Kant’s ‘curious catalogue of human frailties’: The Great Portrait of Nature

In Patrick Frierson & Paul Guyer (eds.), Critical Guide to Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. pp. 144-62 (2012)
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As has been noted in the recent literature on Kant’s ethics, Kant holds that although natural drives such as feelings, emotions and inclinations cannot lead directly to moral worth, they nevertheless play some kind of role vis-à-vis morality. The issue is thus to understand this role within the limits set by Kant’s account of freedom, and it is usually tackled by examining the relationship between moral and non-moral motivation in the Groundwork, the Critique of Practical Reason, and more recently, the Anthropology. In this respect, the aim of this paper is to argue that the Observations is a peculiar work, for by contrast with later works, its focus is not on the ways in which nature helps human beings become more moral, or better moral agents, but rather on how it ensures that the human species survives and flourishes independently of its morality, and in particular despite its lack thereof. In this sense, the Observations emphasizes first that the human species can, and does, function independently of its moral worth; and second, that it is intended to function beautifully has a whole in spite of its lack of moral worth. On this basis, I will conclude that the Kant of the Observations is more akin to a Mandeville than a Rousseau – he describes the functioning of the species, spelling out its survival mechanisms through natural drives, rather than explains that and how it ought to perfect itself.

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Alix Cohen
University of Edinburgh


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