Kant's Sublime

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The 1970s and 1980s have witnessed a major renewal of interest in Kant’s aesthetics. Paul Guyer, Donald Crawford, Francis Coleman, Eva Schaper, Theodore Uehling, Salim Kemal, and, and Mary McCloskey have all written books explicitly devoted to the topic; Guyer and Ted Coen have edited a collection of relevant essays; and Antony Savile and Mary Mothersill have written widely praised general works which involve much discussion of Kant’s aesthetic theory. These approaches, however, have concentrated almost exclusively on Kant’s treatment of beauty and art. His extensive discussion of the sublime, in contrast, has received scant attention. This neglect is a general characteristic of the reception of Kant’s aesthetics in the Anglo-American and German traditions of philosophy in the twentieth century. The reasons behind it have been usefully summarized by Paul Guyer. He suggests that Kant’s theory of the sublime does not fit in well with the general framework of The Critique of Judgment-and in particular with the account of aesthetic experience. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that even if there is historical interest in Kant’s discussion of the sublime. It is safe to assume that his analysis of this particular aesthetic merit will not be of much interest to modern sensibilities, and thus that most of what we can or will learn from Kant must come from his discussion of judgments of beauty. (Derrida, 1987)

To these worries must be appended two other problems. First, Kant’s discussion of the sublime is formidably difficult; and second, the term “sublime” itself seems to be so variably in ordinary and critical discourse as to make any philosophical definition of it seem unwarrantably stipulative.

In relation to this last objection, while the sublime is indeed used very variably in ordinary and critical discourse, it seems to operate nevertheless, within a broad twofold framework. On the one hand, it is used descriptively to denote vast or powerful objects, or ones that induce extreme states of emotion in us; on the other hand, it is used evaluative in relation to artworks of extraordinarily high quality. If we could define the sublime in a way that could highlight important connections between the two sets of usages, we would have a definition with claim to more than merely stipulative validity. In fact, it is a renewed confidence in the possibility of defining the sublime that in part lies at the heart of an astonishing transformation of sensibility that has taken place in the last ten years or so. While philosophers in the analytic tradition of philosophy have found new significance in Kant’s treatment of beauty and art, philosophers from other traditions and, indeed, writers in a host of other disciplines have asserted the cultural centrality of the sublime-and, in particular, Kant’s version of it. Amongst the enormous literature here, one might cite the following examples. Jacques Derrida and Paul de Man have offered extended (if difficult) analysis of Kant’s theory of the sublime; Neil Hertz (amongst others) has related sublimity to psychoanalysis; Thomas Weiskel and Louis Marvich written books on Romanticism and Mallarme’s prose works (respectively) using Weiskel’s reconstruction of Kant’s theory as the core of their methodology; Jean-Francois Lyotard has published a number of extremely influential articles which assign Kant’s theory the most central role in defining modernism and postmodernism in art and culture generally. Whereas the concept of beauty seems outmoded-passé even- in relation to the current practices of criticism in the arts, sublimity has suddenly become-fashionable.

Kant’s first attempt to articulate a theory of the sublime is found in his pre-critical Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, published in 1764. In the years immediately preceding this work, Kant had been much concerned with the relationship between feeling and morality, and Werkmeister is probably right in...
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