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The Cipher of Nature in Kant’s Third Critique: How to Represent Natural Beauty as Meaningful?


Moran Godess-Riccitelli[1]

University of Potsdam, Germany



What is it that we encountered with in our aesthetic experience of natural beauty? Does nature “figuratively speaks to us in its beautiful forms”,[2] to use Kant’s phrasing in the third Critique, or is it merely our way of interpreting nature whether this be its purpose or not? Kant does not answer these questions directly. Rather, he leaves the ambiguity around them by his repeated use of terminology of ciphers when it comes to our aesthetic experience in nature. This paper examines Kant’s terminology of ciphers in the Critique of Judgment and demonstrate through it the intimate link aesthetic experience in natural beauty has with human morality. A link whose culmination point is embodied in the representation of beauty as a symbol of morality.



Aesthetic experience; Aesthetic judgment; Critique of Judgment; Figurative language; Morality; Natural beauty


“Beautiful things show [anzeigen] that human beings fit in the world”

                                                                                   Kant, Reflexionen zur Logic, n. 1820A, 16:127[3]



One of Kant’s most occult insights regarding our aesthetic experience in the third Critique is reflected in his repeated use of terminology of ciphers (this terminology includes, inter alia, terms such as: hint, trace, sign, mark, guideline, Ahnung),[4] suggesting our experience of beauty is so cryptic that it requires the intervention of interpretation. Thus, Kant inquired into the “true interpretation [Auslegung] of the cipher [Chiffreschrift] by means of which nature figuratively speaks to us in its beautiful forms”.[5]

The notion of Chiffreschrift and the term Auslegung incline us to think along narrowly exegetical lines, making something obtuse into something comprehensible and conclusive, as in a process of bringing to light a meaning concealed in an object.[6] While it is true that Kant’s terminology, in principle, tends to the idea of interpretation in this conventional manner, in the aesthetic experience of natural beauty Kant’s reference to the “interpretation of the cipher of nature” proceeds in an opposite direction to that required by signs or symbols of a given language. It does not follow the usual path “from a clear knowledge of letters to the discovery of their meaning”, to use Gernot Böhme’s words “but – if expressed in these terms – inversely, from the meaning experienced to the discovery of the letters” (Böhme, 2017, p. 97). Thus, it seems to suggest a conception of interpretation as essentially open.

However, interpretation is not open in the sense of being arbitrary or offering up just any meaning, nor by endlessly adding new meanings to old ones. Rather, its openness consists in attuning us to certain ideas, i.e., moral ideas, which no language can fully attain.[7]

The vast majority of scholars tend to disregard Kant’s reference to ‘cipher’ or ‘language of nature’.[8] Kant himself seems to backed down from his remarks by giving them the status of an analogy (i.e., his famous als-ob terminology) at least in the way we interpret nature, whether this be its purpose or not.[9] By shifting the focus back to the terminology of ciphers in the third Critique, I wish to show aesthetic experience in natural beauty as intimately linked with themes that are considered ‘cryptic’ in Kant’s moral philosophy, such as the realizability of moral ideals in the natural world, moral progress, the moral proof for the existence of God, and the supersensible substratum of both human nature and nature at large.[10]

My intention is not to crack the mystery by bringing us closer to a true interpretation of the cipher of nature, but rather to delve into its necessity for our aesthetic experience of natural beauty as one of its essential features.[11] I will argue that it is from this vantage point of our experience in nature that it is possible to extend our reflections beyond the boundaries of nature to nature as a whole and to the assumption of a final end of nature as Kant argues further in the ‘Critique of the Teleological Power of Judgment’.[12]    

I proceed as follows: I start by examining nature’s figurative language in the ‘Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment’. Particularly I am interested in the link Kant draws between beauty and morality through the notion of “hint” [Wink]. The very existence of beauty in nature, Kant argues, gives us actual hints that nature is hospitable to human morality.[13] I wish to understand the peculiarity of the hint as an encrypted form of communication that does not rely upon analogical relation, unlike the symbol, for instance, but prepares the ground for it. Why are beautiful forms necessarily perceived as hints when we experience them aesthetically? And how can a mere hint be granted genuinely significant to the domain of morality?

I then turn to the ‘Critique of the Teleological Power of Judgment’. I examine Kant’s claim that there must be a certain presentiment [Ahnung] of our reason, or a hint [Wink] given to us by nature that we could, by means of the concept of the ultimate end of nature, be led beyond our reflection on natural purposiveness to “the highest point in the series of causes”.[14] I wish to dwell on the connection between Ahnung and Wink, arguing that the fact that nature is giving us Wink is supported and complemented by an Ahnung of our reason.

Finally, I propose that nature’s language of ciphers presented in the third Critique (in both its parts) suggests a preparatory link to Kant’s moral theology by granting a complementary outlook on notions associated with it from nature’s perspective.[15] I suggest that in the cipher of nature Kant implies that human beings have something more concrete than the ideality of the postulates to indicate that practical reason could be satisfied. For, it points towards nature’s underlying accord with our moral vocation. We can find a ground for this underlying accord only insofar as we take the natural existence of beautiful objects, which serve our cognitive end, as a kind of evidence that nature is hospitable also to the realization of our ultimate moral end.[16]


1. Nature’s Figurative Language

            In order for us to be able to appreciate Kant’s description of nature as possessing its own (figurative) language we must first, to use Friedlander’s phrasing, attentively elucidate “the inner articulations of the grammar[17] of the aesthetic judgment so as to make evident that Kant captures central aspects of our experience of beauty” (Friedlander 2015, p. 6). Stated differently, our task is to elaborate Kant’s aesthetic vocabulary from the expression of the judgment: ‘this (this rose, this nightingale’s song, this landscape) is beautiful’ – which articulates the entirety of our aesthetic experience – towards the question of what exactly it communicates.

