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What Does Kant Mean by “Pure Aesthetic Judgment”?



The philosophical works of Immanuel Kant contain ideas related to aesthetic judgment that have greatly, though with varying degrees of subtly, influenced art historians and artists (Cheetham 1998: 6).  Kant describes aesthetic judgment as a “higher faculty,” something innate and universal (Kant as cited in Cheetham 1998: 8, Lyas 1997: 33).  While this view of aesthetic judgment, or taste, has been critiqued as absolutist and Eurocentric, it has also been incorporated widely into theoretical discussions regarding the value of art (Kant 1952: 206, Davies 2006: 71, Cheetham 1998: 7).  The complex ideas involved in Immanuel Kant’s vision of aesthetic judgment must be positioned within the context of his work.  The ideas of Kant have influenced many artists, and art historians and theorists have debated the validity, relevance and utility of his ideas extensively.

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In order to understand what Kant means by “pure aesthetic judgment” the meaning of his terms a priori and a posteriori must be established.  The term a priori refers to a method of attaining knowledge without the use of experience, establishing “transcendental and logical truths” (Palmquist n.d.). In contrast, a posteriori refers to the attainment of knowledge through experience in order “to establish empirical and hypothetical truths” (Palmquist n.d.).  For Kant, the term aesthetic relates to sensory perception, which interacts with a system of judgment that is a priori (Kant 1952: 173-174, Palmquist n.d., Burnham 2004).  Because this judgment is a priori, or “prior to” experience, aesthetic judgment is considered by Kant to be “pure,” a higher faculty, independent from sense perception (Kant 1952: 208-209, Cheetham 1998: 8, Burnham 2004).

Kant defines realms of perception related to aesthetic judgment as empirical and transcendental. Empirical refers to perception through experience, while transcendental refers to a type of knowledge that is synthetic, or based on intuition (Lyas 1997: 33, Palmquist n.d.).  Transcendental knowledge is connected directly to the concept of a priori; it is beyond ordinary experience (Cheetham 1998: 10, Burnham 2004). While an item of synthetic knowledge is established through intuition, an analytic item or statement is considered true as it conforms to logical laws (Cheetham 1998: 8, Palmquist n.d).  Kantian distinctions discussed thus far can be organized as dichotomous sets including a priori/a posteriori, empirical/transcendental, pure/impure and analytic/synthetic.

These distinctions were important in the discussion of early Cubism (Cheetham 1998: 8).  In the early twentieth century, ideas derived from the distinction between analytic and synthetic, and Kant’s concepts of the noumenal, or “thing-in-itself,” disinterestedness, and formal autonomy were used to conceptualize Cubism (Figure 1, Cheetham 1998: 8).  Noumenon is the name given to an object that is transcendent in nature, as according to Kant, the “thing-in-itself” is unknowable (Palmquist n.d.).  Phenomenon, in contrast, refers to an object that is knowable empirically (Palmquist n.d.).

In the nineteenth century, the idea of the sublime, found in Critique of Judgment, became important to romantic landscape painting (Figure 2, Cheetham 1998: 9, Lyas 1997).  The concept of the sublime refers to beauty that is powerful, awe-inspiring, and elevated (Kant 1952: 126, Cheetham 1998:9). This concept was incorporated into ideas regarding the power of nature in landscape painting, particularly as a part of romantic movements, as seen in the work of Turner, and in American landscape painting, particularly the Hudson River School (Cheetham 1998: 9). The importance of philosophy and Kantian ideas to artists is also evidenced in the work of Anselm Keifer as a portrait of Kant is incorporated into Paths of the Wisdom of the World: Herman’s Battle, 1980 (Figure 3, Cheetham 1998: 16).

Within the discipline of art history, discussions of the aesthetic ideas found in Kant’s Critique of Judgment have been prevalent.  The philosophy of Kant was utilized extensively in the early twentieth century as a justification for formalism (Sheppard 1987: 47, Cheetham 1998: 7).  The concept of the “pure,” elevated, aesthetic judgment gave legitimacy to the valuation of abstract art (Davies 2006: 72, Cheetham 1998:9).  Kantian views of aesthetics have also been incorporated into discussions on the value of art, and questions of what makes art (Shepard 1987: 72).

