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Kant’s Judgment of ‘Free Beauty’

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Kant’s Judgment of ‘Free Beauty’


Beauty is considered a subjective attribute that cannot be quantified or sufficiently contrasted or compared. Kant addressed the issue of beauty by explaining how it ought to be treated by the people as well as by the artists. In Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology, or Critique of Judgment, he sets out to idealize the perception that beauty is only quantifiable through its universality. To achieve this, a myriad of factors have must be taken into account before laying down the claim.

To understand Kant’s premise, it is important to note that he had separated the concept of beauty or aesthetic effects of an object with the observer’s use of logic (Prettejohn 2005). Kant argues that one has to separate logic from any form of aesthetic judgment for their position to be universally valid. This implies that the very act of trying to decide the attributes considered superior concerning beauty may nullify the judgment of the observer (Prettejohn 2005).

Palmer (2008) admits that Kant’s position on beauty creates a particular twist that seeks to alienate the observer’s subjective notions with their judgment about the aesthetic characteristics of an item. “The Kantian judgment of taste posits that there can be no such rules or criteria, defining how beautiful something is. If there were, the critic would simply need to determine whether the particular object conformed to the general rule, which would be a logical and not an aesthetic judgment.” (Prettejohn 2005, p. 48)

To examine the position that Kant took on the issue of aesthetic judgment, various guiding factors he outlined need to be analyzed. Kant’s major concern was to link the judgment with other intuitions that were likely to process a different perspective other than that based on what the eye or the ear can behold.

Pleasure and Beauty

Pleasure could mean an externally induced surge of satisfaction. In relation to judgment of beauty, beauty may elicit pleasure when something possesses attributes that are perfect to behold (Palmer 2008). Palmer (2008) indicates that pleasure occurs because of “the harmony of the cognitive powers” (p. 2). This implies that once the cognitive capabilities are in harmony, there emanates a fulfillment that can be used to describe the source of the harmony as beautiful. Kant argues that pleasure requires the absence of prior desires or interests from the person making the judgment.

Kant argued that in order to make credible judgment, one is has to eliminate all desires that they may possess of the object under consideration. This is to say that one ought to view the item as an end product and not as a means to the gratification of other interests (Prettejohn 2005). Although not easy, it is arguably the closest one can get in a bid to make an unbiased judgment considering that the more information available about an object, the more likely one is to be biased in their judgment. For instance, Prettejohn (2005) theorizes that in order to describe a politically themed painting, one requires to strip themselves of all political inclinations to judge the painting on account of whether it has sufficient qualities to warrant being labeled beautiful.

Ginsborg (2013) affirms that the concept of disinterested pleasure is critical if an objective judgment is to be attained. It involves developing a pleasure, not out of desiring the object or wishing to fulfill some purpose with the object, but rather because of visualizing it. Ginsborg (2013) reflects that it is possible for the judgment of beauty to be mistaken or merged with the judgment of goodness. Whereas goodness entails serving a purpose in way that gratifies someone, beauty does not have to lead to any action, as it ought to be an end in itself (Ginsborg 2013). Kant succeeds in clearly distinguishing the two judgments based on the issues that the critics of either side have to take into account.

Jones (2009) also quips that in following the Kantian judgment premise, “the art critic must suppress and transcend their personal tastes and desires in order to see purely and objectively the work of art and to experience the true beauty emanating freely forth from the artwork.” (p. 382) In this regard, Jones (2009) argues that even some of the highly controversial piece of art may pass if the Kantian position is assumed. This is because once the artist has created his work; the critic must evaluate it in a manner that disallows their desires and interests to compromise judgment (Jones 2009).

Universality of the Judgment

Kant argues that the judgment meted should not be a singular judgment, but rather should be one that everyone should concur with. In the concept of universal validity, Ginsborg (2013) maintains that the critics have to make their judgment based on the harmony between one’s imagination and their understanding. This implies that judgment assumes the attributes of an empirical consideration where one bases the conclusions on verifiable deductions. Here, the Kantian judgment requires that the factors qualifying the object as beautiful be objective enough to constrict one’s imagination so that it is in line with that which he understands (Ginsborg 2013).

In order to critic an object in a universally valid manner, a critic must free themselves of all subjective inclinations that they possess. Palmer (2008) observes that Kant’s premise goes beyond the disinterested pleasure to ensure that liking an object should not be based on a concept. In order for the judgment to be universally valid, everyone should be able to like the object without concept (Palmer 2008). This is because when liking is attached to other purposes it becomes subjective, which cannot be universal. Even when similar conclusions are drawn from the liking that has concept, the judgment will not be on beauty, but rather on the goodness of the object (Palmer 2008). Kant emphasizes that free beauty has to be devoid of all prejudices for it to be objective.

