This essay re-evaluates Schiller’s idea of beauty as “freedom in appearance,” as brought forward in his Kallias or On Beauty (1793), against the backdrop of early modern and modern thinking that based itself on a fundamental split between nature and freedom, world and man. Schiller’s claim that natural beauty results from freedom in nature bridges this gap. His suggestion is confirmed by modern science. Schiller’s view is recommended and defended as a way of escaping modern bigotry.

World connectedness, not unworldliness of man

In the first half of the 1770s, Kant wrote a very interesting phrase: “Beautiful things indicate that man fits into the world.” [1] If this statement is true, then aesthetics has a chance to gain high importance for modern thought. For aesthetics, then, has the potential to treat and even overcome the fundamental error on which the modern and contemporary way of thinking is based, namely the assumption that there exists an unbridgable gap between humans and the world because they represent completely different orders: res extensa on the part of the world; res cogitans on the part of the human.

This was indeed the fundamental novelty that developed with early modern thought: that the world is in no way tinted by spirit but radically mindless and determined only by extension, matter, and purely mechanical laws, while humans were still considered to be characterized by rationality and thinking. This resulted in an allegedly fundamental gap between humans and the world, the notorious human-world dualism. In the face of an intrinsically spiritless world, the human, as an intrinsically spiritual being, could only be an unworldly being.

Due to this putative heterogeneity between humans and the world, humans were supposed to only be able to produce a world according to their imagination and in no way to recognize the real world. The human relationship to the world had to be constructivist on principle, not realistic; just think of Kant’s theoretical philosophy. Since that time, modern thought pursued a fundamental subjectivism regardless of whether it had a transcendental or historicist or social face. In its standard agenda, modern philosophy acted out its subjectivist birthmark from the time of Kant through contemporary analytic philosophy.

The subterranean agenda of modern philosophy, however, consisted in overcoming this dualism and in developing, instead of a dichotomy between humans and the world, a new grasp of the worldliness of humans. But for a long time all attempts to achieve this were doomed to failure. Perhaps the transition succeeds only in our day. [2]

Aesthetics, this apparently random discipline of philosophy, operates, if the Kantian statement quoted at the beginning is true, in its own way on this implicit and also extremely important task of demonstrating that humans fit into the world. This is what I want to make clear in the following by looking at Schiller.

Heliomaster Angelae (1849–1887) print in high resolution by John Gould, Henry Constantine Richter and Charles Joseph Hullmandel. Original from The Minneapolis Institute of Art. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Kant and Schiller

But let us first look at Kant one more time. As I said, pre-critical Kant had understood beauty as a phenomenon that, in contrast to the standard view of duality, provides evidence of our congruence with the world.

The critical Kant, however, began elaborating the logic of dualism. In his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), he showed that the physical world represents a strictly lawful nexus of appearances following the principles of the pure understanding. In his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), he then explained how, for humans as moral beings, not this physical order but the very different order of freedom is crucial. From this arose the big question of how these two orders can go together, and how, in particular, acts of freedom are possible in a deterministic world.

In this problem, it is obvious that the dualism of modern thought appears in concise form. Kant tried to provide a solution in his Critique of Judgment (1790) and therefore designated this third critique as “mediating the connection of the two parts of philosophy to a whole.” [3] The phenomenon of beauty, on the one hand, and that of the organic, on the other hand, should make possible “a transition […] from the domain of the concepts of nature to the domain of the concept of freedom” [4] and thus testify that we are entitled to assume a congruence between our rational expectations and the structure of the world. In this way, we should be assured that we humans are not, as the standard assumption of modern thought stated, fundamental strangers to the world, but, as Kant had written twenty years earlier, readily “fit into the world.”

However, the way that Kant spelled out this role of the beautiful was unfortunate. He emphasized far too much the subjectivity of the judgment of taste. Stressing subjectivity is generally the flaw of his philosophical conceptions, especially of his theory of knowledge, where all claims to objectivity are reduced to the fulfillment of subjective demands. Correspondingly, the aesthetic joy of beauty, according to Kant, should also result solely from the fulfillment of our general cognitive intention, which is to achieve a harmony of sensibility and understanding. [5] But arguing in this way, Kant obviously lost the trait which, according to his earlier thinking, should be decisive for beauty, that is, the experience of a congruence with the world. Beauty when construed in merely subjectivist terms only allows for experiencing the congruence of powers of the subject, not for experiencing a congruence with the world.

What Kant generally lacks, in epistemology as in aesthetics, is a look at the origins of our cognitive patterns. Where did we get them from? Why are they the way they are? The answer is not difficult. These patterns developed in the course of evolution in alignment with the world. Therefore the world is already inscribed in them. Consequently, there exists a fit between these patterns and the structure of the world, and this is the reason why beauty, being based on such patterns, lets us experience that we “fit into the world.”

