Exemplary Originality: Kant on Genius and Imitation

Martin Gammon. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 35, Issue 4. October 1997.


According to Ernst Cassirer, Kant’s discussion of genius in the Third Critique stands “at the crossroads of all aesthetic discussions in the eighteenth century,” in that he tries to accommodate the neo-Classical demand that artworks follow determinate rules to the Romantic insistence that aesthetic creativity be free from such rules. In the Third Critique itself, Kant defends both of these criteria through the doctrine of “exemplary originality.” For Kant, the genius combines two qualities: on the one hand, “a talent for producing that for which no rule can be given,” so that “originality must be its primary property”; however, “since there may also be original nonsense, its products must at the same time be models, i.e., be exemplary; and consequently, though not themselves derived from imitation, they must serve that purpose for others, i.e., as a standard or rule for estimating.” On the basis of this exemplary originality, then, a genius puts “freedom from constraint of rules so into force in his art, that for art itself a new rule is won-which is what shows a talent to be exemplary” (Mer. 181).

Recently, some commentators have puzzled over the “air of paradox” surrounding Kant’s union of originality and exemplarity in works of genius. “If such works,” Timothy Gould conjectures, “make advances on what is familiar and gain new ground, their very success makes the new ground familiar. The very fact that the works of genius must, as Kant says, be exemplary, leading the way for others, suggests why the works of genius must leave open routes of comprehension which compromise the very element of genius.” Paul Guyer has also commented upon this “paradox,” arguing that Kant is committed both to the free imagination of the individual artist, and to the continuity of artistic creation before the audience of taste. For Guyer, these two demands must “inevitably conflict,” and “cannot be expected to be satisfied by a stable canon of classics.” Rather, these demands “can only be expected to produce a history of artistic revolutions, efforts to break the grip on society exerted by the very works which are the models of those efforts.” The problem of canonical succession is perhaps brought out most explicitly in the opening of sec 47 of Kant’s text: “Everyone is agreed on the point of the complete opposition between genius and the spirit of imitation [Nachahmungsgeiste].” If genius is completely opposed to this spirit, then how can it, by definition, serve as a “model” for “imitation” by later artists?

Behind these seemingly paradoxical claims, however, lies some thirty years of detailed reflection on the relation of genius and imitation in Kant’s earlier writings. In particular, this background helps to discriminate between the different kinds of genial influence which are addressed in Kant’s account in the Third Critique itself. Although Guyer and Gould have highlighted Kant’s distinction between “imitation” and “following,” there has been no systematic attempt to clarify the different species of genial influence in light of the forcefield of concepts Kant has employed to characterize it: Nachfolge, Nachahmung, Nachmachung, and Nachaffung. While Peter Lewis has noted the diversity of expressions Kant employs for “imitation,” he suggests that this results partly from the complexity of the reception of genial productions, but also “partly [from] a lack of clarity in his thinking about that relationship.”6 On the contrary, I shall attempt to trace Kant’s detailed reflections on genius and imitation in the pre-critical period and in the years following the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason, in order to illustrate that Kant did in fact contribute a great deal of thought to this problem, and that these early reflections shed significant expository light on Kant’s elliptical defense of exemplary originality in the Third Critique itself.

Particularly striking is Kant’s consistent lack of interest in what is perhaps the dominant question of eighteenth-century aesthetics: the issue of imitatio naturae, or the “imitation of nature” by art favored by Gottsched, Batteaux, Lessing and most of Kant’s contemporaries.8 On the contrary, under the influence of J. G. Hamann and Edward Young, Kant was initially drawn to the view of genius as a spontaneous intervention of “spirit,” which cannot be prescribed by mechanical rules for its application. However, Kant’s interest in empirical psychology in the 1770s greatly diversified his view of imitative compulsion, through the concept of a Nachahmungsvermogen or “imitative faculty.” According to Johann Nicolas Tetens and Johann Feder, a constitutive faculty of the soul is the compulsion to emulate the rational intentions and actions of other men. According to Tetens, all forms of creativity ultimately stem from this original “imitative faculty.” This view helped to satisfy Kant’s longstanding concern with German pedagogy and what he calls the “character” of the nation, which were prone in his view to the repetitive drill of imitation. In the late 1770s, then, Kant would willingly countenance the “imitative genius” who merely extends-and surpasses-the model of her master.

However, as Kant’s mature ethical theory started to take shape in the early 1780s, he began to worry over the role of exemplarity in determining moral behavior. In this same regard, Feder had warned of the “danger of imitation” in the use of moral exemplars. Kant’s ultimate rejection of all species of imitation from the original proclivities of the genius, then, only emerges against the backdrop of his concern with moral exemplarity, in his lectures on ethics and in the Critique of Pure Reason. In short, Kant comes to realize that the genius may appeal to an “archetypal” exemplarity in the same way that moral archetypes may guide ethical behavior, but it cannot be prescribed according to definite precepts or rules. The difficulty resides in that moral exemplars are merely the “leading-strings” for an undeveloped sense of virtue, but genial inspiration requires exemplarity in order to be ignited. Satisfying this condition is Kant’s aim in the theory of exemplary originality in the Third Critique.

The specific sense of “exemplary originality” in the Critique of Judgment, then, to a great degree is circumscribed by Kant’s relatively recent rejection of any imitative relation to a definable precedent in the act of genial creation. Consequently, the rigid opposition between genius and imitation in the Third Critique can only be understood as a consequence of Kant’s earlier flirtation with empirical psychology in the late 1770s, and the receding prospect of moral exemplarity in his ethical writings of the 1780s.

J. G. Hamann and the “Law of Imitation”

In the eighteenth century, the English critics are generally treated as among the first to specifically oppose the “spirit” of genius and imitation in the productions of fine art.9 Joseph Addison, in the Spectator, was the first to explicitly praise those “great natural Genius’s that were never disciplined and broken by Rules of Art,” and Edward Young later popularized the natural genius in his “Conjectures on Original Composition” of 1758. Young was the first to define genius through a systematic contrast of “originality” and “imitation,” finding that genial creation is simply the exfoliation of a natural fertility of the human soul. However, he still insisted that “originals” were in themselves great “benefactors” for art, in that they excite emulation in new areas of aesthetic creation, and thus “extend the republic of letters, and add a new province to its dominion” (551).

Young’s celebrated distinction between genius and imitation greatly impressed J. G. Hamann, who first introduced this distinction to Kant. In his first letter to Kant, of July 27, 1759, Hamann explicates his defense of an autonomous principle of “faith” against the Enlightenment conceit of the “authority of reason.” In his letter, Hamann chides Kant for the implicitly “imitative” character harbored by his principle of reason. Perhaps enthralled by Young’s hypothesis, Hamann chooses to uphold the figure of the genius in contrast to this spirit of imitation: “He who trusts another man’s reason more than his own ceases to be a man and stands in the front ranks of the herd of mimicking cattle [dem servum pecus der Nachahmer]). Even the greatest human genius should seem to us unworthy of imitation. Nature, said Batteaux; one mustn’t be a Spinozist in matters of fine art or in those of government.” For Hamann, the imitative drive to accord with Aufklarung principles actually indicates a mere slavishness consistent with the behavior of animals. In contrast, the true human “genius” subverts this mimical appropriation of other men’s reason, by creating in his work a model so original that it defies the possibility of imitation. Hamann is careful here to distinguish “imitation” of the genius from the sense of a Naturnachahmung, as is evident in his concession to Batteaux in the following sentence. Rather, it is the mimicry of other men’s reason which divests one of humanity, in Hamann’s view.