Basing the judgment on the quantifiable attributes, critics can make judgments that will be universal. The judgment will be made not on personal feelings about the object but on different varying features that make beholding the object pleasurable. Zhujic (n.d) points to the role of quality as an attribute useful in harmonizing judgments. Once the critic is guided by the search for the quality, there emanates a likelihood that they will make deductions similar to those that other critics would make about the object.

Prettejohn (2005) argues that it is difficult to find a piece of art that befits the Kantian description of free beauty. She argues that almost all artists create themed works. Every art at least serves a particular purpose for the artist as well as for its audience. She argues that Kant may have narrowed the auspices under which free or pure beauty is describable and effectively turned majority of the art into bearing a beauty that is impure or that is dependent of the purpose. Prettejohn (2005) theorizes that once the object’s beauty is pegged on its non-aesthetic qualities, the object bears an impure or hybrid beauty.

As Palmer (2008) notes, universality does not depend on empirical attributes or the concepts of the object. It instead must be based on the aesthetic attributes of the object. One has to disregard logic and objectivity and only consider that which can be discerned as beautiful regardless of the critic’s characteristics. Kant argued that in ridding one’s logical deductions, it is only then that the judgment can transcend what he refers to as cognitive judgment to allow one to make proper judgment of beauty (Palmer 2008).

Palmer (2008) distinguishes cognitive judgment from the judgment of beauty by arguing that one has to single out an object in order to make a judgment of beauty. Conversely, the cognitive judgments emanates from series or from many judgments of beauty that have led to some form of generalizations. Palmer (2008) observes that when one says that roses are beautiful, she is alluding to many universal claims involving different roses. A judgment of beauty would instead be more singular and requires that the critic singles out a particular rose, which he establishes to be beautiful (Palmer 2008).

Beauty and Purpose

Ginsborg (2013) indicates that in order to attain a universally valid judgment, critic must judge an object as it ought to be judged and not as he feels about the object. To achieve this, he must not consider the likely benefits that he derive from the object nor is he supposed to judge it in a manner that is supposed to impose on the object the need to provide any form of gratification to him. Ginsborg (2013) emphasizes the need for aiming at ‘purposiveness without a purpose. ‘It involves ensuring that one’s judgment is purposive enough to be repeated by other critics yet not motivated by any purpose. The critic should not consider if the object could be useful or whether it can be used to satiate other desires.

Palmer (2008) concurs with Ginsborg and indicates that Kantian judgment of beauty has to be guided by “the condition of cognition: a purposive harmony of the cognitive powers” (p. 38). This implies that the judgment has to be deliberate yet free of any influence other than that which is presented. In this context, Palmer (2008) enthuses that Kant aimed at ensuring that all the critics depended on the pleasure that emanates from the harmony of their cognitive power to make the judgment of beauty. Under such conditions, Kant theorized that it is possible to deduce a pleasure that would possess “universal communicability; a necessary feature for the presentational state as a whole” (Palmer 2008, p. 38).

Necessity of the Judgment of Free Beauty

Kant argues that in order for beauty to be free or pure, the universal validity of the beauty is necessary. Ginsborg (2013) observes that the judgment made by a critic is not only expected to be shared by other independent critics, but they ought to arrive at the same conclusion as he did. This is to imply that the critic has to base their conclusions on the presentation rather than on concepts of the object or on intuitions.

Burnham (2005) argues that beauty ought to be judged in a manner that one expects others to contend with. It is not a case where everyone has a different perspective of the object’s beauty, but where everyone must be able to make the same deductions from that that has been presented. The ability to convince everyone to agree with the beauty of an object is critical to the judgment of free beauty. Perhaps it is through the premise of beauty being an appearance that allows Kant to expect that everyone would enjoy similar pleasures from a presentation (Tatarkiewicz 2005). The position requires careful consideration because, as Tatarkiewicz (2005) notes, it is possible to mix beauty and goodness if one does not separate presentation and purpose of an object.

In order for judgment of free beauty to become actionable, the moral concepts of an artist as well as the moderation from the critic may play a pivotal role. Tatarkiewicz (2005) observes that in the ancient Greek, a principle for aesthetic consideration for art was highly esteemed, which necessitated the merging of art with beauty. He also highlights how Homer, an early artist, elaborated art as possessing a beauty that was universally acknowledged. Contrary to Kant who dissociated beauty with other purposes, that an object or an art may serve, the ancient artists, especially poets, revered the art and associated it with deities (Tatarkiewicz 2005).

