than furnish

rich material for products of fine art; its elaboration and its form require

a talent academically trained, so that it may be employed in such a way

as to stand the test of judgement.” (page 171-172). In other words,

without experience and technique, a genius will not produce a fine work

of art. A genius needs the best training and conditions possible to

flourish, and only “shallow minds fancy that the best evidence they can

give of their being full-blown geniuses is by emancipating themselves

from all academic constraints of rules, in the belief that one cuts a finer

figure on the back of an ill-tempered than of a trained horse.” (page


We saw in Kant’s Four Moments of the Aesthetic Judgement that to

estimate the beauty of an object in nature, we require taste, and must

not bring into consideration the objective finality of the object in making

our judgement. In other words, the end of the object or perfection

contained therein is not to be included in our judgement. A product of

art on the other hand in being declared beautiful “always presupposes

an end in the cause (and its causality), a concept of what the thing is

intended to be must first of all be laid at its basis…as its end constitutes

the perfection of the thing, it follows that in estimating the beauty of art

the perfection of the thing must also be taken into account.” (page 173).

So while the aesthetic judgement in nature must not have an end or

perfection at its basis, the opposite is true in judging fine art.

A further difference between fine art and nature can be seen in the

way that fine art can beautifully represent what in nature would be ugly

or displeasing. Kant points to sculpture, where direct representation of

ugly objects is avoided, and they are represented instead in a beautiful

way. Kant then returns to the importance of experience in producing

fine art, explaining how the form in fine art requires taste rather than

inspiration, and this taste may require a lengthy process of practice and

correction. Taste alone though is obviously not enough to produce a

work of fine art, but is an essential part of the process.

So what is it in the mind that gives rise to the genius employed in

creating a work of art? Essential to a fine work of art according to Kant

is soul. “‘Soul’ in an aesthetical sense, signifies the animating principle

in the mind. But that whereby this principle animates the psychic

substance…is that which sets the mental powers into a swing that is

final…this principle is nothing else than the faculty of presenting ideas.”

(page 175). These aesthetic ideas through imagination can lead to a

great deal of thought according to Kant, but cannot be defined through

a concept ie. they are not intelligible through language.

15/06/93 Imagination is an essential part in creating a work of fine

art. It enables the artist to go beyond that which is afforded to them by

nature. By using the realities of nature, imagination can be used to

remodel experience and create a second nature according to Kant. This

use of the imagination is known as ideas, and through ideas, the artist

can go beyond their own direct experience to conjure up images of death

or hell for instance. However on its own, imagination is simply a talent.

The aesthetic idea is that part of the imagination which contains no

definite concept, but is bound up in “a multiplicity of partial

representations.” (page 179).

Imagination and understanding are therefore the two mental powers

that constitute genius. As these mental powers cannot be adequately

explained through language, they cannot be learnt or taught, but can

be communicated to others through soul.

Having summarised his definition of what is meant by genius, Kant

expands on his previously mentioned notion of how the work of a genius

can be used by others. “…the product of a genius…is an example, not

for imitation…but to be followed by another genius -one whom it

arouses to a sense of his own originality in putting freedom from the

constraint of rules so into force in his art.” (page 181). As geniuses are

a rare phenomenon according to Kant, the work of a genius can also be

used to give rise to a school, where the pupils can imitate the work of

a genius to produce other works of art (though not of genius). However,

it is important that this imitation does not become aping, where the

pupil copies everything in a work including the blemishes contained

therein. While the blemishes may suit the work of a genius well, they

should not be imitated.

Kant finishes his discussion by asserting that where there is a

conflict between taste and genius, then it is the genius that should be

sacrificed, as it is taste that “introduces a clearness and order into the

plenitude of thought, and in so doing gives a stability to the ideas, and

qualifies them at once for universal and permanent approval.” (page


In summary, “the requisites for fine art are, therefore, imagination,

understanding, soul and taste.” (page 183).

Kant’s account of genius, though very extensive in its analysis and

conclusions, lays itself open to a great deal of criticism and debate.

Even on what might seem a less controversial part of his argument, that

the ideas that constitute genius cannot be set out in rules as even the

genius does not know how they came about, Kant is putting forward a

view that neither Hume nor Reid would agree with, as they would argue

that even if the genius is not conscious of how they formulated an idea,

these rules can be discovered, just as a mathematician can later set out

the rules by which a conclusion they have come to is reached, even if

they were not aware of them at the time.

