159. An Overview of the Kantian Sublime

In his Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790) Immanuel Kant gives a fascinating and influential account of the sublime. In this post I will go over the basics as covered in the section “Analytic of the Sublime” with the help of some commentators and my own exposition. Kant defines the sublime with three formulas:

(1) “We call sublime what is absolutely large”. By absolutely large, Kant means “large beyond all comparison”.

(2) Thus “that is sublime in comparison with which everything else is small”.

(3) “Sublime is what even to be able to think proves that the mind has a power surpassing any standard of taste.”

We can begin to understand these formulae by drawing some similarities and differences between how Kant construes judgments of the beautiful and the sublime:

  • First, both judgments are primarily about our subjective feelings in response to certain things.
  • Second, both forms of judgment are disinterested (we make the judgments by just considering some form for its own sake and not for what it can be used for, whether it is true or false, or whether it is good or bad), universal (we expect everyone to agree with us), and necessary (agreement necessarily follows from our shared powers of cognition, our common sense, if they are employed in a disinterested manner).
  • And third, both judgments help us see ourselves and others as moral agents.  

How do our judgments of the sublime differ from our judgments of the beautiful?

  • Kant states that the “beautiful in nature concerns the form of the object, which consists in [the object’s] being bounded.  But the sublime can also be found in a formless object, insofar as we present unboundedness, either [as] in the object or because the object prompts us to present it, while yet we add to this unboundedness the thought of its totality.” This unbounded or formless aspect of the sublime differentiates it from the beautiful that exemplifies limits and order.
  • Another difference is that, when it comes to beauty, there is something beautiful in the object: a form that triggers our common sense. But judgments of the sublime are completely about our inner experience: there is nothing sublime about the objects that trigger us to have an experience of the sublime. Consider this passage: “We hence see also that true sublimity must be sought only in the mind of the subject judging, not in the natural object the judgment upon which occasions this state. Who would call sublime, e.g., shapeless mountain masses piled in wild disorder upon one another with their pyramids of ice, or the gloomy, raging sea? But the mind feels itself raised in its own judgment if, while contemplating them without any reference to their form, and abandoning itself to the imagination and to the reason—which, although placed in combination with the imagination without any definite purpose, merely extends it—it yet finds the whole power of the imagination inadequate to its ideas.”
  • This last sentence leads to the most important distinction between the beautiful and the sublime for Kant. When we make a judgment of beauty we experience something—a landscape, a work of art, a face, or a flower for example—as a harmonious whole with internal purpose and we engage in a free play of the imagination that is also internally purposeful. In doing so we feel that our imagination fits the beautiful thing like a key: we seem to be made for the beautiful thing. This has an important consequence for our understanding of nature. Kant doesn’t think we can prove nature has a purpose and is designed. But he acknowledges that the experience of nature as beautiful makes us feel it has a purpose and that we are able to detect this purpose. In the free play and vitalizing experience of beauty we feel at home in the world. This feeling inspires our scientific efforts to understand nature. After all, if we are indeed akin to nature, if our cognitive powers fit with it, then perhaps it can be understood despite experiences to the contrary. Indeed, beauty often influences what theories are chosen and what theories are discarded. But in a sublime experience we feel a tremendous disconnect from nature. But why? We can get the answer by taking a look at the mathematical and dynamic sublime.

The Mathematical Sublime

In an experience of the mathematical sublime there is something in the environment perceived to be boundless in numerical extent or spatial extension, say the starry heavens with its seemingly infinite number of stars, which triggers our reason, which Kant claims is our “ability to seek and find unity and completeness among concepts and principles themselves”, to demand that our imagination represent, in a bounded image, the boundless expanse. The imagination struggles to meet the demand of reason but can only create bounded images (since images are bounded); it can never represent boundlessness. Thus

(1) we experience displeasure when we realize that our imagination fails to bound the boundless into an image. This failure makes us feel, much to our dismay, that we are not at home in nature, that our minds can’t grasp nature like we can in beautiful forms with limits, and that we are diminished in the face of its vastness. But then

