Liberating the Kantian Sublime: Sublimity as Humanism, and Inquiries into the Poetically Sublime

By James Zainaldin

Abstract: Kant’s sublime experience is limited by two primary factors: 1) it finds its significance almost exclusively in the moral and religious and 2) it has no place in the sphere of human-produced works. A close reading of Kant’s Analytic of the Sublime returns the understanding that neither of these limitations is an essential property of the sublime experience, however. Indeed, questioning the Kantian sublime’s moral implications actually demonstrates that the sublime is of vital importance to human experience more broadly: the sublime, through its affirmation of the human mind, celebrates and instills a deep appreciation for human life in general (‘human exceptionalism’). Moreover, an exploration of the sublime shows that there seems to be a ready and important connection between the aesthetic idea and sublimity. This discovery has far-reaching ramifications if one construes the aesthetic idea as fundamentally metaphorical in nature; in this case, through metaphor’s place in poetry and literature and its link with the aesthetic idea, the sublime experience becomes accessible ‘poetically.’ Because the sublime necessarily brings an appreciation for human life, the possibility of sublime poetic cultivation arises.

Kant’s Analytic of the Sublime is wonderfully suggestive with respect to the pleasure that a sublime experience can bring. Kant makes it clear immediately that the sublime is entirely different from the gay “free play of the imagination and understanding” that typified the beautiful (103)[1]. Rather, there is “something serious” for the one who experiences the sublime: the “admiration or respect” that Kant imputes to the sublime leads us to wonder whether the sublime experience can have an importance quite beyond the immediacy of beauty (129).

This suspicion is borne out by the sublime’s close relationship with man’s supersensible (moral) vocation: it highlights our “menschliche” qualities for their “development and exercise” (154; 145). But the great significance that one might confer on the sublime at this point is restricted by Kant’s account in two ways: first, Kant sees the worth of the sublime primarily in its affirmation of our moral affect rather than of our human existence on the whole; second, he seems to relegate the sublime almost exclusively to nature and refuse it a place in human-created works. Kant’s description of the sublime experience is at its root compelling, so the question becomes whether or not we can discover within the totality of the Kantian sublime a means of avoiding the reductive conclusions noted above.

I wish in this paper to do justice to the sublime as a concept with its own importance in the human sphere, much as aesthetic judgments of beauty already have far-reaching ramifications for Kant. In a sense, I want to “liberate” the Kantian sublime from its perhaps restrictive setting in order to seek its greater value. I will do so by arguing that Kant’s sublime can, in addition to its supersensible importance, possess broader humanistic implications, which stem from the “human exceptionalism” and celebration of the human mind implicit within the sublime’s emphasis on reason and the supersensible. Moreover, I will attempt to show that, as a result of the sublime’s analogical relationship with aesthetic ideas, there is the possibility of sublime experience in human-produced works. With the intent of rehabilitating the sublime as aesthetically valuable, I will then suggest that “primal” metaphor, as a sort of aesthetic idea, allows the sublime to be crystallized and presented within a poetic or literary medium to yield the “poetically sublime.” Lastly, I will attempt to draw inferences on the wider import of this poetically sublime based on the humanistic elements found earlier in our inquiries.

Our first goal must then be to sketch Kant’s sublime experiences and reinterpret them as possessing a humanistic significance. Kant foregrounds two types of the sublime: the mathematical and the dynamical (131). The mathematically sublime is predicated upon an encounter with the infinite, while the dynamically sublime is predicated upon an encounter with power. These two different experiences of the sublime are not radically different, however: they both involve a “momentary inhibition of the vital powers” and “the immediately following and all the more powerful outpouring of them” (128-129). It is as a result of this inhibition of life forces that Kant says there is something “serious” in the sublime, a statement that will be explicated shortly (129). Drawing on the four moments of the beautiful, Kant also posits that both types of the sublime as aesthetic judgments must be disinterested, universalizable, subjectively purposive, and necessary (131). Unlike the beautiful, however, Kant emphasizes that sensible forms cannot be said to be sublime, insofar as the sublime is said to concern “only ideas of reason” (129). Sublimity, qua its very formlessness, thus cannot be imputed to any sensible form or thing—the ground for the sublime must be sought within us, not without (as we might do for the beautiful) (128; 130). Although this ground will turn out to be the supersensible rational aspect of man, we can note that more generally the human exceptionalism of the sublime experience is already present here inasmuch as the sublime tells us something about ourselves as human beings and not about nature.

