“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

No Newton of the Grass Blade: On the impossibility of scientific genius in Kant’s “Critique of Judgment”

In preparation for a lecture on mind and nature in German Idealism, I’m working my way through Kant’s third of three critiques, the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790). Prior to this sitting, I’ve only ever spent time with small sections of this text. For example, sections 75 and 76 in the second part on teleological judgment were major catalysts driving my earliest attempts to counter mechanistic biology by replacing it with an alternative theory of organism (for example, this essay written between 2008 and 2009). At that point, I had paid almost no attention to the first part on aesthetic judgment. Having read over that part twice now in the past few weeks, I realize that I had not fully understood what was at stake in Kant’s attempt to articulate a critical philosophy of biology, i.e., a transcendental study of life itself. The key take away for me was Kant’s denial of scientific genius. Only artists, and especially poets, can be considered geniuses. A genius is nature appearing in the form of the human being giving the rule to art. A genius is someone who, without following explicit rules and so according to a method mysterious even to themselves, is able to give artistic expression to the formative forces of nature. Without the slightest contrivance, as though they emerged merely from the free play of the imagination, genius is able to produce beautiful works that, for those with cultivated taste at least, are suggestive of supersensible ideas and cosmic intelligences.

But the notion of a scientific genius is a contradiction in terms, since for Kant natural science presupposes the lawful system of categories imposed universally upon our experience of nature by the understanding. Science produces conceptually determinant knowledge about nature, principally in the form of synthetic a priori logical and mathematical constructions (which if they cannot be known a priori are sorted according to the sieve of experiment). If a scientist cannot tell you with precision exactly how she came to know what she knows, then she doesn’t know anything. Knowledge production is always such that anyone with sufficient training should be able to grasp it and to reproduce it. Artistic genius, however, cannot be taught. Its products remain forever beyond the reach of mere skill or education. Artistic geniuses gain aesthetic insight into nature, but fail to provide any scientific knowledge of nature. Scientists, according to Kant, can catch no cognitive sight (i.e., they have no intellectual intuition) of the hidden cause of nature’s self-organizing processes.

“It is quite certain,” writes Kant,

“that we can never adequately come to know the organized beings and their internal possibility in accordance with merely mechanical principles of nature, let alone explain them; and indeed this is so certain that we can boldly say that it would be absurd for humans even to make such an attempt or to hope that there may yet arise a Newton who could make comprehensible even the generation of a blade of grass according to natural laws that no intention has ordered; rather, we must absolutely deny this insight to human beings” (section 75).



When it comes to our power to judge whether the apparently teleological or end-seeking aspects of nature (in its products and as a whole) are real causes or merely illusory intuitions, Kant resolves what would otherwise remain an antinomy for reason by denying natural science any knowledge one way or the other. We simply cannot know scientifically, argues Kant, whether nature is truly mechanical or whether higher ends are shaping its products and processes. Science can neither affirm an intelligent cause behind nature, nor deny that, at least for us as human knowers, such a cause may be necessary to explain the unity of nature. The concept of unity, of course, provides the very condition for the possibility of any natural science at all, and so for Kant, although we cannot know whether nature is objectively purposive, we are justified in our subjective assertions of such a purposiveness because our cognitive powers of imagination, understanding, and reason cannot find internal harmony without operating as though this purposiveness was real.

My own work on etheric imagination is an attempt to push Kant’s transcendental aesthetics a bit further than he was willing into a fully blown ontology of organism. That he was unwilling (per his devotion to the Good) to allow aesthetic feeling (the Beautiful) or scientific knowledge (the True) an equal share in critical philosophy’s transcendental foundation follows from his desire to ground the higher faculties of thinking (the Understanding) and feeling (Taste or Judgment) in that of willing (Reason). The moral law derived from his critique of practical reason was Kant’s trump card. He denied knowledge of nature in order to make room for moral freedom.