At the conclusion of his letter to Kant, however, Hamann still reserves an alternative sense of “imitation” which is actually indispensable to genial inspiration. In closing, Hamann proclaims: “In my mimicking style [mimischen Styl], a sterner logic prevails and a connection more coherent than in the concepts of lively minds” (Ak. 10, 14; Phil. Corr., 42). By “mimicking style,” Hamann wishes to articulate a kind of deference to the spirit of invention of his genial predecessors, in the same sense that Young heralds the genius as a “benefactor” of further original work. Hamann hopes therefore to distinguish the mimicry of the spirit of the genius, from the imitative drive to unreflectively appropriate her views and manners.

Although Hamann’s distinction remains somewhat opaque in this context, the text of his Sokratische Denkwurdigkeiten, also published in 1759, is in some sense an explicit defense of his theory of “mimic style,” in contrast to the dictates of the imitative drive. During his brief stay in England in 1758, Hamann had come under the influence of British empiricism, and the view that our ideas arise merely through the association of sense impressions. In the Denkwurdigkeiten itself, Hamann argues that since all men share the same mental machinery, the “law of imitation” is an inescapable by-product of human cognition. One’s perception of the world will conform to a stable set of relations and gestaltliche connections already established by prior association, so that all new invention-whether scientific, philosophical, or artistic-must follow pre-established lines of development. This universal “law of imitation” underwrites all creative activity: “The connection and agreement of concepts is precisely the same in a (logical) demonstration as the relation and symmetry of numbers and lines, sound and colors in a musical composition and painting. The philosopher is just as subject to the law of imitation [Gesetz der Nachahmung] as the poet.” Man cannot escape the compositional logic of human cognition in the act of invention, and in that sense one must to some degree follow imitative or recursive laws, in order to orient oneself for future discovery. However, for Hamann, the philosopher is overly occupied with discerning these “compositional” laws, that is, with the structure of proofs and the truth of propositions (SD, 73). In matters of genial invention, rather, one must cultivate a thoroughgoing “ignorance,” in the specific sense of rejecting the imprimatur of the “law of imitation,” which normally constrains the act of discovery to an established precedent. For Hamann, Socrates’ purported “ignorance” merely indicated his liberation from the rational conventions of his interlocutors. In contrast, Socrates himself merely followed the inspirational guide of his daimon. The Socratic daimon becomes the model for Hamann’s unique conception of “genius”: literally, the following of a genie or guiding inspiration, that is, the animating spirit [Geist] which is our hidden mentor. For Hamann, the Socratic genius merely follows the dictates of this guiding Schwarmerei or enthusiasm, in order to produce spontaneous ideas and inventions, but never copies the form of prior models. Likewise, true artists must acquire an active ignorance of the established conventions of art, in order to access this font of genial inspiration. Hamann singles out Homer and Shakespeare in this regard, in that they “reject the rules of art” (SD, 75) in favor of merely following the inspired dictates of their “genius.” However, those of us who cannot actually tap this fund of natural talent can simply “mimic” the “style” of these natural geniuses, that is, the inspirational temper or mood of their creative act.

For Hamann, then, the positive counterpart to the “law of imitation” is the adoption of a “mimic style,” where one merely imitates the inspiration of a prior genius, rather than the model of their ideas. On the same basis, Hamann heralds his own book as a “mimic work” (mimische Arbeit), in that it follows the model of “schwarmerische reverence” exhibited by Plato and Xenophon in relation to Socrates himself (SD, 6i). As Hamann explains in his Introduction, like these classical expositors of the Socratic method, his own text aspires to mimic the style of Socratic “ignorance”; it is an “aesthetic imitation” of a “Socratic manner.” Consequently, the mimicry of genial enthusiasm can compensate for the recursive function of the “law of imitation,” in Hamann’s early aesthetic theory.

In subsequent letters, Kant himself would explicitly reject Hamann’s picture of the schwarmerische genius, especially in light of the wayward example of his own student, Johann Gottfried Herder. Nevertheless, in his lectures on logic in the early 1770s, it is clear that Kant hopes to reserve a role for Hamann’s “law of imitation” in learning and the sciences, while preserving the sanctity of an “originality of spirit” in art and philosophy.

Kant’s early lectures on logic appear as a curious mix of Wolffian metaphysics and a kind of manual of classical rhetoric, in the late Roman style of Quintilian or Longinus. Explications of logical certainty and categorical judgment are interspersed with disputations on eloquence and the species of “prejudice.” The opening position of the Blomberg Logic (apparently recorded in 1771) in fact argues that cognitions are first derived through the “spirit of imitation.” In Kant’s view, our earliest learning experiences give rise to this spirit, because our first cognitions must be acquired through the imitation of external actions. To this extent, Kant follows Hamann’s empiricist commitments, which underpin his “law of imitation.” However, for Kant this spirit of imitation only “shows the least degree of capacity.” Subsequently, our cognitive faculties must “achieve a faculty of cultivating [excolieren] themselves,” and the imitative mode must be abandoned as we learn to think for ourselves (Ak. 24, 16; LL 5). Thus, for Kant, imitation of another’s mental processes is the initial pedagogical bridge that brings our own intellectual faculties to a state of cognitive autonomy. He then extends this distinction between imitation and originality to the basic procedural methods of the sciences. Mathematics merely requires an imitative capacity, in that one copies the theoretical models of one’s predecessors, “but in the philosophical and all other sciences, where mere imitation of another understanding is not sufficient… the spirit of genius itself is necessary” (Ak. 24, 19; LL, 8). Following Hamann, Kant is quite explicit on this point: “The faculty of imitation is exactly opposed to the faculty of genius” (Ak. 24, 299; LL, 244). For philosophy, one cannot simply follow the laws of imitation laid down by one’s predecessors, but must tap into one’s own font of originality. In fact, an excessive dependence on the models of one’s predecessors leads to the worst form of “prejudice” in philosophical matters, because it depends on the dictates of “custom” and precedent rather than independent thought: “Of all the things that can only harm and be opposed to the philosophical spirit, the spirit of imitation is always actually the worst. Imitation is the cultivation of one’s understanding, his will, indeed, of his choice, according to the example of others; if, namely, one is not skilled in thinking for oneself, then one takes refuge in others and copies from them completely faithfully, as the painter copies the original, except that this portrayal is frequently quite unfitting, indeed, comical” (Ak. 24, 163; LL, 128). Philosophical imitation can procure only a parodic simulacrum of one’s model, because it merely illustrates one’s own incapacity.

However, Kant is also careful not to completely unmoor philosophical activity from the established rules of logical form. A “hypothesis” must be supported by sufficient consequences, or else philosophical contemplation can pass over into mere fabrication (fingieren). This is precisely the weakness of Descartes’s Meditations, in his view, which devolves into a mere “novel of reason” because it offers only speculative fabrications as ungrounded inferences from self-consciousness. In contrast, art alone can offer such fabrications, in that it separates and recombines elements of experience in order to distill a “fully perfect ideal” of human character (Ak. 24, 256-57; LL, 205). However, in art as in philosophy, while the basis of invention must be derived from experience, the spirit of imitation must be consistently resisted:

Taste is quite ruined by imitation, a fertile source of all prejudices, since one borrows everything, thinks nothing of a beauty that one might be able to invent and come up with oneself, as (compared to) what others have already thought up and have previously cognized, and what is considered beauty by these people. If, therefore, everyone wanted to try, not so much always to imitate, but rather to be an original himself, then we would certainly soon see the greatest geniuses, who would be sublime and great in judgments of taste. (Ak. 24, 173; LL, 136-37)

Winckelmann on Nachahmung and Nachmachung

As the Blomberg Logic seems to indicate, in the early 1770s the strict opposition of genius and imitation is the cornerstone of Kant’s theory of invention, in both art and philosophy. However, in the subsequent decade Kant’s understanding of imitation would become more nuanced, primarily through the influence of J. J. Winckelmann and Johann Nicolas Tetens. Kant was greatly influenced by Winckelmann’s interpretation of art in antiquity, especially his notion that the “ideal of beauty” resides solely in the proportional mean of the human form. However, although Kant believed that the models of ancient art help to promote the cultivation of taste, he did not subscribe to Winckelmann’s hypothesis that the key to genius is “the imitation of the ancients.” In his lectures on logic, Kant repudiated this “prejudice of antiquity” as much as its opposite, a “prejudice of modernity” (Ak. 24, 179-184; LL, 142-45). Furthermore, Kant rejected Winckelmann’s conflation of beauty and charm (Reiz), simply because these modes were united in the models of antiquity. On the contrary, for Kant, the beautiful must be an estimation of the “finality of form” of an object, independent of its appeals to charm or sensuous interest.