Not being aware of this, Kant was unable to present the beautiful as a phenomenon that demonstrates that we fit into the world. Therefore, in its execution, the Critique of Judgment just does not achieve what it was intended to do: exhibit the correspondence of the human and the world.

As I have said, subjectivism is the crux of Kantian philosophy. His successors, however, have initially seen subjectivism mainly as an achievement and not as a problem and have even increased that perspective, especially Fichte and the early Romantics.

Only a few opposed this tendency and considered subjectivism as a half truth at most. Paradigmatically, so did Hegel. He scolded the subjective idealism initiated by Kant as a “flat,” “silly,” even “philistine” idealism. [6] Hegel’s whole effort was to get beyond this “bad idealism of modern times.” [7] Goethe, too, lamented in his later years: “My whole time departed from me, for it was completely engaged in a subjective direction, whereas I, with my objective quest, was at a disadvantage and stood completely alone.” [8]

Bird of Paradise; Paradisea apoda (1804–1908) print in high resolution by John Gould and William Matthew Hart. Original from The National Gallery of Art. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.


Wolfgang Welsch, Professor emeritus, was Professor of Philosophy at a number of German and international universities (Berlin, Jena, Stanford, Emory) and received the Max Planck Research Award in 1992. His main fields of research are: epistemology and anthropology, theory of evolution, philosophy of culture, aesthetics and art theory, contemporary philosophy, Aristotle, and Hegel. In recent publications he has developed a strictly evolutionary conception of the human, comprising both biological and cultural evolution. He has published twelve books and edited eight.


John Gould (1804-1881) was a naturalist and one of London’s leading ornithologists. He began his career working as a gardener, where he learned about taxidermy and gained knowledge of birds in their natural habitat. At only 23 he became a curator and preserver at the Zoological Society of London. He was never a very good illustrator, and many of his 3000 plates were in fact illustrated by or collaborated on with other artists. Including his wife Elizabeth and the quirky poet Edward Lear. Gould helped Darwin classify finches and mockingbirds, connecting location with speciation. This discovery was the starting point to Darwin’s theory of natural selection.


  1. “Die Schöne Dinge zeigen an, dass der Mensch in die Welt passe” (Immanuel Kant, ‛Reflexionen zur Logik,’ Akademie-Ausgabe, Berlin: Reimer, 1914, XVI, 127 [Nr. 1820 a]). According to Adickes, this reflection dates from 1771–72, or perhaps from 1773–75.
  2. Cf. my recent publications: Blickwechsel – Neue Wege der Ästhetik (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2012), Mensch und Welt. Eine evolutionäre Perspektive der Philosophie (München: Beck, 2012), Homo mundanus – Jenseits der anthropischen Denkform der Moderne (Weilerswist, Velbrück Wissenschaft, 2012)
  3. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment [1790], trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987), p. 15.
  4. Ibid., p. 19.
  5. “[…] the way of presenting [which occurs] in a judgment of taste is to have subjective universal communicability without presupposing a determinate concept; hence this subjective universal communicability can be nothing but [that of] the mental state in which we are when imagination and understanding are in free play (insofar as they harmonize with each other as required for cognition in general). For we are conscious that this subjective relation suitable for cognition in general must hold just as much for everyone, and hence be just as universally communicable, as any determinate cognition, since cognition always rests on that relation as its subjective condition. “Now this merely subjective (aesthetic) judging of the object, or of the presentation by which it is given, precedes the pleasure in the object and is the basis of this pleasure, [a pleasure] in the harmony of the cognitive powers” (ibid., p. 62 [B 29, § 9].
  6. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Enzyklopädie der philosophischen Wissenschaften im Grundrisse I [1830], Werke, vol. 8 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), p. 123 [§ 46]; Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie III [Vorlesungen 1816–1832], Werke, vol. 20 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), 385; Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion II [Vorlesungen 1821–1831], Werke, vol. 17 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), p. 445.
  7. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie I [Vorlesungen 1816–1832], Werke, vol. 18 (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1986), p. 405; vgl. ibid., p. 440.
  8. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Sämtliche Werke nach Epochen seines Schaffens (Münchner Ausgabe), eds. Karl Richter et al., vol. 19: Johann Peter Eckermann, Gespräche mit Goethe in den letzten Jahren seines Lebens, ed. Heinz Schlaffer (Munich: Hanser,1986), 101 [14. April 1824].


Original Title: Schiller Revisited – “Beauty is Freedom in Appearance” – Aesthetics as a Challenge to the Modern Way of Thinking. This article was first published 2014 in Contemporary Aesthetics. Title and subtitles are altered. Part II you can find here.