The Sublime

Document Sample
The Sublime Powered By Docstoc
					The Sublime
Nota Bene: all of what follows here
happened before Darwin published his
Origin of Species – casting all living
things into a flux of time, space, and
shifting relationships within an
environment containing other living
things – also in flux but also,
crucially, heterogeneous, complex,
The writings considered here come from a
period of relative stability in Western
culture, between the restoration of the
monarchy after the English Civil War, and
before the French and Industrial
Revolutions, i.e., before the triumph of the
mass commodity.
It is in this context that the ‘Lumières’
planned their Encyclopaedia. God -
architect of the cosmos – had provided
Man with an ideal model of stability and
noble construction. Each contributor
therefore strived to describe their vision of
this celestial palace from the perspective
of the particular discipline they
represented; and so philosophy, being the
servant which underpinned them all, set
out to offer an explanation of how
knowledge itself was possible.
As we saw earlier, Milton’s Paradise Lost
may be taken as emblematic of a particular
approach to this. In the end, it is human
will and the ability to choose that flings
open the doors of eternity, allowing us the
possibility of a limited but self-made
terrestrial paradise - or an earthly hell.
But although Milton was influential in
England, in France his work joined others by
French authors who had also critiqued the
biblical account of the Fall in relation to
mankind’s condition on earth. Each of the
following introduced a new perspective:
Augustin, of course, but then Rabelais
(certain details about the serpent), Léon
Hébrou (the origins of love), Bayle
(contradictions within the sacred text), the
visions of Antoinette Bourignon (Adam and
Eve as hermaphrodite, and many more.
But all of this pales into insignificance
when it is placed alongside the singular
contribution of John Locke and his Essay
on Human Understanding (first edition, 1690).
This text alone can be credited with
providing the intellectual underpinning of
the entire project of the French
philosophes; Dennis Diderot’s many
essays and entries in the Encyclopédie
make continual reference to Locke’s
arguments and conclusions.
From our present perspective there are
two components of Locke’s Essay that
feature: the rejection of innate ideas, and
the total reliance of the understanding on
experience which can only enter the mind
through the senses. This is, of course, the
opening for a famous quote:
Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white
paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how
comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast
store which the busy and boundless fancy of man has
painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence
has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this
I answer, in one word, from experience (Locke, 1690,
ch.1, sec. 2).
Given Locke’s stance, the conceptual
location of the sublime begins to take on
its initial philosophical shape: the sublime
is that experience which the mind
receives when the senses encounter a
circumstance that is at the limits of their
capacity to sense – or better – to
experience. But this is not, unfortunately,
the same thing as saying that the sublime
is that region lying beyond the intelligible;
the muddle Locke left over the
relationship between mind and ‘pure’
sensation remained.
                    The Sublime
Current dictionary definitions identify two basic meanings:
The first is literal: the supports of a door lintel. Nowadays,
one perhaps thinks of simple vertical posts, but a temple
entrance would usually have had a decorated lintel, often
with central motif, supported by ornate columns. Earlier
types - often sunken into earthen walls or leading into
caves - had sloping walls on either side that rose from
ground level to near lintel height.
The second meaning probably derives from the first. The
same word is used figuratively to refer to noble thoughts
or ways of expressing oneself that draw the listener up and
away from the everyday. The Roman poet Longinus used
it in this way, and refers to an earlier, similar Greek
The word was being used in English by the 1580s,
with both meanings. By 1634 it is being also used to
describe people themselves, as well as their feelings,
their use of reason, or more simply, their nobility. By
1684 there is more frequent reference to the idea that
one’s senses might be raised by a sublime experience
and, running alongside this there is a growing
readiness to apply the word to works of art calculated
to inspire ‘awe and wonder’. By the 1680s as well,
Longinus gets translated into English - almost
certainly because there is now a new, aristocratic
market for classical texts: the tradition of the ‘Grand
Tour’ has become established. The Third Earl of
Shaftsbury, along with the writers Dennis and
Addison, uses the term in his descriptions of the
vistas that were revealed to him through his Alpine
To complete this genealogical sketch, there is a
third meaning existing in Middle English from
the 1460s onwards. This refers to what is now
called sublimation – a process in which solid
and impure substances, when heated, may
contain components which turn immediately into
a vapour rather than into liquid, and as they
cool the vapour will condense directly into a
more ‘refined’ solid, thus achieving a separation
