Hume, Kant, and the “Antinomy of Taste”

Timothy M Costelloe. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 41, Issue 2. April 2003.


Although one hesitates to agree with Eva Schaper’s declaration that it has become “fashionable to construe many a Kantian epistemological argument as ‘Kant’s answer to Hume,’” no one would seriously dispute the claim that in epistemology and metaphysics a clear relationship between the two philosophies does exist. There might be disagreement concerning the precise nature of “Hume’s problem” and Kant’s attempt to solve it, but the connection is at least documented by Kant’s explicit references to the rejuvenating effects Hume’s philosophy had on his own work. The situation is otherwise in the case of aesthetics, however. Kant does mention Hume by name in the Critique of Judgment, thus showing his familiarity with at least some of Hume’s essays and parts of The History of England. Although none of the references are to “Of the Standard of Taste” in particular, a German translation of the essay was available as early as 1758 (only one year after its publication in English), and commentators have generally assumed that Kant owned a copy of the essay or had at least read it. Yet the historical connection is somewhat tenuous, and on this view of the matter any influence Hume’s essay might have had on Kant’s later thinking remains obscure. As a result, bold claims to the effect that “Kant undoubtedly conceived the first part of his Critique of Judgment as a response to Hume” remain just that.

Given the difficulty-and indeed limitations-of making a purely historical connection, in this paper I intend to take a somewhat different tack in deciphering Hume’s presence in the third Critique. Although following those who have already considered the possibility of a link between Hume’s aesthetics and Kant’s later thought, my aim will be to establish a philosophical connection in terms of which the two approaches might be compared and ultimately contrasted. At the outset, however, I want to be clear about the limitations of following such a line of inquiry. Since the notion of an “Antinomy” is distinctively Kantian, my attempt to discover a similar argumentative structure in “Of the Standard of Taste” will necessarily begin by considering how Kant understood the term. Such a strategy is potentially anachronistic, of course, since in employing it one risks presenting Hume’s thought as if it were properly described only in the language of critical philosophy. At the same time, however, moving in the other direction-from Hume to Kant-makes little interpretative sense: one can only articulate a “Humean antinomy” by way of Kant’s later formulation, and moving from the latter to the former would greatly reduce the force of the proposed comparison. Indeed, as I aim to show, Kant’s Antinomy can be translated intelligibly into Humean language without dissolving Hume’s distinctive contribution into Kant’s critical system as mutatis mutandis the complexities of the latter need not be reduced to a single essay of Hume. As the extant literature on Hume and Kant demonstrates, it is quite possible to move between both thinkers without distorting the contribution of either.

With these qualifications in mind, in what follows my aim is to establish first, that there are indeed striking parallels between “Of the Standard of Taste” and the Antinomy in the “Analytic of the Beautiful”; and, second, to document them in a way that-despite suggestive remarks made by a number of commentators-has not been done hitherto. I shall take as my point of departure the observation first made by Peter Kivy that in “Of the Standard of Taste” Hume not only undertakes what Kant later calls a “critique,” but in so doing articulates and intends to resolve an “’antinomy’ of taste.” Kivy writes:

Hume saw the problem of taste as Kant was to see it some years later, as the resolution of a dilemma which had, on one of its horns, the commonsensical notion that about taste there is no disputing, and on the other the (to Hume) equally self-evident precept that, as he put it, ‘where objects so disproportioned are compared together … The principle of the natural equality of tastes is then totally forgot.’

Kivy’s observation that a Kantian “antinomy” is to be found in Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” finds a parallel in similar claims concerning the nature of reason in the epistemological and metaphysical positions each thinker develops. Manfred Kuehn has argued convincingly that Hume took his “manifest contradictions” to constitute “a fundamental class of contradictions which he believed were neither accidental nor created by his analysis, but were essential characteristics of the human mind”; and, subsequently, that these can be legitimately regarded as “Hume’s ‘antinomies.’” A similar point has been made by Dorothy Coleman who understands Hume’s skepticism by comparing it with Kant’s “dialectical method”: “Just as Kant solves the antinomies of pure reason through a criticism, not a dissolution, of transcendental illusion,” she contends, “so Hume solves contradiction between natural beliefs through a criticism, not a dissolution, of natural illusion.” Both thinkers, on this view, can be seen as employing dialectic as a method for “resolving” rather than generating skepticism.

A point worth noting in the articles by Kuehn and Coleman, however, is that while they concentrate on how Hume articulates a problem comparable to Kant’s antinomies, they pay little attention to how Hume might solve it. Indeed, Kuehn implies that Hume has no solution: “[I]t is not surprising,” he says, “that Hume makes no attempt to resolve the conflict and simply lets the profounder and more philosophical sceptic” point to the “utterly irreducible character” of the contradiction between reason and sense. Thus it “should be obvious,” Kuehn writes, that Hume’s choice between “false reason and none at all” is an “observation of what is commonly done” and not a “philosophical solution.” While in her approach Coleman does emphasize Hume’s dialectic as a way of putting skeptical doubts to rest, she also understands his position to be thoroughly non-philosophical, and takes Hume to be “recommending carelessness and inattention as a solution to the contradiction resulting from natural illusion.” She concludes that “the purpose of Hume’s true philosophy, like Kant’s transcendental philosophy, is to detect, not to remove, the mind’s natural illusion.” While this might be a legitimate way to compare the two philosophies, like Kuehn’s focus on Hume’s formulation of antinomy, identifying Hume with Kant so closely from the outset does tend to underplay potential differences between the two thinkers and obscure any positive doctrine that Hume himself might be advancing.

