Kant’s focus on autonomy lends to his aesthetics a peculiar quality quite different from any other, at least in his day. Kant, studying in university during the 18th century, no doubt came into contact with those great intellectual influences of his time, the philosophies of Leibniz and Wolff. However, despite the impact and extreme popularity of these thinkers in the German speaking world at his time, Kant’s aesthetic still remained different. This is due, in large part, to his firm belief in autonomy, as I hope to show. Therefore, the goal of this essay will be to analyze the core of Kant’s aesthetic theory, and how it is my belief that this notion of autonomy, along with his strict insistence and defense of it, remains his central point of reference throughout.
The philosophy of Leibniz and Wolff became extremely popular before and during Kant’s lifetime, they were never short of followers and their philosophy gave German speaking people a place on the world stage of philosophy that they otherwise would not have acquired through less impactful thinkers. Their aesthetic theory centered around the idea that the beautiful objects in nature possesses certain perfections which, when encountered by human beings, bring pleasure to them. Beautiful artwork produced by humans merely mimicked or mirrored these perfects found in nature. To be more precise, there are essentially two things requisite for beauty, along with its pleasure, in their system. There is first the need for the object to have perfections which have been crafted into it by its Creator. Then there is the need for these perfections to be perceived in a clear yet confused way. What is meant by “clear yet confused” is that, although we with our senses are able to clearly see, smell, feel, and sense the object of our perception, the perfections which are held by the object in question are only partially known or “confused”. This means that only beings deficient of full knowledge can experience beauty. Beauty itself is not an inherent quality in objects, but the mere consequence of a human (deficient in knowledge) coming into contact with the perfections of an object in a clear yet confused way. Thus, beauty is a kind of perplexion of the individual.
For Kant, however, this aesthetic theory threatens his central doctrine of autonomy. This is important because there is no singular principle so central to Kant than that human beings are autonomous. If humans are not, in fact, autonomous and free, then our whole sense of morality, reward and punishment, would be nothing but an illusion. A human being who is determined and not free, is no longer a human. For him, Autonomy is a defining characteristic of man which distinguishes him from the brute. However, it must first be said that Leibniz and Wolff’s theory of aesthetics does not inherently eliminate autonomy, but it does threaten it in two significant ways, which is why I argue that Kant’s aesthetic has the character that it does. First, their theory implies the possibility that there could exist an object containing such great perfection, that it would be impossible to say that it was not beautiful. Second, and what is most concerning for Kant, is that it threatens autonomy because the pleasure of beauty arises, in part, from the individual’s deficient knowledge of the object’s perfections. Thus, the individual, at least in this case, has no choice but to experience the pleasure of beauty.
It is because of these threats and that their system lacked a firm foundation on autonomy that I believe Kant rejected and adopted none of Leibniz and Wolff’s aesthetic theory. Instead, Kant’s aesthetic has at its center the free human will or autonomy. There are two ways which Kant wishes to ensure that the will is free and autonomous in matters of aesthetic taste. The first is simple enough, in that cultural customs and ideals should hold no sway over the individual’s judgement and that he should, thus, only be guided by his reasoning powers which he shares in common with other people. This he does by separating pure aesthetic judgments from what he calls “interest”. In making a free judgement of taste, a person ought not be constrained by the external forces of one’s society or cultural customs. If a person is influenced and led to conform to the ideals of their culture, to judge a piece of art conveying some particular quality which the culture deems morally bad, for example, this is not autonomy and the person is not free. Thus interest should have no place in aesthetic judgements of taste.
The second way Kant centers his theory on autonomy is a great deal more complicated and lies at the center of his theory. He wants to avoid saying that the aesthetic pleasure we experience in beauty is from the mere sensation of the object of our representation by our senses. If this is the source of the pleasure we have, then it would seem as though we are not autonomous. It would seem as though our aesthetic opinion would then be determined by the mere operation of the object upon the senses of the individual. Therefore, what Kant does is separates mere sensuousness from aesthetic pleasure of beauty. It is not the case that when some object operates on the senses and causes a pleasant sensation, that we then by necessity deem it beautiful. We as autonomous human beings must have a say in this. Indeed, we may not have a say in whether or not a painting’s colors are merely pleasing to our eyes, but we do have a say in whether we think this painting is beautiful. Much like the Stoics, he separates our sensations from the opinions we hold concerning them. And these opinions, the acceptance and proclamation of something as beautiful, Kant says, produces aesthetic pleasure and this is pleasure which properly concerns aesthetic judgments of taste. If we wanted to concern ourselves with the mere empirical judgment of pleasure, then we would need look no further than some other science like physiology to sort out aesthetic judgments, but this will not suffice. Kant is determined that aesthetic pleasure does not come directly from the object, but comes from the universal validity of the sensuous pleasure. This universal validity being our autonomous claim made by the will that the mere sensuous pleasure we perceive is in fact something which all other human beings, who share in our common abilities to sense objects of perception, ought by obligation to also make the same judgment of taste as we do (be this beautiful or disgusting). Thus, we can make a claim of universal validity that a sensuous pleasure is a beautiful one or a disgusting one, and it is from this autonomous assertion of the will that comes aesthetic pleasure, not directly from the object itself. Kant expresses it in this way, “in a judgement of taste, what is represented a priori as a universal rule for the judgment and as valid for everyone, is not the pleasure but the universal validity of this pleasure perceived, as it is, to be combined in the mind with the mere judging of an object.” From these few examples, and in this very short essay, I hope to have demonstrated the threat to autonomy which Leibniz and Wolff’s aesthetic theory posed and how Kant’s aesthetic attempts to eliminate these threats by centering his theory around autonomy.
 (Kant & Walker, 2008), 119. Emphasis added