of the pure from the impure. By the 1660s this
sense is now being used figuratively to refer to
certain processes of character formation. It is
in this last sense, much later, that Freud applies
the term to the denials involved in civilisation.
What has been said so far might suggest
that, at least in part, we deal here with
another item of rhetoric – a companion to
ekphrasis and prolepsis. In a sense this is
true, but to understand what Kant does with
the concept one needs to recognise that by
the Sixteenth-Century there is a growing
disciplinary split between philosophy and
rhetoric. In a sense, the split was always
there, e.g. Plato versus the Sophists, but by
the fifteen hundreds the two discourse
forms draw apart in terms of methods and
social objectives.
At first, philosophy is not only indistinguishable
from psychology and science, it is not yet
separated from religion. And so, when Locke is
invited by the recently formed Royal Society to
produce his treatise on knowledge and
understanding, large sections of it are dominated
by reflections that derive from contemporary
religious debates, i.e., the innateness of the idea
of God. Locke’s stance is essentially anti-
Catholic, and as such it was enormously
influential throughout Europe, being of course
banned by the Catholic Church - and therefore all
the more enthusiastically adopted by the French
philosophes and their intellectual fellow-
travellers, including Jean Jacques Rousseau.
Locke’s Essay led to the beginnings of
psychology. His attempts to explain the
operation of the mind by insisting on a split
between sensation and reflection, and a
pre-existing capacity for recognising
association, set the tone for nearly all
subsequent work on what is now called
epistemology, as well as helping to underpin
the development of scientific method in
general and ‘British’ empiricism in
But what was unavailable to any of these
critical thinkers was an insight that we
tend to ignore in our everyday dealings
with one another, but which is a familiar
aspect of popular psychology and
sociology. Not only do none of us have
direct access to the ‘truth’ of the world,
not one of our senses is capable of
conveying whatever truth there is ‘out
there’ to us in an unmediated form. Much
later, Nietzsche was to make this insight
the centre of his philosophy.
Locke’s work, although ‘atomising’ the
foundations of knowledge and understanding,
was still popularly assumed to lead the mind
back towards a familiar world.
However, his commission was to examine this
world’s intelligibility, hence his struggle to
maintain the distinction between Primary and
Secondary qualities, and hence the Royal
Society’s interest in the outcome. If Locke
failed to sufficiently downplay the immediacy of
the ‘atoms’ of sensation that he insisted were
foundational, the authority by which science
relied on abstraction would be lost; but Locke
did not loose this battle.
( Prolepsis!) Eighteenth-Century experiments
with electricity were eventually combined with
anatomical studies of the nervous system, leading
to a Nineteenth-Century scandal. It was
discovered that although each sense was
conducted to the mind’s eye by electrical signals,
not one of them could be made to produce
anything other than their characteristic forms of
sensation. This implied that each sense form was
as much a product of the body as it was of the
world. Kant is influenced by early intimations of
this, and so is Goethe. Its earliest philosophical
expression is given by Arthur Schopenhauer, in
his most famous work, The World as Will and
Representation. Schopenhauer’s ‘correction’ of
Kant was to effectively reverse the distinction
that Locke struggled to maintain – and Kant
accepted – that sensation was ‘secondary’ to
abstract thought.)
The first edition of Kant’s Critique of Judgement
appeared in 1790. His starting point was the general
Enlightenment one that the senses gave ‘veridical’
information about the world.
The interesting philosophical questions therefore
remained how best to build upon Locke’s basic insight
that the world’s intelligibility rested upon the primacy of
There were two responses. One was to speculate about
the processing of sensation – Kant’s own focus – while
the other was to conjecture that there were aspects of
the world’s structure such as to prompt particular forms
of thought. The latter was assumed by Burke and
Rousseau, and also by the early Utopian Socialists such
as Robert Owen and the later Christian Socialists.
  Edmund Burke: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin
       of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful
Burke’s text of 1757 was highly influential, being soon
translated into French and German. It was praised by Kant
for providing the basic data needed to start any truly
philosophical enquiry of the beautiful and the sublime. The
distinctions Burke makes between these two sets of
phenomena are helpful to have in mind before embarking
on a reading of Kant.
In broad terms, the beautiful is said to be well-formed and
pleasing (Burke’s choice of illustration is best described as
Neo-classical). The sublime, by contrast, is said to have
the power to compel and destroy, and Burke’s choice of
illustration is now called early Romantic. (This
categorisation is intended to deal with contents which
exceed cultural stability.)
Burke explains his classification by reference to
Aristotle’s theory of causation, which leads to an
aesthetics and/or physiology of perception.