Nevertheless, Kant was clearly influenced by Winckelmann’s essay, “Erinnerung fiber die Betrachtung der Werke der Kunst,” published in the Bibliothek der schonen Wissenschaften und freien Kunste in 1762. In this work, Winckelmann begins by strictly distinguishing “diligence” (Fleiss) from “talent,” or the mere elaboration of aesthetic detail according to prescribed rules, from the expression of an original idea. In the 1770s, Kant would likewise distinguish “diligence,” which requires the “capacity (to learn),” from “genius,” which requires “talent” or “the capacity to produce something out of itself.” In order to elaborate on this distinction between diligence and talent, in his essay Winckelmann drew a further distinction between Nachmachen, or mechanical replication, and Nachahmung, which indicates a “following” of a predecessor that is still underscored by an original insight. “In contrast to a unique thought [eigene Denken] I posit replication [Nachmachen], not imitation [Nachahmung]: by the former, I understand a slavish following [knechtische Folge]; but in the latter, the imitation [Nachgeahmte] can be taken, so to speak, as a second nature [eine ander Natur], if it is guided by reason, and becomes something unique.” For Winckelmann, the imitation of a prior model can be infused with original thought, with the spontaneity of reason, rather than the mere mechanical copying of prescribed rules.

For Kant, this distinction proved decisive in breaking up his abstract opposition of genius and imitation. Following Winckelmann, he began to delineate a positive contour to aesthetic Nachahmungen, when guided by reason and spontaneity, against the mere slavish replication of rules. In Reflexionen from the late 1770s, Kant notes: “The process according to rules, which requires no power of judgment, is mechanical…. Through mechanism, one possesses what another has already thought [vorgedacht]; we merely imitate. However, imitation is still more than mere mechanism, for in imitation we not only have a pattern [Muster], but also a kind of guidance [Leitung] to something else, e.g., a model [Modell]. Free imitation” (Ak. 15.1, 411). For Kant, the possibility of “free imitation” indicates that one can follow the guidance (Leitung) of a predecessor’s manner of composition, rather than just replicating the pattern of their thoughts. Winckelmann’s essential insight here strikes at the heart of one of Kant’s discriminations between the modes of imitation in the Third Critique. The “gift of nature” possessed by a genial spirit can itself guide the lesser gift of future artists, rather than serve merely as a “precept” for the methodical replication of that precedent. The work of genius may then “serve as a model [Muster], not for replication [Nachmachung], but for imitation [Nachahmung]” (47; Mer. 170-7 ). Although Kant’s terminology would remain somewhat fluid, over the next decade he would aspire to clarify the relationship between the modes of “imitation” inherent to genial inspiration and the methodical “replication” of precepts, which underwrites the learning process, and the procedure of the mathematical sciences.

The Faculty of Imitation in Johann Nicolas Tetens

Kant’s incipient division between Nachahmung and Nachmachung in the late 1770s was not solely derived from Winckelmann, however. Kant’s appreciation of the nuances of imitation was also precipitated by Johann Nicolas Tetens’s Philosophische Versuch fiber die menschliche Natur und ihre Entwickelung, which he exhaustively studied following its publication in 1777. Tetens’s empirical psychology was constructed upon a three-faculty theory of the soul, chief among which was the Dichtungsvermogen, or “formative faculty” of the imagination. For Tetens, the problem of imitation in particular provided an occasion to address a crucial question concerning the Vorstellungskraft or representative power of the soul: how to establish a correlation between the movements of outer sense and the occupations of inner sense, between the Korperand Gemutsbewegungen. According to Tetens, Lord Kames, in his Principles of Criticism, had illustrated that certain external actions incite similar “mental movements”-so, for example, observing an indolent action would incite a dull and vexing sensation in the mind (I, 679). Likewise, for Tetens, the modifications of outer sense must procure a correlate movement in the soul that is not reducible to conceptual understanding. These impressions “provide [the feeling for] pleasure and displeasure, the beautiful and the ugly, the sublime and the base, in external objects; in a word, the whole objective sensitivity [Empfindsamkeit] of the soul, which approaches [objects] for itself, without any accessory association of ideas” (I, 679-80). For Tetens, the aesthetic apprehension of an object is independent of conceptual determination; on the contrary, this perception in itself indicates a kind of imitative gesture, a correlate movement of the soul.

The chief problem of imitation therefore turns on how the soul can imitate an action that is alien to it. “How can an action be imitated, which occupies another before our eyes, but of which we see nothing more of it than its visual aspect [Augenseite], or only that part of its modifications which falls to outer sense, and [yet] one can know how to attain it without the least idea of the inner nature of the action itself” (I, 664)? For Tetens, the capacity to adopt another’s external action depends upon the appropriation of a similar internal motive. Since, following Aristotle, man is the animal which possesses the greatest aptitude for imitation (I, 664), for Tetens this behavior implies that a “similar power” of the mind must be employed in order to recreate an inner intention that accords with the external side of another’s action. Tetens defines this power as the Nachahmungsvermogen, the faculty of imitation, which is the “strongest” of all the “developmental powers” of our nature. Nachahmung “is always something willful [willkihrliches], and requires actions which are made according to the model of another, out of the [same] mode, just as the student re-inscribes and re-draws his precept [Vorschrift]” (I, 672). For Tetens, the Nachahmungsvermogen allows for the voluntary appropriation of the internal manner (Art) underlying an external precept (Vorschrift), of the mode or way in which it is executed, rather than a replication of its “material expression.” Tetens calls this latter process Nachmachen, or the “involuntary” replication of an external form (I, 673).

In general, Tetens distinguishes between three levels of imitation, or the capacity to “make similar” (Verahnlichung). Firstly, it is the following (Nachthun) of a similar sensation, as in the involuntary compulsion to follow another person when they yawn. This arises through the “pliant” (geschmeidige) power of the human soul, which “simulates” (nachstimmen) an external impulse. Secondly, it is “a reproduction of a similar idea, which passes over into a complete action.” Nachahmung proper marks the appropriation of an internal idea, that effectuates an external action. The following of a precept (Vorschrift) by a student in the process of learning is exemplary here. Finally, “it is a fiction, where a new representation of an action is built out of pregiven materials, according to a demonstrable ideal” (I, 677). In the final instance, imitation actually indicates a formative faculty, which transforms the material example of its precept into a superior representation, thereby achieving a greater conformity to the idea of its perfection. For Tetens, then, the “self-activated” imagination of the genius, though it procures something original, is simply an extension of this primitive Nachahmungsvermogen. Consequently, through his fine-grained distinctions between different modes of imitation, Tetens is able to harness all originality to this primary imitative faculty. The work of the genius is merely the extension and refinement of an exemplary precept, the following-and surpassing-of a predecessor in the pursuit of an ideal presentation.