(2) this inability brings to consciousness an unlimited ability of our reason which allows us to experience pleasure. What is this ability? That we can think, not imagine, the actually infinite or a totality to which nothing else can be added. This idea of actual infinity is what Kant refers to when he calls the sublime “absolutely large” or that “in comparison with which everything else is small.” Kant’s insight is this: the condition for the possibility of failing to bound something boundless is that we have an idea of absolute boundlessness to fall short of. Think of what it means to fail in a sport, in school, or in a career: in all these cases we know what it means to fail because we know what it means to succeed. Something similar is happening with the mathematical sublime: we must, somehow, understand absolute boundlessness if we are to experience the failure to imagine such boundlessness.

Kant likens this dynamic struggle between the imagination and reason to a “vibration, i.e., to a rapidly alternating repulsion from, and attraction to, one and the same object.” It is this struggle which, insofar as it includes both pleasure and displeasure, allows Kant to account for the paradoxical yet popular view at the time that the sublime is, in Edmund Burke’s phrase, a delightful horror. Our victory in this struggle, our grasping of the idea of actual infinity, allows us to see how we can transcend our finite human bodies in space and time. After all, if we were completely finite then we wouldn’t be able to think something actually infinite. This means we have what Kant refers to as a noumenal or supersensible (non-physical) aspect to our being rather than just a phenomenal one (physical). Thus we can see the meaning of Kant’s third formula for the sublime mentioned earlier, namely, “Sublime is what even to be able to think proves that the mind has a power surpassing any standard of taste.” According to Kant, this capacity for transcending and surpassing our finite senses is a source of our dignity. Rather than feeling insignificant in the face of the stars, we realize we have a capacity that makes us greater than the stars since the stars are not actually infinite but only potentially infinite (since something can always, in principle, be added to them). Our possession of the idea of actual infinity also gives us dignity in a religious direction by allowing us to think the infinity of God in the first place and to consider ourselves in His image.

Thus the stars (or any other similar phenomena) are not sublime. All they do is trigger us to have what IS sublime, namely, AN IDEA OF ACTUAL INFINITY.

Of course, the thought of actual infinity cannot be represented as a bounded image nor can it be empirically (through sense experience) demonstrated in the limits of space and time. If it could, it would immediately become finite. Thus there can be no scientific demonstration of the mathematical sublime. But we can obtain an indirect confirmation of its presence through the feelings of aesthetic experience that expands our imagination and soul: For though the imagination, no doubt, finds nothing beyond the sensible world to which it can lay hold, still this thrusting aside of the sensible barriers gives it a feeling of being unbounded; and that removal is thus a presentation of the infinite. As such it can never be anything more than a negative presentation—but still it expands the soul.”

Kant is therefore presenting a transcendental argument or argument that reasons from the experience of something to the condition(s) necessary for the possibility of having that experience:

Premise 1: We feel the painful failure of our imagination and subsequent pleasurable expansion of our soul by our reason in the face of phenomena which are boundless in number and/or spatial extent.

Premise 2: If our reason didn’t have the capacity to think the supersensible idea of actual infinity (a totality to which nothing else can be added) then we wouldn’t be able to feel the pain when our imagination tries yet fails to capture this totality in a limited image (there would no idea of absolute totality to fall short of) nor would we have any subsequent pleasure (there would nothing transcendent and unlimited about ourselves to rise up to).

Conclusion: Therefore the possession of the idea of actual infinity is the condition for the possibility of having the aesthetic experience of the mathematical sublime.

