Kant’s Conception of Genius and the Boundary between Art and Science

In the Critique of the Power of Judgment, Immanuel Kant defines genius by distinguishing it from science. At the heart of Kant’s distinction is the idea that scientists possess a rule-governed procedure to generate their discoveries whereas no rule-governed procedure can fully determine the products of genius. Genius involves a ‘free correspondence of the imagination to the lawfulness of the understanding’ that a rule-governed procedure could never produce. This leads Kant to argue that only artists can be geniuses and only insofar as they produce beautiful art. In contrast, Kant offers Isaac Newton as the paradigmatic example of a ‘great mind’ who was nevertheless not a genius. In the Principia, Newton claims to ‘frame no hypotheses’ and describes his scientific discoveries as ‘deduced from the phenomena.’ Given Kant’s characterization of Newton and Newton’s own characterization of himself, one might view Newton as possessing a logic of discovery, i.e., a rule-governed procedure where the discovery is the logical consequence of certain well-established premises. If a scientific discovery cannot be explained in terms of a logic of discovery while also meeting all of Kant’s other conditions for genius, however, then it should be considered an example of scientific genius by Kant’s own lights. Using his argument for universal gravitation as my example, I will argue that Newton should count as a scientific genius by this standard. Although (pace Kant) I think there is a way of reconstructing Newton’s argument such that it can be seen as the logical consequence of certain well-established premises, nevertheless, he did not possess a rule-governed procedure for generating the logic of discovery he used to establish universal gravitation. It is this second-order discovery that should make Newton count as a scientific genius. Although Kant rejects this form of genius, if I am right, then genius can indeed cross the boundary between art and science by Kant’s own lights.

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