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Kant's Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime

based on an analytic by Bob Zunjic

Ruth Ellen Kocher

on 12 September 2013

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Transcript of Kant's Observations on the Beautiful and the Sublime

Immanuel Kant's Observations of the Beautiful and the Sublime
The Sublime?
In Kant's view, the sublime has to do with grandeur rather than loftiness although it is linked with the supersensible. We experience the sublime when our imagination fails to comprehend the greatness of natural events by means of determinate concepts of the understanding but supplants this failure with a delight stemming from its ability to grasp these aspects of nature by virtue of an idea of reason. That idea pertains to the supersensible and human moral nature.
The pleasure resulting from the feeling of sublimity entails certain unification performed as a kind of subjective purposiveness to bring about the feeling of sublimity. The necessity of purposiveness is not identical in both cases. The necessary purposiveness of the sublime is a subjective sensation as is the feeling of the beautiful, but unlike the latter it only develops "a purposive use which imagination makes of its own representation". That is to say, it involves the representation of a different kind that Kant calls Idea. Insofar as the sublime feeling is related to the concept of reason it is represented by an idea in its speculative use. To be sure it is not conceived as an idea but only felt as such. Still it raises claim for universal assent.
Faculty of Judging the Sublime
Conclusion (?)
(1) With regard to quantity Kant argues that delight in the sublime is universally valid like the one in the beautiful.
(2) With regard to quality both kinds of reflective judgments are indefinite, but for different reasons. The beautiful affirms the delight derived from the form, the sublime from the lack of form.
(3) The sublime feeling is subjectively purposive without entailing the concept of an end (analogy with the the judgment of taste holds).
(4) Finally, we seek that all subjects would regard the given object as sublime and feel the same delight.
Thus we get pretty much the same categorial distributuion as with the beautiful:
Kant expounds in constant contrast between the sublime and the beautiful. The comparison highlights both the continuities and discontinuities between the judgments upon the sublime and those upon the beautiful. Kant begins his analysis with a "transition" that connects the estimation of the beautiful with the estimation of the sublime. They are both forms of the same (reflective) faculty of (reflective) Judgment, only exercised differently and with different cognitive counterparts.
Similarities and Common Traits

The feeling of the sublime, like the feeling of the beautiful, pleases in itself and is devoid of any personal interest. It pleases immediately without any sensorial or rational interest involved. Therefore the ensuing satisfaction is not derived either from a sensation or from a concept. It is rather connected with the presentation of the object and in that sense with the faculty of presentation (imagination).
Subjective Affinity
The affinity (delight) in both the beautiful and the sublime is subjective. Both presuppose a judgment of reflection based on a subjective feeling accompanying the presentation of the object.
Universal Claim
The judgment of the beautiful and the judgment of the sublime both profess to be universally valid. They could be such only if they are refered to a rule valid for all subjects. Seemingly the presentation of the object should be in both cases conceivable by virtue of a concept, but in both cases it fails.
Intermediate Concept
It fails because these judgments refer to indeterminate concepts (indefinite rule). They do not procure the knowledge of the object - only awareness of the state of our subjective mind. Since imagination alone cannot produce any judgment (it is a faculty of sensation) in both cases we must resort either to understanding or reason without fully succumbing to their legislation.
Our judgments about the beautiful and the sublime obviously share several fundamental characteristics:

