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Following the Flowers: What Kant can teach us about Art and Beauty

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Following the Flowers: What Kant can teach us about Art and Beauty

“Flowers…are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty out values all the utilities in the world.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Flowers—what are they for?

No doubt you’ve wondered, whether as a child of tender age or an adult in your more childlike moments, what exactly the reason behind a flower is.

If your mind threw up competing answers along the lines of, “To look beautiful,” and “To attract bees,” you’d quickly find a contradiction between the feeling the flower inspires in you and the function that feeling serves on behalf of the flower.

In other words, you’d realize that the beauty you discern in the form of the flower is something entirely different than the purpose for the flower’s design. In the first case you’re evaluating the flower as an artist, and in the second case as a scientist.

It’s exactly this realization that Immanuel Kant, perhaps the most famous German philosopher, arrived at in 1790 in his monumental tome Critique of Judgement.

In that work, Kant was interested in exploring the nature of aesthetic judgments, namely, judgments about the beauty of things, and struggled mightily with the conflict between two apparent aspects of judgments of beauty—their subjectivity and their universality.

When you look at a flower, you are struck with a particularly personal reaction: you appreciate the flower’s beauty deriving from its graceful form and harmonious combination of colors. But, this is a decisively individual sentiment—anyone could find this or that flower ugly, irrespective of your aesthetic appreciation. This is the subjective aspect of a judgment of beauty.

Yet at the same time, within you is brewing a burning desire that everyone should agree with your judgment of the flower’s beauty, and that those who refuse to do so are missing some important and objective feature of the flower. This is the universal aspect of a judgment of beauty.

Taken together, the subjectivity and universality of a judgment of beauty cause what Kant calls an “entirely disinterested satisfaction” in us. That is, we don’t desire the flower for some particular purpose—to fulfill our appetite for food, for instance—but we rest contented in the very fact that we have viewed the thing and appreciated its beauty.

But, a further distinction need be drawn between different types of “beauties,” because this simultaneous subjectivity and universality only occurs in aesthetic judgments of certain objects (such as flowers).

Some beautiful objects are “dependent beauties” because the aesthetic judgments we form about them are based on a concept of what kind of thing the object is, as well as our previous experience with these objects. You might find a particular coat beautiful, but you would first need to know what a coat is and what it is for—the concept of a coat—and have seen previous coats in the past, because those are the very things against which you judge the beauty of this particular coat.

But, “free beauties” are those beautiful objects which we can appraise without reference to any concept or past example. Aesthetic judgments about these types of beauties are truly universal and not just subjective, unlike judgments concerning dependent beauties. To this special category belong flowers.

“Flowers are free beauties of nature.”
-Immanuel Kant

“Flowers are free beauties of nature,” Kant writes. “Hardly anyone but a botanist knows the true nature of a flower, and even he, while recognizing in the flower the reproductive organ of the plant, pays no attention to this natural end when using his taste to judge of its beauty.”

That is, Kant conceives of the flower as epitomizing what is truly universal in our appraisal of something beautiful—purposeless purposiveness.

Flowers, as free beauties, possess a universal beauty because we only vaguely intimate the purpose behind their brilliant forms and colors. We don’t know exactly what purpose a flower serves, but we intuit more generally that it does serve some purpose.

More specifically: flowers, according to the lights of science, are merely a promise of future fruition. They only betoken the eventual appearance of something which is far more “useful,” in a purely utilitarian sense, than a flower—fruit! This fruit will not only spread the seed of a plant far and wide, aiding in its reproduction, but will also provide delicious sustenance for humans and beasts alike.

But returning to the flower which bore the fruit—we still haven’t a clear understanding of its necessity. We don’t know why the flower must precede the fruit, nor why it must so often take on forms and colors that appear to have nothing to do with the reproductive success of the plant. All we know is that it is beautiful in a universal but inexplicable way, and we demand that others assent to our assessment of its beauty as an objective fact.

In conclusion, we do not need to be a botanist in order to appreciate the beauty of a flower—we need only eyes and a faculty of aesthetic taste.

This kind of free, universal beauty is different from dependent beauty. To return to the example of the coat: we could only find a particular coat beautiful if we had a definite concept of a coat, namely, what function the coat serves in general, and how this particular coat specifically fulfills that function.

The flower, as an example of universal beauty, is therefore the prototype of all art, and throws the distinction between art and science into relief. We admire any piece of art like we do a flower—as an example of something everyone ought to find beautiful, without reference to a purpose but always hinting at one. We fight over the proper assessment of a painting or a movie as if our lives depended on it, but we all know that we could survive without it, just as we could survive without a flower, so long as we at some point secured access to the edible fruits flowers always promise.

Science is always concerned with the function and utility of a thing, whether to men or plants or animals; Art, at its best, is fixated on those things which appear to have no function or utility whatsoever, but which appear to us as worthy of our attention and appraisal.

Kant’s biographer, Manfred Kuehn, tells us that Kant—a recluse who never ventured outside his native town of Königsberg—adhered to the iron maxim Follow the flowers in determining which colors to pair when picking out an outfit. In thinking about Art and the Beautiful, we would do well to follow his advice.


published on June 13, 2019.

Image: Painting by Paul Harvey titled Immanuel Kant with Flowers and Painting.

About Author

TROY WORDEN is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley where he concentrated in English and Philosophy. He has written for online publications including Campus Reform of The Leadership Institute and The Daily Signal of The Heritage Foundation. Troy currently writes for American Greatness and The Washington Examiner.