The Dynamic Sublime

In an experience of the dynamic sublime we experience, from a safe distance which allows us to retain a disinterested view removed from any survival imperative, something not boundless in numerical quantity as in the mathematical sublime but boundless in might that threatens to crush us. Kant offers some examples: “Bold, overhanging, and, as it were, threatening rocks, thunderclouds piled up the vault of heaven, borne along with flashes and peals, volcanoes in all their violence of destruction, hurricanes leaving desolation in their track, the boundless ocean rising with rebellious force, the high waterfall of some mighty river, and the like, make our power of resistance of trifling moment in comparison with their might.” This experience triggers our reason to demand of our imagination an image of successful resistance to this might. In effect, we wage a virtual war against the might outside us. But then

(1) we experience disinterested fearfulness (not actual fear which would be an interested judgment rather than an aesthetic judgment) when we realize how, as human bodies, we cannot resist at all in the face of nature’s might; but then

(2) we discover something else with the help of the imagination that is not an image of the imagination: we realize we are independent of these mighty forces as free persons rather than determined physical bodies. We realize that we have the capacity to stand our ground no matter what. And this virtual heroism gives us self-esteem.  Again, we can see here how the third formula for the sublime applies here, namely, “that is sublime in comparison with which everything else is small”. After all, nature’s might, compared to our radically independent will that nothing can move, is small since all physical phenomena can, in principle, be moved. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer provides a powerful description of this point in his masterpiece The World as Will and Idea (1819):

“But the impression [of the sublime] becomes still stronger, if, when we have before our eyes, on a large scale, the battle of the raging elements, in such a scene we are prevented from hearing the sound of our own voice by the noise of a falling stream; or, if we are abroad in the storm of tempestuous seas, where the mountainous waves rise and fall, dash themselves furiously against steep cliffs, and toss their spray high into the air; the storm howls, the sea boils, the lightning flashes from black clouds, and the peals of thunder drown the voice of the storm and sea. Then, in an undismayed beholder, the two-fold nature of his consciousness reaches the highest degree of distinctness.  He perceives himself, on the one hand, as an individual, as the frail phenomenon of will, which the slightest touch of these forces can utterly destroy, helpless against powerful nature, dependent, the victim of chance, a vanishing nothing in the presence of stupendous might; and, on the other hand, as the eternal, peaceful, knowing subject, the condition of the object, and, therefore, the supporter of this whole world; the terrific strife of nature only his idea; the subject itself free and apart from all desires and necessities, in the quiet comprehension of the Ideas. This is the complete impression of the sublime.”

So again we see we have a “vibration”: not between pleasure and displeasure (terms Kant uses only with the mathematical sublime although these terms seem to apply here as well) but between fearfulness and self-esteem. This self-esteem is a victory that makes us aware of what Kant calls our “supersensible vocation”: our ability to be moral agents who, unlike animals determined by the laws of nature, can freely choose to obey the moral law and follow it regardless of any physical influences. Paul Guyer, in his Kant and the Experience of Freedom (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), elaborates on the independence revealed in the dynamic sublime and its connection to morality:

“But the real import of his claim is that nature by itself can do nothing of moral disvalue to us. For all the dangers and threats it may throw in our face by its power, just as for all the inducements it may put before our inclinations by its pleasures, there is nothing nature can do to us which can force us to surrender our ability to act freely under the guidance of practical reason alone. In fact, although the immense destructive power of nature outside us can remind us of the triviality of what we usually incline to accept as objects of choice—“worldly goods, health, and life”—and by that means remind us of our power to choose the unconditionally good end of freedom itself, Kant is even more concerned to interpret the experience as revealing the superiority of reason over our own natural being.” (262)

Kant argued that judgments of the beautiful are not in themselves moral judgments. But they help us understand and prepare for moral judgments since, in freely considering things for their own sake, we have an analogue of moral action that also treats people with inherent value as ends in themselves and never as means to an end only. The sublime does more to round out this picture. For Kant, morality is always a matter of obedience to a moral law that demands, if it is to be objective and not a function of egoism or moral relativism, we put aside all our inclinations and selfish desires. In the experience of the dynamic sublime we have an aesthetic confirmation of our ability to do this. We see that, despite the mighty powers and inclinations of nature (including those of our bodies), that we may able to freely transcend them and act in ways contrary to them. This doesn’t mean that we will act morally. But it shows us we can. And an ought implies a can.