In his comparison, by contrast, Kivy does suggest a way in which Hume resolves his antimony, namely, by seeing “that if relativism in taste seems an unimpeachable fact, so, too, does the existence of critical standards.” Thus “since each individual’s judgement of any given work of art is a matter of ‘sentiment,’ that is to say ’emotion’ rather than ‘thought,’“ Kivy proposes, “the resolution of the ‘antinomy’ of taste, for Hume, becomes an affair of reducing matters of sentiment to matters of ‘fact’; for if there were no ‘facts’ to adjudicate, on which we all could at least potentially agree, the ‘principle of the natural equality of tastes,’ i.e., de gustibus non est disputandum, must remain unchallenged.” Thus, as Kivy expresses his view elsewhere, Hume’s solution involves resolving “the question of the relation … between aesthetics and rationality,” and reaching the conclusion both that “our aesthetic nature and our rational nature are bound together,” and also that “an ‘anything goes’ attitude towards aesthetic distinctions is not compatible with rationality.” Hume, that is, solves the antinomy by showing that there are “facts” or common standards about which it would make no sense to disagree. Indeed, following Kivy’s suggestion, I hope to demonstrate that by looking closely at how Hume’s discussion parallels Kant’s formulation of and solution to the Antinomies, it becomes clear how such “facts” actually function in Hume’s “resolution” and, subsequently, how Hume’s view differs markedly from the lessons Kant takes from his treatment of the “antithetic” tendencies of human reason.

Kant’s Conception of Antinomy

Before considering the sense in which Hume might actually articulate an “antinomy” of taste, I want to consider Kant’s understanding of this concept which, in turn, requires at least some brief consideration of the Aesthetic in the Critique of Pure Reason. This is not to suggest that the antinomies of the first Critique are necessarily identical to the Antinomy of Taste or that Kant is justified in taking the latter as antinomical in the same way as the former. It is possible to view Kant’s Antinomy of Taste primarily as a function of his critical architechtonic, and thus render contrived certain aspects of its formulation; in particular, Kant’s appeal to the supersensible and his claim that it involves a natural and unavoidable—“transcendental”—illusion have been targets for criticism. Kant himself clearly does consider the Antinomy of Taste to be similar in kind to the Antinomies of the first Critique, and whether or not he is justified in doing so does not affect the point of the present discussion, which aims only to outline the notion of Antinomy itself. As will become clear, this discussion is necessary preparation both for understanding Kant’s particular formulation of and solution to the Antinomy of Taste in the third Critique and, subsequently, for detailing the points of similarity and difference between it and the logic of Hume’s argument in “Of the Standard of Taste.”

As is well known, Kant introduces the notion of “Antinomy” to characterize the second manifestation of the tendency within pure reason itself to make “pseudorational inferences [vernunftelnden Sclusse]” (A406/B4320; A339/B397 passim). Together with the Paralogisms and the Ideal of Pure Reason, his treatment of it forms the Transcendental Dialectic of the first Critique. All three inferences, he argues, are errors of reason which can be traced back to the three formal syllogisms already elucidated in the Analytic of Concepts (A73-4/ B98-9). Since they “consist in treating the subjective conditions of thinking as being knowledge of the object” (A396, emphasis in original), Kant calls them “illusions”: being syllogisms which “contain no empirical premises … we conclude from something which we know to something else of which we have no concept, and to which … we yet ascribe objective reality” (A339/B397).

The defining characteristic of the Antinomies, in particular, is that they involve an “antithetic” in which equally valid and unassailable propositions compete for ascendancy; a process in which “no one assertion can establish superiority over another” (A420/B448). Since this antithetic “treats only of the conflict of the doctrines of reason with one another and the causes of this conflict,” Kant says, “the transcendental antithetic is an enquiry into the antinomy of pure reason, its causes and outcome” (A421/B448). The conflict-and the subsequent inquiry-arises, then, because despite sound arguments provided by the logic of the hypothetical syllogism, reason unwisely endeavors to extend a concept “freed” from the understanding “beyond the limits of the empirical.” It thus seeks what it cannot possibly hope to find, namely, the “absolutely unconditioned” (ostensibly) contained in the “conditioned,” the latter being the name Kant gives to the regressive synthesis of objective appearances (A409/B436; A417/B444). The contradiction characteristic of this antithetic comes from the two different ways in which the absolutely unconditioned can be conceived: either as part of a series leading back to a first cause, or as the totality of a series, in which case the regress is infinite. The first gives rise to the “dogmatic” content of the theses, while the second to the “empiricism” of the antitheses; and together, as the outcome of an attempt to carry the synthesis of intuitions and concepts beyond the world of sense, they form a system of “transcendental ideas” or “cosmical concepts” (Weltbegriffe) (A420/B448).

As his explicit references show (KdU, 341, 344-5), Kant clearly has this earlier treatment in mind when he comes to formulate the Antinomy of Taste in the third Critique. Indeed, since Kant ultimately solves the latter conflict by reference to a “purely intelligible” rather than a “sensible” condition, it seems to follow the model of the second and third “dynamical” (rather than “mathematical”) Antinomies as they are presented in the Critique of Pure Reason (A529-32/B557-60). There are differences, however, most obviously that the Antinomy of Taste seems to lack the logical structure of its counterparts in the first Critique, that it does not concern itself with traditional metaphysical themes where thesis and antithesis represent positions taken by disputants in actual philosophical debates; and, as I noted above, that the introduction of a supersensible substrate as part of the solution has made commentators suspicious that the argument in the third Critique presents an Antinomy in name only.

