Subjective Universality


Beauty is a critical component of artistic creativity, and its general denigration by postmodern dogma has stripped contemporary art of a powerful universal modality. In the eighteen century, Immanuel Kant’s philosophical project, while investigating both the significance and the limits of human thought capacity, also validated the aesthetic importance of beauty. He did this in his third major work, The Critique of Judgment, by establishing beauty as a “subjective universality.” This literary oxymoron reveals a paradox that Kant attempts to solve. By virtue of his solution, he validates the use of beauty as a powerful artistic aspiration.

As a foundation into the complex world of Kant, we must define some key words and concepts. First is the word representation. These are mental items, of which there are three kinds: intuitions, concepts, and imagination. Intuitions are sense perceptions, representations of particular objects. Concepts are general representations rather than a particular representation, not given but created in thought. Imagination, perhaps the most important mental item, is a representation or image in the mind without a sensation. “A priori” is a type of knowledge not justified by empirical or sense experience. Some examples include mathematics, physics, causality (every event has a cause), and certain aesthetic principles (laws). Universality is a state under which something is always the case without exception. This implies necessity, in that something must be the case. This is not empirical, because experience is limited we cannot experience all possibilities. Experience only tells you this is the case, it does not tell you what must be the case. Thus, universality is “a priori.”

Judgment is the bridge between pure and practical reason. The power of pure reasoning is not located in experience, but rather supplies abstract concepts (universals) as a path toward knowing. Kant also refers to knowing as understanding. The power of practical reasoning is that which draws inferences to achieve useful goals, a synthesis into unity. The judgment mediates between the pure and practical by allowing individual acts of subsumption: “for thinking the particular under the universal.” There are two kinds of judgment, determent and reflective. Determent judgment is a priori universal. Thus, it relies on concept, rule, principle, law, or causation. It functions either by understanding or by reason. Here, the concept is sufficient to determine the particular. In other words, the concept contains sufficient information for the identification of any particular instance of it. Reflective judgment works on the particular. In this case, the judgment has to proceed without a concept, sometimes to form a new concept. In reflective judgment, the universal has to be invented by imagination. Aesthetic judgments are a fascinating form of reflective judgments. By the aesthetical, Kant is referring to the beautiful and the sublime.


By judgment of taste, Kant refers to a decision or identification of beauty as a human aesthetic evaluation. Beauty is the subjective feeling of pleasure instantly experienced by a single person (the subject) based upon receiving an external or natural sensation, and responding at the level of feeling. Natural in this sense involves the world external to the subject. That is to say, there are no object properties that define beauty, but rather beauty is a function of the subjective judge. This feeling is a priori, based not on what you know, but rather only on pure sensation. It is pure in that no concept is applied, but rather an immediate particular pleasure is felt. This pleasure is grounded on a particular item (intuition/sensation) rather than generalization of all items of that kind (concept). At the same time, there is an aspect of beauty assessment that is universal. By this, Kant means that when an individual makes a judgment of taste, that individual also believes all other humans ought to agree with that judgment. Universality thus means that the subject projects his assessment collectively across the world. The basis for this claim is twofold. First, the subject is operating from a position of disinterest, or impartiality. Appreciating beauty is not used as a means to achieve some personal goal, but is an end onto itself. In reference to a purpose, or finality, this means the experience of beauty is not a function of desire, and thus is not specific to the subject’s goals. Because if you are disinterested, then your judgment is not unique to you, thus you share it with everyone. Everyone ought to agree. Kant characterizes this as a condition of “the subjective purpose of a purposeless object.” This contributes to universality. Perhaps more convincing, we as a species are willing to argue if someone disagrees with our taste appraisal. This willingness to argue indicates we think everyone should agree. Finally, in common parlance beauty is used as an adjective, implying an object property. This language usage contributes to the notion that everyone ought to agree.


Kant ascribes to the imagination the power to recombine sense data and memory into new forms and associations. The imagination spontaneously receives data, processing it into original forms. This is the domain of aesthetic judgment, grounded in free feelings, harmonizing sensibility and reason unguided by concepts, without attempting to establish knowledge. Everyone has access to this mental state, which is “a priori.” Furthermore, this is the only kind of mental condition that allows application of concepts to perception. Nevertheless, in the case of beauty no concept is applied, but rather what is applied is a feeling. In this sense, imagination is free.


Kant considers the subjective experience of beauty as a feeling of harmony in the free-play of imagination and sensibility. Beauty generates pleasure when our imagination and sensibility work together undetermined by rules. Free, as in we can imagine anything without concepts and without attempting to accomplish a goal. Pleasure in the free play may seem to have a purpose, but we cannot assign it any such finality in the understanding or reason. This state describes the “subjective a priori principle” of the judgment of taste otherwise known as “finality apart from an end,” or purposiveness.


The sublime is the second important aesthetic experience, situated only in the human mind. It is based on pleasure just like beauty, but using power of reason and not the power of sensibilty. There are two kinds, the mathematical and the dynamic. The mathematical involves great size or numbers. The dynamic involves great power, a danger from a safe distance. Nothing we can see is sublime, but sometimes things are so big or powerful that we cannot get it all into our imagination. This untenable magnitude allows us to recognize transcendental powers much larger than ourselves. Nevertheless, our ability to recognize this also gives us agency over the supersensible. This makes us aware of our moral agency through reason.


This moral feeling is tightly coupled to freedom and autonomy. As we have the freedom to rationalize, we can make behavior decisions autonomously. However, there is a moral duty that regulates this behavior, which Kant calls the “Categorical Imperative.” The ultimate freedom is our ability to rationalize. We are able to recognize and think about “a priori” knowledge, and modify it (humans can overcome instinct).  Nevertheless, that freedom is limited in action. We should not act in a way that we would consider inappropriate (immoral) for others to act. In this way, certain priori principles are regulative, or law.


As established by the sublime, there are aspects of nature that remain supersensible or transcendent, outside our understanding and sensibility. However, the fact that we are able, as rational thinking beings, to recognize these transcendent aspects of nature places us on a higher plane of consciousness.

Genius is the way that nature gives rule to art, by endowing a few select individuals with inborn powers of originality. The genius, through extraordinary “free play” powers of the imagination, is able to synthesize without rule, liberated from imitation.


The majestic problem Kant poses in the Critique of Judgment concerns implications of the fissure between theoretical and practical philosophy. This gap is between knowing and our behavior based on that knowing in accordance to moral law. Although extensively addressed, especially in terms of the important role aesthetics freely plays as the bridge across the chasm, the text itself contains no clear statement of a solution. Rather Kant insists that we recognize the distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves.

I think Kant’s justification for claiming universality for an individual’s “judgment of taste” is extremely weak. The general English definition of universal involves including all or a whole collectively or distributively without limit or exception: existent or operative everywhere or under all conditions. The idea that when everyone makes a “judgment of taste,” they also expect that all others will agree is erroneous. I harbor no such expectation, and I know of other humans who also have no such expectation. The fact that people disagree and have different opinions as to what constitutes beauty is evidence that such judgments are not universal (see above definition of universal). In addition, if such expectations did exist (which they may not), rationality quickly refutes. On the other hand, I do think that the power of feeling beauty and its importance to the essence of humanity is universal. This is ingrained in our biological evolution, with the evidence recorded in the history of civilization, the human archive.

Kant’s basic premise is some conditions of cognitive powers are themselves universal to all human beings. Beauty is one such powerful cognitive condition, which through pleasure bridges the powers of understanding and morality. Therefore working to understand beauty and to develop effective modes of its communication are extremely worthy artist endeavors.

Beauty matters.

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