3. The Kantian Sublime

3.1 The Relation of the Beautiful to the Sublime

            Like the judgment of the beautiful, the judgment of the sublime, for Kant, is a type of merely reflecting judgment. As such, these two forms of judgment share one important feature with one another: they both give rise to pure aesthetic pleasure – i.e. pleasure not grounded in any determinate empirical or ethical concept. Just as the pleasure of the beautiful is the result of a certain mode of thinking, rather than any particular attribute of the intuited object, so is the pleasure of the sublime the result of a certain process of thought, which is unrelated to any objective feature of the experienced phenomenon.

             From this common starting point, however, these two types of aesthetic judgment quickly diverge from one another. Two points of difference are particularly important for our purposes. First, a judgment of beauty is concerned with an enclosed object: an object with shape and form. Beauty, says Kant, “concerns the form of the object, which consists in limitation.” (p. 128) A judgment of the sublime, on the other hand, is concerned with something boundless and without form. The sublime, says Kant, is to be “found in a formless object insofar as limitlessness is represented in it.” (p. 128) Thus whereas beauty is to be found in an actual finite object – what I’ve been calling a self-enclosed entity – the sublime is to be found only in a phenomenon of experience that is boundless, without any discernible shape within its spatial or temporal structure.

            This leads us to the second point of difference between the beautiful and the sublime. What holds our experience of the beautiful together is the form of the object, which means, even if the object is not cognized as something determinate, it is still being cognized as something with shape and form (in space and time). Kant calls this mere form of cognition “an indeterminate concept of the understanding” (p. 128) and associates it with our judgment of the beautiful. As for our judgment of the sublime, since the phenomenon presented in this type of judgment is boundless and without form, it cannot be unified together as a proper object of cognition at all, since there is no spatial or temporal shape to give the phenomenon the character of an object. (An object is properly speaking an object only when it has a certain shape in space and time.) All the mind can do in such a case is to unify the phenomenon under the general rubric of a totality, which is a concept of reason, rather than that of the understanding. Thus the experience of the sublime is not unified by the understanding as something with shape in space and time, but by our faculty of reason, which demands that experience be conceived as a whole, even if we do not know where this whole begins and ends. To put it another way: whereas the judgment of the beautiful unifies our experience under an indeterminate concept of the understanding (the general form of being a self-enclosed object), the judgment of the sublime unifies our experience under an indeterminate concept of reason (the general idea of being a whole).

3.2 Purposive Unity in Nature vs. Purposive Unity in Reason

The experience of the sublime is technically not an act of cognition at all, since no purposive unity is found in the object of nature being intuited. Instead, the experience of the sublime is given purposive unity through the general idea of a whole, which is an a priori idea of reason that is entirely independent from nature. As Kant says (in his convoluted way): in the experience of the sublime, the mind “indicates nothing purposive in nature itself, but only in the possible use of its intuitions to make palpable in ourselves a purposiveness that is entirely independent of nature.” (p. 130)

We can reformulate this in another way: whereas the aesthetic pleasure of the beautiful is grounded in a purposive unity external to us, the aesthetic pleasure of the sublime is grounded in a purposive unity within us. “For the beautiful in nature we must seek a ground outside ourselves, but for the sublime merely one in ourselves and in the way of thinking that introduces sublimity into the representation of the former,” says Kant. (p. 130)

Or, to reformulate this line of thought in yet another way: whereas beauty is the discovery that objects of nature are possible, even when we have no determinate concept for it (i.e. it is the discovery that the particularities of nature are made in such a way that it appears to us as if it is designed for our cognition), the sublime is the discovery that our apprehension of a totality is possible, even when our understanding fails to cognize a purposive unity within the object of nature (i.e. it is the discovery that, even when our cognition fails to give purposive unity to the object of nature, our experience of the object can still be given purposive unity through an independent faculty of the mind).

Sublime Mountain Range This last formulation makes especially clear how the judgment of the sublime is not so much a judgment about the phenomenon being intuited as it is a judgment about the mind’s capacity to find experiential unity independently of nature. There is, as such, a kind of narcissistic structure to the experience of the sublime: the mind, after failing to cognize a proper spatio-temporal shape in nature, congratulates itself for having the ability to postulate an idea of totality through the faculty of reason.

The Three Logical Moments in the Judgment of the Beautiful and the Sublime

Judgment of the Beautiful                                                           Judgment of the Sublime
I. manifold of sensible representations                                     I. manifold of sensible representations
II. purposive unity through general form of object                    II. purposive unity through idea of totality
III. pleasure in free play of img. and undst  .                            III. pleasure in affirmation of reason



The Mathematical Sublime »