Figurations of Nature in Kant and Adorno Open Access

Daniels, Jordan (Spring 2021)

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At a time when the effects of human activity on the environment have never been a more urgent issue, I propose that looking anew at the concept of natural beauty in the works of Immanuel Kant and Theodor Adorno will help us better understand the relationship between human beings and nature today. By drawing out the ethical and political consequences of different conceptualizations of nature, the dissertation bridges the strict division between aesthetics and theoretical philosophy. While Kant is known for intensifying the separation between these spheres, I argue that Adorno takes up Kant’s elaborations of aesthetics and natural beauty in order to transform them, underlining their determination in and by history. Ultimately, by bringing the concerns of aesthetics to bear on the question of nature, I argue that we can better articulate the blockages that seemingly condemn the contemporary relationship between human beings and nature to be one of mutual destruction.  


While contemporary debates in environmental aesthetics largely take an ahistorical approach to the aesthetic experience of nature, defining it as the aesthetic experience of “nature itself,” of nature “in its own terms,” Kant and Adorno’s accounts of nature challenge and deepen what counts as an aesthetic experience of nature by complicating the discipline’s foundational distinction of the natural against the artificial. Nature is grasped by human knowers and is therefore shaped by a distinct historical community, and yet, as Kant and Adorno both assert, human concepts do not exhaust nature. Drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin, Adorno conceptualizes a further tension: natural beauty might offer a false aesthetic comfort in an escape from history and human agency, or, if properly recognized as itself historical, natural beauty can serve to reorient us toward history and human agency. Ultimately, I propose that the experience of natural beauty is expressive of social historical content, offering a vision of a different relationship with nature and disclosing ethical claims on us to act in this world.


Table of Contents

Introduction: Nature, History, Aesthetics 1

Chapter 1: Adorno, Kant, and Environmental Aesthetics Today 12

Natural Beauty Revived

Cognitivist Approaches to “Appreciating Nature on Its Own Terms”

Dynamics of Disinterestedness

Chapter 2: Natural-History and Figurations of Nature 49

The Idea of Natural-History

From Natural-History to Speculative History

The Fear of Nature and the Nature of Fear

Odysseus and Nature’s Sacrifice

Chapter 3: Kant, Phenomenal Nature, and Metaphysical Mourning 92

Metaphysics (Taking) After the Natural Sciences

Nature, Blind and Mutilated

Nature and the Block

Chapter 4: Enlightenment and Aesthetic Experience 129

Morality and Mutilated Nature

Freedom in Thought

Aesthetic Rationality in Kant and Adorno

Chapter 5: Natural Beauty on This Sad Earth 165

Subordinated Natural Beauty

Transience and Trauerspiel

Messianic Nature, History, and Happiness

Natural Beauty and the Cultural Landscape

Conclusion 203

Bibliography 208

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