Kant first discusses the mathematically sublime; it is mathematical because it is predicated upon the concept of “magnitude,” and thus measurement or estimation as well (131). Kant’s first formulation of the mathematically sublime is “that which is absolutely great” (131). The absolutely great is great beyond comparison, i.e. it is the infinite. But before we can look into the judging of something as absolutely great, we must understand what it even means to say that something is “great” or “small.” Kant discovers these judgments of magnitude (size) like “big” or “tiny” to be reliant upon some sort of measure, i.e. a standard for measurement. For example, in order to judge the magnitude of a hammer or screwdriver we must employ some sort of measure, like centimeters or inches. Likewise judging the earth’s diameter would probably require us to take up measures of kilometers or miles. Because judgments of magnitude always rely on these measures against which the object is compared or “sized up” (whether the measures be millimeters, feet, or fathoms), they can necessarily yield only “comparative” concepts (132). This is in part because there is no fixed standard for measurement: the measures we select are generally arbitrary and selected only for their suitedness to the size of the object being measured. When we note that even the measures themselves used in judging magnitude are determined by some other measure or selected from an arbitrary physical span we then see that these judgments are fundamentally comparative in nature: there is no “absolute concept of magnitude” (132). This comparative or reflecting facet of magnitude indicates that judgments of magnitude belong to the (reflecting) power of judgment rather than to understanding or reason.

Things become more interesting, and the mathematically sublime begins to make sense , when we depart from talk of “logical” or “mathematically determinate” judgments of magnitude (enumerative judgments) and enter the realm of “aesthetic” judgments of magnitude, e.g. a claim like “[h]e is great” (133; 132). Aesthetic judgments of magnitude still presuppose a binding universal necessity, but with a “merely subjective standard” unlike that of the empirical mathematically determinant judgments (133). Judgments of this sort do not cause the reflecting power of judgment to be set into play with cognition in general, but instead induce an “enlargement of the imagination itself” in its ability to judge the object’s magnitude (133). But the sublime is “simply, absolutely great, great in every respect (beyond all comparison);” no measure, or “suitable standard,” can be found outside of it because of its incomparable greatness (134). It is upon this basis that Kant says that the true sublime cannot be found in nature, because all things in intuition (sensible things, i.e. nature) can always be compared with something else such that they become small. Even incredibly large bodies (galaxies, clusters of galaxies) can always be set next to something else (entire expanses of the universe) and become tiny. The sublime must therefore rest in the realm of ideas. The absolutely great, i.e., the infinite, can be held by reason as an idea, but cannot be encountered in the “sensible world” or be estimated by the imagination (134). The pleasure in these sublime experiences comes precisely from this “inadequacy” of the imagination: we are “awakened” to the supremacy of reason and the existence of a supersensible faculty within us (134). Kant’s next formulation of the mathematically sublime is thus as follows: “[t]hat is sublime which even to be able to think of demonstrates a faculty of mind [here Kant means the supersensible or rational element] that surpasses every measure of the senses” (134).

