Book Excerpts & Overview Book review

The Sublime (Cambridge Elements series on The Philosophy of Kant) (2018) (Melissa M. Merritt)

NOTE: This is mostly a summary, not a review.. I’m trying to resume reading nonfiction occasionally to keep sharp.


Major theorists mentioned, besides Kant: John Balliie, a physician who wrote an essay about aesthetics; Alexander Baumgarten; Edmunde Burke; Joseph Addison; Seneca; Longinus.

The sublime is a perspective of nature whose contemplation inspires the human mind to the realisation of its own greatness. Some questions or viewpoints proposed  by these various theorists:

For something to be sublime, it has to have greatness in the sense of magnitude. Kant argued that, in nature, magnitude is only ever relative, not absolute, and that therefore nothing in nature can be truly sublime: it only becomes so in the mind of the contemplator. In other words, sublimity, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder.

Kant believed that only the human mind, even though it is a part of nature, is so constructed as to be free from natural constraints. I.e. the human mind is an entity that can possess not just relative but absolute greatness, or sublimity. When Hant said that sublimity in nature can only ever be relative, he was referring to the fact that even enormously multitudinous entities, like the Milky Way, can in fact be measured on the scale of much smaller entities. The human mind alone had, for Kant, an extent (as well as a quality) that could not be measured with reference to any other entity. (Kant considered the human mind different in both quality and quantity from other natural objects.)

There were debates in both the English and German traditions pre-Kant about features of nature that make a landscape sublime. In the English imagination it was the sea, and in the German the deep forest, that represented the archetype of the sublime. Various theorists have proposed that the sublime needs to elevate or exalt the mind of the contemplator, and that the effect that the sublime has on us derives from both its beauty and its magnitude. One theorist believes that for something to be sublime, it has to be uniform (rather than constituted of numerous kinds of features), so that, in contemplating it, the mind is not excessively stressed. An opposing viewpoint is that the experience of some kind of cognitive difficulty of processing is essential for the experience of the sublime.

Other theorists have debated the role played by the sensation of danger in the contemplation of the sublime, with one viewpoint being that the enjoyment of the sublime (similar to the enjoyment of horror films) derives from the fact that when we sense the sublime, we feel a threat to our survival, while knowing that actually we are safe. Being in this position allows us to savour our deepest and most intense feelings (the instinct of self-preservation) without being actuated or overwhelmed by them.

For Kant, sublimity in nature is valuable chiefly because it makes the mind aware of its own sublimity; while sublimity in nature can never be absolute, sublimity of the human mind can. Other theorists believe that moral sublimity, like natural sublimity, can never be absolute, only relative. One theorist believes that the sublime lies in the juxtaposition of the beautiful and the terrible, and that our sense of beauty derives from our desire for reproduction (the desire for the society of the other sex), while our sense of the terrible derives from our drive for self-preservation.

Kant believes that we appreciate the sublime primarily b/c it awakens in us our uniquely human capacity for moral reasoning. (Many people would not be satisfied with its reflective, inward-looking account of our response to the sublime in nature, and would prefer an account that has us looking outwards at nature itself.)

Kant distinguishes b/w our cognitive capacities (through which we apprehend facts about the world) vs. aesthetic capacities (which do not represent knowledge). Kant believes we appreciate the sublime via our aesthetic sensibilities.

For Kant, the moral can be either mathematically large or powerful; in reality, most natural phenomena that are sublime are so in both ways. Kant believes it is by stretching out powers of apprehension to their limits that the sublime makes its impression. In this, the sublime interacts w/ our sensory & intellectual capacities differently than does the beautiful. When we see something beautiful, our vital forces are encouraged; in contrast, when we see the sublime, our life or wellbeing feels momentarily threatened in some way, and then our sense of being alive returns to us w/ redoubled force. Thus, the sublime reaffirms our life force by temporarily challenging it. For something to be sublime, it must be seen at the right distance/from the right PoV. Seeing a pyramid from too close or too far will not evoke a sense of the sublime – for that, we need to be just close enough to almost be able to form a unified visual perception of the pyramid. (Something is sublime if it challenges our perceptual & intellectual capacities just enough: so that we can almost but not quite apprehend it.)

The rest of the book examines Kant’s claims about how the sublime affects us, and why this effect is so precious. Sublime natural sights threaten our sense of physical wellbeing, and remind us that our physical selves are perishable. Simultaneously, facing the sublime puts us in mind of that uniquely human, highest human, virtue, which nature cannot destroy, and which is therefore superior to nature, i.e. our ethical selves. Since this is the only part of ourselves that is indestructible, confronting the sublime inspires us to perfect this supermaterial aspect of ourselves. It is thus that the sublime drives our thoughts inwards and motivates us to develop our uniquely human, nonmaterial ethical capacities.

Kant is a notoriously inaccessible philosopher, and I mean to check out more of these slim volumes to glean bits of his ideas.

REVIEW: This book is written in academic style: it insists upon fine distincions unlikely to be of interest to a casual reader. It is quite repetitive though short. I enjoyed it primarily as an intellectual exercise. Merritt’s project was to tease out the subtleties of & inconsistencies in Kant’s views on the sublime, and to locate him within the larger (primarily, up to Kant’s day) Anglo-Germanic tradition of thinking about the sublime. It’s not exactly easy reading, but its short length make it worth trying to tackle.

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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