15/06/93 Kant’s distinction between the discoveries of a scientist and

the genius behind a work of fine art is highly controversial, but he does

in my view put forward a very convincing argument in backing up this

claim. If we accept that genius indeed consists of ideas that cannot be

explained, then there is good reason to think that scientists cannot be

geniuses, as while at the time of the discovery they may not have used

rules to reach their conclusion and may have struck upon it by chance

or on the basis of an inspiration, once the discovery has been made, if

it holds true, rules can be formulated to explain how it was arrived at.

This cannot be done in the case of what Kant terms an aesthetic idea.

On this basis it would appear to be reasonable to conclude that

scientists cannot be geniuses.

What I find less convincing is when Kant attempts to redress the

balance in some way in favour of scientists by pointing out that through

the continuing advances made in science, “scientists can boast a ground

of considerable superiority over those who merit the honour of being

called geniuses, since genius reaches a point at which art must make

a halt, as there is a limit imposed upon it which it cannot transcend.

This limit has in all probability been long since attained.” (page 170).

I can see absolutely nothing in Kant’s account to justify this claim. On

what basis is it made? If we cannot even explain how or why genius

occurs in certain people, on what basis does Kant think that it must

have a limit? And even if there is a limit, is there any reason to believe

that it has already been reached? -Kant certainly doesn’t give any

evidence to back up this idea. Further, the notion that there’s no limit

in science is also dubious. Surely with science there is a much more

evident limit than with genius, as although it may not be a realistic

notion in practice, once everything about our universe is known, then

there is nothing more to know.

Section 48 looks at the relation of genius to taste, and is the part of

Kant’s analysis of genius that I find the least convincing. It is in this

section that Kant distinguishes between the beauty of nature which

must not have an end or a notion of perfection as its basis, and the

beauty of fine art which requires a concept of what the object is

intended to be (its end), and for this reason must have perfection. I find

both of these qualities necessary for fine art to be questionable.

There are many examples of works of fine art that do not have a

definite end, and we term these abstract art. We may not understand

the intention behind these works, but are nevertheless able to see the

merit in them. There are also many examples of fine art that lack

perfection. For instance many works by Picasso quite intentionally

represent the human form in a way that most observers would see as

deformed or irregular, and certainly not in a way that we would describe

as perfect. Nevertheless, we do refer to both abstract art and the works

of artists such as Picasso as fine art.

15/06/93 The notion that fine art makes beautiful that which in

nature we deem to be ugly is another part of Kant’s analysis that I

would question. While it is true that there are many examples to justify

this claim, I would suggest that there are just as many that show fine

art representing an ugly or unpleasant scene in a way that retains that

ugliness. An obvious example to my mind is Caravaggio’s painting in

the National Gallery, London, entitled ‘Salome receives the head of John

the Baptist’. Far from giving beauty to this unpleasant scene, this

depiction of John the Baptist’s severed head being presented on a plate

is utterly gruesome and displeasing, and yet it is undoubtedly a work of

fine art.

Another questionable part of Kant’s analysis is in his distinction

between the work of a genius and the school that follows that work

through imitation but without aping. If the pupil is not a genius, then

they will not bring an originality to the work, and so I cannot see how

their work will have any great worth. That is to say, I cannot see the

relevance of the distinction that Kant makes between imitation and

aping. He also does not make clear whether the work of such schools

would be classified as fine art. Surely the art of imitation though a

talent, is simply mechanical and learnable and therefore not to be

considered fine art.

My final point concerns how we actually use the term ‘genius’.

While it may be that we are doing so incorrectly, we do talk of scientists

as geniuses. We even use the term ‘intellectual genius’ in doing so, a

phrase that on Kant’s account would be seen as contradictory. To give

a recent example, the work of Stephen Hawking is described as that of

a genius.

In conclusion, while Kant’s conception of genius is very well

structured and argued, and while I do fully accept his explanation of the

faculties of the mind that constitute genius, and his distinction between

the genius of the artist and the method of the scientist, I find many of

his other suggestions either unconvincing, or based on dubious


Kant, I. The Critique of Judgement (Clarendon Press, Oxford,


-All page numbers of quotations used in this essay refer to this

edition of ‘The Critique of Judgement’.


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