Kant thereafter explicates this process of aesthetic judgment that demonstrates the imagination’s inadequacy. In “taking up a quantum in the imagination intuitively,” the basic act of any judgment of aesthetic magnitude (even if not logically determinate), the mind brings to bear two primary apparatuses: apprehension (apprehensio) and comprehension (comprehensio aesthetica) (135). Apprehension is unbounded and immediate. Comprehension, however, possesses a maximum based on the imagination’s ability (or inability) to retain the partial representations of intuition simultaneously as a unified whole. When something given in intuition is tremendously large or incredibly intricate and complex[2], this limit of imagination becomes important. This is because apprehension has no difficulty in immediately grasping the totality of such an intuition but comprehension, at the point of its maximum capacity, begins to “lose on one side as much as it gains on the other” in its efforts to meet the demands of apprehension (134). This humiliation of the imagination, its unfitness for “presenting the ideas of a whole” in these circumstances, causes it to “sink back into itself” (136). This famous “violence” done to the imagination seems prima facie to be undesirable—and this is, indeed, the “inhibition of vital powers” that Kant alluded to earlier. But, as mentioned above, this violence to the imagination serves a greater purpose: it makes us aware of the awe inspiring ability of the human mind, vis-à-vis reason, to have even grasped the concept of infinity in its totality in the first place that led to such a demand of the imagination.

The remainder of Kant’s discussion of the mathematically sublime focuses on this relationship between the imagination and reason that constitutes the “negative” pleasure of the sublime experience. It is the “voice of reason” that demands “comprehension in one magnitude” (138). That is as much to say that reason, with its idea of infinity thought “as a whole,” seeks from the imagination a concordant representation of such an idea. But this demand, as we have noted, is impossibly high; the resultant failure of the imagination to complete such a task causes the imagination to serve as a foil, as it were, for reason’s own extraordinary capabilities. “Nature is thus sublime in those of its appearances the intuition of which brings with them the idea of its infinity,” because the infinite summons the purposive relationship between imagination and reason that allows for the pleasure of the sublime (138). These realizations are summarized in the following passage (with attention to my emphasized lines):

Now in the aesthetic judging of such an immeasurable whole, the sublime does not lie as much in the magnitude of the number as in the fact that as we progress we always arrive at ever greater unites; the systematic division of the structure of the world contributes to this, representing to us all this great in nature as in its turn small, but actually representing our imagination in all its boundlessness, and with it nature, as paling into insignificance beside the ideas of reason if it is supposed to provide a presentation adequate to them” (140).

 

The inadequacy of the imagination in “the attainment of an idea that is a law for us [the infinite]” in turn instills within us respect for this idea: this respect makes known our “vocation for adequately realizing that idea as a law” (140; 141). Zooming out, we see then as well that the “feeling of the sublime in nature is respect for our own vocation,” which we demonstrate by a “certain subreption” that brings to the fore the “idea of humanity in our subject” (141). Thus the sublime, through the displeasure of the imagination’s humiliation, serves to bring us a greater pleasure that reaffirms our humanity and “rational vocation” (141). This is the Erschütlerung of the sublime, the “rapidly alternating repulsion from [by the imagination’s violence] and attraction to [by the feeling of reason’s superiority] one and the same object” (141). The sublime shatters a calm disposition and forces us to wake up to our humanity, as it “reveals the consciousness of an unlimited capacity” in the human mind—reason (142). The mathematically sublime highlights the mind as a “source of ideas;” the purposiveness of the imagination’s humiliation allows us to celebrate the “intellectual comprehension” of the human being that constitutes our exceptionalism (143).

As the primary reason for our sketch of the sublime is to highlight its humanistic qualities, it might be helpful to go over the mathematically sublime now and point out these elements. This might be done more easily by means of some contrast with the aesthetic judgment of the beautiful. The beautiful, we know, directly promotes a “feeling of life” (90). This feeling of life is an unalloyed pleasure resulting from the play of the subject’s faculties. The sublime does not elicit the same such pleasure—in fact, its pleasure is far different. The pleasure of the sublime as we have explored it is more concerned with the foregrounding of our rational vocation; that is to say, the sublime’s pleasure more than anything comes from an exuberance and, I want to argue, gratitude for the human mind that allows us to be alive as reason-bearing human beings and have such experiences. The experience of the sublime is a humanism because sublime pleasure is inextricably linked with an affirmation and celebration of our own humanity, our “menschliche qualities (154). Sublime encounters with raw nature—the starry sky; the darkly heaving ocean; the shimmering expanses of an enormous desert—move us to feel fortunate that we are alive as humans and to rejoice the life we possess with which we can look on with awe and profound appreciation nature’s greatest marvels. To be sure, as the dynamical sublime makes clearer, Kant wants sublime experiences to indicate human superiority over nature[3]; but such a fact does not vitiate the gratitude and joy we might feel for the capacity for thought and reason we possess. Nor does this gratitude and joy have to turn beyond the human subject to find its home: while one might choose to direct this thankfulness towards a god, there is no compelling case for why such a gratitude could not also simply be turned inward and stop with the subject and his own humanity.