            Whereas the expression of the judgment is perhaps what is most identified with Kant’s aesthetics, its meaning remains deeply enigmatic: when I judge a flower to be beautiful, I predicate something about the object in front of me. Nonertheless, being beautiful is not a fact about the flower in the same way that having a certain number of petals is a fact about it. “The aesthetic judgment”, using again Friedlander’s words “is to be understood over and above the assertion (which is always a determinate state of affairs), insofar as it presents or opens a space of meaning in the reflection on the object” (Friedlander 2015, p. 31).

            This implies that in judging something to be beautiful, we do not try to understand beauty in the conventional sense of communicating a certain content about the object. But our very engagement with the object must induce our susceptibility to that “space of meaning in the reflection on the object”. The idea is that the very act of articulating the experience of beauty, by uttering ‘this is beautiful’, is in itself an expression of beauty. Thus, more than what aesthetic judgment actually communicates, what it is supposed to convey must be presented (instead of merely being said).[18] The point is that this kind of presentation always presents more than what is actually given to the senses in perceiving the object since it is the presentation of a form: a form of purposiveness.


A Crucial Hint: Subjective Formal Purposiveness (SFP)

In section VII of the published introduction to the third Critique Kant argues that natural beautiful objects satisfy the fundamental subjective purpose of cognition without being brought under a determinate concept, particularly of any determinate end. Thus,

[T]he pleasure [in natural beauty] can express nothing but its suitability to the cognitive faculties that are in play in the reflecting power of judgment, […] and thus merely a subjective formal purposiveness of the object.[19]

The principle of SFP is a condition in which a fundamental purpose of the judging subject is satisfied in such a way that it is accompanied by a feeling of pleasure. This pleasure, Kant argues, is the only kind of sensation that we do not automatically transform into a predicate of objects and thus interpret exclusively as a sign of our own mental condition.[20]

The main point for our purpose is that we do not merely identify or heuristically discover the form of purposiveness in the object, but we also, at the same time, make it present by our engagement with the object.[21] More specifically, this principle of SFP is not revealed in any teleological reflection but in natural beauty itself. For it is natural beauty that

reveals to us a technique of nature, which makes it possible to represent it [nature] as a system in accordance with laws the principle of which we do not encounter anywhere in our […] understanding.[22]        

In §23 Kant states that natural beauty “carries with it a purposiveness in its form, through which the object seems as it were to be predetermined for our power of judgment, and thus constitutes an object of satisfaction in itself”.[23] This means that because we have an actual experience of natural beauty, our judgment must adopt as its own principle the view that nature sets out its empirical laws for the purpose of judgment. In other words, it is as if natural beauty was designed with a view of our own cognitive faculties. “And it is precisely this fact”, as Eckart Förster puts it clearly in his 2002, “that underlies Kant’s ‘discovery’ that natural beauty ‘reveals’ to us a formal purposiveness of nature with regard to our power of judgment” (Förster, 2002, p. 10).[24]

Kant’s basic idea is that even though natural beauty is not actually in nature, it is intuitively given by certain objects of experience that we judge as if nature itself is being purposive to our faculties. This means, that in exhibiting beauty, from nature’s perspective, nature is actually presenting its own subjective purposiveness, i.e. its purposiveness with respect to our faculties. From the aesthetic judge’s perspective, in presenting the purposiveness of nature, it is as if she becomes an integral part of nature since her aesthetic experience of the object is simultaneously an experience of her own capacities i.e., the capacity to judge.[25] It turns out that the principle of SFP indicates a meeting point between nature’s form and our own, as it were, for nature is now perceived as suitable for our capacities.

“The question is only”, Kant asserts “whether there is such a representation of purposiveness at all”.[26] He then goes on to elaborate:

What is strange and anomalous is only this: that it [SFP] is not an empirical concept but rather a feeling of pleasure (consequently not a concept at all) which, […] is nevertheless […] connected with its representation, just as if it were a predicate associated with the cognition of the object.[27] 

Kant’s point is that the connection between purposiveness and feeling of pleasure is not merely psychological but has a necessary and a priori character.[28] What we feel pleasure in is the accordance between nature and those faculties of the mind that made that contingent accordance possible. Stated differently, in Angelica Nuzzo’s articulation “What we feel pleasure in is the possibility of attributing meaning to the world we experience, and thereby of responding to its manifestations in our own human way” (Nuzzo 2008, p. 243).

            To turn, in light of this, to the language of nature, it can be said that by presenting its own formal purposiveness, natural beauty already contains a crucial hint. We are able to make it explicit “in our own human way” only because it is already there. Thus, the fact that our encounter with natural beauty produces a feeling of aesthetic pleasure, indicates that nature’s hint is being received and responded to as a meaningful language.[29]

But what is it that we encountered with exactly in our aesthetic experience of natural beauty: are we experiencing the actual hint of nature? Or are we experiencing nature as giving us hints? The first question implies that every experience of beauty already contains hints. The second implies that every human being is such that they are capable of taking these hints.


Taking a Hint

            As stated, the principle of SFP of nature is described as being revealed only by aesthetic judgment concerning natural beauty. Nonetheless, in Kant’s account natural beautiful objects are not merely subjectively purposive for cognition, they are also subjectively purposive for practical reason, in the sense of serving the interest of morality without being subsumed under any determinate moral concept. Thus, Kant asserts that “to take an immediate interest in the beauty of nature […] is always a mark [Kennzeichen][30] of a good soul”.[31]

            The idea is that, similar to the pure moral interest we have in the highest good as the final object of practical reason, which does not involve any personal interest and is thus universal, we have an intellectual interest in natural beauty.[32] The point I find intriguing in this context is Kant’s enigmatic terminology in describing the intellectual interest in natural beauty as a mark of a moral soul. His emphasis is on the fact that this “mark” - later Kant employs similar terms e.g.: hint, trace, sign, cipher -[33] comes from nature itself and is expressed through its beautiful forms.

