The purpose of this paper is to analyze critically the concept of the sublime as presented by Immanuel Kant in his work ‘The Critique of Judgment’.
After reviewing what the philosopher says about the sublime and putting his perspective into context by briefly looking at how he addresses aestheticism and beauty, the paper will take a closer look at how Kant sub-categorizes the sublime aesthetic sublime experience. The two categories of sublime aesthetic experience shall be reviewed further, giving Kant’s opinion on what it means to have a sublime aesthetic experience.
The paper will have a conclusion in which I will give my own opinion on why I agree or disagree with Kant’s elaboration of the sublime.
There is the common English saying ‘beauty is in the eyes of the beholder’. What one man deems to be beautiful, and moves him to awe, would leave another man just as indifferent and untouched. What is beauty, what element of a thing determines that it is beautiful hand renders another ugly?
These must have been the questions Immanuel Kant asked himself, though probably in more abstruse philosophical terms when he set out to write his treatise ‘Critique on Judgment’. This text has remained intriguing for philosophers and none philosophers alike for over two centuries now, and is considered pivotal in the study of aesthetics.
In this text, Kant addresses two primary issues: beauty – what I term as surface appeal- and the more complex concept of the sublime, and how judgment and reason play into the understanding and appreciation of beauty. Kant argues that judgment, or the rational faculties, have to be applied in the appreciation of beauty.
This is because there are basic tenets that apply to appreciating the aesthetic in any form, then there has to be a method to it; this method is what is based in reason, and this is what gives beauty its universality. Kant uses his discussions on the universal principles that govern the appreciation of art and the sublime to elucidate on human judgment in general (Kant 27).
It is interesting to note that with the study of aesthetics Kant attempts to bring together the two aspects of philosophy: the theoretical and the practical. Kant postulates that it is actually judgment that is the bridge between these two aspects of philosophy (Kant 15).
1. The concept of the sublime according to Kant’s ‘Analytic of the Sublime’ from his ‘Critique of Judgment’
While beauty is limited to those objects that have form, with how well defined this form determining to a large extent how beautiful the object is considered to be, the aesthetically sublime covers even those objects without form (Kant 61).
Kant looks at the dark side of the aesthetic experience, and uses the term ‘sublime’ to describe it. Ordinarily, when one thinks of an aesthetic experience, the focus is on the good and the pleasurable. However, Kant studies aspects of the natural world that overwhelm us, and instill a sense of fear. The sublime is that which overwhelms us, not only in the physical sense (Kant 62).
Kant categorizes experience of the sublime broadly into two: there is the dynamic sublime, where the viewer is faced with the violent forces of nature but with the surety that he/she can conquer these forces, or cannot be touched by them, and hence the viewer can derive a certain pleasure from the experience despite the fear. Secondly, there is the ‘mathematical’ sublime, where the viewer focuses on the physical magnitude of the object under observation, and magnitude is measured strictly in physical units (Kant 64).
Sublimity does not originate from the natural object in question, but rather from the feelings of the viewer towards the object. The sublime has more to do with the viewer, what goes on in his/her mind, than what is being viewed (Kant 65).
When one has an experience that is mathematically sublime, says Kant, the object is physically large, like a mountain or a really tall building. The dynamically sublime is that which might or might not be physically large but which exerts a force on the viewer which is not necessarily a physical force (Kant 65).
As Kant asserts, mathematical measurements do not take account of the aesthetic quantity of an object, and thus the magnitude of an object cannot be determined simply on a physical mathematical scale. The aesthetic measure must be considered as well, and this measure is still bound to be limited within units that are comprehensible by human reason, so that the largest unit marks the limits of the measurement of how aesthetically huge an object is (Kant 75).
Thus, in Kant’s view, the dynamically sublime is of more importance than the mathematically sublime. It is the former that moves the viewer, and that shows an active interaction between what the viewer perceives, and his/her judgment (Kant 77).
2. The moments of the experience of the sublime, and the subcategories of sublime aesthetic experience
The first moment in the experience of the sublime as explicated by Kant is that an aesthetic judgment has to be disinterested; disinterest here means that the viewer, finds pleasure in the object after judging it beautiful, not finding the object beautiful because of the pleasure it brings.
