Kant on Tattoos

Immanuel Kant: Curmudgeon & loving it

Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) is one of my philosophical specialities and a personal favorite (yup, I admit it out loud), and in his Critique of the Power of Judgment he briefly speaks about the tattoos of the Maori. Now, as expected, he doesn’t approve of tattooing …. yes, once again Herr Kant sounds like an old fuddy-duddy whose conservative ignorance is showing through. I say this not only because Kant’s arguments in §16 of the work fail to be convincing or strong but more importantly, he is talking about something he has no experience of: Kant never went to New Zealand to see the Maori, in fact he never left his town of Königsberg, and he never got a tattoo. Tisk, tisk!

In §16, Kant describes two kinds of beauty: free and appendant. Free beauty is beauty according to form, that is without a definite concept to fall under. A great example of this is jazz improvisation, where the music flows without a given script. Kant includes foliage and flowers as free beauties. People, buildings, animals, etc., on the other hand, are all examples of appendant beauty because they are judged according to presupposed concepts of what they have to be (by definition, their purpose), and this concept includes the concept of each thing’s perfection. Next he adds, that it is inappropriate to combine the two: “A figure might be beautified with all manner of flourishes and light but regular lines, as is done by the New Zealanders with their tattooing, were we dealing with anything but the figure of a human being. And here is one whose rugged features might be softened and given a more pleasing aspect, only he has got to be a man, or is, perhaps, a warrior that has to have a warlike appearance.” But why is it inappropriate to add something of free beauty (a tattoo design) to something of adherent beauty (a person)? Is it morally bad? Aesthetically bad? Is it like using a Bedazzler on … anything (which I am sure Kant is glad he didn’t see in his lifetime)? He never provides, at least to my standards, a satisfactory answer and I am not the only one who feels this way. Tom Leddy feels the same confusion: “Perhaps Kant disapproves of tattoos because they permit a charm of sense to be linked with the human figure. In section 17 he refers to the human figure as the ideal of beauty. Could tattooing interfere with this ideal in some way? But remember that, for Kant, tattoos are in the same category as objects of pure beauty, and therefore are not mere matters of charms of sense, except insofar as they feature bright colors. Some tattoos have elaborate designs and thus meet Kant’s requirement for beauty quite well. They too can set the imagination and the understanding into free and harmonious play. Kant must, therefore, have thought that a tattoo somehow interferes with the expression of the moral which is characteristic of the ideal of the beautiful, and which he associates with the human body and its representation. He just never says how.” It would be interesting to see what Kant would have to say when looking at today’s tattooing techniques, colours, and styles, especially when compared to the textbook drawings of traditional Maori tattoos he was looking at. However, I think Kant would still feel the same way about tattoos since the act of tattooing is one of applying free beauty to something of adherent beauty, and no evolution in tattooing technique or colour can change that. And Kant being the anal retentive guy he was, and one who lived a life filled with maxims (yes, he practiced what he preached), he isn’t likely to have some hidden sweet ink of Rousseau under those britches. Damn!

Traditional Maori Body Tattoos

Traditional Maori Body Tattoos


5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Over de tatoeage | De Klos
  2. michal
    Apr 05, 2013 @ 12:35:08

    my reading is that a perfection should not be added to. given that very few tattoos work w/ the lines of the body, and that very few appear integral parts thereof (perhaps it could be done using sfumato?), there’s an aesthetic problem. I don’t see kant assigning a moral value here. let’s not forget too, that he was probably more used to seeing bodily beauties in the form of classical art than the bloody real thing.


    • tattooed.philosopher
      Apr 11, 2013 @ 13:07:10

      Yes, true. The moral part is an issue here, and one i often avoid (I have a preference for his metaphysics/epistemology over his ethics). But none of this overcomes the fact his descriptions of the Maori tattoos found in Cook’s voyage books (along with Parkinson’s illustrations) are faulty at their base and this causes him to place tattoos under the wrong beauty (at least in my mind). He talks of tattoos as if they are ornaments drawn on the body, not inked into flesh. Because they are inked into flesh they do necessarily follow some curves of the body. In fact, most artists base placement on accentuation rather than obstruction. The fact it is in the skin means it doesn’t interfere with the lines of the body in themselves. Now at times colours can possible distract one, but if the tattoo is properly placed it should accentuate the curves of the body, not detract or distract. 🙂


  3. Christopher Labbate
    Jul 29, 2010 @ 15:28:09

    interesting!! Can we see a post about what maybe Joseph Campbell might say about tattoos!?! Love your stuff! I have two tattoos…and I don;t think that I am morally bad in any way.


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