Kant was clearly influenced by Tetens’s subtle distinctions between the modes of imitation, and their role in genial creation. In Reflexionen from the late 1770s, Kant attempted to articulate these divisions in his own terms: (920) Following [Nachthun] is acting-similar [gleichthun]. Nachahmen [however] presupposes an originality in the mode of invention [Erfindung], but a similarity in the manner. Nachmachen copies both the mode of invention and the manner… [while] Nachaffen is merely a similarity in manner, without the capacity to imitate the content, e.g., words, expressions, Yorick. (Ak. 15.1, 405)

Following Winckelmann and Tetens here, Kant designates Nachmachen as the “replication” of an external form according to prescribed rules; Nachmachen copies “both the mode of invention and the manner” of a predecessor. In contrast, Nachahmen presupposes an “originality” in the mode of invention (Erfindung), while still retaining a “similarity in the manner [Manier].” “Imitation” proper only follows the temper or mood of a predecessor’s inspiration, not the “mode of invention” or peculiar form of her creation. Following Tetens, Nachthun is “acting-similar” (gleichthun), the involuntary following of another’s actions through a natural impulse, such as yawning or laughing. Nachaffen, finally, is the “aping” or complete simulation of a prior model, rather than simply the rules of composition (as in Nachmachen). The simulation of Nachaffen, furthermore, lacks the capacity to extend the creative parameters of its model, and thus devolves into an aesthetic “illusion” or Schein. Kant employs this sense of Nachaffen in the Third Critique, when he warns: “imitation [Nachahmung] becomes aping [Nachaffung] when the pupil replicates [nachmacht] everything down to the deformities which the genius only of necessity suffered to remain, because they could hardly be removed without loss of force to the idea” (sec 49; Mer. 181). In this sense, Nachaffen is a strong form of Nachmachen, or mechanical replication, without the capacity to distinguish the congenial elements from the deficient ones.

In Reflexion 920 above, Kant distinguishes between three forms of Nachaffen: the aping of certain words, of expressions, or even the entire style of a work. Intriguingly, Kant singles out “Yorick,” meaning The Sermons of Mr. Yorick by Laurence Sterne, in the latter category. Sterne is an exemplary figure for Kant’s account of imitation, for two reasons. While his primary works, including Tristam Shandy and Mr. Yorick, were riddled with various plagiarisms and literary thefts from earlier writers, Sterne was nevertheless heralded, in Germany in particular, as an unparalleled “original” because of his unique style. Consequently, Sterne was the consummate “imitator” in Kant’s peculiar sense, in that he appropriated the manner of earlier writers, but maintained an originality in his “mode of invention.” Kant is explicit in this regard, when he writes: “The originality of genius comes out of a particular disposition [Stimmung] of talent, which is only seldom encountered in another and yet is harmonious [wohllautend] (with its predecessors). Klopstock can be imitated very easily, but Milton with difficulty, because his images are original. Sterne” (Ak. 15.1, 400). Like Milton, Sterne’s presentation of material, even if it is borrowed from other sources, is impressed with an original disposition or mood (Stimmung) peculiar to Sterne’s genius.

However, Mr. Yorick in particular is of singular importance for Kant, because following Sterne’s death, various disreputable figures, including the executors of his estate, published forged sequels to The Sermons of Mr. Yorick, under Sterne’s name. What is significant here is that these illegitimate sequels, although not replicating any particular passages from Sterne himself, were excoriated in the British press as fraudulent “imitations” precisely because they merely aped Sterne’s original style of composition. These works were precisely Nachaffungen in Kant’s particular sense: simulations of Sterne’s style, but without the capacity to distinguish the elements of his genial “mood” (Stimmung) from the mere eccentricities of his material. In this sense, then, Laurence Sterne embodied a kind of exemplary instance of imitative genius for Kant-he followed the models of his predecessors, but he forged an oeuvre of such originality that no one could replicate his achievement. Sterne thus served as a convenient cipher for the division between Nachahmung and Nachaffung in Kant’s typology of imitation.

Reflexion: The Convergence of Genius And Imitation

On the strength of Tetens’s more temperate defense of a Nachahmungsvermogen in the process of genial creation, and the singular examples of Klopstock, Milton, and Laurence Sterne, at the end of the 1770s Kant was momentarily impelled to retract his longstanding segregation of genius and imitation, which he had first inherited from Hamann and Young.

In particular, Kant was drawn to Tetens’s position in that it would help mitigate a certain propensity he observed in the German character. Kant had long been concerned that different national characters elicited unequal endowments of talent and diligence. The English, in particular, struck Kant as “original spirits”; however, their efforts were often concocted to seem idiosyncratic without the guidance of common sense: “The English, original spirits, who write without imitating others, have often recited adverse and false propositions only in order to be original.” In the Critique of Judgment, Kant repudiates this activity as “original nonsense.”

In contrast to the English, however, Kant discerns that the Germans are prone to the repetitive drill of imitation. “The Germans have the least originality, for already the stamp [Schlag] of the nation is the inclination to imitate.”

However, in the late 1770s, for Kant this “stamp” of the German national character was not thoroughly derogatory, if it was understood in the positive sense of Nachahmung as opposed to mere slavish Nachaffung or Nachmachung. “Whoever extends [fortsetzt] something,” Kant argues, “can greatly surpass the first author [Urheber] of it, just as Newton surpassed Kepler. We Germans are made for the extension [Fortsetzen] of the inventions of reason” (Ak. 15.1, 393) In his most detailed defense of this position, in Reflexion 778, Kant rescinds the longstanding boundary he has maintained between genius and imitation, and conflates the mode of invention in the arts and the sciences:

Germans possess the talent of imitation. [However,] this term is in worse repute than it deserves to be. Imitation is different from copying [copiren], and these are [both] different from aping [nachaffen]. Imitation is not so distant from genius as one might think. There is no progress of spirit [Geist], no invention, without knowing how to imitate what one already knows in new connections [Beziehung]. Thus Newton “imitated” the fall of an apple, and Kepler, in that he imitated the harmonious proportions [of the universe], merits the title of a legislator of the heavens. Likewise, imitation is the [true] guide [Leitfaden] of the genius. But not of the “letter,” not of what is personal, but rather of the spirit of the genius. The former is called aping [nachaffen]. Milton, [for example,] imitated the great poets, but not as a copy [copie] of the original, but rather as a [master] pupil of the teacher, in order to surpass him. Imitation is the unassuming and secure course of the genius, the route [Weg] which he judges was undertaken by the attempt of another. There are no great masters who do not imitate, and no invention which cannot be regarded as a relation [Verhaltnis], which is proportionate to a precedent [Vorhergehenden]. Everything stands in laws of continuity, and whatever is totally broken off and in-between [wozwischen], and segregated from what is old by a cleft [Kluft], belongs merely to the world of the chimerical [Hirnsgespinste]. (Ak. i5.1, 340-41)

Thanks to Winckelmann and Tetens, Kant is able to discern here a contour of imitation that is coincident with genial creation. Kant’s almost lyrical defense of the “laws of continuity” underlying all invention illustrates his attempt to bridge the rift between talent and diligence, between the creative faculty of art and the creative faculty of science. Following Winckelmann, Kant segregates mere “copying” or “aping” from imitation proper (Nachahmung), where the latter merely follows the “guide” (Leitfaden) of one’s predecessors in the act of free imitation. Following Tetens’s understanding of imitation as a “formative faculty,” here Kant avers that the genius must follow the developmental lines of prior invention, but may still “surpass” its model. The artist must imitate the established laws of the imagination, just as scientists must imitate the established laws of nature. These lines of continuity rule out any possible intermittence in the progress of human discovery, no “in-between” (wozwischen). Natural laws and creative laws proceed on parallel tracks.

