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Sunday, March 18, 2018

Immanuel Kant’s View of Genius

Paul Guyer, in his essay, “Exemplary Originality: Genius, Universality, and Individuality” (Chapter 10, Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics, edited by Paul Guyer) talks about a subject that was of great interest to Immanuel Kant and to Kant’s predecessors and successors, namely genius. Kant’s conception of genius as an instance of exemplary originality is markedly different from that of most other philosophers.

Here’s an excerpt from Guyer’s essay:
At the outset of the eighteenth century, genius was characterized simply as exceptional facility in perception and representation, where the latter is the object of artistic production and the former its precondition. As the century progressed, and as long into the nineteenth century as genius remained a lively topic, it came to be characterized as a gift for invention, leading to originality in artistic representation. But only by a few, whom we might for this reason call philosophical geniuses, were the implications of the new conception of genius fully embraced. Immanuel Kant was the first to recognize that genius, as exemplary originality, would be a stimulus and provocation to continuing revolution in the history of art…
Guyer points out that Kant in his Critique of the Power Judgement defines genius as “the talent (natural gift)” or “inborn productive faculty” “that gives the rule to art,” or more precisely “through which nature gives the rule to art.” Further in the essay, Guyer says:
Analysis of artistic beauty entails that truly successful art must always possess what Kant calls “exemplary originality”: originality, because the successful work of art can never appear to have produced contingency or novelty; yet exemplary, because it must at the same time strike us as pleasing in a way that should be valid for all. Originality by itself, to be sure, is easy to achieve: just make something that departs from all known rules and models. Of course, in this way a lot of nonsense will be produced, so what Kant calls “original nonsense” is easy to come by. The trick is to produce exemplary originality, objects which, “while not themselves the result of imitation… must yet serve others in that way, i.e., as a standard for judging,” or objects that strike us as original in appearing to depart from known rules and models but which can themselves be pleasing to all or a rule for all. Thus, in Kant’s view, all truly successful art must be the work of genius. 
Guyer’s essay also offers an interesting comparison between the views of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill. But on that I will comment in a different blog. 

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