In addition-and, as will become clear, significant for the comparison with Hume-the Antinomy of Taste is largely a reformulation of various proverbial expressions. This is even more noteworthy if, like W. H. Walsh, one is inclined to see the Antinomies of Pure Reason as specifically philosophical or metaphysical problems rather than reflections of pure reason itself. Kuehn has emphasized the importance of this latter point, noting that a central component of Kant’s general conception of Antinomy is that the contradictions are themselves symptomatic of a “more fundamental conflict … between certain laws or principles of the mind.” In the first Critique this is reflected in the fact that conflicts arise because the assertions of both sides spring from the unavoidable tendency for human thought to seek the unconditioned in the synthesis of appearances, a goal which can never be attained. In the Antinomy of Taste, on the other hand, the “fundamental conflict” appears on a more mundane level. The conflict does indeed involve “principles” (Prinzipien)-albeit of the “critique of taste” rather than taste itself-and is a manifestation of the peculiar character of a judgment of taste to have a basis in the subject while simultaneously making a claim to universal validity (KdU, 337). Yet Kant generates both thesis and antithesis not-as in the first Critique-from philosophical claims about ultimate reality, but from two “commonplaces” (Gemeinorte) about taste. Like the aphorisms (Grundsatzen) he refers to in the Anthropology (204-5, 222), these have achieved the status of proverbs (Sprichworter). In the third Critique, the Antinomy arises between two ordinary, commonly held assumptions: on the one side stands the assumption that “everyone has his own taste” and, on the other, the view that “there is no disputing about taste.” Whereas the former, employed by those lacking taste (Geschmackslose) and wishing to avoid censure (Tadel), takes judgments to involve “no right to other people’s necessary consent [notwendige Beistimmung]”, the latter assumes the very opposite, namely, that judgments of taste do have the right “to speak validly for everyone” (KdU, 338).

As it stands, of course, these two Gemeinorte are only necessary but not sufficient conditions to generate the contradiction required for an Antinomy. The commonplaces do involve different claims concerning the “merely subjective” as opposed to “objective” basis of judgments about the beautiful, but they represent how individuals quarrel (Streiten) rather than engage in genuine dispute (Disputieren). Disputing is impossible, Kant claims, because the necessarily subjective character of aesthetic judgments means there are no grounds (Beweisgrunden) upon which to resolve disagreements by ascertaining the correctness of one judgment over another. In other words, since there is no common criterion to which they both appeal, the quarrel between the terms can be resolved simply by “agreeing to disagree.” Kant can only formulate the antinomy fully, then, by finding another term which contradicts the claim that “everyone has his own taste.” This he discovers in the “missing” proposition, assumed by the other two and “which everyone has in mind,” viz., that “one can quarrel about taste (though one cannot dispute about it).” This promises “hope” of agreement, implying in turn that we can expect “to count on the judgment’s having bases that do not have merely private validity and hence are not merely subjective” (KdU, 338). This clearly contradicts the first commonplace because it assumes and denies the idea of standards to which people must appeal. Thus, on a somewhat more tortuous path than that taken in the first Critique, Kant arrives at the Antinomy of Taste consisting of a thesis stating that judgment has subjective validity (not based on concepts) and the antithesis that it has universal validity (that it is based on concepts) (KdU, 338).

Common Sense and Hume’s Antinomy of Taste

Both in the first and third Critiques, then, Kant’s notion of antinomy involves showing how reason gives rise to contradictions with a necessarily antithetic character which are manifestations, in turn, of a more fundamental conflict between principles of human thought. So if, as Kivy suggests, Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” really does articulate a similar confrontation, the essay would need to contain a description of two equally valid, unassailable, but contradictory propositions which arise naturally from a tendency in human reason itself. Needless to say, since Hume himself does not formulate his argument in terms of a Kantian Antinomy, there are likely to be important elements in the latter which do not appear in the former. Most notably, the propositions in a Humean antinomy will be closer to what might be termed pre-theoretical intuitions than to the purely rational principles identified by Kant. As Kuehn emphasizes in his discussion of “Hume’s Antinomies,” insisting on this latter element would be counter-productive since its inclusion “would effectively restrict the term [Antinomy] to Kant” (and, one might add, to Kant after 1775). As Kuehn himself goes on to show, however, such restrictions do not form an insuperable barrier to making a fruitful comparison.

Notwithstanding such undeniable differences, if one excludes Kant’s emphasis on the rational principles of antinomy and his appeal to the supersensible, one finds in Hume’s antinomy not only clear parallels to Kant’s formulation of the Antinomy of Taste but-as Henry Allison has recently called it-his “’formal’ resolution [of the Antinomy] through the clarification of the sense of ‘concept’ appealed to by both parties.” Accordingly, in the present section I want to focus on Hume’s concept of “common sense” in order to show how what I term its “naive” and “skeptical” aspects compose an argumentative structure similar to the one Kant presents in his Antinomy of Taste. I use the term “naive” to emphasize Hume’s observation that the diversity of taste leads people to conclude that no general standards exist, and “skeptical” to echo his view that questioning or reflecting upon common life shows the opposite to be the case. The antinomy in “Of the Standard of Taste,” I shall argue, consists of these two equally justifiable but contradictory claims.

Part of Hume’s explanandum in his essay is the “great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world,” a fact, he adds, “too obvious not to have fallen under every one’s observation” (ST, 226). To the uncritical eye, however, everyday life appears to be characterized exclusively by such diversity-and dispute-concerning particular tastes. As Hume presents it, “[a]ccording to the disposition of the organs, the same object may be both sweet and bitter; and the proverb [degustibus non est disputandum] has justly determined it to be fruitless to dispute concerning tastes.” There is a natural tendency for human reason to take diversity at face value; the shear variety of taste provides indisputable evidence that judgments about the beautiful can be reduced to matters of individual liking. It is then “very natural and even quite necessary,” Hume contends, to extend the proverb concerning taste from the bodily to the mental. In its naive aspect, “common sense,” though “often at variance with philosophy … is found, in one instance at least, to agree in pronouncing the same decision,” namely, that in matters of taste there is no dispute. Unreflective reason and skeptical philosophies alike draw such a conclusion which, like the “unmitigated” arguments of Berkeley, admit of no answer and produce no conviction (EU, 155). By “passing into a proverb,” Hume says, it “seems to have attained the sanction of common sense” (ST, 230). People, that is, simply “agree to disagree” about taste and that is the end of the matter.