In her book, Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art, Anne Sheppard uses the term “aesthetic contemplation,” recommending a process of thinking about art in which the viewer pays “close attention to objects for their own sake,” and considers “the emotions appropriate to the object contemplated” (1987: 71-72).  Context is important to this evaluation.  As aesthetic judgment is removed from the empirical realm, the diversity of art and the importance of context are often lost in formalist analysis that has utilized Kant to create hierarchies of value (Davies 2007:32, Shepard 1987: 42).  However, Sheppard’s concept of aesthetic contemplation follows Kantian traditions, forming a revision in the application of Kant’s work to art theory, rather than disregarding it (1987:72).

Throughout the twentieth century has artist have often tested aesthetic boundaries (Cheetham 1998: 7).  An example of the way in which traditions of aesthetic judgment have been questioned is demonstrated in Marcel Duchamp’s work Fountain, 1917 (Figure 4, de Duve 1996: 89).  The entrance of the “readymade” into a juried exhibition poked fun at the art world, while simultaneously prompting viewers to reflect on their own aesthetic judgments (de Duve 1996: 91).  The valuation of objects and the process of determining what qualifies as art are closely related to aesthetic judgment (de Duve 1996: 92).  In relation to this, George Dickie stated that while perhaps not “beautiful,” Duchamp’s readymades are valuable to art theory (1997: 34).  Dickie goes on to assert that a work of art is “an artifact,” that has been classified as art by having “had conferred upon it the status of candidate for appreciation” (1997: 34).  According to Thierry de Duve, this status is not determined by any criteria other than that provided by a set of conventions (1996: 94).

While the concept of pure aesthetic judgment that is universal can be viewed as exclusive of artistic traditions beyond the West, the delineations created by Immanuel Kant are useful in the discussion of taste and value (Lyas 1997: 31, Cheetham 1998: 6-9). According to Kant, pure aesthetic judgment is a higher faculty, separate from empirical observation.  Things should be considered in and of themselves, yet their true meanings cannot be grasped cognitively.  According to Kant, aesthetic judgment is universal and absolute, yet transcendent and undefined.







List of References


Burnham, D. (2004) Kant Glossary. Staffordshire University [online] available from

<> [April 22, 2008]


Cheetham, Mark A. (1998) ‘Immanuel Kant and the Bo(a)rders of Art History.’ In The

Subjects of Art History. Ed. by Mark Cheetham, Michael Ann Holly, and Keith Moxey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 6-24.


Davies, Stephen (2006) The Philosophy of Art. Malden, M.A.: Blackwell Publishing.


De Duve, Thierry (1996) Kant After Duchamp. Cambridge, M.A.: The MIT Press.


Dickie, George (1997) Introduction to Aesthetics: An Analytic Approach. New York:

Oxford University Press.


Kant, Immanuel (1952) Critique of Judgment.  trans. by Meredith, J.C. Oxford:

Clarendon Press.


Lyas, Colin (1997) Aesthetics.  Canada: McGill–Queens University Press.


Palmquist, Stephen (n.d.) Glossary of Kant’s Technical Terms.  Steve Palmquist’s Web

Site, Hong Kong Baptist University [online] available from ;; [April 22, 2008]


Sheppard, Anne (1987) Aesthetics: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Art. Oxford:

Oxford University Press.





Figure 1

Pablo Picasso

Portrait of Ambroise Vollard, 1910

Oil on Canvas, 36 1/4” x 25 5/8”.

Pushkin Museum, Moscow.

(Sam Hunter ; John Jacobus, 1985, Modern Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc).
Available from
;; [April 22, 2008]


Figure 2

J.M.W Turner

The Fighting Temeraire Tugged to Her Last Berth to be Broken Up, 1838

Oil on Canvas.

National Gallery, London, Turner Bequest.

(Lori Pauli, 2003. ‘Seeing the Big Picture.’ In Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky.  ed. by Usher Caplan, Didi Pollock, and Danielle Martel. New Haven: Yale University Press: 32).

Available from ;; [April 22, 2008]


Figure 3

Anselm Keifer

Paths of the Wisdom of the World: Herman’s Battle, 1980

Woodcut, additions in acrylic and shellac. 11’41/2” x 17’2”.

Art Institute of Chicago; restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. Noel Rothman, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas Cohen, Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Ditmer, Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Goldenberg, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Manilow, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Shapiro; Wirt D. Walker Fund, 1986.

(Cheetham 1998: 16). Available from

;; [April 22, 2008]








Figure 4

Marcel Duchamp

Fountain, 1917

Urinal, 24” high.

Private collection, Carroll Janice.

(Adams, Laurie Schneider, 2007, Art Across Time. New York: Magraw Hill).

Available from ;; [April 22, 2008]