’s Conception Of Genius Essay, Research Paper
93 THE PHILOSOPHY OF ART FROM HUME TO HEGEL
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
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
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’.