120. Philosophy and the Sublime

Many of our efforts at self-examination presuppose at least a sense of things we don’t know. We sense our life is inadequate and take steps to acquire more knowledge to remove our ignorance. We widen our scope, gain new perspectives, and see ourselves in a new light. In many cases we find that self-knowledge comes by understanding our place in a larger whole. Indeed, according to A.W. Moore, “In making sense of my life I must be shown it as a whole” (see his book The Infinite, p. 233). But how inclusive does this whole have to be to really know ourselves?

Plato provides one startling answer in his dialogue Republic. He has Socrates tell us that philosophers who seek wisdom must eventually “lift up the eye of the soul to gaze on that which sheds light on all things; and when they have seen the Good itself, take it as a pattern for the right ordering of the state and of the individual, themselves included.” The Good, as Eva Brann notes, appears to be the whole which both comprises and unifies partial wholes: “[The Good] is the All as that Whole which comprises what each partial whole is as well as what it is not, that bonding container within which different things are at one” (The Music of the Republic, p. 204). So the success of self-examination is inseparable from a vision of the Good. Indeed, “without having had a vision of this Form [of the Good] no one can act with wisdom, either in their own life or in matters of state” (for my post on the Good, go here).

Plato from Raphael’s School of Athens 

This, however, leads to a problem since any description or representation of the Good is bound to fall short of being the whole. Thus Socrates says he will offer only images of the Good, such as the sun, that give partial revelations of unity. Does this mean philosophers can never make progress? Not necessarily. After all, Socrates also notes that the Good is something which “every soul pursues as the end of her actions, dimly divining its existence, but perplexed and unable to grasp its nature with the same clearness and assurance as in dealing with other things, and so missing whatever value those other things might have…” Without this dim awareness philosophers wouldn’t know what they were missing and wouldn’t have an erotic need to achieve a vision of it in the first place. But is there a way to achieve a more vivid experience of the Good to aid our efforts at self-examination?

In teaching aesthetics this past semester, I was struck by the possibility that Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) conception of the mathematical sublime may offer a way (see the section “Analytic of the Sublime” in his Critique of Judgment). In an experience of the mathematical sublime we perceive something to be boundless in numerical extent or spatial extension, say the starry heavens with its seemingly infinite number of stars, which triggers our reason, which is our “ability to seek and find unity and completeness among concepts and principles themselves,” to demand that our imagination represent, in a bounded image, the boundless expanse. The imagination struggles to meet the demand of reason by referring to larger and larger units of measure. But eventually it runs up against infinity as the only appropriate measure which it cannot imagine since all images are finite.

As a result,

(1) we experience displeasure when we realize that our imagination necessarily fails to capture infinity in a finite image. This failure makes us feel, much to our dismay, that our minds can’t grasp nature and that we are drastically diminished in the face of its vastness. Kant notes that the task of imagining the infinite “is for the Imagination like an abyss in which it fears to lose itself.” Blaise Pascal, in section 72 of his Pensées (1670), beautifully expressed this abyss: “For in fact what is man in nature? A Nothing in comparison with the Infinite, an All in comparison with the Nothing, a mean between nothing and everything. Since he is infinitely removed from comprehending the extremes, the end of things and their beginning are hopelessly hidden from him in an impenetrable secret, he is equally incapable of seeing the Nothing from which he was made, and the Infinite in which he is swallowed up.”

But then

(2) this inability makes us aware of an ability of our reason to think “infinity as a whole” which is “absolutely large” or “large beyond all comparison.” This thought is the mathematical sublime and it gives us a feeling of pleasure. And it is the condition for the possibility of our imagination failing to imagine boundlessness. After all, if we didn’t have the idea of infinity as a whole we wouldn’t know what the imagination is falling short of. Think of what it means to fail in a sport, in school, or in a career: in all these cases we know what it means to fail because we know what it means to succeed. Something similar is happening with the mathematical sublime: we must be able to think infinity if we are to experience our failure to imagine it.

Thus the stars (or any other similar phenomena of astonishing magnitude) are not sublime. But they help us to have what IS sublime, namely, THE IDEA OF INFINITY AS A WHOLE.

The Milky Way

Kant likens the dynamic struggle between imagination and reason to a “vibration, i.e., to a rapidly alternating repulsion from, and attraction to, one and the same object.” It is this struggle which, insofar as it includes both pleasure and displeasure, allows him to account for the delightful terror of the mathematical sublime. Our victory in this struggle, our grasping of the idea of infinity as a totality, allows us to see how our reason has a “supersensible” aspect which transcends our finite human bodies in space and time. Kant expresses this when he notes that the “Sublime is what even to be able to think proves that the mind has a power surpassing any standard of taste.”

Now, it has also been suggested by many thinkers, including Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, and Plotinus, that beauty occurs when the whole is partially perceived in and through a sensible part. But the sublime appears to supersede the beautiful in our search for the Good since the sublime, unlike the beautiful, is completely about our inner experience. When it comes to beauty, there appears to be something beautiful in the object, a high degree of proportion for example, that triggers our faculty of taste leading to a free play of the imagination. But in judgments of the sublime there is nothing sublime about the relatively large objects that trigger our experience. Kant explains:

“We hence see also that true sublimity must be sought only in the mind of the subject judging, not in the natural object the judgment upon which occasions this state. Who would call sublime, e.g., shapeless mountain masses piled in wild disorder upon one another with their pyramids of ice, or the gloomy, raging sea? But the mind feels itself raised in its own judgment if, while contemplating them without any reference to their form, and abandoning itself to the imagination and to the reason—which, although placed in combination with the imagination without any definite purpose, merely extends it—it yet finds the whole power of the imagination inadequate to its ideas.”