Moreover, implicit within any talk of reason or the supersensible are overtones of human exceptionalism. While this is a fairly obvious point, it is one that must be emphasized for its greater humanistic significance. Of course, humans are exceptional for Kant inasmuch as they possess the capacity for morality; but this rational faculty that allows for the moral law also allows for our conduct as human beings, our daily discourse, and our ability to search for and find meaning in life. There is an exceptionalism about this because we as humans are the only beings that seem to have the sort of mind that gives us the possibility of living life in such a way: the sublime calls attention to how “exceptional” are the faculties or reason we possess. Thus while the sublime, through its exaltation of reason, might have ramifications for our moral quality, it also more basically possesses a relevance for the way we live as human beings. The beautiful, as accessible to only human beings, in a sense also has a bit of this humanism; but unlike the sublime’s pleasure, which foregrounds our rational, human aspects, the pleasure we derive from the beautiful is only incidental as it were, from the proportionality of our faculties.

Kant’s exploration of the dynamically sublime is markedly briefer than that of the mathematical. Kant begins with defining power as “a capacity that is superior to great obstacles” and dominion as “superior to the resistance of something that itself possesses power” (143). From these definitions, he can provide his initial formulation of the dynamically sublime: “[n]ature considered in aesthetic judgment as a power that has no dominion over us is dynamically sublime” (143). Because nature does indeed wield power (although not dominion), the dynamically sublime must have something of fear in it; but as Kant says, one cannot experience the sublime if caught in the grips of this fear. This is because at such a time the person is overcome with a physical compulsion to flee and is preoccupied with avoiding the cause of fear rather than attaining the proverbial “distance” necessary for contemplating it. The sublime’s relationship with fear is different: it instead comes from the simple knowledge that the object is “to be feared,” or “fearful” as Kant terms it (144). It follows that if the object (a raging storm, howling tornado, or blowing hurricane) is to evoke a sublime experience, the subject must be in safety—in that way, the subject will understand that this mighty force of nature is fearful (an “object of fear”), but he will not actually be in fear himself (144). Some have criticized Kant for requiring the “safety” of the subject, but these complaints do not seem well founded to me: if one is actually in the path of an onrushing tornado, he will probably be most concerned with scrambling to shelter, not gazing at nature’s awesome power. A brief lull in the storm’s rage could allow him to witness the lightning-wracked chaos of the squall, but it is only in such a lull of safety that a sublime experience might occur.

But why does viewing an “object of fear” bring the pleasure of the sublime? As with the mathematically sublime, it is because such an experience carries an affirmation of our menschliche qualities. It is by means of an imaginative or “hypothetical” extension of self that the sublime comes: “we merely think of the case in which we might wish to resist it and think that in that case all resistance would be completely futile” (144). The resistance Kant mentions here is a purely physical one—that is to say, we know that if we were to actually be smitten by a lightning bolt we would perish. But because of our privileged position of safety, we can, through placing ourselves—albeit only in thought—in the midst of a dangerous situation, “discover within ourselves a capacity for resistance of quite another kind, which gives us the courage to measure ourselves against the apparent all-powerfulness of nature” (145). This “capacity for resistance” is the “humanity in our person” which “remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit [physically] to that dominion” (145). The sublime in these situations allows the human mind to assert its “courage,” and in this way “make palpable to itself the sublimity of its own vocation even over nature” (146; 145). In the dynamically sublime we realize that although nature, with all its incommensurable power, can batter our physical bodies, it cannot touch the customs, traditions, and morals that exist as a product of the human mind—it is in this respect that we assert the superiority of our humanity, and of reason which makes these things known, over the brute force of nature.