Yet although this conclusion drawn from observing diversity is natural and necessary, it is at once contradicted by a second influence of common sense. “[T]here is certainly a species of common sense,” Hume observes, which “opposes” the tendency of its naive counterpart to sanction errors of judgment; or “at least serves to modify and restrain it” (ST, 230). This “skeptical” variety (as I am calling it) contradicts its naive counterpart. The proverbial truth which denies the possibility of dispute is opposed by another which demonstrates the nonsense of treating dissimilar phenomena as equal. It is this species of common sense which lies behind Hume’s observation that “whoever would assert an equality of genius and elegance between Ogilby and Milton, or Bunyan and Addison, would be thought to defend no less an extravagance, than if he had maintained a mole-hill to be as high as Tenerife, or a pond as extensive as the ocean” (ST, 230-1). The taste of such people can be dismissed summarily and, as an extension of Hume’s point, one might observe that if they really do take mole-hills as mountains or ponds as oceans, this could cast doubts on their sanity as well. There is often room for disagreement in certain cases, but no one could possibly “agree to disagree” with somebody who took lesser poets over greater, because that would be to ignore accepted standards governing the judgments regarding such authors.

As I have already pointed out, Hume does not make these observations within an architectonic of the sort constructed by Kant, and his thought cannot yield specific distinctions—“dispute” as opposed to “quarrel,” for example—which are fundamental for Kant’s presentation. Considered at an appropriate level of generality, however, Hume’s treatment of common sense in “Of the Standard of Taste” does parallel Kant’s later formulation very closely. Two points of comparison should make this clear. First-and this is what makes the difference between Kant’s formulation of Antinomy in the first and third Critiques noteworthy-Hume’s focus on two influences of common sense shows how judgments can take quite contradictory forms: on the one hand, individuals take diversity of opinion as evidence that there is no disputing taste while, on the other, they assume that the results of some artistic endeavors are better than others. This means, in turn, that standards do exist and some judgments can be ruled out as absurd. In its naive aspect, then, common sense observes diversity and concludes that disputes in matters of taste are impossible; as such it denies a common standard. At the same time, the skeptical aspect of common sense undermines the purely individual basis of taste by showing certain judgments to be ridiculous; as such, it affirms a common standard. Like Kant’s “commonplaces” about taste, these contradictory opinions are manifest as proverbial expressions which people accept and take to be true.

Considered in this way, Hume can be seen to articulate the same contradiction which Kant expresses in terms of “concepts.” There is, on the one side, the notion that judgments have a purely subjective validity (the thesis that they are not based on concepts), while on the other, the assumption that judgments have a universal basis which lifts them beyond the private and merely subjective to which the thesis condemns them (the antithesis that they are based on concepts). Conversely, one might translate Kant into Humean language, in which case his first and third propositions about taste would involve the naive assumption that diversity makes disputes over taste impossible (thesis), and the skeptical one that judgments depend upon common standards (antithesis), respectively. Whether the language is that of transcendental idealism or-as Hume expresses it in “Of Essay Writing”—born of a mediation between the dominions of learning and conversation (Essays, 535), the problematic being articulated is apparently the same.

The second point of comparison concerns Hume’s well-known distinction between ideas and matters of fact, and the different reasonings proper to each. “All reasonings may be divided into two kinds,” Hume writes in the first Enquiry, “namely, demonstrative reasoning, or that concerning relations of ideas, and moral reasoning, or that concerning matter of fact and existence” (EH, 35). Relations of ideas, that is, “are discoverable by the mere operation of thought, without dependence on what is anywhere existent in the universe” (EU, 25). So the Euclidian proposition that “the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the square of the two sides” is a proposition expressing a relation between figures and cannot be denied without falling into contradiction (EU, 25). “The contrary of a matter of fact,” by contrast, “is still possible; because it can never imply a contradiction” (EU, 25); a matter of fact is “intelligible,” Hume argues, and “implies no contradiction, and can never be proved false by any demonstrative argument or abstract reasoning a priori” (EU, 35).

The argument Hume develops in “Of the Standard of Taste” draws upon the same logical distinction, what in the later work he terms “questions of fact” and “questions of sentiment.” Questions of fact are “disputable questions” about which individuals disagree and, in the absence of agreement, accept that others are of a different view:

Whether any particular person be endowed with good sense and a delicate imagination, free from prejudice, may often be the subject of dispute, and be liable to great discussion and enquiry: But that such a character is valuable and estimable will be agreed in all by mankind. Where these doubts occur, men can do no more than in other disputable questions … they must acknowledge a true and decisive standard to exist somewhere, to wit, real existence and matter of fact; and they must have indulgence to such as differ from them in their appeals to this standard. (ST, 242)

Hume thus acknowledges that people differ in their judgments, and that those of good manners, at least, will more often than not indulge the peculiarities of their friends and acquaintances. There are, after all, various contingencies which explain why such differences of opinion come about. The important point, however, is that differences are so many empirical matters of fact. They are comparable to what Kant calls “likings” and, as such, one can be juxtaposed to another without risk of logical contradiction; people can and do disagree in their opinions and this is what gives rise to the diversity of everyday life.

Sentiments, by contrast, are of quite a different logical order. Hume, of course, is sometimes lax about his use of terminology, but as Eugene Miller points out in an editorial note to the Essays, Hume clearly uses “the term sentiment … synonymously with taste to refer to a special feeling of approbation or disapprobation that arises from the contemplation of objects, characters, or actions. Taste, or sentiment in this latter sense, underlies judgments of beauty and moral worth” (Essays, 5 n. 2). Sentiments are of a piece with relations of ideas which-like the propositions of Euclidian geometry-cannot be denied without fear of contradiction. Further, since judgments of beauty are based on sentiments, they are different in kind from judgments which refer to mere likings. Whereas the latter are matters of fact that can be juxtaposed to one another without fear of contradiction, disagreement of the same sort in sentiments is simply unintelligible. To deny a judgment of taste-rather than a mere liking-is to contradict standards which everyone knows to be the case; and to do this terminates in the “palpable absurdities” of holding Ogilby over Milton or taking Tenerife as a mole-hill. For, as Kivy expresses Hume’s point, “there are bounds of rationality to be trespassed” such that “someone who finds Rembrandt garish or Van Gogh subdued is slightly ‘off the rails,’ not merely of a different opinion.” There might well be people who take lesser writers over greater, as there are those who confuse mountains with mole-hills, but, as Hume says, “no one pays attention to such a taste; and we pronounce without scruple the sentiment of these pretended critics to be absurd or ridiculous” (ST, 231). Such a minority are simply in error: they are either defective in some measure or do not understand what they are saying.

