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The Philosopher’s Plant 8.0: Kant's Tulip

Just two marginal references, en passant and without any apparent significance. That is what Kant’s tulip boils down to in his Critique of Judgment. The first mention is nothing more than a footnote, where the tulip is cited as an example of a beautiful flower, “beautiful, because we meet with a certain finality in its perception, which, in our estimate of it, is not referred to any end whatever.”(1) The second time a tulip germinates on the pages of the same book, it is charged with the task of substantiating the difference between the logical judgment “All tulips are beautiful,” on the one hand, and the judgment of taste that delights in “an individual given tulip,” on the other. (2)

The tulip is useless and singular, much like Kant’s references to it. But it is not altogether innocent: planted on the text’s margins in its exemplary capacity, it both illuminates and threatens to dislocate the philosophical system, which is barely able to accommodate it. The tulip brandishes its “flower-power,” not unrelated to the slogan of the American counterculture movement of the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies. But let us not run ahead of ourselves. It still remains to be seen why Kant was so fixated on flowers. And what attracted him to tulips, of all things?

The tulip that blossoms on the margins of The Critique of Judgment is actually not native to this text. It has been transplanted there from a book by a founder of alpinism, Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, whom the German thinker admired. Without exaggeration, we might say that the Kantian tulip germinates already as a dry specimen in an intellectual herbarium, not a flower Kant himself would have experienced “in the wild.” In his Journey in the Alps, de Saussure reports having sighted a “wild tulip” which is the unacknowledged referent of Kant’s famous example. Most likely, the voyager made a taxonomic error, as tulips are not wildflowers and, moreover, are not indigenous to Europe, where they had been crossbred, cultivated, and traded for centuries before de Saussure’s journey. The specimen deposited in the intellectual herbarium appears to be mislabeled, though that inaccuracy did not prevent the flower from striking Kant as an exotic instance of singular beauty, a rare variety thriving in the Alps, far away from Königsberg, the hometown he never left.

More generally speaking, devotion to matters aesthetic must have been due, in part, to Kant’s marked Galanterie. His biographer, Manfred Kuehn tells us that, in his dressing style, Kant “always followed the … ‘maxim’ that the color of one’s dress should follow the flowers.” “Accordingly,” Kuehn continues, “a brown coat required a yellow vest.”(3) The maxim Follow the flowers! is not a bad place to start learning not only about the details of Kant’s wardrobe but also about the finer points of his aesthetic philosophy. Besides using them as standards for matching the colors of his coat and vest, how does the German thinker follow the flowers — and tulips, above all? Below, I pursue three possible leads.

First, in his penchant for abstraction, Kant reduces flowers to instances of pure color, and tulips seem to be the purest of them all. In the notes on aesthetics, we read the author’s shorthand: “A pure color; the distribution of colors for charm (tulips, pheasants). … All pure colors are beautiful, because art is already indicated in their being unmixed.”(4) Although the emphasis on the colors’ being “unmixed” presupposes their material purity (for instance, intense red without a trace of any other tonalities), what Kant is really after is the purity of form, which resonates not in the object itself but in its subjective appreciation. In following the flowers with their beautiful pure colors, we ultimately return back to ourselves and to our aesthetic enjoyment they provoke.

Second, the tulip is a no-frills flower, if there ever was one. Its simple shape does not distract us from the beauty of its pure color and, in this, it fits perfectly the austerity of Kant’s philosophy and the strict splendor of his aesthetic thought. Even if it is a mere adornment, the tulip itself is unadorned, its ascetic form opening directly onto the beautiful. A singular passage into beautiful universality, it does not exactly bedazzle the spectator, does not strike the gaze with baroque petal arrangements or color contrasts. Its calm, almost self-effacing grace is what gives beauty a chance to shine forth.

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Third, unlike the nourishing fruit, flowers are completely useless and utterly superfluous (at least for humans, albeit not so much for the bees). They do not satisfy an immediate physiological need but symbolize the luxury of excess, our desire for adornment when the cravings of hunger and thirst are pacified. That is why, anthropologist Jack Goody notes, in African cultures flowers are virtually absent from religious and social rituals; they play an insignificant part “in the domain of design or the creative arts,” and, whenever they are mentioned, it is exclusively in anticipation of the fruit they will metamorphose into.(5) And that is why, more pertinently, Kant treats tulips as examples of finality “not referred to any end,” where by “end” he means those practical goals that are associated with economic activity, broadly understood. They are the concrete images of freedom from necessity and of the desire for the superfluous that makes us human.