This freedom is another source of our dignity as humans which, again, allows us to think of God’s unlimited freedom and to consider our freedom as an image of Him. The dynamic sublime also allows us to infer the immortality of our soul since Kant notes that it makes us aware of a self-preservation not of our bodies but of a very different kind. Consider this passage:

“The irresistibility of the might of nature gives us to recognize our physical helplessness, considered as creatures of nature, but at the same time reveals ourselves as independent of it and a superiority over nature on which is founded self-preservation of quite another kind than that which may be attacked and brought into danger by the nature outside us, one where the humanity in our own person remains undefeated.”

William Hund, in his article ‘The Sublime and God in Kant’s Critique of Judgment’, explains:

“Although Kant did not explicitly state that this ‘self-preservation of quite another kind’ is the immortality of the soul and not merely our moral and intellectual superiority over the brute forces of nature, I think that the context demands this interpretation. For if nature could kill the soul as well as the life of the body, then nature would have dominion over us. But since Kant held that nature has no dominion over us, then it follows that it is because nature cannot kill our soul.”

Thus the mighty forces of nature or man are not sublime. All they do is trigger us to have what IS sublime, namely, AN EXPERIENCE OF OUR CAPACITY FOR FREE, INDEPENDENT ACTION.

John Martin The Great Day of His Wrath (circa 1851)

Of course, our free subjectivity cannot, just like our idea of actual infinity cannot, be empirically demonstrated in space and time. If we could scientifically verify freedom, then our status as free subjects would be cancelled: we would become physical objects to be seen, analyzed, dissected, publicly verified, and so on. For Kant, free subjects cannot be found among the realm of physical objects determined by cause and effect and the laws of nature. They are independent of nature and thus must remain hidden from science. Thus for Kant we can’t know what we are; we can’t analyze ourselves as we can objects in space and time. But our experience of the dynamic sublime gives us an indirect confirmation that we are free subjects through the feeling of aesthetic experience.

Kant is therefore, again, presenting a transcendental argument:

Premise 1: We experience imaginative fearfulness and subsequent self-esteem in the face of boundless physical might.

Premise 2: If we didn’t have free will and independence from physical nature then we would only feel fearfulness and admit bodily defeat in the face of nature’s might; we would never have the subsequent experience of self-esteem that comes from a realization of our supersensible vocation as moral beings.

Conclusion: Therefore the possession of free will or the ability to act independently of nature is the condition for the possibility of having an aesthetic experience of the dynamic sublime.

In the conclusion to his work Critique of Practical Reason Kant expresses, in deeply moving terms, the meaning of the awe we feel in the presence of the mathematical and dynamic sublime. Thus I will close with his inspiring words:

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within. I have not to search for them and conjecture them as though they were veiled in darkness or were in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them directly with the consciousness of my existence. The former begins from the place I occupy in the external world of sense, and enlarges my connection therein to an unbounded extent with worlds upon worlds and systems of systems, and moreover into limitless times of their periodic motion, its beginning and continuance. The second begins from my invisible self, my personality, and exhibits me in a world which has true infinity, but which is traceable only by the understanding, and with which I discern that I am not in a merely contingent but in a universal and necessary connection, as I am also thereby with all those visible worlds. The former view of a countless multitude of worlds annihilates as it were my importance as an animal creature, which after it has been for a short time provided with vital power, one knows not how, must again give back the matter of which it was formed to the planet it inhabits (a mere speck in the universe). The second, on the contrary, infinitely elevates my worth as an intelligence by my personality, in which the moral law reveals to me a life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world, at least so far as may be inferred from the destination assigned to my existence by this law, a destination not restricted to conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.”

See here for my post on the sublime in relation to Plato’s Good; see here for some thoughts on the sublime in relation to solitude and contemplation in Schopenhauer; for some insights about the sublime and reading for greatness, go here.

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