As with the mathematically sublime, then, the dynamically sublime too possesses strong qualities of humanism. Kant himself probably saw the dynamically sublime as almost entirely religiously and morally charged in its implications[4], but as we noted with the mathematically sublime, this does not inhibit a further humanistic potential. The moral capacity of the human being is, in many ways, what defines him as a human being. Insofar as the dynamically sublime celebrates the supersensible or rational quality of a human being, most of the comments we made on the mathematically sublime also apply here: both types of the sublime as aesthetic experiences call attention to the unique qualities that define us as human (i.e., what is exceptional about humans). Whether or not one argues that Kant’s purpose here was to bolster his moral and religious agenda, the celebration and affirmation of the human mind brought by the sublime cannot be extricated from a celebration of humanity more broadly.

Thus this foregoing investigation of the sublime was intended to not only outline the contours of sublime experience in general, but also to “liberate” the sublime from its perhaps restrictive confines and make clear the human significance of sublime aesthetic experiences. It is easy to view Kant’s Analytic of the Sublime as a merely derivative[5] chapter in the Critique of Judgment intended for quasi-religious or metaphysical purposes. But to stop here with this assumption and relegate the sublime to a merely ancillary role in judgment does not seem fair to the great awe and appreciation for life from which the sublime experience cannot be separated. While the argument I have made for the sublime’s humanism is not an outstandingly novel one, it is one that must be kept in mind, and not trivialized, in approaching the sublime experience. I have tried to suggest, without departing from Kant’s framework of aesthetic judgment, that the sublime’s significance is expansive beyond its account in the COJ. Our next task in this “liberation” of the sublime’s importance is to ascertain whether or not the sublime experience can occur in a medium other than the “chaos” or “unruly disorder and devastation” of raw nature—that is, in a human medium (130). This “discovery” will allow us to make further inferences on the sublime’s importance after having shown its relationship to metaphor and poetry.

Perhaps the most promising place to begin in looking for the sublime’s significance is in the realm of the aesthetic idea. Many have argued that the sublime ought to be allowed a role in art[6]; this paper is not the place to submit another rigorous proof, so I will only attempt to suggest, following the examples of Rudolf Makkreel and Kirk Pillow among others, that there is a possible link between aesthetic ideas (present in art and literature) and the sublime. The aesthetic idea is something which “gives the imagination cause to spread itself over a multitude of related representations, which let one think more than one can express in a concept determined by words” (193).  In simpler terms, it is a determinate concept (an image or phrase[7]) that possesses such an incredible “manifold of partial representations” in the imagination that “no expression designating a determinate concept can be found for it” (194). Thus the aesthetic idea conjures “much that is unnameable” in its contemplation (194). This discussion of the aesthetic idea recalls Kant’s own talk of the complexity or quantity of “partial representations” that can also evoke the sublime experience (135). In the cases of both the aesthetic idea and the sublime, something that is determinately given provokes an expansive activity of the mind. This easy and not unimportant parallel between the two concepts is worth restating: a determinate stimulus gives rise to a (perhaps “felt”?) mental enrichment.

Pillow observes that aesthetic ideas and the sublime are similar in that they both relate “imaginative intuition,” and its failure, with “an exhibition of the ideas of reason” (Pillow 79). The sublime does this in the imagination’s inadequacy to represent the idea of infinity, and the aesthetic idea in the imagination’s inadequacy to “express” or find a rational idea appropriate to what is given (Pillow 79). Pillow goes further in articulating this point:

 

Kant thinks of both aesthetic and rational ideas [e.g., the sublime’s infinite] as boundless, inaccessible in one way or another to the form of cognition. This already suggests the element of sublimity in each of them. They defy determinate cognition each in their respective ways, and thus arouse in imagination a feeling of being overwhelmed (which engenders respect). (Pillow 79).