In “Of the Standard of Taste” Hume relies on this distinction between matters of fact and ideas to show that because likings and judgments of beauty refer to different orders of existence, respectively, one can talk of diversity and “decisive standards” without fear of self-contradiction. This is exactly the argument he makes in elucidating common sense. Naive common sense refers to those things about which people can (and more often than not do) disagree; and since different matters of fact do not contradict one another, this accounts for the “great variety of Taste, as well as of opinion, which prevails in the world.” These opinions do not make claims about objective reality, but refer only to the subject who utters them. Since there are no criteria in terms of which one might be correct or incorrect, they can compete with one another indefinitely and without resolution ever being reached. Sentiments, by contrast, correspond to the skeptical aspect of common sense. They are comparable to knowledge claims and, since they presuppose general or rational standards, they are open to public evaluation. For this reason the judgments of some people are “palpable absurdities”: such taste can be dismissed out of hand because it does not conform to what everyone knows to be the case.

In formulating the Antinomy in the third Critique Kant relies upon a similar distinction. Kant’s well-known terms for these logically distinct classes of phenomena are judgments about “the agreeable” (das Angenehme) and aesthetic judgments of taste, respectively. In Kant’s view, the dialectical tendency of human reason arises because commonplaces about taste expressing these two logical orders conflict: when the appeal to one’s own “taste” contradicts the assumption that the judgment can be made into a universal rule. People can and do have different “likings” for what they find agreeable, and as long the disagreement remains at this level no dialectical conflict arises; in Kant’s terminology, they quarrel (Streiten) but do not dispute (Disputieren) about their claims. In matters of taste, by contrast, where judgments claim to be universally valid, no such disagreement is possible. As Kant points out, “To say, this flower is beautiful, is tantamount to a mere repetition of the flower’s own claim to every one’s liking. The agreeableness of its smell, on the other hand, gives it no claim whatever: its smell delights [ergotzen] one person, it makes another dizzy” (KdU, 282). This is what Hume says when he observes how people can show a preference for Ogilby over Milton. Such likings, though not as “good” as the next, do not involve the parties in genuine contradiction because no claim to common standards (universality) is being made. Aesthetic judgments proper, on the other hand, in so far as they are claims of taste rather than opinion, are based on feelings (Gefuhle). One can be “correct” or “incorrect” about the beauty of a flower or the excellence of Milton because such judgments presuppose and demand assent from everyone. Here there is genuine dispute because judgments refer to common standards and-like Sancho’s kinsmen who achieved excellence in discriminating one wine from another (ST, 235)-the taste of one man can be applauded as “good” and another dismissed as “bad.”

Solutions to the Antinomy


So far in my discussion I have been concerned largely with offering detailed support for Kivy’s suggestion that Hume articulates what Kant later calls the Antinomy of Taste; and, as should now be clear, when the comparison is drawn at an appropriate level, Hume and Kant are in general agreement when diagnosing the tendency of human thought to become involved in a dialectical process. I suggested above, however, that this is only part of the story, and that while the formulation of the antinomy might reveal how the two accounts converge, it also tends to obscure possible differences. These differences become apparent when one turns to the solutions that each offers for their respective dilemmas. Coleman, despite the drawbacks in her treatment of “dialectic method” I noted above, hints at such a difference when in a footnote she points to a “disanalogy between Hume and Kant concern[ing] the ultimate goal of dialectic.” She continues,

For Kant the goal of dialectic is not merely to resolve scepticism, but to achieve certainty (CPR 395). For all his criticism of dogmatic metaphysics, Kant yet aspires to the Cartesian ideal of certitude. Hume, on the other hand, renounced all aspirations to certitude (T XVIII). However, this disanalogy is not sufficient to negate the thesis that Hume, like Kant, employs dialectic to resolve, not to generate, scepticism.

Rather than viewing this disanalogy negatively, and as a potential threat to the proposed connection, I want to treat it as a way of better understanding the relationship between the positions that the two thinkers develop. Hume’s approach to the antinomy of taste, I shall suggest, can be distinguished from Kant’s in terms of the way each thinker regards the nature and use of reason.

One striking characteristic that Kant himself emphasizes in his conception of Antinomy is the “natural” origin of the pseudo-inferences it involves. As he expresses it in the first Critique, all three arise through a “necessary syllogism” (notwendigen Vernunftschluft), and are “sophistications not of men but of pure reason itself” (A339/B397). Kant says of the cosmological ideas in general that they “rest on an empty and merely fictitious concept of the manner in which the object of these ideas is given to us,” so that rational cosmology appears as a “bedazzling but false illusoriness” (blendenden aber falschen Scheine) (A408/B435); and he describes Antinomy in particular as “an entirely natural antithetic … into which reason of itself quite unavoidably falls” (von selbst und zwar unvermeidlich gerat) (A407/B434, emphasis added; see also A462/B490). Arising from the “very nature of reason,” he says later in the Dialectic, it is no “mere artificial illusion such as at once vanishes upon detection, but a natural and unavoidable illusion [naturlichen und unvermeidlichen Schein] … which can never be eradicated” (niemals vertilgt werden kann) (A421-2/B449-50). Indeed, the illusions are so intransigent that “even the wisest of men cannot free himself from them” (A339/B397), Kant says, and they form so integral and unavoidable a part of human cognition that even loosening their grip (wenn man nicht mehr durch ihn hintergegangen wird) would not eradicate (vertilgen) them or put an end to their deceptive (tauschen) ways (A422/B450).