            We are accustomed to thinking of hints, traces, signs, marks as evidence of something that has already materialized or happened (think of ruins, remains, fossils, etc..). But what do these notions mean for future possibilities? In what ways can natural beautiful objects indicate the realizability of our moral vocation? Moreover, how does this figurative language of nature enable us to reflect on something that cannot in principle be represented, i.e., our moral end?

            The answer lies, I wish to suggest, in the idea of SFP of nature. The point is that when we take nature to “give a hint”, “show some trace”, “give a sign”, or “figuratively speak to us in its beautiful forms”[34], to use some of Kant’s formulations, what is finally at stake is the idea that

[N]ature […] in its beautiful products shows itself as art, not merely by chance, but as it were intentionally, in accordance with a lawful arrangement and as purposiveness without an end, which latter, since we never encounter it externally, we naturally seek within ourselves, and indeed in that which constitutes the ultimate end of our existence, namely the moral vocation.[35]

When we relate to nature as giving us hints, we in fact embody the idea that natural beauty reveals itself as having SFP. That is the decisive hint in which nature “shows itself as art”: it reveals itself as something made “as it were intentionally”. Stated differently, what nature shows in its beautiful products is that it is not organized “by chance”, but made in the way art is made, namely, according to a structure we know from purposes, “a lawful arrangement”, yet without there being an actual, determinable purpose in play.[36]

The crucial point for our purpose is that this form of purposiveness presented in nature’s beautiful products is revealed by our engagement with nature through our aesthetic experience, as aforesaid, which, in turn, indicates the significance of the existence of the beautiful object in nature. More precisely, it shows the (pure) interest we have in the existence of beauty in nature.

The idea is that natural beauty is not merely beauty that we find in nature randomly “by chance” as it were, it is rather beauty that contains in itself something of what nature means to us.[37] Thus, in taking an intellectual interest in natural beauty man experiences pleasure not only in the form of natural beautiful objects but also in their actual existence, even though “no sensory charm has a part in this and he does not combine any sort of end with it”.[38] It is in this way in which we actually sense that nature itself is giving us hints of its possible correspondence with “the ultimate end of our existence” namely, our moral vocation.[39]

In Kant’s words:

[S]ince it also interests reason that the ideas (for which it produces an immediate interest in the moral feeling) also have objective reality, i.e., that nature should at least show some trace [Spur zeige] or give a sign [Wink gebe] that it contains in itself some sort of ground for assuming a lawful correspondence of its products with our satisfaction that is independent of all interest […], reason must take an interest in every manifestation [Äußerung] in nature of a correspondence similar to this; consequently the mind cannot reflect on the beauty of nature without finding itself at the same time to be interested in it. Because of this affinity, however, this interest is moral.[40] 

Kant’s claim is that in exhibiting natural beauty, nature becomes an object of interest of our practical reason since it presents “a lawful correspondence of its products with our satisfaction”,[41] i.e. it exhibits in nature a SFP that is similar to the interest of practical reason, namely the moral satisfaction in the striving for our highest human end.[42] What is of interest for us in the beautiful object is, thus, not merely its form but its very presence in nature. This is what makes it an intellectual interest in the beautiful that is freely provided by nature.[43] [44]

            The question is, how are we to interpret this intellectual interest in beauty? Kant himself is led to worry that his own interpretation of the matter may seem “too studied to be taken as the true interpretation [wahre Auslegung] of the cipher by means of which nature figuratively speaks to us in its beautiful forms”.[45] Kant is referring here to his explanation of aesthetic judgement of the beautiful in terms of their affinity with moral feeling so they can be related analogically.

The decisive point is that when we experience the cipher of nature we are not yet engaged in analogical presentation. For, there is a difference between having an intellectual interest in the beautiful and giving it articulation.[46] The thing that nature shows us in its beautiful forms is not a piece of knowledge about its structure or about our existence, but rather a hint whose decipherment remains occult.[47] Let me demonstrate this with Kant’s examples of colors and tones that cannot be illustrated analogically but perceived merely as hints.   


Mere Colors

            In §42 Kant underpins the affinity between the intellectual interest we take in natural beauty and the moral interest we have in the final object of practical reason, the highest good, via the examples of colors and tones. He writes:

[Colors and tones] are the only sensations which permit not merely sensory feeling but also reflection on the form of these modifications of the senses, and thus as it were contain a language [eine Sprache] that nature brings to us and that seems to have higher meaning [höhern Sinn].[48] 

Kant discerns colors and tones as the only sensations that constitute the ‘language of nature’. According to Kant the uniqueness of these sensations lies precisely in allowing “not merely sensory feeling but also reflection on the form of these modifications of the senses”.[49] In other words, colors and tones enable us to reflect on the form of their own operative mode on the senses, rather than being perceived as mere effects. I focus here mainly on the instance of colors while my aim is to point out its relation to the SFP of nature.[50]

            In §14 Kant argues that “a mere color, e.g. the green of a lawn, […] is declared by most people to be beautiful in itself” although it seems to have at its basis merely the matter of the representation, viz. simply sensation, “and on that account deserved to be called only agreeable”.[51] Kant’s idea is that judging a color to be beautiful demands abstracting it from its charm and emotion as a “mere sensation” and regarding it in its formal aspect. Thus, in contrast to the effect of sensory pleasure, we experience it as aesthetic pleasure, namely, the pleasure in the reflection on its form. Kant provides a physical explanation:

If one assumes, with Euler, that the colors are vibrations (pulsus) of the air immediately following one another […], and, what is most important, that the mind does not merely perceive, by sense, their effect on the animation of the organ, but also, through reflection, perceives the regular play of the impressions (hence the form in the combination of different representations) […], then colors […] would not be mere sensations, but would already be a formal determination of the unity of a manifold of them, and in that case could also be counted as beauties in themselves.[52]

Simply put, when we treat colors according to Euler’s theory,[53] i.e. as (empirically) real spatio-temporal entities manifested in sensation,[54] we can for example see the green of the lawn as intrinsically beautiful, namely as having a form.[55] This means that having a representation of a color is more than just a function of sheer receptivity of the senses being causally affected in one way or another. The main point for our purpose is that in order to play a role in judgments of beauty the ‘real existence’ of colors must be taken into the expanse of reflection, otherwise they will fall under the rubric of determinate judgments. The expanse opened by reflection on natural beauty is what Kant refers to as the purposive form of the object.

            The point I wish to stress is that recognizing a formal aspect in colors is not enough in order for it to manifest the ‘language’ of nature. Rather, it has to be understood in terms of formal purposiveness. As stated above, nature’s SFP is necessarily connected with our reflection on natural beauty, i.e. with our intellectual interest in beauty. Since that intellectual interest is directed solely to the existence of nature’s correspondence to our faculties,[56] it follows that the most significant feature in our aesthetic experience is expressed in the mere charms [Reize] in beautiful nature, e.g. in colors (and tones) “which are so frequently encountered” Kant states “as it were melted together [zusammenschmelzend] with the beautiful form”.[57]

            A mere color, in this regard, is viewed as being part of the SFP of nature, whose very existence hints at nature itself as having a purpose that conforms to our faculties. As such, one would not be able to appeal with pure color analogically to the domain of morality, or to moral ideas for that matter. But the formal aspect of colors could be, as it were, that dimension through which nature itself can “speak to us”, i.e. communicate with us, “in its beautiful forms”. Because it does so figuratively, however, this communication remains cryptic to us yet in a way “that seems to have higher meaning”.[58]

That is the sense in which “the white color of the lily” to use one of Kant’s examples of colors “seems to dispose the mind to ideas of innocence”.[59] There is no analogical relation here, where the same rule of reflection is applied on two different objects,[60] but rather a complete openness that the color grants us of an expanse of meaning in the reflection on the object.[61]

            It follows, that when Kant affirms that colors (and tones) are sensations that “as it were contain a language that nature brings to us and that seems to have higher meaning”, which he then refers to the moral domain, the significance lies not in what this higher meaning may consist in, but in its very existence. Yet, as the sentence that follows makes evident, such higher meaning is not simply given, it is, rather, achieved: “At least this is how we interpret nature, whether anything of the sort is its intention or not”.[62]

Does this mean that the beautiful forms we experience in nature that manifest our attunement with it, are in fact traces and hints of a higher, moral meaning of the world? Or is the fact that “this is how we interpret nature” means that the hints we find in nature are no more than accidental effects of mindless mechanism? I wish to examine these questions in proceeding from the beauty of nature to its purposeful arrangement in the ‘Critique of the Teleological Power of Judgment’.


2. Nature’s Wink and Reason’s Ahnung

            In the ‘Critique of Teleological Power of Judgment’ Kant suggests we follow yet another ‘hint’ which comes from nature itself. Such a hint is signaled by the assumption of the concept of “natural purpose” [Naturezwek]. In order for us to be able to regard our moral vocation as a real possibility, or as Kant puts it “to step beyond nature and even connect it to the highest point in the series of causes”, Kant argues that we must first attempt to discover “where that stranger [Fremdling] in natural science, namely the concept of natural ends, leads”.[63] Nature’s hint [Wink], in this sense, is supposed to indicate to us a supersensible basis for reflection upon our condition as sensible rational beings.

The idea is that the meeting point between nature and morality lies in the new possibility of thinking of the concept of natural purpose by means of reflection that conjoins our sensible and intelligible nature. It follows that nature’s hint to us is accompanied and complemented by a ‘presentiment’ [Ahnung] of our reason, because reason is now learning to recognize itself as part of nature and to think in a way that is attuned to it.[64] I wish to elaborate the relation between nature’s Wink and reason’s Ahnung by focusing on the concept that is indeed a “stranger” in natural science, namely the concept of “natural ends”.


Where Natural Ends Leads

            We form the concept of ‘natural ends’, in Kant’s account, on an analogy with the production of man-made objects according to their purpose. The idea is that in order for us to not regard nature’s causality as a blind mechanism, we must represent the possibility of objects in it teleologically, i.e., as ends.[65] Kant argues that teleological judgments as such are required, not to provide a theoretical explanation on natural ends[66] but simply to recognize their existence.[67]

            Stated differently, the concept of ‘natural ends’ suggests that our capacity for purposeful action is irreducibly involved in our capacity for making sense of nature (or of parts of nature, e.g. organisms, for that matter). The idea is that the two activities: making sense of human action and making sense of organisms both rest on the same reflective structure, namely on our capacity for recognizing the form of purposiveness.

If in the ‘Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment’ we referred to the form of purposiveness of nature as opening the space of meaning in the reflection of the object, that is, as the opening of that dimension through which “nature figuratively speaks to us in its beautiful forms”,[68] the concept of ‘natural ends’ suggests that there are objects in nature that open up to us, in the sense of their ability to become part of our experience, only when we recognize their affinity with objects made purposively by us. To this extent, as I suggested earlier, reason can recognize itself as part of nature and to think in a way that is attuned to it.