In contrast to this promise of imitative genius, Kant’s disparaging view in the late 1770s of Nachaffung or “aping” in particular is primarily centered on German education. The conclusion of Reflexion 778 reads as follows:

God wants us to learn spirit [Geist] in schools, and not the phrases of authors, nor to copy them; then our German writings would contain more attentive taste [Geschmack]. However, copying [copiren] can still be combined with erudition, but aping [Nachaffen] does not clothe us at all; aping indicates merely a lack of vivacity [Lebhaften], which only plays at it fleetingly. This aping should everywhere be persecuted and harassed without mercy. But even more so the caprice to want to give itself the look of genius through the heresy [Ketzerey] of its use. (I 5.1, 341; emphasis added)

As Kant makes explicit here, the act of Nachaffung lacks precisely the vivacity or liveliness [Lebhaften] which is so central to the “spirit” of the genius in the Third Critique. In this early Reflexion, Kant’s emphatic concern with Nachaffungen centers on the rote drills of memorization and textual replication that dominate German pedagogy. These procedures lead to a mere aping of genius, rather than cultivating the “vivacity” of one’s own natural talent. In his lectures on anthropology, Kant argued in the same vein: “One can see nothing more detested in our schools than a `school-genius’. The young men look up phrases, plunder other writers, and piece together something which looks similar to a patch-work coat… An imitatio ciceroniana oppresses their minds to an astonishing degree; for one can ape [nachaffen] Cicero quite well, but to imitate [nachahmen] him and act like him-that no child can simulate [begehren].” Here Kant insists on the distinction of Nachiffen and Nachahmen, in that the latter follows the spirit of eloquence underlying Cicero’s oratory, rather than slavishly recapitulating his rhetorical mode. According to Otto Schlapp, Kant’s denigration of this imitatio ciceroniana stems from Georg Meier’s Anfangsgrunde, which likewise repudiated the teaching of a “blind aping, the detested imitations of imitatorum stultum pecus.”

For Kant in the late 1770s, then, “aping” simply undermines the Bildung or cultivation of an original German character, while “imitation” of a precept, to the extent that one surpasses one’s model, is the signature of genial creation. However, some ten years later, it is striking that the spirit of Kant’s remarks on imitation in the Critique of Judgment seem specifically gauged at repudiating this earlier injunction. In the Third Critique, Kant is so concerned with bifurcating genius and imitation because he finally recognizes that the genial act is nothing less than a creative intermittence, an eruption of the “in-between” (wozwischen), which he had once rejected in Reflexion 778. The natural gift of the genius wins a “new rule” for the fine arts, precisely because it erupts from the “cleft” of the unknown, from the obscure springs of genial inspiration.

Why did Kant change his mind? The crucial turn appears to rest on his later reflections on the problem of exemplarity. In his precritical reflections, the problem of genial inspiration was his primary concern, and this inspiration could be guided by a precept as long as it manifested some originality and was not a methodical replication. However, following the publication of another landmark work of empirical psychology in 1779, Johann Feder’s Untersuchungen fiber den menschlichen Willen, and through his own reflections on exemplary ethical actions in the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant became concerned about the efficacy and function of precepts and examples in general. In particular, Feder’s account of the formative drives of the soul culminates in a detailed description of the dangers of the Nachahmungstrieb, or the drive to imitation, when guided by a determinate precept. It is likely that Feder’s account influenced Kant’s new view of exemplarity, and the conviction that any determinate replication of a prior model is thoroughly heterogeneous to the fundamental springs of genial creation.

Johann Feder and the Nachahmungstrieb

Johann Feder was a leading figure among the Lockean empiricists in Germany, along with Christian Garve and Ernst Platner, and had been a longstanding enthusiast for Kant’s precritical enterprises. However, the publication of the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 would come as a formidable shock to the German empiricists, and Feder would emerge as one of Kant’s most vociferous critics in the following decade. Principally, the very posture of the First Critique offended Feder, in that it attempted to isolate the transcendental grounds for a priori synthetic judgments, grounds which predetermine any empirical experience. In servicing this aim, in the First Critique Kant was tempted to completely banish the discipline of empirical psychology from the metaphysical system.

However, to some degree one must recognize Kant’s posture against empirical psychology as a consequent retraction of his prior, detailed engagement with Feder, Tetens, and the Lockean empiricists in the decade prior to the publication of First Critique. As we have seen, he undertook a detailed study of Tetens’s Versuch, but also took copious notes specifically on Baumgarten’s section on “empirical psychology” in the Metaphysica. Moreover, as I will try to illustrate below, Feder’s Untersuchungen fiber den menschlichen Willen may have had a determinate impact on his theory of moral exemplarity in the Critique of Pure Reason, and on his theory of imitation in general.

Primarily, Feder’s approach reduces the functions of empirical consciousness to a hierarchical set of instinctual drives. Among these, in Feder’s estimation, “the most natural, salutary, and [yet] dangerous of the drives of men is the drive to imitation.” For Feder, this Nachahmungstrieb is the basis for learning and sociability, but if excessively developed, it undermines the sanctity of individual character. He divides this drive into four aspects, which describe an ascending scale of imitative compulsions to follow an external impulse. First, it is found “in the involuntary attractions [Reizungen] which arise through sympathy.” For Feder, sympathy allows an “image of something external to us” to be reproduced inwardly, thus exciting the same feelings as arise from the external attitude we have adopted. This process is “almost irresistible” if multiple images compound this relation. Secondly, following Tetens, Feder argues that movements in the body necessarily imply correlate movements in the “representations and feelings” of the soul. However, if these do not arise from innate compulsions, they can only be determined through the example of another. Thirdly, the Nachahmungstrieb arises through the “inclination to please another by taking their example,” that is, through a social subordination to the model actions of another. Finally, this last inclination can become so overly developed that one “hopes to obtain thereby the same advantages which another is subject to, the same honor, the same fortune, or the perfections which one admires in another” (II, 452-53). This final outcome of the ascending scale of the “drive to imitation” illustrates for Feder that the fundamental conditions of sociability-attained through the sympathy for an external example or social deferral to the feelings and actions of another-if overdeveloped, turn into a paradoxically selfish drive to possess the character of another. In short, one is driven to become this example entirely, which then weakens the basis for individual character and rends the social fabric.

Consequently, the peculiar “danger” of imitation, in Feder’s view, lies in the dominance of the exemplary trigger. In a subsequent chapter on the role of “examples” in the formation of human character, Feder insists that the extent to which “examples excite imitation, is not only one, but actually one of the most important of their ways of operating.” However, to the extent that examples simply excite imitation, then the drive itself can predominate over the consideration of one’s actual congeniality with a given model. In short, one can be driven to imitate someone that “Nature has determined to be something totally other.” Consequently, even if “Nature can never be wholly overpowered, yet in this way one’s own character could be struck dumb, driven insane, weakened [verstummelte, verruckte, schwankende], or simply not in agreement with itself” (III, 853). Feder therefore heralds the importance of “aversion” as an antidote to the imitative drive, because it may sustain the diversity of human character (III, 855). In a conclusion which intimates a potential critique of Kant’s theory of the moral “ideal,” furthermore, Feder states: “if the perfection of human nature in general cannot be determined according to a unique, individual ideal, then men, coming perhaps from very different natural dispositions, could never wish to undertake becoming completely similar to one another, without thereby disfiguring their character” (III, 855). For Feder, the danger of the “drive to imitation” is that, if unchecked, it will homogenize human virtue into a single and invariable “ideal.” Feder’s implicit challenge to Kant’s theory of the ideal of human virtue, then, turns on the possibility of determining a universally valid example of that “ideal” without abstracting a monochromatic character out of the diversity of empirical life.

Kant’s reflections on the ideal of human virtue, as outlined in the Critique of Pure Reason and his lectures on ethics in the early 1780s, seem to indicate the influence of Feder’s critique of exemplarity and the drive to imitation. Specifically, Kant begins to question the function of examples in the determination of the ideal of virtue, demoting them to the status of mere “leading strings” (Gangelbanden) for an undeveloped character, and repudiating “imitation” as a motive for moral actions.