If the dialectic comes from so natural and unavoidable a source, and the antithetic it produces is so intractable, in what sense, one might ask, can the antinomies be “solved”? How can the skeptical method “guard us against groundless beliefs” (A486/B514)? Part of Kant’s answer to this question is contained in his view that, intransigent as they are, the Antinomies can at least be rendered “harmless” (unschadlich) and so will cease to “beguile” (betrugen) (A422/B450). One might be excused for suspecting Kant himself of a little deception at this point, given that so important a part of his argument revolves around the innocent distinction between tauschen and betrugen: to be deceived though not beguiled is a strange state to imagine. Notwithstanding this ambiguity, Kant’s official solution does depend upon demonstrating that the contradictions are actually “deceptive appearances” of a specifically dialectic sort (A423/B451). Indeed, since this is largely a product of the way he has formulated them, it really amounts to reemphasizing the point he has already made: what characterizes the solution is the attempt to distinguish a merely logical contradiction-what he elsewhere calls the “conflict of mutually clashing notions” (Verbindung einanderwiderstreitender Begriffe) (Anthropology, 162)-from a dialectic of pure reason proper.

As Kant himself notes (A529/B557), this strategy depends upon the distinction I mentioned above between a “mathematical” and “dynamical” series. Kant introduces these terms briefly as a comment on the Table of Categories (B110), but comes back to them more fully in the Dialectic. In the latter context he describes the difference between them in the following way:

In the mathematical connection of the series of appearances no other than a sensible condition is admissible, that is to say, none that is not itself a part of the series. On the other hand, in the dynamical series of sensible conditions, a heterogeneous condition, not itself a part of the series, but purely intelligible, and as such outside the series, can be allowed. (A530-1/B558-9, emphasis in original)

As Allison has emphasized, this distinction is a “function of Kant’s understanding of the difference between the conceptions of a totality or whole underlying the two types of antinomy.” Kant attempts to clarify these conceptions when he distinguishes between “world” and “nature” as different viewpoints from which to grasp the synthesis of appearances (A418-20/B446-8). Viewed mathematically, Kant says, the former “signifies the … sum total of appearances” (a world of sense) whereas seen dynamically, as nature, it presents the “unity in the existence of appearances” (a world apart from any experience) (A419/B447, emphasis in original). Thus, as Allison again puts it,

The salient difference between these two conceptions of a whole or totality is simply that the former is self-contradictory whereas the latter is not. The concept of a complete set or totality of spatiotemporal items, that is, a “world,” is self-contradictory because such a totality … both purports to be an empirical concept and involves a requirement (completeness) that conflicts with the conditions of possible experience.

This “self-contradictory” character of the mathematical regress, combined with the fact that all the members of the series are (homogeneous) appearances, enables Kant to solve the first two Antinomies by showing that the arguments of both thesis and antithesis are untrue. Thus the first two (mathematical) Antinomies are solved by transforming the analytical opposition of the form p and -p into a dialectical one; Kant accomplishes this task by discovering a third term through which both might be dismissed as false (A499/B527). In the dynamical antinomies, by contrast, the concept underlying the conflict is neither self-contradictory nor does the series contain a sensible member. Since, as Allison puts it commenting on the third Antinomy specifically, “the possibility remains open that there is a cause or ground of an event that is not itself sensible … it becomes possible that both sides may be correct.” Thus the solution to the second and third (dynamical) Antinomies is achieved by appealing to transcendental idealism itself. Since thesis and antithesis are actually making claims which refer to ontologically distinct levels, outside and within experience, respectively, removing the apparent contradiction shows that they “may both alike be true” (A532/B560). This demonstration of their dialectic character constitutes a solution to the Antinomies.

Although in the Critique of Judgment Kant reserves the mathematical-dynamical distinction exclusively for his treatment of the sublime, as I have already noted, the Antinomy of Taste clearly falls under the second of these headings. Kant himself emphasizes the dynamical character of the Antinomy of Taste when he says that,

The solution of an Antinomy can be arrived at only through the possibility that two seemingly conflicting propositions are in fact not contradictory but are consistent, even though it would surpass our cognitive power to explain how the concept involved is possible. From here it also becomes possible to grasp that this illusion [Schein] is also natural and unavoidable for human reason, and why it is and remains so [es sei und bleibe] even though it ceases to beguile [betrugt] once the seeming contradiction has been solved. (KdU, 340, translation altered)

Thus Kant’s presentation (KdU, 340-1) of the conflict in terms of an “aesthetic power of judgment that merely reflects” (Third and Fourth Moments of the Analytic of the Beautiful), points toward transcendental idealism as a solution, and this is manifest as the purely intelligible “supersensible substrate of appearances.” Understood in this way, and contrary to what some commentators have suggested, it is not really “surprising” that Kant should appeal to transcendental idealism as a way of solving the Antinomy; as a dynamical conflict one would expect nothing else. In fact, Kant points out that if the Antinomy had been formulated via agreeableness (First Moment) and perfection (Second Moment), the only solution would have been to show both propositions as false; “and that,” Kant says, in a reiteration of the world/nature distinction underlying the mathematical Antinomies of the first Critique, “would prove the concept underlying both of them to be self-contradictory” (KdU, 341).

Following the strategy of the earlier Critique, then, Kant’s “formal” resolution is to show not that thesis and antithesis are false, but that the contradictory maxims take the same term in different but compatible ways: the conflict arises because the determinate and indeterminate senses of “concept” become confused in the juxtaposition of the “commonplaces” about taste. “For what gives rise to this antinomy,” Kant says, “is [the fact] that we treat the concept presupposed by the universal validity of a judgment as if that concept had the same meaning in the two conflicting judgments, and yet opposed predicates are asserted of it” (KdU, 340). As in the Critique of Pure Reason, the Antinomy is solved by transforming a contradiction into a dialectic illusion in which the principles “may both be true” (KdU, 341). Reason is roused from its euthanasia by showing the whole affair to be “quarrelling about nothing” (A501/B529).


