Prof. Stephen Palmquist, D.Phil. (Oxon)

Department of Religion and Philosophy

Hong Kong Baptist University


Book Review of:


Douglas Burnham:  An Introduction to Kant’s Critique of Judgement. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press Ltd, 2000. x + 198 pages.


        As is appropriate for an introductory text, Douglas Burnham’s book opens with a chapter providing general background information on Kant, a systematic overview of the whole Critical philosophy, a sketch of the basic issues dealt with in the third Critique, and an explanation of the overall structure of Kant’s book. Here and throughout Burnham’s book each section ends with a helpful summary, with diagrams and other convenient “lists” being supplied along the way for added clarity. For the most part, these summaries are reliable. The author’s interpretations, however, occasionally suffer from some rather unfortunate mistakes. For example, when contrasting the categories with the principles (p.14), Burnham cites the principle of non-contradiction as the primary example; yet Kant’s expressed reason for mentioning this “principle” in A150-3/B189-93 is to contrast it with the principles that function as applications of the categories. Likewise, while Burnham’s catalogue of the four “parts of sensibility” (pp.13-14), composed by grouping imagination (reproductive and productive) together with sensation and pure intuition, makes for an intriguing interpretation, especially as applied to the third Critique, he does not inform his (unknowing) student reader that the position he presents is far from being expressed so unambiguously in Kant’s text.

        The main content of Burnham’s book is divided into five chapters that follow a more or less predictable – though sometimes rather idiosyncratic – order. Chapter 1 explains three of the four “moments” of beauty, but does so in a manner that wholly neglects Kant’s own understanding of their architectonic unity. Burnham discusses the second moment (universality) first, the first moment (disinterestedness) second, and the fourth moment (necessity) third! Moreover, he then devotes the entirety of Chapter 2 to a discussion of the third moment (purposiveness). Chapter 3 interprets Kant’s theory of the sublime in a more straightforward way, dealing with the beautiful-sublime distinction, the mathematical-dynamical distinction, and the roots of the sublime in reason, before making a few concluding observations on the Analytic section of Part I of Kant’s book. Chapter 4, by contrast, takes a thematic approach, summarizing Kant’s treatment of art, genius, the supersensible, and morality throughout the Critique. Burnham concludes his book in Chapter 5 with an account of teleological judgment, final purpose, and religious belief, as covered in Part II of Kant’s Critique and its lengthy Appendix.

Since the third Critique is probably the least orderly of Kant’s main systematic works, this mixture of text-based and topical organization, though potentially confusing in places (especially in Chapter 2), probably benefits the student reader in the long run. However, it illustrates what is probably the main weakness of Burnham’s book: that he gives no attention to Kant’s own reasons for presenting his arguments and theories in the order he does. Had Burnham explained the architectonic connection between the four “moments” and the four categories presented in the first Critique as the key to all architectonic unity, then the justification (or according to some interpreters, the unjustifiability) of ignoring Kant’s order in his own exposition would have been easier for the novice reader to assess. As it stands, though, the book leaves such readers without the tools to make such a judgment.

        Among the most appealing aspects of this Introduction is the presence of numerous interesting insights. Though mostly undeveloped, these pearls keep the more seasoned reader of Kant interested, providing hints for possible future analysis and/or development. Here are a few examples: to say “beauty ‘chooses’ me” is a more accurate account of Kant’s position than “I am free to choose what I find beautiful” (p.50); likewise, in the first “moment” of beauty (p.55), “[i]t is the judgement that is disinterested, not us.” In forming judgments of the sublime (p.96), “an object is ‘fearful’ to be sure, but (because we remain disinterested) is not in fact an object of fear.” Otherwise, it would lose its aesthetic character.  And in discussing art, genius, and the sensus communis as the medium for the universal communicability of aesthetic judgments, Burnham rightly connects these themes to Kant’s views on culture and education, pointing out (p.126) that the ability to ground our judgments in the common sense “is a skill …, one that needs cultivation.” (Indeed, “understanding communication” [p.121] is one of Kant’s primary tasks in the third Critique.) This is where the moral component in Kant’s aesthetic theory comes in (p.135): “Without this moral culture, reason would never be able to redeem the pain felt in … the sublime experience.” Regarding Kant’s infamous view of beauty as a symbol of moral goodness, Burnham observes that “‘symbol’ … is more than just a kind of similarity between two different things” (p.139); rather, the term refers to the fact that both things are “grounded in the same supersensible self.”