That tulips came to be the symbols of non-economic superfluity at the time of Kant’s Third Critique testifies to a short span of cultural memory. A mere century and a half prior to the publication of Kant’s work, Europe (and especially Holland) was in the grip of the tulip mania, the first speculative economic bubble in history. At the time, the assertion that tulips were the archetypes of finality without any practical end would have been laughable, as a year’s wage could be exchanged for a single bulb of the flower. It makes little difference whether the joke is on Kant and his inability to historicize his abstract transcendental arguments, or whether the irony is carefully built into the text. The take-home message is that the role of a flower cannot be pinpointed outside the historical and cultural context, wherein it is economically prized, aesthetically appreciated, or goes entirely unnoticed. Once this premise is admitted, we begin to hear the abstract system of thought, which has presumably freed itself from all contextual constraints, cracking at the seams. Strangely enough, the culprit in its undoing is not a still more powerfully armed conceptual apparatus but a single flower.

To be fair to Kant, neither the flower nor any other being receives one immutable meaning in his philosophical system. His critical project is one that delimits the domains of human knowledge, practice, and aesthetic contemplation, setting each of them within their proper bounds. Theoretical understanding, for one, cannot extend its reach indefinitely, as it is hemmed in on different sides by what our finite reason cannot grasp (e.g., the nature of God) and by the non-theoretical facets of our existence. Etymologically traceable to the Greek word krinein, which connotes “separation” or “division,” Kantian critique sets apart distinct domains of inquiry and practice both from one another and from what is absolutely inaccessible to human beings. There are three such domains, corresponding to the three Critiques: that of pure reason or theoretical understanding, that of practical reason or ethics, and that of aesthetic judgment.

The meaning and, indeed, the being of a tulip varies depending on the domain, in which we encounter it as a natural object of study and scientific investigation, an object of utility piquing our practical interest, or an alluring instance of the beautiful. There is, however, no one approach that could encompass all three significations of the tulip into a coherent whole. The tulip of a scientist, of a commercial flower grower, and of a spectator at the Canadian Tulip Festival in Ottawa are not one and the same thing. For a scientist, this flower is a specimen, a sample derived from the species and the genus it belongs to. It is a network of vessels, plant tissues and organs — quantifiable and objectively measurable. For a commercial flower grower, it is also convertible into a numeric value, though this time the number corresponds to the price per bulb that can be reasonably set on the market. For festival spectators, it is an opportunity to feast their eyes on the flashes of red or yellow or another color on the vast flower beds of the Ottawa-Gatineau region in May. These general, if not generic, contexts are indispensible for making sense of Kantian philosophy.

Kant’s “Copernican turn,” referring to a shift of emphasis from the object of knowledge to its subject, is easy to grasp, provided that we keep in mind the virtually irreconcilable perspectives of the three Critiques. While a pre-modern ontological inquiry would be inclined to ask “What is a tulip?”, Kant concentrates on the diverse human dealings with the flower, outside which not the least bit of information about it would have been revealed. Within the conceptual architecture of The Critique of Pure Reason, the question is, “How is it possible for me to know the tulip?” The Critique of Practical Reason demands to know, “What can (or should) I do with the tulip?” And The Critique of Judgment asks, “What can a tulip do to me, so that through the contemplation of its singularity I would get in touch with universal beauty?” We may, as well, forget about unearthing the flower itself, above and beyond a potentially measurable organism, a placeholder of economic value, or a narrow passage toward the beautiful. The tulip itself is a thing-in-itself, unknowable and thus disengaged from the critical apparatus of Kantianism.


(1) Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, translated by James C. Meredith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), p. 80.

(2) Kant, Critique of Judgment, pp. 140-1.

(3) Manfred Kuehn, Kant: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 115.

(4) Immanuel Kant, Notes and Fragments (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 510.

(5) Jack Goody, The Culture of Flowers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 11ff.