Having considered Kant’s procedure for solving the Antinomy of Taste, I am now in a position to see how it compares with Hume’s resolution of the antinomy between the two influences of common sense. Hume’s antinomy, it should be recalled, consists in the contradiction between diversity and standards, and is manifest as two proverbs which distinguish the naive and skeptical influences of common sense. Further, since the antinomy arises on this ordinary level, there is no vantage point within common life itself from which the self-contradiction might be viewed. Indeed, given that the antinomy is natural and constitutive of everyday life, even if individuals could reflect upon and correct their judgments it would hardly prevent the contradiction from reoccurring. The task of clarification-the solution to the antinomy of taste-must fall to the “careful eye” of the philosopher who reflects upon the inherent order of everyday life and, methodizing the initial judgments and discovering principles or rules from them, resolves the contradiction by laying bare the logic of the antithetic which composes it. Philosophical reason, that is, methodizes and corrects the reflections of common life (EU, 162) by rendering that life an intelligible and coherent whole.

In his antinomy of taste, Hume achieves this resolution by revealing an error underlying the conflicting proverbs. This error arises because the two logically distinct orders of phenomena to which I have already referred-matters of fact, on one side, and sentiment, on the other-are confused. The origin of the antinomy resides in the tendency of human reason to take the empirical diversity of taste to reflect disagreement in sentiments when they are actually disagreements in fact. As a result, pre-reflective reason concludes that there is no disputing over taste while continuing to assume that common standards exist. From this arises the double standard where the principle of equality of taste is forgotten and the principle of variety is not. In common life the latter is asserted over the former and human reason falls into the contradiction manifest as the naive and skeptical aspects of common sense.

Criticism, Critical Philosophy, and the Regulative Use of Reason

How far removed, then, is the solution Hume reaches via his “criticism” from the one Kant proposes in his “critical” philosophy? Given my presentation of Kant so far, the distance might not might appear to be too great since he seems to share at least some of Hume’s doubts about the reach of philosophical reflection. First, as I have pointed out, Kant routinely emphasizes the natural and unavoidable character of the illusions which lead reason into its antithetic confusions. Although the illusion can be rendered harmless (unschadlich) and will cease to beguile (betrugen), its transcendental character means that deception (Tauschen) remains nonetheless. Like Hume, Kant seems to accept error and illusion as an incorrigible condition of everyday life. This is reflected clearly in his discussion of the Antinomies where he claims that considered from the standpoint of “our interest” rather than the “logical criterion of truth” (A465/B493), reason naturally tends toward the “dogmatic” position of the theses rather than the “empiricism” of the antitheses. “[E]very well-disposed man,” Kant observes, has a practical interest in endorsing the “foundation stones of morals and religion” (A466/B494), and “common understanding … finds comfort” in concepts that explain origins and provide a “fixed point to which the thread by which it guides its movements can be attached” (A467/B495). This stands in contrast to the empiricism of the antitheses, the domain of the philosopher who, under the guise of speculative reason, reflects upon the assumptions which the common understanding regards as sound for no better reason than that frequent use has made them familiar (A501/B474).

Second, Kant also argues that the dialectic of reason does not even arise in the common run of things, but only when a “reflective and enquiring being [nachdenkenden und forschenden Wesen] … devote[s] a certain amount of time to the examination of his own reason” (A475/B504). For there is a distinction, as Kant expresses it in his discussion of freedom, between “speculative reason, by which we endeavor to explain their [actions] coming into being, [and] … reason in so far as it is itself the cause of producing them” (A550/B578, emphasis in original). Moreover, these two levels are by no means compatible; the explanatory endeavor actually contradicts the requirements of practical life. The “continuous vacillation” implied in debates over freedom and nature would render conduct impossible: “To-day it would be the conviction that the human will is free; to-morrow … that freedom is nothing but self-deception, that everything is simply nature” (A475/B504). The demands of common life save most people from what Hume calls the “melancholy and delirium” which plagues those with a tincture of philosophy (T, 269); for faced with the reality of “practical interests,” Kant says, the “play of merely speculative reason” dissolves “like a dream” (A475/B504). Nature herself comes to the rescue of even the philosophically minded, and as Hume cooled his “heated” brain through company and backgammon, so in his daily routine Kant embraced the playful character of social conservation as a way of calming the “reverberations” and imbalance brought on by “continual reflection” (Anthropology, 207).

Third, in addition to the intransigence of illusion and the delirious character of philosophical speculation, Kant recognizes a certain impotence which, in the face of human reason and its narrow bounds, philosophy can never overcome. For “all the difficulties commonly found in these questions,” he declares while discussing the nature of the soul,

… by means of which … men seek to gain credit for a deeper insight into the nature of things than any to which the ordinary understanding can properly lay claim, rest on a mere delusion by which they hypostatize what exists merely in thought, and take it as a real object existing, in the same character, outside the thinking subject. (A384)

Philosophy itself, on this view, and not only the dogmatism of common understanding, is hampered by the intractable play of reason and its principles. It is not surprising, therefore, that Kant should take everyday life as a domain separate and relatively autonomous from the concerns of philosophy, and that he even expresses doubts about the ability of the latter to play anything but a nugatory role in the practical affairs which make up the former. For “[w]e should not … be able to explain the appearance of a body better, or even differently,” he declares, “in assuming that it consisted either of simple or of inexhaustibly composite parts; for neither a similar appearance nor an infinite composition can ever come before us” (A483/B511). At best philosophy can clarify certain errors or, as Kant describes the task of the Transcendental Analytic, undertake the task of “correcting and securing of judgment, by means of determinate rules, in the use of pure understanding.” Being unable to “enlarge the sphere of the understanding,” he says, critique has the “merely negative task” of “guard[ing] against the errors of judgment [lapsus judicii] in the employment of the few pure concepts of understanding that we possess” (A135/B174). This is a point Kant emphasizes again in the Dialectic where, in his preamble to the solution of the Antinomies, he emphasizes how any solution must recognize that “our object is only in our brain”; since the “critical solution” focuses upon the ideas of reason it “does not consider the question [of a solution] objectively, but in relation to the foundation of the knowledge upon which the question is based” (A484/B512,).