- they are both pure aesthetic judgments
- they are both reflective judgments
- they are both subjective judgments
- they are both singular judgments
- they refer to indeterminate concepts.
- they raise claim to universal agreement
These similarities are very important but Kant shows that the differences are even more decisive. He says they are "striking"
The feeling of sublimity, on the other hand, is induced by the absence of form, formlessness, or by its incomprehensiveness. The object of the sublime feeling resists representation by renouncing form - this absence is precisely that waht constitutes the unlimited. The sublime is occasioned by "formless objects" that provoke the idea of limitlessness. This idea is the product of reason which can present the objects that are otherwise beyond grasp and sensible limits.
IV. No Natural Object
In view of the last two points of difference Kant argues that, strictly speaking, we cannot call any object of nature sublime. Since sublimity pertains to the supersensible no natural object could be an adequate representation of the ideas about the supersensible. In this sense it is not objective - it is not a property of any object.
Kant elaborates the remaining differences between the beautiful and the sublime with regard to the fundamental distinction in the "naturalness" of their respective objects.
VII Analogy
We look at nature on the analogy of art. This means, we do not understand it just as mechanically connected aggregate of phenomena but as a purposive whole as well. The analogy consists in an operation that transposes a relation from one realm to another. Thus, although the purposiveness of nature is not an objective principle of natural technology we must assume it as a principle of judging of natural phenomena. This holds true for the judgments of the beautiful but not for those upon the sublime.
I. Formlessness
The feeling of sublimity, on the other hand, is induced by the absence of form, formlessness, or by its incomprehensiveness. The object of the sublime feeling resists representation by renouncing form - this absence is precisely that waht constitutes the unlimited. The sublime is occasioned by "formless objects" that provoke the idea of limitlessness. This idea is the product of reason which can present the objects that are otherwise beyond grasp and sensible limits.
II. Indetermination
The difference between the limit and the unlimited qualifies the previously stated agreement between the beautiful and the sublime in terms of quality and quantity. In both cases the relation of imagination with its counterpart (understanding or reason) remains indeterminate. Both the feeling of the beautiful and the sublime rest on an indeterminate relation of imagination and the power of concepts.
(1) In regard to judgments of the beautiful understanding provides certain rules of order and limitation. By means of them the object is experienced as an organized and articulated whole although we cannot state the principle of its organization in concepts.
(2) As far as the sublime is concerned, the imagination fails to represent the object presicely because it relies on the understanding. But this failure is not the end of the story. The inability of imagination to comprehend the object in its limits invokes certain ideas of reason that prompt imagination to enter into a relationship with reason.
The Supersensible:

We feel that something is sublime because that object points to our faculty of reason and its concepts. The feeling that we cannot comprehend a given sensible object by means of imagination raises us above the world of senses. The object that we cannot grasp and define is considered to be a presentation of an indeterminate concept of reason. The concepts of reason (= ideas) are concepts of the infinite world of the supersensible.

