The Semblance of Fine Art in Nature by Julian Roney

The relevance of Kant’s Critique of Judgement within aesthetic theory is reinforced by his previous critiques. Following on from the expulsion of empirical scepticism within the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant turns toward the world of phenomena to consider the transcendental conditions of possibility for the pure judgement of taste. Kant (1952, p306) formulates what I will reference as the absurd conclusion that ‘art can only be termed beautiful…while…it has the appearance of nature’ and that ‘nature proved beautiful when it wore the appearance of art’. This essay will focus on how Kant arrives at this statement and provide a coherent interpretation of exactly what is meant by the purposiveness which links these aesthetic objects. While Kant deals with the aesthetic judgement of nature in consideration of both the sublime and the beautiful, the following analysis will purely address the latter and how Kant relates this to fine art, which will be synonymous, as Kant uses it, with beautiful art.


Firstly, introducing the unique groundwork structures of Kant’s Analytic of the Beautiful is necessary before explicating the conclusions he arrives at in later moments. As outlined in the Critique of Pure Reason (1787, B176/A137), an objects manifold representations are subsumed under its concept, which in turn relates representations to the understanding. A pure aesthetic judgement of taste involves firstly the relaying of phenomenal representations by means of imagination and understanding to the pleasure or displeasure of a subject. While it is the object of satisfaction which we call beautiful in our judgement, this statement is subjective in the relevant sense that this determination is a feeling of pleasure by which ‘nothing at all in the object is designated’ (Kant, 1952, p204). Finally, the beautiful is that judgement itself which merely pleases, not by its adherence to any determinate concept or end and insofar as I judge it aesthetically without vested interest. In arriving at a beautiful judgement I have provided some of the processes and factors which are necessary for a pure judgement of taste to be carried out in accordance with Kant’s architectonic.


With this groundwork completed, this essay can now move on to the interpretation of Kant’s absurd conclusion. I will demonstrate, using Kantian reasoning, that art which imitates natural beauty as its purpose can never be beautiful and that the similarity in appearance which Kant speaks of in nature and art are not representational appearances, but are similarities in their purposiveness. Before analysing purposiveness as a property of art and nature respectively Kant explicates that ‘beauty is the form of purposiveness in an object’ insofar as it is without representation of a purpose (Kant, 1952, 236). From this I conclude that for Kant, purposiveness is in actuality a seeming-to- be-purposive while the object (or end) of its purpose is not locatable in its representation. Hence this characteristic can exist in spite of the absence of an external purpose. This absence is necessary for there to be any judgement of the beautiful at all, as without it, the experiencing subject would have no feeling of pleasure. Recalling the previously introduced relation of representation to the cognitive faculties, pleasure in the beautiful itself arises from ‘the play of the cognitive faculties’ (Kant, 1952, 222) which is allowed by the subjective determining ground of purposiveness. To provide clarity on the concept of purposiveness-without- external-purpose, I pose that it should be understood as Rueger (2007) suggests, as if it appears that the very purpose of the beautiful object is to set a free play between my imagination and understanding. This is consistent with Kant’s (1952, 227) formulation of purposiveness as requiring a purpose, but one which is an internal end for the object which is directed at the internal possibility of the object itself.


This provides evidence for the explication of my example that fine art which might, as its purpose, imitate a natural setting, such as in the 19th century tradition of Naturalist painting, could not be beautiful for the fact that the representational likeness which relates it to nature demands comparison from the faculty of reason and not imagination. Insofar as the hypothetical painting just described has contained within its purpose the end of appearing like nature then it is with external purpose. If such is the case, the painting can not only fail to produce pleasure, but must be deemed good, as it is only good for its ends. This example shows that Kant’s absurd conclusion cannot be taken to mean that the representation of art resembles the representation of nature and vice-a- versa without contradicting the necessary condition of purposiveness.


Given that an interpretation of purposiveness has been generated as the precondition for the judgement of the beautiful I will now advance the argument that not only is this a characteristic of both fine art and nature, but also that this is the likeness in appearance which Kant refers to. Kant (1952, 302) argues that the charms which elicit our pleasure in nature, as beauty of form, of light and of sound, run parallel to those delights which can also be derived from art; as in the examples provided of architecture (1952, 225) and violin (1952, 224). Without implying a hierarchy of aesthetic objects, natural beauties, in a way, contain the original purposiveness. In the introduction to the Critique Kant (1952, 94) shows that on the concept of natural ends, there is nothing given a priori in nature that intimates an objective purpose for it in itself; while he might suggest an extrinsic end could be given to it by an ecologist or biologist. While the beauty of nature has no such end in itself, its beauty is immediate as if it has been designed by some higher faculty to spark the free-play between our imagination and understanding. In Kantian terms, it is as if nature has been made by a rule to delight our cognitive faculties, or as he states, ‘natural beauty conveys a finality in its form making the object appear…preadapted to our power of judgement’ (Kant, 1952, 245). What is crucial to understanding Kant’s statement that nature appears as if it were art is this unintentionality in design, which at the same time is so immediately delightful that it is as if it were intentionally designed. We look for the artist behind nature’s composition though it has none. In this way we give nature an appearance of art insofar as ‘her beautiful products display herself as art.., designedly, according to a directed arrangement and as purposiveness without purpose’; and hence we find its end within ourselves morally, as ‘the ultimate end of our existence’ ( Kant, 1952, 301). This constitutes Kant’s reasoning why nature may resemble fine art but it is on different terms that fine art can be understood to resemble nature.


What is fundamentally different in art, and is indeed necessary to distinguish it from nature, is that the intentionality in its design is authored. A flower arrangement by a skilled florist is not a beautiful work of nature but of art insofar as its intention to please is manmade. While an object’s authorship is not a determining factor for our subjective judgement of taste Kant hence implies that it is a determination of the object in itself. Therefor within Kant’s architectonic, genius plays the crucial role of developing that which occurs in nature, as an object which in its representation is purposive and yet not derived from a rule which has as its determining ground a concept (Kant, 1952, 307).  Moreover, the rule to art which Kant speaks of is given to genius, indeterminate of its concept, through nature. As Guyer (1994, pp280) recognizes, in responding to work of artistic genius we react to it as if it were natural beauty without it having at all to appear similar to it in representation. If we understand genius’ role in the creation of fine art which is purposive and at the same time intentional while appearing unintentional then Kant’s statement that ‘we must be able to look upon fine art as nature’ is not only coherent, but describes the fundamental structure and conditions for beauty to exist anywhere outside of nature.


It is apparent that Kant’s absurd conclusion is in actually not absurd at all. The appearance which bears the semblance of both fine art and nature in each other cannot be conceived as a representational appearance. Rather, fine art has the appearance of nature by the fundamental structure of purposiveness which is originally found in natural beauties that have no objective end. At the same time it is in nature that we find the same purposiveness as well as the appearance of the intentional design that we find in fine art, while it is evident that nature is defined by being intrinsically without this design. While both aesthetic objects spark the back-and- forth free play between the cognitive faculties of imagination and understanding, we must interpret, as Kant does, that these objects are concretely distinguished from each other all the same.


By Julian Roney

Bachelor of Arts, Majoring in Philosophy




Guyer, P 1994, ‘Kant’s Conception of Fine Art’. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 52, no.3, pp. 275-85.

Kant, I 1787, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. M. Weigelt, London: Penguin Group.

Kant, I 1952, The Critique of Judgement, trans. J.C. Meredith, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Rueger, A 2007, ‘Kant and the Aesthetics of Nature’. British Journal ofAesthetics, vol. 47, no. 2, pp. 138-55


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