            The important point here is not that we cognize natural objects as having the form of our reason.[69] Rather, Kant affirms that organic nature elicits or induces our employment of an idea of reason. Thus, when Kant says: “It must therefore be a certain presentiment [Ahnung] of our reason, or a hint [Wink] as it were given to us by nature, that we could by means of that concept of final causes step beyond nature”[70] he seems to suggest that there is something more in organic phenomena than the systematic structure that we discover in nature in general by way of our understanding. For, we experience certain objects (e.g., “crystal formations, various shapes of flowers, or the inner structure of plants and animals”)[71] as not fitting into nature conceived mechanically and that they accordingly intimate an origin outside it: a supersensible ground for the object.[72]

Stated differently, natural ends do not lead us to knowledge or cognition of anything transcendent in its transcendentally real essence, as it is in itself. But we have, rather, an ‘Ahnung’ that there is a transcendent ground of the non-sensible form of appearances, i.e., the form of purposiveness. Since this form is not sensible, we are entitled to suppose that the purposive form exhibited in organic nature corresponds with the form of its (noumenal) grounding. The form of the grounding, in turn, can be cognized only as it is manifested in natural objects and it is thus a mere hint.

The question is how our teleological judgment of certain objects in nature is induced by “a certain Ahnung of our reason” or a hint “given to us by nature”, to the possibility of going beyond nature and even “connect[ing] it to the highest point in the series of causes”?[73]


Beyond Mechanical Causality             

In the ‘Antinomy of the Power of Judgment’ Kant presents the difference between mechanism and teleology of nature in their logic of causality. The antinomy goes as follows:

Thesis: All generation of material things and their forms must be judged as possible in accordance with merely mechanical laws.

Antithesis: Some products of material nature cannot be judged as possible according to merely mechanical laws (judging them requires an entirely different law of causality, namely that of final causes).[74]        

This “representation [Vorstellung]” of the antinomy, as Kant refers it, means to show that while the only way to a “proper cognition of nature” is made of mechanistic explanations, when it comes to human reason the use of teleology is inevitable.[75] Thus, while it is indeed our “obligation to give a mechanical explanation of all products and events in nature […] as far as it is in our capacity to do so” Kant stresses that we must at the same time never “lose sight of the fact that those which […] we can in spite of those mechanical causes, subject to investigation only under the concept of an end of reason, must in the end be subordinated to causality in accordance with ends”.[76]

            Notice that the two opposing theses Kant presents as the antinomy contain assertions not about nature itself but about the ways we form judgments on nature, which Kant refers as no more than a “guideline” [Leitfaden] enabling us to sense that nature forms a unity under empirical laws.[77] This guideline is not aimed at producing theoretical knowledge, as aforesaid, what it gives us, instead, is an Ahnung.

            The term Ahnung is notoriously difficult to translate. The Cambridge translation to the third Critique choses ‘presentiment’. Other scholars offer ‘inkling’,[78] ‘suspicion’,[79] ‘intimation’.[80] All translations capture the fact that Ahnung goes beyond traditional conceptions of rational explanation. In the present context of the ‘Teleology’, as we have seen, Ahnung is complemented by a Wink that it might be possible to go beyond a purely naturalistic study of nature in terms of mechanical causality.

The interesting point is that although an Ahnung is not constituting of knowledge in itself, it nevertheless remains within the domain of pure reason, see: “a certain Ahnung of our reason”,[81] and is directed towards future discovery. This ambiguous characterization of the term Ahnung manages to combine the theoretical impossibility of having knowledge about the final end of nature together with the rational faith of being able to arrive at insight about it.[82]

            That is the beginning of an answer as to how, when we judge certain objects in nature to be purposeful, we feel encouraged by “a certain Ahnung of our reason” or a hint “given to us by nature, that we could by means of that concept of final causes step beyond nature and even connect it to the highest point in the series of causes”.[83] The part that still in need of clarification is: towards what these Ahnung and Wink indicate us, and more generally for what purpose do we need to regard nature as having its own language?[84]


3. Conclusion: Towards Moral Theology

In the ‘General Remark on the Teleology’ Kant sums up the ‘Teleology’ section by arguing that the concept of natural purposes leads us “beyond the boundaries of nature” since through it we in fact extend our teleological reflections to nature as a whole and to the assumption of a final end of nature.[85] This concept of natural purposes, Kant stresses “can never be given a priori, but only through experience, but which nevertheless promises [verheißt] a concept of the original ground of nature which among everything that we can conceive fits only the supersensible”.[86]

            Kant further clarifies that this kind of teleology (natural teleology) “does not suffice for theology”.[87] Because when we apply the concept of a natural purpose to the final end of nature, or to its supersensible ground, for that matter, we take a concept that derives its meaning from the context of human agency and apply it to something we do not and cannot know independently. Thus, Kant argues that natural teleology can only give us a hint that “we could by means of that concept of final causes step beyond nature and even connect it to the highest point in the series of causes”.[88]

However, even though it is indeed a mere hint, its significance lies in the openness of the dimension towards what it may be directed. My point is that the idea of natural purposiveness - although it cannot give us objects that go beyond what can be given in intuition[89] should nonetheless be viewed as pertaining to the very possibility of the practical dimension of our final moral end, i.e., “the highest point in the series of causes”.[90]