 

Makkreel agrees here, corroborating Pillow’s claim: “Kant’s suggestion that aesthetic thought can exceed determinate concepts is reminiscent of sublimity” (Makkreel 622). Thus there is at least some credence in placing the aesthetic idea and sublime experience on even footing. While Kant himself does not link the sublime to art, the sublime’s connection with aesthetic idea would give it such an avenue into human-produced works.

This results because if we accept the sublime’s similitude with the aesthetic idea, we see that the aesthetic idea itself might be a sort of sublime experience “crystallized.” In nature, it is difficult to seek out sublimity: the world we live in must conspire to produce the right conditions for a sublime experience on the part of man. The possibility of a sublime experience in an aesthetic idea, however, would mean that the sublime here could be regularly revisited—an astounding and exciting possibility. One might of course fail to have a sublime encounter with an aesthetic idea, but the onus of this failure must lie not with the aesthetic idea but with the spectator himself: implicit with Kant’s account of the aesthetic idea is the notion that one needs to invest enough attention in the artistic representation that one’s mind strive to realize the indeterminate concepts summoned by it. A basic inability to comprehend, a cursoriness of contemplation, or mental diversion could distract a viewer or reader from the sublimity of an aesthetic idea. In any case, it is sufficient for us to note that from our above inquiries there is at the very least a possibility that the sublime has some place in human works through the aesthetic idea. Further interest in the sublime’s relationship to the aesthetic idea can be pursued in Pillow (Pillow 77-86) or Makkreel (Makkreel 622-629), who both argue extensively for a connection between the two.

My own interest with the aesthetic idea, and its connection to sublimity, stems from the possibility of metaphor as aesthetic idea. Although Kirk Pillow treats this topic at length in his own book (Chapter 8: The Metaphorical Sublime), I seek a less technical and more intuitive account of metaphor’s interaction with the aesthetic idea. The aesthetic idea, at its core, is more or less already analogous to a metaphor inasmuch as it muddles several different concepts in order to yield some greater effect: what remains is to determine the character of this metaphor. A useful place to start with metaphor might be Aristotle’s Poetics. Aristotle gives a straightforward account of metaphor that seems to describe well our regular interactions with figurative language: “[m]etaphor is the application to one thing of the name belonging to another” (Aristotle 67). This is a metaphor of substitution: when we say that someone is a cow, or that the sky weeps, we seek to transpose the values of one thing on to another through analogy. But this also seems to be a somewhat mundane idea of metaphor. How could the mere attribution of the properties of one object or thing to another constitute an aesthetic idea? We cannot say that the phrase “John is a pig” written on a piece of paper is an aesthetic idea. Indeed, it would seem that most metaphors in language are not attempts to enrich an image or idea (as an aesthetic idea does), but rather to illustrate or highlight some quality with force. Although these more typical metaphors can certainly bring unexpected vigor to a characterization, and thereby have some expansive or enriching power, even in these cases we must concede that this effectiveness is more likely a result of the metaphor’s appropriateness to the situation than of the metaphor’s being an aesthetic idea.