The Problem of Moral Exemplarity

In the Critique of Pure Reason, while Kant is willing to concede that examples may aid those with a weak sense of judgment (A133-34/B172-74), they are positively subversive if taken as patterns (Mustern) for moral behavior. In his discussion of the character of “ideas,” Kant warns:

Whoever would derive the concepts of virtue from experience and make (as many have actually done) what at best can only serve as an example [Beispiel] in an imperfect illustration (of virtue) into a pattern [Muster] from which to derive knowledge, would make of virtue something which changes according to time and circumstance, an ambiguous monstrosity not admitting of any formation of a rule. On the contrary, as we are well aware, if anyone is held up as a pattern [Muster] of virtue, the true original [das wahre Original] is to be found only in our minds, with which we compare and estimate the value of this alleged pattern. This original is the idea of virtue, in respect of which the possible objects of experience may serve as examples (proofs that what the concept of reason commands is in a certain degree practicable), but not as archetype [Urbild]. That no one is able to ever act in a way which is adequate to what is contained in the pure idea of virtue is far from proving this thought to be in any respect chimerical. (A315/B372)

Here, Kant characterizes the idea of virtue in such a way that Feder’s concern with the beguilement of exemplarity can be satisfied. One must not transform an example (Beispiel) into a pattern (Muster) of action, if one wishes to have recourse to the “true original,” the idea of virtue possessed by our reason. Examples merely serve to indicate the practicability of achieving a concrete action that is in accordance, not with the pattern, but with the archetype (Urbild) of virtue. In principle, a pattern cannot furnish a universal rule for action, and though one cannot in fact achieve the perfection of the archetype in concreto, it serves as the true measure or standard for our actions. Kant clarifies our curious relation to the archetype of virtue in a later passage: Virtue, and therewith human wisdom in its complete purity, are ideas. The wise man [of the Stoics] is, however, an ideal, that is, a man existing in thought only, but in complete conformity with the idea of wisdom. As the idea gives the rule, so the ideal in such a case serves as the archetype for the complete determination of the copy; and we have no other standard for our actions than the conduct of this divine man within us, with which we compare and judge ourselves, and so reform ourselves, although we can never attain to the perfection thereby prescribed. (A56g/B597)

In this case, the stoical ideal of the wise man serves as a measure for our own action, though we can never achieve this perfection in ourselves. The archetype is the ideal manifestation of the “rule” prescribed by the idea of virtue. To attempt to define this rule through an “example,” however, “would give it the air of being a mere fiction” (A570//B598). Consequently, in his lectures on ethics, which were recorded in the early 1780s, Kant follows Feder in warning against any drive to imitate the examples of moral virtue. In contrast, Kant suggests that we use them merely for “emulation,” or “following” (Nachfolge), rather than “imitation:” “Examples serve for our encouragement and emulation [Nachfolge], but they should not be used as patterns [Mustern].” “An example is not for imitation [Nachahmung], but for following [Nachfolge]. The law [Regel], not the example of others, should be the ground of our actions.”

This new sense of relation to a precedent, Nachfolge, has not played a role in Kant’s previous taxonomy of the modes of imitation. However, in the wake of Feder’s critique of the Nachahmungstrieb and the problem of exemplarity, Kant appears to want to draw out one last grain of distinction from the general mimetic impulse. Here, “following” is a form of emulation inspired by an example, but which reorients the subject to the archetype “within,” the “true original” of her idea of virtue. The example merely diverts the observer back to her own resources, her own reason. To this extent, Kant follows the familiar sense of Nachfolge Christi, the imitation of Christ, in which the divine life serves as an archetype of virtue rather than a pattern for imitation.

Significantly, Kant had articulated a similar distinction between “archetype” and “pattern” in relation to fine art, in the early 1770s: “The archetype [Urbild], the pattern [Muster], the model [Modell] are all three concepts [of things] which should be expressed similarly: the first in creation by the genius, the second in imitation [Nachahmung], and the third in copies [Abdrucke]” (Ak. 15.1, 319). Here, the natural talent of the genius itself proffers an archetype of taste, in the same sense that the faculty of reason proffers an archetype of virtue, while the mere imitation of an example proffers a mere pattern (Muster) of application. Furthermore, the archetype of taste cannot be simply composed out of prior examples, but rather must be created out of oneself: in the Blomberg Logic, Kant insists, “from the putting together of many partial beauties a perfectly beautiful thing cannot possibly be brought about. . . e.g., the artist, the painter, etc., cannot possibly put together an archetype [Urbild] of a painting, but must rather create it” (Ak. 24, 51; LL,36). Accommodating this early insight to his new theory of moral exemplarity, in the 1780s Kant reinterprets the character of genial influence. One can turn to the prior work of genius as an example, but one must treat it as an ideal for “emulation” (Nachfolge), just as one “follows” (nachfolgen) the stoical archetype or the figure of Christ.

However, in the case of fine art, unlike that of morality, the example of genial creations must serve as an “encouragement” for one’s own aspiration after the “true original,” precisely because the archetype can only exist by example. The work of genius may encourage emulation of an ideal, but it cannot furnish a rule for conformity with an idea of reason, as in ethical behavior. As Kant states in sec 49 of the Third Critique, the genius can only “simulate” (nacheifert) the “display of reason” (Vernunft-Vorspiele), in an “aesthetic idea.” The archetype of taste accords with this aesthetic idea, just as the stoical ideal accords with the idea of virtue, but with the significant difference that the aesthetic idea does not in itself furnish a rule for its application. Such a rule is only manifest in the example. While the idea of virtue is a “true original” carried around in everyone’s “head” (Kopfe), the aesthetic idea manifests its originality only in the exemplary instances of fine art. Therefore, the exemplary character of the genial creation is not simply an accessory aid, or “leading string” (Gangelband), for the promotion of virtue, but, as it were, a necessary exemplarity for the promotion of fine art.

Consequently, the problem of exemplarity will become central to Kant’s deliberations in the “Critique of Aesthetic Judgment,” in that the guidance of the genial exemplar is a necessary substitute for the rule of application normally supplied by a rational idea. In the aftermath of Feder’s critique of exemplarity and imitation, then, Kant is struck with a peculiar dilemma: works of genius cannot simply furnish patterns (Mustern) for future genius, but rather archetypes (Urbilder) of taste analogous to the archetypes of pure reason. However, while the purely accessory character of moral exemplars can mitigate the worry that ethical actions will simply be reduced to a single pattern, since everyone can independently form the ideal of virtue in one’s head, aesthetic originality itself requires exemplarity, precisely because it lacks the determination of a rational idea as the rule for its execution. Consequently, in order to satisfy this problem, Kant will extend the theoretical reach of the moral concept of “emulation” (Nachfolge) developed in his lectures on ethics to the unique relation between geniuses in the Critique of Judgment.

In the Third Critique itself, then, Kant presupposes a fundamental distinction between two senses of the “exemplary”: as an “archetype” for “emulation” by future geniuses, and as a mere “pattern” for methodical replication by future artists and schools. In the latter case, a work is musterhaft or a worthy “model” (Muster), if it prescribes a rule of imitation through its example (Beispiel). In this sense, Kant refers to the “musterhafte Originalitat” of the genius in sec 49 (Mer. 181), and to the “exemplary” function of the genius in furnishing a “pattern” (Muster) for “imitation” in sec 46. However, this sense should be distinguished from what is “exemplary” (exemplarisch) in the artwork, to the extent that it manifests an “ideal of beauty” or “archetype of taste,” and thus cannot be imitated, but simply emulated by future acts of genius. Kant employs this sense of “exemplarity” in, where he states: “Following [Nachfolge] which has reference to a precedent [Vorgang], and not imitation [Nachahmung], is the proper expression for all influence which the products of an exemplary author [exemplarischen Urhebers] may exert upon other [exemplary authors]-and this means no more than going to the same sources for a creative work as those to which he went for his creations, and learning from one’s predecessor no more than the mode of availing oneself of such sources” (Mer. 138-39).