This last point is even more pronounced in the ‘Aesthetics’ section. As we have seen, aesthetic judgment demonstrates that nature is purposive with respect to our faculties through the SFP exhibited by natural beautiful objects. This is, I wish to argue, nature’s crucial hint for us suggesting that in judging nature as beautiful we also judge that nature is here for us. The pivotal point here is that even though Kant is clear that this is only our interpretation of nature, it nevertheless provides more than the ideal notion of the postulates. This is because our interpretation is based on nature’s own appearance to us.[91] Thus, we are warranted in judging natural beauty as a “cipher by means of which nature figuratively speaks to us”.[92]

The ‘language of nature’ in this regard can at best be seen as a suggestive or inspiring language that enables us to reflect on certain objects in nature in a way that we can then connect with certain rational ideas. Stated differently, natural beauty suggests (in occasioning pleasure in us) that nature is not indifferent to us but can be seen as already pertaining to the domain of morality. The linguistic dimension of nature consists in the fact that this kind of subjective experience has to be communicable, i.e., that there must be a dimension of interpretation or configuration of the mere figurative aspect of nature to something that can be made explicit on the one hand yet remains conceptually indeterminable on the other.

The critical point is that we can make it explicit because it is already there, in nature. This is the sense in which I have suggested that the cipher of nature offers a kind of evidence that the work of nature is aimed at our moral vocation. For it shows that the dialectic that otherwise precludes the satisfaction of practical reason, is already in the process of coming undone. This explains why Kant says, that “reason must take an interest in every manifestation [Äußerung] in nature of a correspondence similar to this”.[93] Given that reason (in this case the reference is to practical reason) has to strive to realize its objects, Kant says that it is crucial for us to have experiences that indicate that these objects are indeed realizable.

Notice Kant’s choice of words in this context to the ‘traces and hints’ of nature as the Äußerung der Natur which can be translated as an ‘expression’ or even ‘utterance’ of nature thus reinforces the idea of the linguistic dimension of nature.[94]

However, as far as these experiences in nature go, they cannot get us all the way through. That is, they do not get us to the unconditioned final end that practical reason seeks, as it cannot be exhibited, by its definition, in intuition. These experiences can thus only ‘indicate’ or ‘hint’ to us, as it were, that this end is coherent and could have objective reality. My point is that this hint we experience in nature, being part of nature’s language, prepares the ground for Kant’s treatment of beauty as a symbol of morality which stands as the culmination of ‘The Dialectic of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment’.

The idea is that beautiful nature presents us with SFP, which is the hint towards the realizability of the highest moral end – the highest good. Stated differently, the hint nature gives us allows us to articulate how beauty is a presentation [Darstellung] of the morally good. What we have here is a way of representing [darstellen] nature as meaningful to us.[95] Only then do we have a ground to make analogical presentation thus to regard beauty as a symbol of morality.[96]

            The symbolization articulated in the form of analogical relation is the true groundwork for Kant’s moral theology as he puts it later in the Religion: “We always need a certain analogy with natural being in order to make supersensible characteristics comprehensible to us”.[97] My point is that in order for us to be able to make such analogical presentation we must configure our aesthetic experience of mere hints and ciphers in nature. This allows us to use certain objects in nature viz., natural beautiful objects, also as symbols.[98]



Arendt, Hannah (1992), Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Beyleveld, Deryck & Ziche, Paul (2015), “Towards a Kantian Phenomenology of Hope” in: Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, Vol.18, No. 5, pp. 927–942.

Berger, David (2009), Kant’s Aesthetic Theory: The Beautiful and Agreeable, Continuum Publishing Group, London, New York.

Böhme, Gernot (2017), The Aesthetics of Atmospheres, Edited by Jean-Paul Thibaud, Routledge, New York.

Chaouli, Michel (2017), Thinking with Kant’s ‘Critique of Judgment’, Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Chignell, Andrew (2010), “Real Repugnance and Belief about Things-in-Themselves: A problem and Kant’s Three Solutions”, in: Kant’s Moral Metaphysics, James Krueger & Benjamin Bruxvoort Lipscomb (eds.) DeGruyter, Berlin, pp. 117-210.

Chignell, Andrew (2008), “Are Supersensibles Really Possible? Kant on the Evidential Role of Symbolization”, in: Recht Und Frieden in der Philosophie Kants: Akten des X. Internationalen Kant-Kongresses, DeGruyter, Berlin, pp. 99-110.

Förster, Eckart (2002), Kant’s Final Synthesis: An Essay on the Opus Postumum, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England.

Friedlander, Eli (2015), Expressions of Judgment: An Essay on Kant’s Aesthetics, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts & London.

Fries, J. F. (1989), Knowledge, Belief, and Aesthetic Sense, edited by Frederick Gregory, translated by Kent Richter, Jürgen Dinter, Verlag für Philosophie, Cologne.

Godess-Riccitelli, Moran (2019), “The Nature of Moral Faith: From Natural Beauty to Ethico-Theology in Kant’s Third Critique” in: Revista Portuguesa de Filosofia, Vol. 75, no. 1, pp. 117-144.

Godess-Riccitelli, Moran (2017), “The Final End of Imagination- On the Relationship between Moral Ideal and Reflectivity in Immanuel Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgment”, in: Filosofia Unisinos: Unisinos Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 18, no. 2, pp. 107-115.

Guyer, Paul (1994), “Kant's Conception of Fine Art”, in: The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 52, No. 3., pp. 275-285.     

Kant, Immanuel (2002), Critique of the Power Judgment, translated by Paul Guyer and Eric Matthews, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Kant, Immanuel (1998), Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone and Other Writings, translated and edited by Allen Wood and George Di Giovanni, intro. by Robert M. Adams, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Makkreel, Rudolf A. (1990), Imagination and Interpretation in Kant: The Hermeneutical Import of the ‘Critique of Judgment’, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London.