So if the great majority of Aristotelian metaphors cannot be said to be aesthetic ideas, then how can we make the claim at all that aesthetic ideas are related to metaphor? I believe this question can be answered by making recourse to a more fundamental, or “primal,” type of metaphor. This “primal” metaphor is almost pre-discursive: while it can certainly be analyzed and fit within the schema of Aristotelian metaphor, it possesses a certain intangible unity that mere metaphors of substitution do not. The old phrase “mother earth,” Homer’s “rosy-fingered dawn,” or T.S. Eliot’s “death’s dream kingdom”[8] could all be examples of such a fundamental type of metaphor, as could perhaps Herman Melville’s white whale[9] or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s scarlet letter[10]. To be sure, one can “intellectualize” these metaphors, so to speak, and discover within them aspects of Aristotelian metaphor, but each of these also contains within them a certain “inexhaustibility of meaning”[11] that results from a sort of “felt” harmony between the two ideas that are mixed or muddled. The primary characteristic of a primal metaphor is its ability to project an intense suggestiveness of meaning that cannot be accounted for in more mundane terms of substitution of concepts. There is something resonant, as it were, about primal metaphor—this is why I suggested that it is linked to a certain “feltness” of experience that would seem to transcend the lines in a poem or book. It is in this respect that primal metaphor and aesthetic ideas converge, in this felt experience that goes beyond the determinate concept in order to “let one think more than one can express in a concept determined by words” (193). Kant himself provides an example of one of his favorite metaphors that we could probably deem primal: “I am all that is, that was, and that will be, and my veil no mortal has removed” (194). Kant claims of this inscription over Isis’s temple (nature’s temple): “[p]erhaps nothing more sublime have ever been said, or any thought more sublimely expressed” (194). It is difficult to tell if this is simply equivocation or something more, but I believe that this suggests that Kant too recognized the sublimity in these primal-metaphors-cum-aesthetic-ideas (or “aesthetic metaphors” hereafter).

So my earlier claim that aesthetic ideas are at their core metaphors comes from this idea that primal metaphors essentially serve to expand indeterminately a given determinate concept, just as aesthetic ideas do. My account of aesthetic metaphors is of necessity far from exhaustive; I do not seek to forward an entirely new type of metaphor, but rather to distinguish the sorts of metaphorical language that could perhaps harbor aesthetic ideas and thus sublime experiences. Another question lurks here, however: how are these aesthetic metaphors conceived? There may be a connection to genius, but this paper is not the place to explore such a connection. For us, it is sufficient to note that aesthetic metaphors already exist within literature and poetry; of course there are more discussions to be had around which specific metaphors constitute aesthetic experiences, but for the most part these are largely extraneous and do not affect our intent here. The significant realization we are instead interested in is the possibility of sublime poetic experience. Poetry and literature, as veritably dependent on metaphorical and figurative language, would seem to be treasure troves for sublime aesthetic ideas. The only great limitation on such sublimity in literature (and admittedly a very real one) would be the high, and generally ambiguous, threshold a metaphor must reach before it can be considered to be an aesthetic idea (let alone an aesthetic idea that can precipitate the sublime).

In any case, metaphor’s link with aesthetic ideas provides the sublime with an opportunity to pervade literature and poetry. Even if one argues that the sublime evoked by aesthetic ideas is of a mitigated sort when compared to that brought by raw nature, this is still a fascinating possibility. As alluded to earlier, sublimity within metaphor allows for a revisitation of sublime experience: insofar as a sublime experience has been “crystallized” or captured within the aesthetic metaphor, a reader can return again and again to the pages of Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe, or Melville and relive with a similar intensity the experience of the sublime. I call these sublime metaphors in literature instances of the “poetically sublime.”

The poetically sublime’s great import is revealed when we consier the understanding arrived at earlier about the sublime’s humanistic value. We can recall that the sublime serves to celebrate and affirm the human mind, and thus humanity more broadly as well. Each sublime experience calls attention to the unique rationality and capability for a human way of life that we possess. With this in mind, could sublime encounters not cultivate a sort of appreciation or respect for human life (and the human mind) in general? The sublime speaks to us about those things that make us human; to have a sublime experience is to gain a glimpse at human nature (not in a naïve way) and understand why we are exceptional. Up to now, the overriding limitation on experiencing this “sublime cultivation” has been the inability to reliably encounter sublime experiences. As we noted earlier, the sublime in nature is found only haphazardly based upon a myriad of contingencies. The poetically sublime allows this barrier to be overcome, and opens up the possibility of just such a sublime cultivation of life. In this way, the sublime not only has a firm place in the arts, but also has a wider import for man in general. Reading a great poem or novel puts us into contact with the sublime with the result that we find an answer to our affirmation of our own humanity that made possible such a work in the first place. In a sense, metaphor allows man to “tame” the sublime experience, but at the same time liberate it so that it can find its true value in the human sphere.