In this distinction, Kant is following Baumgarten’s terminology in the Metaphysica, who also distinguishes the notion of “exemplar” or Muster, modelwhich prescribes any further copy or exemplatum (ectypon, copia)-from the notion of exemplaris or archetypon, to which no copy can be adequate, but is the autonomous and original measure (Richtmaas) of things. Exemplaris is the condition in which God conceives of himself, as the supreme “self-cognition,” and thus marks the archetupos or “archetype” for all finite cognitions. By extension, the exemplarity of genius can be “archetypal” or “ectypal,” according to one’s response to the work: it can serve either as a pattern (Muster) for imitation (Nachahmung) by future artists, as a “standard or rule for estimating” their work, as Kant specifies in sec 46; or, as an archetype (Urbild) for the emulation (Nachfolge) by future geniuses. If a genial creation is treated as a mere “pattern” for creativity, then one will merely imitate the manner of its performance; but if one emulates it as an archetype of taste, then one can ignite one’s own “true original.”

Nevertheless, Kant is fully aware of the problem of explicating the character of this genial “emulation” or “following,” which has puzzled Gould and Guyer. Kant’s initial attempts to capture this difficult sense of genial emulation in the Reflexionen are fully cognizant of this difficulty, but nevertheless strive to occupy the middle ground:

The initiates [adepten] of genius, who must necessarily make appeals to genius, [but] also can only estimate their [own] genius by the appraisal of people, are those who have a communal [gemeinschaftliche], but not a communicable, inspiration [Eingebung], [and thus share] only a sympathetic intelligibility. One must let this inspiration drive their work, but without fretting over it, because one does not actually contradict the spirit [of one’s predecessors], and yet one refutes [wiederlegen] it. The artful trick is this: breaking free from science and erudition in consideration of [one’s] original spirit, and being critical of others and of any deep secret religious conviction, which gives consideration to idle talk. (Ak. 15. 1, 391; emphasis added)

Here, Kant chooses to clarify the relation between geniuses as limited to an incommunicable mode of sympathetic intelligibility, in which they find common ground for their inspiration, but very different terms for its manifestation. By virtue of that communal inspiration, Kant insists, each genius does not simply contradict the exemplarity of his predecessors, but rather “refutes,” as it were, the dominance of their example, as patterns for imitation. Each genius does not challenge the inherent, archetypal exemplarity of her predecessors, by virtue of the fact that her own talent must be ignited by this example; nevertheless, each new genial creation proffers a new “pattern” for imitation, or center of influence for an aesthetic school. Each new work of genius will therefore “refute” the dominance of a predecessor’s work as a pattern for future creativity, but cannot “contradict” its archetypal status, due to the communal, and yet incommunicable, inspiration they share as “nature’s elect.” Consequently, there may be a rivalry between “schools,” but not within the communal “sympathetic intelligibility” of genius.

Furthermore, genius itself must conform to the “appraisal” of its public, and the Richterstuhl of taste. Consequently, Kant can conceive of genial creation as a mode which follows or emulates the natural endowment’s of one’s predecessors, through an ineffable sense of common inspiration, but without simply regressing to Hamann’s original position of the 1760s, that genius is merely a mode that mimics the examples of daimonic enthusiasm. On the contrary, Kant can now moderate the Hamannian picture, precisely because Hamann denies to genial creation the requirement of universal communicability before an audience of taste, despite its incommunicable sources in genial inspiration. Kant captures this sense through an indirect reference to Hamann’s position in the Sohratische Denkwurdigkeiten:

Genius is not perhaps a daimon [Daemon], who [simply] confers inspirations and revelations. One must already have learned something or have studied formally and methodically, if genius should have a material [Stof] [to work with]. Genius is also not a particular mode or source of insight: it must be able to communicate [mitgetheilt] and be made understandable to everyone…. However, if its alleged illuminations are obscure [amant obscurum] and it does not allow them to be inspected and examined in the light, if it doesn’t flow from some comprehensible idea: then the imagination is merely fanatical [schwirmt], and, because the product is nothing, so it has also not sprung out of genius, but rather merely from deception [Blendwerk]. (Ak. 15.1, 393)

Here, Kant dispenses with the problem of “original nonsense,” which he finds in schwarmerische enthusiasm and the idiosyncrasies of English poetry-for a work must be communicable to its public, and open to inspection, if it is to function as a pattern for imitation.

Imitation and Genius in the Critique of Judgment

To a significant degree, these background deliberations help to mitigate the “air of paradox” surrounding Kant’s account of exemplary originality in the

Third Critique. On the one hand, genius must create an archetype of taste from out of the springs of its own inspiration; it must be entirely new, and “simulate” (nacheifert) the extension of a rational idea. However, on the other hand, there are several powerful anchors which control the revolutionary impact of its originality. In the first place, this inspiration must be ignited by the example of one’s predecessors, through a “sympathetic intelligibility,” and it must be communicable to an audience of taste. Furthermore, it must be capable of satisfying one of several functions of influence: as an archetype (Urbild) for the emulation (Nachfolge) of future geniuses, as a pattern (Muster) for the imitation (Nachahmung) of future artists, as a model (Modell) or precept (Vorschrift) for the replication (Nachmachung) by schools, and as an expression of peculiarity (Eigenthumlichkeit), which may serve for the aping (Nachaffung) of counterfeits, plagiarists, and “tyros.”

Contrary to the views of Guyer and Gould, this prodigious array of imitative reception which ensues from the exemplarity of the genius in fact reinforces its claims to originality, rather than undermines them. The very fact that its originality can be the touchstone for such a vast field of emulation, derivation, and forgery is the criterion by which it can function as a “true original”–to the extent that its originality can only be identified through its exemplary effects on others, in Kant’s theory of fine art. Without such effects, it would be reduced to a mere “oddity” (Eigenheit) coincident with the “original nonsense” of the Schwarmerei. However, the originality of the true genius is not itself engendered by following these patterns of imitation, which are the guiding-threads (Leitfaden) for lesser artists, and thus there is no contradiction between the springs of genial innovation and the impulse for imitation. In attempting to clarify these distinct levels of exemplarity, then, Kant draws upon several lines of inquiry that have occupied his earlier investigations.

In sec 46, Kant returns the terminology of his earlier Reflexion 778, but this time repudiates the analogy of science and art. Unlike science, the mode of genial inspiration is not communicable, because the genius does not have a methodical control over the inspiration of his “genie.” He is ignorant of the precise origin of these ideas in his mind: “where an author owes a product to his genius, he does not himself know how the ideas for it have entered his head, nor has he it in his power to invent the like at pleasure, or methodically, and communicate the same to others in such precepts [Vorschriften] as would put them in a position to produce similar products. (Hence, presumably, our word Genie is derived from genius, as the peculiar guardian and guiding.spirit given to a man at his birth, by the inspiration of which those original ideas were obtained)” (sec 46; Mer. 169). Here, in direct refutation of Tetens, the genial mode of inspiration is now independent of the precepts (Vorschriften) laid down by one’s predecessors. The work of the genius is indeed “exemplary” for future geniuses, but only in the sense that he elicits a “sympathetic intelligibility” for the spirit of invention. In contrast, even the most skilled imitator, although he may instill his products with original thought, cannot be considered coincident with the “following” (Nachfolge) of the genius in this sense: “Even though a man weaves his own thoughts or fancies, instead of taking in what others have thought, and even though he goes so far as to bring fresh gains to art and science, this does not afford a valid reason for calling such a man of brains [Kopf] . .. a genius…. For what is accomplished in this way is something that could have been learned, and thus lies in the natural path [Weg] of investigation and reflection according to rules” (Mer. 169). Here, Kant’s determination seems an explicit rebuttal of his earlier view outlined in Reflexion 778. The very fact that one follows the “path” (Weg) of earlier investigation reduces the creative act to a dispensation according to rules, even if it surpasses the original.