If we are to apply disinterest in this line, a thoroughbred horse would not be found beautiful for the pleasure of galloping off at incredible speeds and high jumps, but for its physical attributes. Disinterest means that beauty does not have to be functional. Kant asserts that if disinterest is to be applied, then the focus in considering objects aesthetically should be on the form of the object, and not on aspects of the object that would lead to a deeper connection, meaning interest (Kant 92).
The second moment in the experience of the sublime as Kant explains rests on the fact that there are universal rules of what is aesthetically appealing, though there are no universal rules as to how an aesthetic state can be achieved. This is because rational thought is applied in reaching the conclusion of what object is aesthetically appealing, same as is applied to morality, which is also universal.
Thus, it is expected that what one person will find aesthetically appealing will also be appealing to a majority. It is a difficult concept to grasp because it goes against the conventional grain of the viewer determining whether he/she finds an object aesthetically appealing or not (Kant 93).
The third moment introduces the concepts of ‘end’ and ‘finality’, or purpose and purposiveness. Kant elaborates that an object can have a purpose, the purpose being the functional reason for which it was made. Purposiveness on the other hand implies that the object might not have any constructive use, but remains of value.
The aestheticism of an object does not include the external purpose- the utility for which the object was built, or the internal purpose- what the object is intended to be like. If an object is judged on the basis of its utility, then its purpose will be determined on how well it does the job. On the other hand, if it is judged based on how close it is to a preconceived notion of how it is meant to look, then the purpose will be perfection(Kant 93).
The fourth moment in Kant’s text, as regards the sublime is that aesthetic judgments must be found necessary. Here, Kant is trying to define the parameters within which objects are judged and why it is necessary to notice the aesthetic in an object, a truly daunting task. Kant refers to these grounds as common sense, meaning the shared sense of the beautiful in an object by different viewers, or in other words-taste (Kant 94).
Yet, as Kant points out, the purpose of beauty is not how useful an object is or how close it comes to being perfect. He charges that the sole aim of beauty, at least in the natural world, its purposiveness is dependent on human judgment, without having a specified purpose.
4. The most beneficial aspect of the judgment of the sublime in regards to the subject undergoing this experience
Kant states that the importance experiencing the dynamically sublime in nature is because it elevates a man to another level of fortitude that is beyond the narrow perception of what men are used to. Experiencing the dynamically sublime equals experiencing a total freedom, because the viewer transcends the fear that is the first instinctive reaction to forces of such magnitude in nature (Kant 79).
Kant states that beauty is a symbol of moral uprightness, since people seek beauty with the same fervor that they seek moral uprightness. It is almost an innate sense in man to seek things of beauty. Beauty inspires goodness in man, and binds him closer to his own moral code. This is another benefit on one undergoing the aesthetically sublime experience.
There is no doubt that Kant’s study on aestheticism has been central in shaping later concepts of aestheticism to date. That said, there are aspects of his rationale with which I am not in total agreement.
In the natural world, it is easier for the concept of disinterest as Kant defines it to come into play. However, in regards to fine art, art made by man, then this art cannot be totally separated from politics. Though an artist might primarily create a work of art for its aesthetic quality, more often than not, this is not the only reason. There must have been thought that inspired the artist into action of creating his or her piece of work.
Therefore, the artwork has a utility; it makes a statement that the artist wishes to express. Those who observe this artwork will inherently infer the artist’s intended meaning, beyond looking at the work just for its aesthetic appeal. In this sense, no total disinterest can be maintained.
Kant makes a strong point for how the aesthetic contributes towards understanding human judgment, and how the sublime in nature is tied up with the man’s moral uprightness, as well as his awareness of himself.
In the argument presented in Kant’s first moment, he states that the focus on should be on form to maintain that disinterest, but the aesthetic experience must involve all the senses. We cannot ignore some aspects of the object because we have to observe the object in its totality; it has depth, tone, color and texture. If we focus on certain aspects of the object that are centered around the form, we are not perceiving the object in full, thus we are not experiencing its full aesthetic value.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgement. Cosimo Publishing: New Jersey. 2007. Print.