English 456: C20 Criticism and Theory

Supplementary Remarks on Immanuel Kant:
Observations on the Significance for Art of Kant's Philosophy

Al Drake | Cyber Cafe | Thurs. 6-7 | 714-434-1612

For the philosophical idealist Immanuel Kant, as Hazard Adams says, we see "reality" through a pair of spectacles that we can never remove: space and time are the “two pure forms of sensible intuition, serving as principles of a priori knowledge” (Critique of Pure Reason 67). They constitute the basic "rules" that allow human beings to process the raw data of the sensible manifold into some intelligible form. When he calls space and time a priori forms of intuition, Kant means that those categories exist in the mind prior to any sensory experience. They are the rules by which the mind construes or processes what we call reality.*

With Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and other German Idealists, we have moved from a mimetic theory of the universe to a subjective theory of the universe and, in the writings of later romantic poets and theorists, to an expressive theory of artistic creation. The mind constitutes the reality we are able to know. The great and ancient opposition to this doctrine would be philosophical realism, as we see it in Plato and others. In such authors, "reality" has an objective existence outside our own heads; it exists independently of our ability to perceive it. The most careful formulation of Idealism, of course, does not assert that there is no "outside world"; rather, it argues that whatever the status of an outside world, we can only know of it what our own capacities allow us to perceive and understand. We do not have access to any "noumenal world," as Kant calls it; so building a foundation on the basis of what the noumenal world is like is not a constructive use of our philosophical efforts. Instead, Kant says, we should concern ourselves with the "phenomenal world" (the one Plato had dismissed as a mere copy or phantom) that we can access with our senses. This insistence of Kant's on the subjective aspect of human experience led, in the work of later critics less circumspect than himself, to claims that the artist's mind was the place where the gap between self and world, subject and object, could at last overcome through the power of the poetic symbol. Such romanticist writers as Coleridge and, to an extent, Wordsworth, would say that the old Realist notions about external reality led to the tyrrany of the world and of social constructs treated as "natural" over human beings. This rather broad "afterlife" of Kantian philosophy, therefore, had an enormous impact on theories about art and continues to be important to this day.


*Space and time are to be associated with the “sensibility”; the scheme of categories for the power of Understanding is as follows:

Table of Categories

I: Of Quantity -- Unity / Plurality / Totality

II: Of Quality -- Reality / Negation / Limitation

III: Of Relation -- Of Inherence and Subsistence (substantia et accidens) /
Of Causality and Dependence (cause and effect) /
Of Community (reciprocity between agent and patient)

IV: Of Modality -- Possibility-Impossibility / Existence-Non-existence /