Matherne, Samantha (2014), “Kant’s Expressive Theory of Music”, in: The Journal of Aesthetic and Art Criticism, Vol. 72, No. 2, pp. 129-145.        

Nuzzo, Angelica (2008), Ideal EmbodimentKant's Theory of Sensibility, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis.

Sweet, Kristi E. (2013), Kant on Practical Life: From Duty to History, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.  

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[1] Dr. Godess-Riccitelli is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institut für Philosophie, Universität Potsdam. Email:

[2] Critique of the Power of Judgment, 5:301. Emphases mine. All citations from Kant are according to the Akademie edition by reference to volume and page number: the Akademie Ausgabe (AA), Kants Gesammelte Schriften, edited by Königlich Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften (29 vols. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1900). I use the following abbreviations: CJ = Critique of the Power of Judgment. Rel = Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.

[3] Quoted in Arendt 1992, p. 30, emphasis mine. In this paper I demonstrate how the idea that Kant is expressing around 1770 in the above quote is ‘cashed out’ and transfigured in his transcendental philosophy in the Critique of the Power of Judgement (1790). I thank Johannes Haag for illuminating this point for me.

[4] In several instances, especially with the difficult word Ahnung, I have opted to leave the term in the original German. The concept Ahnung (often translated as “presentiment” or “suspicion”, and sometimes even as “aesthetic sense” e.g., see K. Richter’s introduction to his translation of J. F. Fries 1989, p. 11) is of special interest to me because I believe it best conveys the significance of Kant’s use of cipher in the context of aesthetic experience, particularly of natural beauty. I elaborate on the term Ahnung in section 2. of this paper.

[5] CJ, 5:301. Emphases mine.

[6] Just before the above quote Kant uses also the term Deutung to indicate our need to provide an explanation to aesthetic judgment of natural beauty. Cf. CJ, 5:301.

[7] This description is employed by Kant on aesthetic ideas, see: “[B]y an aesthetic idea, (…), I mean that representation of the imagination that occasions much thinking though without it being possible for any determinate thought, i.e., concept, to be adequate to it, which, consequently, no language fully attains or can make intelligible.” CJ, 5:314. I see a great affinity between aesthetic and moral ideas however I do not address it in the present paper. For an elaborative account of aesthetic ideas and their similarities to moral ideas see Makkreel 1990, pp. 111-129.  

[8] Exceptions in this regard are Angelica Nuzzo (Nuzzo 2008, pp. 229, 242); Andrew Chignell, (Chignell 2008, pp. 99-110); Eli Friedlander, (Friedlander 2015, p. 92); Michel Chaouli (Chaouli 2017, pp. 101-109). 

[9] CJ, 5:302.

[10] In the present paper I focus primarily on the ‘cryptic’ aspect of aesthetic experience itself. I have treated extensively its intimately related themes listed above in my 2019 paper (Godess-Riccitelli 2019, pp. 117-144).

[11] As opposed to some scholars that signal the language of ciphers in the third Critique as offering a romantic reading of Kant, see in particular Chaouli 2017, I do not intend to point to aesthetic judgment as a mystical experience. Rather, I wish to claim precisely on what basis this experience allows us to represent [darstellen] nature as meaningful to us.

[12] This possibility being due, inter alia, to the idea of culture presented within the context of natural teleology (as the ultimate end of nature). I discuss this theme extensively in my 2017 paper. (Godess-Riccitelli 2017, pp. 107-115).

[13] CJ, 5:300.

[14] CJ, 5:390.

[15] E.g., the postulate of God, moral faith, and the highest good. The way we can ultimately point to these objects of practical reason is through symbolization. My point is that nature’s language of ciphers paves the way for these symbolic presentations.

[16] Cf., CJ, 5:300.

[17] My emphasis

[18] Cf. Friedlander 2015, p. 32; Chaouli 2017, p. 20.

[19] CJ, 5:189-190, emphasis mine.

[20] CJ, 5:191.

[21] As Kant famously argues in the published introduction: “one cannot determine a priori which object will or will not suit taste, one must try it out” CJ, 5:191. Second emphasis is mine.

[22] CJ, 5:246.

[23] CJ, 5:245.

[24] Cf. CJ, 5:193.

[25] I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for clarification on this point.

[26] CJ, 5:189.

[27] CJ, 5:191, emphasis mine.

[28] Hence its unique universality.

[29] The fact that nature gives us hints in a figurative way, i.e. through its beautiful objects, means that nature can ‘correspond’ with us in a way that our imagination understands. In other words, in presenting SFP, natural beauty exhibits the characteristics that make it able to become meaningful to us through our imagination. Cf. Nuzzo 2008, pp. 229, 242.

[30] My emphasis.

[31] CJ, 5:298-299.

[32] In the context of natural beauty, the idea of universality is articulated through the universal agreement that the judgment of the beautiful demands of everyone “as if it were a duty”. CJ, 5:296.

[33] CJ, 5:300-301.

[34] CJ, 5:300-301.

[35] CJ, 5:301.

[36] Cf. Chaouli 2017, p. 96.

[37] CJ, 5:302. Cf. Friedlander 2015, p. 62.

[38] CJ, 5:299.

[39] CJ, 5:301.

[40] CJ, 5:300. All emphases except the last one, viz. nature, are mine.

[41] Ibid.

[42] i.e., the highest good.

[43] Think of Kant’s example of the pleasure and interest we take in the nightingale’s song, which completely vanishes when we discover that it is an artificial imitation. “It must be nature” Kant argues “or taken to be nature by us, for us to be able to take such an immediate interest in the beautiful”. CJ, 5:302 

[44] The complementary aspect of this argument is the appearance of nature in art, which Kant develops in §§43-46, §57. I do not address the question of ‘art as nature’ in the present paper. For an elaborative account of Kant’s treatment of art see Guyer 1994, pp. 275-285.

