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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.3 (2002) 455-468

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Kant as Propagator:
Reflections on Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime

Susan Shell

Kant's Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime is often mined (especially, these days, for damning sexual and racial stereotypes) but rarely singled out for careful study. 1 The short book was completed in 1763, when Kant, hardly forty, and already a successful philosophic and scientific author, was enjoying his first years as an instructor at the University of Königsberg, where he was, by all accounts, a lively and popular teacher. Raised by a poor but honest father and a pious mother to whom he seems to have been especially devoted, Kant had recently returned from a series of tutoring posts that had introduced him to the ways of fashionable society. Indeed, to one cultivated mistress--using 'mistress' in its old fashioned sense--we owe the earliest extant portrait of Kant, set down in what might almost be called the bloom of youth. Königsberg, then under Russian occupation, was itself enjoying a social and moral awakening from the dourer habits of Prussian pietism. Dashing Russian officers mingled socially with both local aristocrats and newly prosperous businessmen. Middle class women--formerly virtually sequestered--attained new social prominence. Something like salons appeared, for example, at the home of Frau Maria Charlotta Jacobi, with whom Kant may himself have been romantically linked. 2 In these fluid times, Kant moved easily between the lowest and the highest circles. 1763 is also approximately the year in which Kant first read Rousseau's Emile--both the occasion for the well-known story about Kant's interrupted walk and the cause, according to Kant's famous confession, of a fundamental redirection of his thinking: "I am by natural inclination a researcher . . . and I thought that this alone [End Page 455] could constitute the honor of man . . . Rousseau set me upright. And I would consider myself more useless than the ordinary worker if everything I did did not contribute to securing the rights of man." 3 In the same series of notes, he wrote: "It is . . . fitting that a human being expend his life on teaching others how to live . . . by propagating [ziehen] Emile. Would that Rousseau showed how, on the basis of his book, there could spring forth schools" (20: 29). All of Kant's subsequent philosophy can be understood as an attempted solution to that problem. 4

Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime helps mark a first stage in that effort. In the previous year (1762), Kant had published a critique of the "False Subtlety [Spitzfindigkeit] of the Four Syllogistic Figures," an essay whose purpose proves to be, in light of the later work, as much moral as abstractly scientific. The operative word here is "subtlety"--a dry and lifeless digression, according to that work, from science's proper occupation. It is in part to illustrate this proper task that Kant writes less as a philosopher than as an "observer" (Beobachter). Observation is a word that Rousseau had recently made newly pertinent: his Emile(which he was later to call his "best" and "most important" work) 5 famously announces itself to be a mere collection of "disordered" and "almost incoherent" "observations" (observations). 6 To be sure, Kant had himself earlier made use of Beobachtung to characterize the fundamental astronomical insight of his own, pre-Rousseauian, and greatly ambitious Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1: 254-5), and Beobachtung is also a term later defined rather precisely (in the Critique of Judgment) as "a kind of experience one pursues methodically" and which is capable of "prompting [Veranlassung] us to judge the intrinsic purposiveness of organized beings" (5: 376). In the essay under consideration, however, Beobachtung is used almost apologetically--in opposition to philosophy and in apparent disregard of method and thoroughness. Among the rich field of peculiarities concerning human pain and pleasure, which still hides sources for discovery, Kant "throws his glance" only upon...


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