        The book’s concluding (fifth) chapter attempts to be a tour de force, explaining how judgment for Kant “solves the grand problem of the unity of philosophy” (p.171). Although Burnham’s attempt is admirable and indeed, insightful on a number of key points, his lack of serious attention to Kant’s own architectonic patterns severely limits his ability to succeed in this goal. Whereas Part I of the third Critique, on aesthetic judgment, examines various aspects of purposiveness (i.e., viewing objects “as if” they were purposes, but without being grounded in any real natural purpose), Part II, on teleological judgment, brings Kant’s Critical enterprise full circle by focusing on organisms – i.e., on real physical ends or natural purposes. In this sense, Kant’s order of exposition seems to be the reverse of that in the first Critique, where sensibility (the natural grounding) comes at the beginning and reason (the “as if” perspective) at the end. Whereas the first Critique adopts the standpoint of understanding (or logical thought) to assess the faculties of the human mind, and the second Critique adopts the standpoint of reason (or volitional action) to assess the same faculties, the third Critique adopts the standpoint of judgment. This obvious, yet often-overlooked fact of Kant’s architectonic could be used to sort Burnham’s useful interpretations into a more meaningful whole. When judgment looks at the faculty of reason, it sees beauty as a symbol of moral goodness; when it looks at understanding, it sees the sublime as a free play of imagination in asserting an unprecedented control over our logical thought; and when judgment looks at the root of all our rational faculties, the “lower” faculty of sensibility, it sees the world as the home of imagination itself, the interwoven wholeness of nature. Although Burnham accurately acknowledges that the common thread uniting each of these perspectives is their common grounding in the supersensible, his exposition of their interrelationships with each other and with the other Critiques does not quite secure for Kant the hoped-for ideal of “the necessary elegance of statement” (Critique of Pure Reason, Bxliv).

        A number of minor annoyances mar the reader’s otherwise generally pleasurable experience in reading this book. For example, Burnham often revises the standard translations, but usually without indicating exactly where or how he is doing so. Similarly, references are sometimes missing for quotations, leaving the student unable to check the context in questionable circumstances (see e.g, p.43, where we must simply trust Burnham that Kant ever called pleasure “the feeling of an enhancement of life”). Also, students may be confused by his occasional loose use of certain technical terms, as when he refers to the “category of the sublime” (p.40, emphasis added). Perhaps the most obvious inaccuracy comes in his use of the example of honey (see pp.46-47): he repeatedly refers to the “objective fact” that honey “contains sugar”, when in fact honey and sugar are two entirely different substances, sharing only the accidental quality of sweetness. Ironically, Burnham goes on to warn the reader “that not all aesthetic judgements are well-formed – some are the result of mistakes” (p.47), yet his own foregoing example contains a rather different, but parallel mistake. Another annoyance is Burnham’s tendency to use objective phrases such as “It is not clear” (e.g., pp.95-96) or “The relevant passages … are … confused” (p.115) instead of less presumptuous constructions such as “I do not understand” or “These passages confuse me.” Finally, the occurrence of fairly regular typographical and/or proofreading errors (including incomplete sentences in several places) plagues this book to an extent that is all-too-typical in these days when even major publishers no longer take responsibility for proofreading. When editing is done on a computer and then not proofread by a professional, mistakes such as the misuse of “a” for “an” (or vice versa) are almost inevitable – though not setting a good example of meticulousness for student readers!

Despite being distracted by these nit-picking annoyances, I found myself stimulated at several points while reading this book to think for myself about new aspects or implications of Kant’s theories. In discussing the sublime, for example, Burnham refers to “the very failure of the imagination” as “a negative exhibition … of the transcendence of reason” that is followed by “a hidden theft”, whereby we “feel the result … of the sublime experience, but … [forget about the] revelation of human transcendence” (p.100). This two-sided aspect of the sublime therefore appears to be parallel in interesting ways to Kant’s distinction between the negative noumenon (as a limiting concept) and the positive noumenon (as an unknown – or forgotten? – hypostatization). Likewise, the attention Burnham gives to the relationships between the different topics in Kant’s book and how they hang together, admirably attempting to show us how to see Kant’s book “whole”, provides much fertile food for thought, even though he is far from giving us the last word on the subject. If a good book is one that inspires the reader to think his or her own original thoughts, then Burnham’s book passes the test, at least in this reviewer’s experience.


Stephen Palmquist, Hong Kong



This etext is based on a prepublication draft of the published version of this essay.

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