[45] CJ, 5:301.

[46] While the articulation of the intellectual interest requires culture and perfection of one’s abilities, having an intellectual interest is integral to the very fact of (practical) reason.

[47] The hint of nature carries the suggestion that Kant’s analogical presentation in the ‘Dialectic of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment’ - by describing beauty as the symbol of morality - has already been presented in the ‘Analytic of the Beautiful’ – the difference is that in the latter it is being experienced. We are experiencing it via the presentation of nature’s SFP, which hints at the realizability of the highest good. More on this in section 3.

[48] CJ, 5:302. Empheses mine.

[49] Ibid.

[50] It should be noted that for Kant human perception of color and tone is similar, thus my suggestion regarding colors can be valid for tones as well. For an elaborated account on Kant’s treatment of tones in the third Critique see: Matherne 2014, pp. 129-145.

[51] CJ, 5:224.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Kant never fully settles the question whether he thinks Euler’s theory is correct. Indeed, following the above quotation he lays down his formalist strictures against counting colors (or tones) as elements of beauty. However, in subsequent sections especially in §42 he seems to endorse Euler’s theory by describing colors and tones as “the only sensations which permit […] reflection on the form of [the] modifications of the senses” CJ, 5:302, emphasis mine.      

[54] Instead of referring to Newton’s physical theory, which treats seeing colors as a mere result of causality of light. The causal effects of sheer receptivity are precisely what Kant has ruled out from being universally communicable. For elaboration, see Friedlander 2015, p. 89; Berger 2009, pp. 38-45.  

[55] By ‘form’ Kant clearly means the perceptual form of an intuition as opposed to the matter of intuition. For, in order for an aesthetic judgment to be universally communicable, it must have as its ground not a mere sensation but rather a spatio-temporally organized manifold of sensation.

[56] This correspondence is reflected in the spontaneous activity of free play between imagination and the understanding.

[57] CJ, 5:302, emphasis mine.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] As Kant famously argues in §59.

[61] The idea of openness emerges most clearly around the notion of aesthetic ideas and entails thinking about an object “without it being possible for any determinate thought […], which, consequently, no language fully attains or can make intelligible”. CJ, 5:314.

[62] CJ, 5:302, emphasis mine.

[63] CJ, 5:390.

[64] Cf. Nuzzo 2008, p. 229.

[65] See: “we adduce a teleological ground when we […] represent the possibility of the object in accordance with the analogy of such a causality (like the kind we encounter in ourselves), and hence we conceive of nature as technical through its own capacity” CJ, 5:360.

[66] Kant is referring here mainly to living organisms.

[67] The point is that even though it is our way of observing nature and conceiving objects in it, the presentation of purposiveness in this regard is nevertheless objective. This means that when we intuitively construct certain natural objects in imagination according to the concept of purposiveness, we actually observe real purposiveness in nature.

[68] CJ, 5:301.

[69] For ‘the purposiveness of nature’ or of objects in nature is a regulative principle rather than constitutive in that it does not state how nature really is but only presents itself as a principle that we must follow in exploring nature. Thus, we cannot infer from it whether plants or animals really are formed internally as we think of them. Cf. CJ, 5:388.

[70] CJ, 5:390.

[71] CJ, 20:217

[72] Cf. §70 the second maxim of the power of judgment in the antinomy suggesting that there are “particular experiences [of natural organisms] that bring reason into play in order to conduct the judging of corporeal nature and its laws in accordance with a special principle”. CJ, 5:386, emphases mine.  

[73] CJ, 5:390.

[74] CJ, 5:387.

[75] Ibid.

[76] CJ, 5:415.

[77] CJ, 5:386, 390.

[78] Chaouli 2017, p. 235.

[79] Nuzzo 2008, p. 229.

[80] Beyleveld & Ziche 2015, p. 937.

[81] CJ, 5:390.

[82] Cf. Beyleveld & Ziche 2015, p. 938.

[83] CJ, 5:390.

[84] As opposed, for instance, regarding the hints we find in nature as mere explanation of nature as correspondent to our needs.

[85] CJ, 5:476.

[86] Ibid, emphasis mine. The ‘promise’ for a supersensible ground of nature that comes from nature itself can be easily included among the ‘cipher’ notions I have presented thus far due to the similar structure they share.

[87] CJ, 5:480.

[88] CJ, 5:390.

[89] e.g., the supersensible ground of nature, the highest good, or God.

[90] CJ, 5:390.

[91] Cf. Sweet 2013, p. 211.

[92] CJ, 5:301.

[93] CJ, 5:300.

[94] See full quote on page 8.

[95] See my opening quote from Kant’s Reflexionen: “Beautiful things show [anzeigen] that human beings fit in the world”. Reflexionen zur Logic, n. 1820A, 16:127.

[96] Cf. Chignell 2010. Chignell refers to the hints we find in nature as another sort of symbolization-relation, see: “Beauty entices in us by giving us symbols […] of transcendental ideas” (Chignell 2010, p. 206). While I am in complete agreement that Kant’s language of hints and symbols are inseparable, I do hold that there is a substantial difference between them. According to my reading natural beauty cannot “give us symbols” directly from itself, as it were. We must configure our experience in order to be able to make analogical presentation out of it. What natural beauty does give us are hints that we can make explicit by using them as a symbol. 

[97] Rel., 6:65n.

[98] I thank two anonymous reviewers for carefully reading my paper and for their helpful suggestions and comments.

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