As we come to the end of our investigation of the sublime, we ought to reflect on the conclusions we drew that allowed us to expand the Kantian sublime’s importance. Initially, we sketched an outline of the sublime (both dynamical and mathematical) and pointed out the latent humanistic elements present within every sublime experience. We did this to free the sublime from the perhaps restrictive moral or religious overtones present in Kant’s treatment. Next, we hypothesized that the sublime experience might be channeled through the medium of aesthetic ideas. Our suggestion that there is a relationship between metaphor and aesthetic ideas then authorized us to introduce the sublime to the poetic and literary sphere and speculate on its consequences thereafter. Through this exploration we have therefore managed to find possible ramifications of Kant’s sublime experience: “freed” from its initial context, we can expose its implicit relevance to poetry, literature, and humanity in general.

Of course, there are still many questions to be asked about the poetically sublime. What are the specific conditions that one must meet in composing a metaphor for it to become a sublime aesthetic idea? What threshold of attention or contemplation must a reader exceed before a metaphor’s sublimity is made clear? Although the sublime in nature is universalizable, to what extent can we say the same about sublimity within metaphor? These and many more questions arise from our preceding inquiry—but irrespective of the answers, the poetically sublime can still help to begin to make sense of our poetic experience and, along the way, fit in pieces of the greatest puzzle of all: what does it mean to be human?



[1] All page references are to Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment unless otherwise noted.

[2] See Pillow 74-75. Pillow notes that, following from Kant’s own examples, not only size (Savary’s pyramid) but also complexity (St. Peter’s Basilica) could elicit such an inadequacy of the imagination and comprehension.

[3] Kant 147: “…we can become conscious of being superior to nature within us and thus also to nature outside us.”

[4] See Kant 146-7 for Kant’s discussion on sublimity and God.

[5] Some believe the sublime’s late addition to the COJ indicates its lesser importance; I follow Rudolf Makkreel’s suggestion that this claim does not inhibit the sublime’s importance (Makkreel 622).

[6] See Clewis 118. Clewis’s footnote 122 gives an excellent and concise bibliography of some of these interpreters, which I will reproduce here: “E.g., Allison, Kant’s Theory of Taste, pp. 336-41; Budd, The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature, p. 28; and Dunham, A Study in Kant’s Aesthetic, pp. 89-90. McCormick interprets poems of the genre of ‘suffering’ in terms of the sublime; McCormick, ‘Overwhelming Forces and a Whispering Vastness: Kantian Fictions of a Negative Sublime,’ in Kants Ästhetik, ed. Parret, pp. 630-41. Paul Crowther offers a reconstructive account of artistic sublimity in The Kantian Sublime, p. 161. McCormick holds that Kant ‘almost’ excludes artworks from the scope of his treatment of the sublime (p. 630). Rudolf Makkreel affirms the possibility of artistic sublimity in ‘On Sublimity, Genius, and the Explication of Aesthetic Ideas,’ p. 623. Myskja offers arguments for artistic sublimity in The Sublime in Kant and Beckett, pp. 253-262.” Of course Clewis himself also gives his own defense of art’s possibility in the sublime in 116-125.

[7] Although Kant gives an example of an image initially on 193, he is also fond of providing metaphors (thus literary and poetic exempla) to explicate the aesthetically sublime (cf. 194 esp.).

[8] See T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men.”

[9] See Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.

[10] See Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter.

[11] See Pillow 254-263 (here 255). Pillow does discuss a similar type of rich metaphor in light of contemporary “interactionist theory” of metaphor.

Works Cited:

Aristotle. Poetics. Trans. James Hutton. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1982. Print.

Clewis, Robert R. The Kantian Sublime and the Revelation of Freedom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Print.

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of the Power of Judgment. Trans. Paul Guyer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Print.

Makkreel, Rudolf A. “On Sublimity, Genius, and the Explication of Aesthetic Ideas.” From Kant’s Aesthetics, Von Herman Parret, Herausgegeben. 615-629. Print.

Pillow, Kirk. Sublime Understanding. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000. Print.

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