Given the attitude Kant expresses on illusion and hypostatization, one might conclude—with Sadik al-Azm—that the whole dialectic of the first Critique is “irrelevant” to explaining how human beings have knowledge about the world. For even if one is inclined to underplay the apparent naturalism in Kant’s treatment of reason, there is certainly justification for seeing a clear distinction between pre-reflective life and philosophical reflection, and the view that belief in such illusions is independent and prior to the unpalatable and non-practical truths the philosopher is inclined to discover.

Yet at this point where Humean criticism and Kantian critique so nearly converge in mapping the limits of philosophical reflection, Coleman’s en passant remark concerning the difference between the two approaches becomes important. For although Kant’s treatment of antinomy points to the limits of reason and impotence of philosophy, this nod to skepticism does not lead him to abandon the search for a genuine solution or give up on the idea that “a clear exposition of the dialectic which lies within our concept itself would soon yield us complete certainty how we ought to judge in reference to such a question” (A482/B510; see A484/B512). Kant discovers the conditions of human knowledge, one might say, but this does not limit the role philosophy can play in the rounds of everyday life. Philosophy still “promises a secure foundation for our highest expectations in respect of those ultimate ends towards which all the endeavors of reason must ultimately converge” (A463/B491); having achieved this he expects “a lasting and peaceful reign of reason [ruhiges Regiment der Vernunft] over understanding and the senses would thereby be inaugurated” (A465/B493).

Thus, as al-Azm puts it in his study of the Antinomies, the final “layer” of Kant’s solution consists in “turning dogmatic assertions from presumed synthetic propositions about the world into ‘regulative principles’ or rules of procedure.” This is most fully expressed in the first Critique itself where the solution to the Antinomy of Pure Reason concludes with Kant’s “conversion” (verwandeln) of a dialectical into a doctrinal principle (A516/B544). From presenting the antithetic of reason and demonstrating the “invalidity [of the rule of reason] as a constitutive principle of appearances,” Kant draws a conclusion regarding the “empirical employment of the regulative principle of reason.” As in his presentation of the Dialectic in general, Kant sees this conversion as a movement of pure reason itself (A542/B570). That movement shows that since reason cannot supply any constitutive principle, it is valid only in terms of the “continuation and magnitude of a possible experience.” Thus, for Kant, the regulative principle of reason represents the discovery of a “rule, postulating what we ought to do in the regress, but not anticipating what is present in the object as it is in itself, prior to all regress” (A509/537, emphasis in original). Thus in achieving the speculative task of “provoking” reason and then exposing its conflict as merely dialectic, Kant claims to discover normative rules for the direction of conduct:

For not only will this critical solution destroy the illusion which set reason at variance with itself, but will replace it by teaching [Sinn] which, in correcting the misinterpretation that has been the sole source of the conflict, brings reason into agreement with itself … for in respect to the object of experience this [principle] can have no greater influence on the extension and correction of knowledge than as it actively proves itself in the widest possible empirical employment of our understanding. (A516-7/B544-5, translation altered)

This is reflected famously in Kant’s subsequent discussion of freedom where the speculative use of reason to explain the physiological basis of actions gives way to “practical” reason as the cause of their production. Reason in its “practical bearing” represents a “law of reason,” as Kant expresses it in his discussion of lying, “whereby we regard reason as a cause that irrespective of … empirical conditions [defective education, bad company, etc.] could have determined, and ought to have determined, the agent to act otherwise” (A555/B583). Not only does the critical solution explain the possibility of moral conduct in terms of transcendental freedom, but by showing what reason demands in its practical manifestation, it indicates the direction in which action should be directed: one ought not lie.

Kant’s view of the role philosophy is destined to play is particularly clear in the Groundwork. There, Kant points out that the categorical imperative is a “principle” which common human reason “does not think abstractly in a universal form but which it actually has before its eyes and uses as the norm of its appraisals.” A philosopher, therefore, who relies on common understanding like everybody else is as likely as the next man to “confuse his judgment by a mass of considerations foreign and irrelevant to the matter and deflect it from the straight course” (Gr, 404). Surely, then, Kant is forced to conclude, moral matters should be left to common reason, and philosophy only brought in to codify moral rules and, at most, provide a “new path of investigation and instruction” (Gr, 404). Kant cannot accept this conclusion, however; for human reason is “easily seduced,” and stands in need of science “not in order to learn from it but in order to provide access and durability for its precepts.” This weakness, Kant contends, gives rise to a “natural dialectic, that is, a propensity to rationalize against those strict laws of duty and to cast doubt upon their validity … and, where possible, to make them better suited to our wishes and inclinations, that is, to corrupt them at their basis and to destroy all their dignity.” Thus “common human reason is impelled, not by some need of speculation … but on practical grounds themselves, to go out of its sphere and to take a step into the field of practical philosophy, in order to obtain there information and distinction regarding the source of its principle and the correct determination of this principle in comparison with maxims based on need and inclination” (Gr, 405).

As I pointed out in my opening remarks, my aim in this paper has been to follow up on suggestions made by various commentators to the effect that important if obscure connections exist between Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” and Kant’s later treatment of beauty in the Critique of Judgment. Following Kivy’s suggestion, in particular, I have focused on the notion of Antinomy as a way of deciphering Hume’s presence in Kant’s philosophy. As this latter part of my discussion has demonstrated, however, despite close parallels between the Analytic of the Beautiful and Hume’s essay, there is a fundamental difference in the approaches each philosopher develops. Hume’s articulation of and solution to the antinomy of taste depends upon the place philosophical reason can occupy in “correcting” errors of judgment. The logic of the antinomy at once limits the role that such reason can play. For Kant, by contrast, although philosophy provides a critique of reason, solving the Antinomies does not generate a critique of philosophy itself. On the contrary, it serves to underline the constructive role philosophy can play in correcting errors into which human reason is liable to fall. On Hume’s view, this is a task that philosophy is hardly qualified to undertake.