Free Beauty and Sublimity

Kant makes an attempt to further explain the need for free beauty by distinguishing the beautiful from the sublime. He argues that the sublime is that which invokes both pleasure and displeasure (Ginsborg 2013). Beautiful, on the other hand, invokes pleasure through a balance between imagination and understanding inputted by the cognitive powers or faculties (Ginsborg 2013). Ginsborg (2013) observes that Kant believed that sublimity differed from free beauty in that it was invoked not by understanding, but by reason. In free beauty, reason and logic are said to create deductions that would not be universally valid since their subjective nature differs from one individual to another.

Prettejohn (2005) argues that sublimity involves the employment of more than the cognitive faculties when evaluating a presentation. The use of aspects that require more than simple input to make a judgment would amount to sublime rather than free beauty. Prettejohn (2005) singles out Caspar David Friedrich’s work, The Rückenfigur to theorize that the sublime also utilizes the faculties of reason or logic to appreciate the presentation (p. 55). A critic may subject the same eye to Jacques Louis David’s piece, Oath of the Horatii. She theorizes that the art ignites pleasure when a critic “attempts to realize the art’s perception fully, both by the magnitude of the view and by the scudding patches of fog” in vain (p. 55). From the failure to comprehend the perception emanates a “feeling of awe or wonder that is the counterpart, in the experience of the sublime, to the free play of mind in response to the beautiful.” (Prettejohn 2005, p. 55)

Ginsborg (2013) argues that the sublime is supposed to strike a balance between imagination and reason. While free beauty is the harmony of imagination and understanding, Kant attempts to distinguish between sublime and free beauty by alienating reason from influencing imagination where beauty is concerned. In this context, it is clear that free beauty is presented as describing natural objects while sublime describes things that overwhelm the critics’ imagination. Ginsborg (2013) argues that the pyramids of Egypt or immensely big buildings may invoke sublimity in the critic rather than a judgment of free beauty.

Free Play in the Judgment of Free Beauty

For an object to attain free beauty, the critic’s cognitive faculties ought to be at free play. Palmer (2008) observes that there is a potential merging between cognitive judgment and aesthetic judgment with the only difference being that aesthetic judgment requires that the cognitive faculties be in harmony whereas the cognitive judgment employs the free play of the cognitive faculties. This implies that the critic can achieve either while aiming for judgment of free beauty. Palmer (2008) affirms that there is a possibility that free play of the cognitive faculties can occur without there being harmony. In such a scenario, displeasure is bound to result in what is referred as judgment of ugliness (Palmer 2008).

Prettejohn (2005) concurs with Kant’s idea that free play is essential in the attainment of the judgment of beauty. She posits that “an interaction of imagination and understanding in a free play that is neither determined by a definite concept nor directed towards a finite end” is essential in contemplating whether an object is beautiful (Prettejohn 2005, p. 59). It is of paramount importance to note that free play provides for subjective perspectives of both the artist and the critic. Prettejohn (2005) argues that through free play, “Kant attempted to explain how an artwork could be made intentionally, yet without sacrificing the element of free play” (p 59).


Kantian critique of judgment offers a different position on the discernment of beauty. The emphasis laid by Kant is on the attainment of a universally valid judgment of beauty that would surpass the subjective unquantifiable descriptions that depend only on the logical faculties of the critic. He argued that free beauty ought to produce similar pleasures to different critics at different intervals. In order to achieve this fete, the object should possess attributes that invoke pleasure through the harmony of the critic’s cognitive faculties. The judgment of free beauty can be deduced to imply that critics should base their judgment on that which is discernible in the presentation without consideration of their desires or interests that could be served by the object.

Reference List

Burnham, D, 2005, Kant’s Aesthetics, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Staffordshire University. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed

19October 2013].

Ginsborg, H, 2013, “Kant’s Aesthetics and Teleology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring  Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), [online] Available at: [Accessed

19October 2013].

Jones, Amelia. “‟Every Man Knows Where and How Beauty Gives Him Pleasure: “Beauty Discourse and the Logic of Aesthetics.” Ed. Donald Preziosi.  The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Palmer, L. C, 2008, “A Universality Not Based on Concepts: Kant’s Key to the Critique of

Taste”, Kantian Review, 13(01), p.1-51.

Prettejohn, E, 2005, Beauty and Art: 1750-2000: 1750-2000, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tatarkiewicz, W, 2005, History of Aesthetics: Edited by J. Harrell, C. Barrett and D. Petsch. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Zunjic, B, (n.d), Immanuel  Kant: The Critique of Judgment (1790), [online] Available at: <> [Accessed

19October 2013].

Images included

  1. Caspar David Friedrich’s work the Rückenfigur:


  1. Jacques Louis David: Oath of the Horatii; Google Art Project


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