Kant’s conception of genius and the logic of scientific discovery – Bryan Hall

seminarul departamentului de filosofie teoretica, miercuri, 10 noiembrie, ora 18:00 in amfiteatrul Titu Maiorescu

Bryan Hall – Kant’s conception of genius and the logic of scientific discovery

Rezumatul prezentarii:

Kant’s Conception of Genius and the Logic of Scientific Discovery

by Bryan Hall

In the Critique of the Power of Judgment (CJ) from 1790, 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. Although Kant believes that genius can be rationally reconstructed in terms of a rule-governed procedure, this procedure will always underdetermine the products of genius. In contrast, Kant offers Isaac Newton as the paradigmatic example of a ‘great mind’ who was nevertheless not a genius. In the Principia, Newton famously claims that he ‘frames 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 way of understanding the rule-governed procedure Kant has in mind is as a ‘logic of discovery,’ i.e., a rule-governed procedure where the discovery is the logical consequence of certain well-established premises.

The fact that Kant does distinguish between geniuses and scientists in the above way, however, begs the question of why Kant would make such a distinction. It is likely that Kant’s rejection of scientific genius stems from his growing dissatisfaction with the Sturm und Drang movement in Germany and, in particular, with one of its main figures, Johann Herder. Kant sees in Herder an artistic genius playing scientist, i.e., an artist making claims about the natural world based not on rational arguments and empirical evidence but rather on creative inspiration alone. For Herder, genius is a wholly creative faculty and one that he makes no attempt to rationally reconstruct. As one of the principal defenders of enlightenment thinking, it is not surprising that Kant strongly disagreed with Herder’s approach. The purpose of Kant’s contrast between genius and science is to assign them distinct domains. Whereas genius is limited to the production of beautiful art, science is limited to producing discoveries concerning the natural world. If Kant is right, then Herder is trying to use genius in a domain for which it has no application.

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. By these standards, I will argue that Kant’s dynamic theory of matter from the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science offers us an example of scientific genius. While I reject the view that there is a logic of discovery in Kant’s case (Kant’s conception of science), I also reject that the discovery is simply a matter of creative inspiration not amenable to rational reconstruction (Herder’s conception of genius). Drawing both on the contemporary debate surrounding scientific discovery as well as Kant’s own views in CJ, I will argue that there is a way of rationally reconstructing Kant’s discovery. If I am right, then both scientists and artists can be geniuses even if they are geniuses within their own domains.


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