In the Third Critique, therefore, the artistic genius is precisely accorded the position Kant had earlier repudiated: the genius creates in the “inbetween” (wozwischen), he breaks off from the lines of convention and continuity, his product erupts from the “cleft” of the “chimerical.” Although genial inspiration has been ignited by prior example, its product can in no way be predisposed to the “path” of earlier invention. In direct contrast to Reflexion 778, then, in sec 47 Kant explicitly bifurcates the capacity of a Newton from the genius of Wieland or Homer:

all that Newton has set forth in his immortal work of the Principles of Natural Philosophy may well be learned, however great a mind it took to find it all out, but we cannot learn to write in a truly poetic vein…. [N]o Homer or Wieland can show how his ideas, so rich at once in fancy and thought, enter and assemble themselves in the brain, for the good reason that he does not himself know, and so cannot teach others. In matters of science, therefore, the greatest inventor differs only in degree from the most laborious imitator and apprentice, whereas he differs specifically from one endowed by nature for fine art. (Mer. 170; emphasis added)

However, in light of his early concern with the scientific proclivities of the German character, for which he initially promoted the view of an “imitative genius,” Kant insists here on the superiority of the deliberate advance of the sciences over the itinerant character of genial inspiration: “scientists can boast a ground of considerable superiority over those who merit the honor of being called geniuses, since genius reaches a point at which art must make a halt, as there is a limit imposed upon it which it cannot transcend. This limit has in all probability been long since attained” (Mer. 170). This verdict is explicable in the sense that genius can no longer progress up lines of prior precedent, surpassing the model of one’s teacher, as Kant had once said of Milton; however, Kant is also compensating for the limitations of the German character here, as is evident from later remarks he makes in the Anthropology. The Germans’ “good side,” he claims, is that “things can be accomplished through unflagging industry, and for which genius is certainly not required. Genius, anyway, is by far not as useful as the German’s industriousness, which is linked with a sound talent for understanding…and in the field of the sciences they are the first on the trail that is later followed by others with much ado.”

In a footnote to this passage, however, Kant significantly clarifies the wholly unexpected and itinerant character of genial inspiration: Genius is the talent for the invention of that which cannot be taught or learned, [but which] must come spontaneously from the author’s nature…. [A] good poem must be formed as an inspiration of which the poet himself cannot say how it was conceived, that is, a haphazard disposition whose very source is unknown to him (scit genius, natale comes qui temperat astrum) [the genius knows it, as the newborn is guided by its birthstar]. Genius, therefore, glitters like a momentary phenomenon which appears and disappears at intervals, and vanishes again. It is not a light that can be kindled at will and kept burning for a period of one’s own choosing, but rather it is like a sparkscattering flash [spruhende Funken] which a happy seizure of the spirit entices from the productive imagination. (Ak. 7, 318n.; Anthropology, 234n.)

In the Critique of Judgment, Kant further distinguishes the influence of the genius on future artists as also igniting an inner talent, but which is guided by a rule, and is thus carried forth on “similar lines”: “such skill,” he asserts, “cannot be communicated, but requires to be bestowed directly from the hand of nature upon each individual, and so with him it dies, awaiting the day when nature once again endows another in the same way-one who needs no more than an example [Beispiel] to set the talent of which he is conscious at work on similar lines” (Mer. 170). One does not need to be a genius, therefore, to have one’s artistic proclivities awakened by the example of genius; however, if one is not a genius oneself, then the genial example must serve as a “pattern” (Mustern) for “imitation” (Nachahmung) of the work on “similar lines.” This imitation must “abstract” the rule for its application “from the act [der Tat], that is, from the product,” in order to put one’s own talent to the test. Echoing his earlier injunction, then, Kant conceives of Nachahmung in this case as an imitation of the “manner” of performance, the creative “act” (Tat), rather than its “mode of invention” or material form. In the latter case, one would merely employ the work as a “precept” or template for “replication” (Nachmachung), in order to materially copy its mode of composition (sec 47; Mer. 170-71). This “tutelary” function of the artwork, then, helps to form an independent aesthetic school organized around the genial “precept” (Vorschrift).

At the end of 49, Kant brings these complex considerations together in a final, summary statement:

Genius, according to these presuppositions, is the exemplary originality [musterhafte Originalitat] of the natural endowments of a subject in the free employment of his cognitive faculties. On this showing, the product of a genius (in respect of so much in this product as is attributable to genius, and not to possible learning or academic instruction) is an example [Beispiel], not for imitation [Nachahmung] (for that would mean the loss of the element of genius, and just the soul of the very work), but for the following [Nachfolge] by another genius-one whom it arouses to a sense of his own originality in putting freedom from constraint of rules so into force in his art, that for art itself a new rule is won-which is what shows a talent to be exemplary [musterhaft].

Here, Kant clearly specifies that only genius can follow (nachfolgen) the example of genius, but the test of genius lies in its ability to fashion a work that is in fact exemplary (musterhaft), that is, as a “pattern” (Muster) for the imitation of future artists. A “new rule is won” for aesthetic instruction, but not for genius itself. Consequently, he clarifies that the determinate character of the work’s exemplarity is in reference to its influence on future artists and aesthetic schools, which will congregate around its example as a new “rule” for estimating their work. “[S]ince the genius is one of nature’s elect-a type that must be regarded as but a rare phenomenon-for other clever minds his example gives rise to a school, that is to say a methodical instruction according to rules, collected, so far as the circumstances admit, from such products of genius and their peculiarities. And, to that extent, fine art is for such persons a matter of imitation [Nachahmung], for which nature, through the medium of the genius, gave the rule.” In these passages, Kant makes explicit the categorical division between the orders of Nachfolge and Nachahmung. The genius does indeed win a new rule for art, but a rule of imitation by an aesthetic school, not for the emulation of future genius. Finally, he warns:

this imitation [Nachahmung] becomes aping [Nachaffung] when the pupil copies everything down to the deformities which the genius suffered to remain, because they could not be removed without loss of force to the idea. This courage has merit only in the case of the genius. A certain boldness of expression, and, in general, many a deviation from the common rule becomes him well, but in no sense is it a thing worthy of imitation [nachahmungswurdig]. On the contrary, it remains all through intrinsically a blemish, which one is bound to try and remove, but for which the genius is, as it were, allowed to plead a privilege, on the ground that a scrupulous carefulness would spoil what is inimitable [Unnachahmliche] in the impetuous ardor of his soul [Geistesschwunges]. (Mer. 181) Those who merely “ape” the genial creation are drawn to the expressive flourish or idiosyncrasy, and thus condescend to a mere “mannerism” organized around the artist’s “peculiarity” (Eigenthumlichkeit), rather than the originality of natural talent.

In conclusion, then, Kant satisfies the problem of canonical succession, and sustains the integrity of exemplary originality, through a complex typology of the modes of genial influence. Out of the ineffable originality of the genius, Kant construes four distinct orders of exemplarity for those who produce future works: in the emulations (Nachfolgen) of further geniuses, in the imitations (Nachahmungen) of artists, in the replications (Nachmachungen) of schools, and in the apings (Nachaffungen) of counterfeiters and plagiarists. While the originality of the genius must be ignited as a “spark-scattering flash” of inspiration, the proliferating orbits of its subsequent influence firmly establish its permanence in the genial firmament.