In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Immanuel Kant: Aesthetics and Teleology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Single-Author Essay Collections
  • Multiauthor Collections on Aesthetics
  • Multiauthor Collections on Teleology
  • Introductory Works
  • German Texts
  • Primary Sources for Historical Context
  • Secondary Sources on Historical Context
  • The Development of Kant’s Text
  • Commentaries on the Whole Critique of the Power of Judgment
  • Commentaries on Kant’s Aesthetics in General
  • Commentaries on Kant’s Conception of the Sublime
  • Commentaries on Kant’s Conceptions of Art and Genius
  • Commentaries on Kant’s Concept of Teleology

Philosophy Immanuel Kant: Aesthetics and Teleology
Paul Guyer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 September 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0251


The Critique of the Power of Judgment (Kritik der Urteilskraft), published in 1790, was the last of the three critiques by Immanuel Kant (b. 1724–d. 1804). In the Introduction to the work, Kant argues that the gulf between the realms of the laws of nature and of freedom, or between theoretical and practical philosophy, needs to be bridged, and that the “reflecting” use of the faculty of judgment can do this while also taking us from the most general principles of natural science to empirical concepts and laws of nature. In the first main part of the work, the critique of the aesthetic power of judgment, Kant analyzes and defends our responses to, and judgments of, the beautiful in both nature and art and the sublime in nature; in the second main part, the critique of the teleological power of judgment, Kant defends our “regulative” rather than “constitutive” judgments of organisms as purposive systems within nature and of nature as a whole as a purposive system that has as its “final goal” (Endzweck) the development of the discipline necessary for the realization of human morality—although as a product of human freedom, morality can never, in Kant’s view, be achieved by merely natural means, only by an act of choice. Kant had been interested in reconciling a teleological outlook with the development of modern science since such early works as the Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens of 1755 and The Only Possible Basis for a Demonstration of the Existence of God of 1763. He had likewise long been interested in issues in aesthetics, having published a popular work of Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime in 1764. In addition, following the example of the textbooks by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten and Georg Friedrich Meier that he used for his courses on logic, metaphysics, and, beginning in 1772–1773, anthropology, he had touched upon aesthetics in all of those courses. But the idea of addressing aesthetics and teleology in a single book does not seem to have occurred to Kant before the end of 1787, after he had finished writing the Critique of Practical Reason, and he then wrote the third critique very quickly. His deepest reason for having written this book seems to have been his realization that both aesthetic and teleological judgment could support the human effort to be moral without sacrificing what is distinctive to them.

General Overviews

Kant’s hurriedly written text is dense and some of its central concepts obscure. Thus, in addition to providing inspiration for philosophers of many different persuasions since its publication—from the early idealist F. W. J. Schelling to 20th-century philosophers such as Theodor W. Adorno, Jacques Derrida, and Stanley Cavell—it has also generated an extensive body of commentary, especially in Anglo-American Kant studies, which have grown since the 1970s. Two books that place Kant’s work as a whole in the context of his life are Cassirer 1981 and Kuehn 2001, the former emphasizing its contribution to Kant’s philosophy of science as could be expected by a proponent of Marburg Neo-Kantianism, and the latter emphasizing the moral foundations of Kant’s philosophy as a whole. Overviews of Kant’s philosophy that include treatments of his aesthetics and teleology are found in DeVleeschauwer 1962, which treats it as part of Kant’s project of “transcendental deduction”; Guyer 2014, which emphasizes Kant’s concept of autonomy; Ward 2006, which focuses on Kant’s “Copernican revolution”; and Brandt 2007, which places Kant’s philosophy in the line of work on the “vocation of mankind” from J. J. Spalding (1749) to J. G. Fichte (1800). The brief treatment of the third Critique in Schepelman 2017 emphasizes that the book ties together numerous threads from Kant’s entire intellectual career. Altman 2017 and Baiasu and Timmons 2020 are multiauthor surveys of Kant’s whole philosophy that each include multiples essays on topics in the third Critique.

  • Altman, Matthew C., ed. The Palgrave Kant Handbook. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.

    A multiauthor survey of Kant’s philosophy that covers Kant’s aesthetics with essays by Fiona Hughes, Eli Friedlander, Jennifer McMahon, and Melissa Merrit, and discusses Kant’s development of his conception of empirical science in the introductions to the third Critique in an essay by John Zammito.

  • Baiasu, Sorin and Mark Timmons, eds. The Kantian Mind. London: Routledge, 2020.

    A multi-author survey of Kant’s entire philosophy that begins with an overview by Paul Guyer and includes essays on the aesthetics of the third Critique by Fiona Hughes, Alexander Rueger, and Tanehisa Otabe and essays on the teleology by Christian Onof, Dennis Schulting, and Thomas Teufel.

  • Brandt, Reinhard. Die Bestimmung des Menschen bei Kant. Hamburg, Germany: Felix Meiner Verlag, 2007.

    Written by one of post–World War II Germany’s greatest Kant scholars, this work emphasizes the importance of Kant’s conception of the moral vocation of human beings throughout his philosophy and includes a lengthy chapter on the moral significance of Kant’s teleology.

  • Cassirer, Ernst. Kant’s Life and Thought. Translated by James Haden. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

    A magisterial survey of Kant’s life and work by a leading Neo-Kantian philosopher, best known for his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1952), which, as was typical of his school, emphasizes methodological rather than metaphysical issues.

  • DeVleeschauwer, Herman-Jean. The Development of Kantian Thought. Translated by A. R. C. Duncan. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1962.

    This translation of the one-volume condensation of the author’s great La déduction transcendentale dans l’oeuvre de Kant (Antwerp, Belgium: De Sikkel, 1934), which includes a concise treatment of Kant’s teleology, is accessible to students.

  • Guyer, Paul. Kant. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2014.

    This overview of Kant’s philosophy is aimed at both undergraduate and graduate students. It discusses Kant’s aesthetics and teleology in their own right and in connection to Kant’s moral philosophy. Originally published in 2006 but with a revised interpretation of Kant’s key concept of “humanity” in the second edition.

  • Kuehn, Manfred. Kant: A Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781107050433

    This biography provides more detail on Kant’s life than Cassirer 1981, and the author contextualizes all of Kant’s works within the intellectual debates of their period. Kuehn stresses the implications of Kant’s conception of moral commitment throughout his work.

  • Schepelman, Maja. Kants Gesamtwerk in neuer Perspektive. Paderborn, Germany: Mentis, 2017.

    This scholarly work emphasizes that Kant’s entire published corpus represents a continuingly evolving process of thought rather than a system settled once and for all. Its treatment of the third Critique is brief but emphasizes that Kant uses this work to revisit and tie up many threads from throughout this continuing development.

  • Ward, Andrew. Kant: The Three Critiques. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press, 2006.

    More introductory than the previous survey, this volume is aimed primarily at undergraduates and treats Kant’s aesthetics more extensively than his teleology.

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