In my own work, I hope to show that any search for grounds or foundations always begins and ends in imagination (which contains its own sort of freedom, though not always moral). Once we acknowledge the peripheral centrality of imagination in philosophy (we find ourselves always in the middle of it, especially when we have tried most to escape from it), the search for foundations is transformed from means to end, which is to say philosophy returns to its generative roots in the groundlessness of Creativity. We become philosophers once again: lovers of wisdom instead of sophists claiming to be wise; careful inquirers rather than foolhardy instrumentalizers of nature. Attuned to imagination, we become the spiritual soil for nature’s creative expression. Genius becomes the norm instead of the exception. Supposedly common human beings are returned their birthright. We realize, as Hillman described it, the poetic basis of mind. Genius cannot be taught; it can only be remembered (though exemplars can help provoke our memories). Through genius–through the feeling and expression of nature become conscious in us as beauty–we gain access to goodness and truth.

Stay tuned…




10 responses to “No Newton of the Grass Blade: On the impossibility of scientific genius in Kant’s “Critique of Judgment””

  1. Simon Avatar

    This is a really great article. I have only really read about Kant and aesthetic judgement via Gadamer’s treatment of it in his opening chapter of Truth and Reason. This article has really helped clarify some of the main aspects of Kant. Thanks.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks, Simon. I’m finishing up detailed notes for a lecture on the Critique of Judgment and its influence on Fichte, Schelling, and Goethe. I’ll post them soon.

  2. John Bryant Avatar
    John Bryant

    What about the computer scientists who imagined natures hidden way and created fractal algorithms which simulated the form and movement of trees and grass? Was Benoit Mandelbrot not also a genius? And what about the engineers who innovated digital cameras and “orbital” platforms? Is this sort of creation not also genius? Could this sort of extension of the domain of the real be a divine method in its own rite?

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I certainly agree with you, and disagree with Kant, regarding the possibility of scientific genius. Kant’s image of the scientist and of scientific work was too pure, too abstract, too removed from aesthetic experience. I do believe a science of life is possible, but this could not be the mechanistic sort of science practiced by Newton and systematized by Kant.

      1. John Bryant Avatar

        I hope you’ll consider using the Mandelbrot example in your rebuff, Matt.

  3. Louis Brassard Avatar
    Louis Brassard

    Pushing Kant a little bit further was done by many while Kant was still alive. The grounding of thought/imagination is action. It evolved from dreaming which is offline habit forming and became online habit forming.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Indeed. Eckart Foester has a great essay in a book called Kant and His Influence that explores textual evidence in Kant’s Opus Postumum that makes clear how Fichte and Schelling’s work fed back into Kant’s own conception of the transcendental project late in his life.

  4. CarlaDelastella Avatar

    There can be mathematical genius, because mathematics is also creative invention. Newton was a genius, because he invented the differential calculus (along with Leibniz and others). He didn’t just follow given rules, but instead invented the rules themselves. He imagined infinitesimals and then rules to calculate with those infinitesimals.
    The mathematical method of discovery is creative imagination of a certain kind. It follows certain rules, but so does poetry which follows the rules of language, music which follows rules of harmony and all other art forms also have their rules.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Carla, I see your point. I think Kant’s point is that, while there are rules of composition that guide the creation of poetry, these rules are never enough on their own to produce truly great poetry. Truly great poetry cannot be taught by any set of compositional rules. One must be born with a “natural gift” in order to produce great poetry, according to Kant. I think the same could be said for those who invent novel mathematical forms. But again, Kant would protest that, even in the case of the invention of new mathematical formalisms, once invented, any can be taught to arrive at the same conclusions and proofs, just by following the rules. The same cannot be said for poets who invent new styles.

      All that said, I do agree that scientific and mathematical genius is possible, since ultimately, we do not know the foundations of mathematics or of natural science in any logically clear, rule-bound way (contrary to Kant’s project to ground natural science on transcendental foundations). Ultimately, all “grounds” and “foundations” are imagined grounds and foundations, since the processual cosmos we find ourselves surfing within is or seems to me anyway to be groundless, rooted in the ever-fecund, bottomless abyss of Creativity.

  5. Tom Bayley Avatar
    Tom Bayley

    It seems to me Kant is right that science can never truly know the world. As many physicists seem to recognise, science produces epistemic models rather than ontic ones. It has to be that way or theories could never be refined or replaced by better ones! But what Kant is missing is that the creation of these theories is an act of imagination, just as the creation of, say, a painting. The theory may be easily reproduced by other minds but this does not deny the original genius, any more than numerous reproductions (pictures on the internet for example) deny the genius of an artist.

    The Noumenon, which science cannot know, is also that unknowable ‘groundless’ ground of creativity, providing explanations from a source beyond explanation.

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