                      The Beautiful The Sublime
        Formal        Love          Fear (of
        cause                       death)
        Material      Smallness,    Magnificence
        cause         smoothness,   vastness,
                      delicacy      infinity
        Efficient     Calms the     Tenses the
        cause         nerves        nerves
        Final cause   God’s         God (as having
                      providence    created and
                                    battled with
 Kant’s own critical project is largely known to us
 through three texts, The Critique of Pure Reason, The
 Critique of Practical Reason, and The Critique of
An initial sketch: the first critique attempts to analyse the
relationship between the conditions of the possibility of
experience, and the conditions of the possibility of objects
existing within thought; this is Kant’s equivalent to Locke’s
battle with Primary and Secondary qualities. Kant calls
these conclusions Determinant Judgements, and they are
characterised by their capacity to subsume an entire class
of particulars under recognised universal qualities, e.g. the
universals of time, space, and number. Kant describes
these as being the preconditions of all human
understanding; they are a priori, meaning that without
them thought itself cannot proceed.
The second critique attempts to define the necessary
relationship between the will and its object as the condition
of the possibility of freedom. Note that Kant’s take on the
post-Lockean debates about perception is such that he
cannot attribute moral action to some innate response
triggered by external causes, he has therefore to assert
some form of spontaneous causal principal stemming from
human thought and practice alone, hence the Critique’s
focus on rationality and moral judgement.
Finally, Kant’s third critique attempts to discuss the nature
of judgement itself, which must therefore comprehend both
the deterministic operations of the understanding and the
‘free’ operations of reasoned thought. His focus is now
turned to ‘reflective judgements’, said to attempt the
identification of unknown universals on the basis of certain
recognised particulars.
Kant identifies four possible forms of reflective
judgement: the agreeable, the beautiful, the
sublime, and the good.
He argues that the agreeable amounts to no more
than a ‘sensory’ judgement, i.e., is subjective,
being based on no more than individual inclination.
As to the good, Kant characterises it so as to make
it the opposite of the agreeable. It is said to be an
objective judgement that something does, or does
not, conform to the moral law – is consistent, or is
inconsistent, with a fixed and absolute notion of
reason (according to Kant’s analysis of morality).
The beautiful and the sublime are therefore positioned
in a fluid, middle region, since they are described by
Kant as ‘subjective universal judgements’.
What is intended by this phrase is that although the
judgements are essentially subjective, they are unlike
judgements about what is, and is not, agreeable because
they are made in the belief that the judgement matches
what would be expected by others within the same
society. This matching refers to a sensus communis –
a community of taste – and in this analysis Kant sides
with earlier forms of community-based evaluation
identified by, for instance, David Hume (in his Treatise
on Human Nature), Giambattista Vico (in his New
Science) and Francis Bacon (in his A New Atlantis).
Kant’s Critique of Judgement, 1790, übergang
                  §23 – §29.
The Beautiful         The Sublime

Within the realm of   Beyond the realm of
sensation and         sense and imagination
The object has form   The object is formless

The object has        The object is boundless
Is an object of the   Is an object of reason
     Kant further divides the sublime into the
        mathematical and the dynamical.
The idea behind the mathematical is not so much the fact
that one encounters a large unit as that one is confronted
with ‘absolute’ greatness such as to sweep aside all
thought of there being any limitations to the object’s
The equivalent idea behind Kant’s ‘dynamical’ derives
from an aesthetic perception of Nature’s might: while its
power is recognised, this recognition excludes any sense
that the perceived force has any immediate dominion over
us, i.e., an object (picture) may create a sense of
frightfulness, but the viewer is not literally frightened by
it. In other words, the aesthetic object makes the ideas
of contingency and purposelessness intelligible; and we
may now safely contemplate the implied loss of cultural

Shared By: