The Critique of Judgment, often called the Third Critique, does not have as clear a focus as the first two critiques. In broad outline, Kant sets about examining our faculty of judgment, which leads him down a number of divergent paths. While the Critique of Judgment deals with matters related to science and teleology, it is most remembered for what Kant has to say about aesthetics.
Kant calls aesthetic judgments “judgments of taste” and remarks that, though they are based in an individual’s subjective feelings, they also claim universal validity. Our feelings about beauty differ from our feelings about pleasure and moral goodness in that they are disinterested. We seek to possess pleasurable objects, and we seek to promote moral goodness, but we simply appreciate beauty without feeling driven to find some use for it. Judgments of taste are universal because they are disinterested: our individual wants and needs do not come into play when appreciating beauty, so our aesthetic response applies universally. Aesthetic pleasure comes from the free play between the imagination and understanding when perceiving an object.
Kant distinguishes the beautiful from the sublime. While the appeal of beautiful objects is immediately apparent, the sublime holds an air of mystery and ineffability. While a Greek statue or a pretty flower is beautiful, the movement of storm clouds or a massive building is sublime: they are, in a sense, too great to get our heads around. Kant argues that our sense of the sublime is connected with our faculty of reason, which has ideas of absolute totality and absolute freedom. While storm clouds or a massive building might stretch our minds, they are nothing compared with reason’s ideas of absolute totality and freedom. Apprehending sublime objects puts us in touch with these ideas of reason, so that sublimity resides not in sublime objects but in reason itself.
In a second part of the book, Kant wrestles with the concept of teleology, the idea that something has an end, or purpose. Teleology falls somewhere between science and theology, and Kant argues that the concept is useful in scientific work even though we would be wrong to assume that teleological principles are actually at work in nature.
While much of what Kant writes about aesthetics might strike us now as a bit dated, his work is historically very significant. Kant’s Third Critique is one of the early works in the field of aesthetics and one of the most important treatises on the subject ever written. Aesthetics differs from literary criticism and art criticism, which have existed for millennia, in that it attempts to explain not only why things are or are not beautiful but also the concept of beauty and how the perception of beauty arises in us. Kant takes on the considerable task of making room for the concepts of the beautiful and the sublime in the complex account of the mind he gives in his first two Critiques. Unfortunately for Kant, the success of this project can be understood only in the context of his complex and abstruse philosophical system, while its failures are immediately apparent. The close relationship between art and politics, which became clear in the twentieth century, casts doubt on Kant’s assertion that our response to art is disinterested, and his claim that our sense of beauty is universal makes less sense in a world in which we are exposed to the diversity of artistic products of different cultures. Although his work continues to influence work in aesthetics, Kant falls victim to the same problem that touches everyone who tries to make general claims about art: the very concept of art has great historical fluidity so that we can never nail down for all time exactly what it is.
Kant’s account of beauty as based in subjective feeling as well as his struggles with teleology stem from his desire to refute all metaphysical proofs of God. Kant is by no means an atheist, and he makes forceful arguments for why we ought to believe in God. However, God is the ultimate thing-in-itself, and so, according to Kant’s epistemology, the nature and even the existence of God are fundamentally unknowable. In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant provides refutations for all the main “proofs” of God’s existence, one of which is the Argument from Design. According to this argument, the patterns and formal perfection in nature suggest the presence of an intelligent designer. Kant argues that our judgment of beauty is a subjective feeling, even though it possesses universal validity, in part because arguing that beauty is objective would play into the hands of those who make the Argument from Design. If beauty were an objective property of certain objects in nature, the question would naturally arise of how these objects were bestowed with beauty. This question would provide a toehold for the Argument from Design, an outcome that Kant is determined to avoid.