The cooperation, or better to say full agreement, between understanding and imagination is accomplished only in determinant judgments. The cognitive faculties fall short of full agreement in judgments of taste but they still stand in a kind of harmonious tension in judging the beautiful. However, the tension takes over the harmony once reason replaces understanding.
Tension and Feelings:
(1) Experiencing pleasure in the beautiful (and the harmonious play of the faculties involved) excludes full conceptual knowledge of the object and so gives rise to the prevalent feeling of delight. Still it involves certain activity of understanding within the mood of disinterested attraction.
(2) The feeling of satisfaction in the sublime is much more complex. In fact it is mixed. It is rendered possible only through the mediation of displeasure which arises from a tension between imagination and reason.
We are talking about the feeling of the beautiful and the feeling of the sublime owing to the unresolved tension between the power of representation (imagination) and the power of concepts (understanding or reason). The feeling is delightful as long as these power are engaged in a harmonious play (the beautiful). Once the interplay becomes disharmonious the pleasure turns into a displeasure, even anguish and the joy of aesthetical perception vanishes.
This gives rise to a pretty complex pleasure stemming from two different sensations:
(a) one that accompanies the failing imagination, and
(b) another one accompanying the demanding reason.
The result is not simply an aesthetic pleasure but a "negative" pleasure. The "negative" pleasure requires a derivation of sensible interest. The sublime indicates the ability to esteem something in opposition to our sensible interest. In contrast, it arouses enthusiasm for the non-sensible. Thus a mixed feeling of exaltation and fear for our sensible interest emerges from the conflicting tendencies of inhibition and relief. Thought is both attracted and repelled by the experience of the sublime. Our first reaction in experiencing sublimity is to make sure that we are still in one piece and if the test comes positive we can enjoy the power and the vastness of the natural object.
The differences between the two feelings of pleasure, the aesthetical of taste (the beautiful) and the aesthetical feeling of sublimity, could be summarized in the following way:
III. Limitative Quality
IV Disproportion
The judgment that arises from the feeling of the sublime represents the subjective play of mental powers. But it is not a free play arising from the harmony of mental powers as was the case with the beautiful. On the contrary, it bears witness to the internal struggle between the faculties that stand in a disproportion. Reason pressures imagination for an aesthetic comprehension of the infinite, i.e. to present the absolute. Imagination is not able to meet the demand at once and it does violence to itself under this pressure. Therefore the two faculties part.
Imagination is the power that breaks the harmony of mental powers by producing aesthetical ideas. The imagination that operates aesthetically is so productive that it exceeds the productive power of the understanding. By proliferating forms imagination prevents understanding from fully imposing its rules and principles. Thus a free play of mental activities emerges in the reflective judgment of taste while imagination enters into a sensitive balance with understanding. Obviously imagination can represent objects in forms that surpass the ability of understanding to conceptualize them. It can even prevent the recognition by concepts in so far as they are dependent on the operation of understanding. In this capacity it is an a priori condition of aesthetical judgment and hence must be universally communicable.
The emergence of the feeling of the sublime can be interpreted (Lyotard has noticed this) as a radicalization of aesthetical disruption through imagination. Only this time the aesthetical feeling cuts loose by activating additional resources of the faculty of concepts. Now the forms generated by imagination are being opposed not by the "exhausted" understanding but by reason which introduces the power of concepts over unrepresentable objects. Reason operates with ideas (not rules and categories) that cannot be possibly accommodated in any presentation. Their objects are limitless and absolute and thus unrepresentable. Thus imagination sustains defeat in its effort to provide a certain form. It reacts by excessively proliferating the forms with their limits and bounds but this strategy does not prove effective nor can it enter in a free play with reason. This creates the mood of seriousness stemming from the missing form which is forever bound to be limited and thus unsatisfying. Before the ideas of reason or the absolute all forms are inane. We are dealing with the sublime.
V. Purposefulness
he lack of limit in the objects deemed to be sublime destroys not only any concept that could be applied to the sublime but any purposiveness in the object. The principle of purposiveness that we assume in regarding nature as a kind of big artist (what Kant calls the technique of nature) is not applicable to our judgments about the sublime. On the contrary we deem objects as sublime when they conform to our inability to apprehend the purposiveness of natural objects. The purposiveness in the beautiful is not conceived either - it is not supplied by the understanding, it is only felt apart from the representation of any purpose. But the sublime a priori eliminates any purposiveness except for the one that defines the possible use of our intuitions of it. This purposiveness pertains only to the workings of the representations of imagination. Therefore it does not display anything purposive in nature. However, it indicates a higher purposiveness in us - moral.
Kant calls this last point "the most important distinction". It indicates that the sublime is an idea of reason which lacks an adequate representation although the inadequacy itself allows of sensible presentation and even requires it without being able to ever achieve it.
Form and purposiveness represent the backdrop against which Kant elaborates the differences along the remaining two categories: relation and modality.
Traits Etc.
Further Differences:
If we take a closer look at these additional differences we easily see that they are not less important than the preceding ones. Two points deserve to be particularly stressed:
(1) The concepts of reason (= ideas) do not belong to any natural object. Therefore the sublime does not reside in objects. Stormy ocean is not sublime in itself. An object may be only suitable for the presentation of something that occurs in the mind as sublime.
(2) The sublime is contrary to a definite form. Nature excites the feeling of sublimity in its wildest and most irregular appearances bordering with disorder and chaos.
We can speak of beautiful natural objects because they appear as purposefully created to make us aware of the congruence of our cognitive faculties. But the objects we judge sublime are not conducive to that congruency - on the contrary, they lack both form and purposiveness. Therefore the objects in nature cannot bear sublimity as the violation of form and purpose. At most they may be fit to produce such a feeling in us.
Our judgment of the beautiful is based on some external grounds - there must be something in the object to make us feel it as beautiful.
In contrast, Kant says that sublimity is entirely a product of our mind, not a characteristic of any object. To make our judgment of the sublime we do not need to go outside our subjectivity and look for any external reasons for the feeling of sublimity. Aesthetic judgment about the sublime are therefore even more "subjective" than the judgment about the beautiful.
Finally, with regard to the last logical category, that of modality, Kant establishes several parallels between the feeling of the beautiful and the feeling of the sublime.
based on an analytic by Bob Zunjic
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