This freedom from both external objects and images of the imagination uniquely qualifies the mathematical sublime to be a means of contacting the Good without misrepresenting it. And this contact, as is evidenced by people’s intense sublime experiences of the starry heavens, would be vivid rather than dim. After all, as Kant points out in the closing words to his book The Critique of Practical Reason, when experiencing the starry heavens “I have not to search for them and conjecture them as though they were veiled in darkness or were in the transcendent region beyond my horizon; I see them before me and connect them directly with the consciousness of my existence.”

Immanuel Kant

Now Kant’s analysis, influential and romantic as it is, can certainly be questioned. Perhaps the experience of the sublime is an illusion with no reference outside our minds. Perhaps the experience has a far less dramatic explanation in terms of brain chemistry. Or perhaps the unrepresentable nature of the sublime leaves us too much in the dark of feeling. But if his analysis is correct then we can make the following connections with Plato’s vision of philosophy:

1) The sublime, in making us vividly aware of our kinship to the Good, can play a role in awakening the love of wisdom in the first place. In sublime experiences we become aware of what we lack – a full understanding of the Good to which we are somehow akin – and Eros, which seeks what it doesn’t possess, is born out of this lack. Perhaps this is why Plato’s character Timaeus, in discussing the benefits of sight in Timaeus, makes a connection between seeing the heavens and starting philosophy: “The sight in my opinion is the source of the greatest benefit to us, for had we never seen the stars, and the sun, and the heaven, none of the words which we have spoken about the universe would ever have been uttered. But now the sight of day and night, and the months and the revolutions of the years, have created number, and have given us a conception of time, and the power of enquiring about the nature of the universe; and from this source we have derived philosophy, than which no greater good ever was or will be given by the gods to mortal man.”

2) The sublime, in making us vividly aware of the Good, can play a role in dramatically enhancing the process of self-examination which, as we have seen, requires such an awareness. There are many ways to think about such enhancement. But according to Kant, the sublime reveals our “supersensible vocation” to develop our moral and religious potentials since we are “not restricted to conditions and limits of this life, but reaching into the infinite.” Paul Guyer, in his book Kant and the Experience of Freedom (Cambridge: 1996), comments: “What Kant did was to transmute the psychological account [of the sublime in thinkers such as Edmund Burke and Joseph Addison] into an alternative moral account, in which humanity is elevated rather than humbled. In the experience of the sublime, we stand in awe of the power of our own reason rather than God. Indeed, God’s creation is humbled before our own free reason, and even the sublimity of God himself can be appreciated only through the image of our own autonomy” (259). Here we can see how the mathematical sublime, the idea of infinity as a totality, can work well with the traditional theistic view of God as “that than which nothing greater can be  conceived” (Anselm). So perhaps in thinking the sublime we aren’t just grasping the sublimity of the Good; we are grasping the sublimity of a personal God. If this is the case we might have a very different view of ourselves, what our vocation is, etc.

3) The sublime can satiate the philosopher’s erotic need to unify with the Good through the feelings of aesthetic experience that make us aware of our rational and supersensible capacity to think it. Such a communion might provide a welcome respite on the philosopher’s dialectical journey which proceeds, as Plato’s dialogues so often proceed with their interplay of myth and reason, by projecting limited wholes within which analysis can occur and then critiquing those wholes to expand into new territory and so on and so on.

4) Lastly, experiences of the mathematical sublime might offer some hope for immortality since for Kant they reveal to us a “life independent of animality and even of the whole sensible world.” For Plato this life was the life of the soul which, as Socrates says in Plato’s Phaedo, “is most similar to what’s divine and deathless and intelligible and single-formed and indissoluble and always keeps to the self-same condition with itself.” In Plato this hope for immortality appears to be important for at least two reasons: (1) our soul my come to know the Good and other Forms in its disembodied state and (2) lives dedicated to living in accordance with the unity of the Good may be rewarded and those who thwart this unity with evil deeds may finally be punished.

For an overview of the Kantian sublime, go here; for some thoughts on the sublime in relation to solitude and contemplation, go here; for some insights about the sublime and reading for greatness, go here; go here for my exploration of Schiller’s use of the sublime to prove free will; and go here on some ways the sublime connects to minimalist art and death.

3 replies on “120. Philosophy and the Sublime”


    This article was really good, I found your site while I was searching for this topic of sublime as I am thinking to do a research on it, your material and deep understanding of the topic with good writing skills made it easier for me to grasp it. Can you please provide me with more insights on this topic and it’s relevance in this contemporary world.

    • Dwight Goodyear on

      Thanks for reading and commenting! I’m glad you liked the blog. For more on the sublime and how it relates to many issues, see the links at the bottom of the blog above: my overview of the Kantian sublime, my blog on the sublime in relation to solitude and contemplation, my blog on the sublime in connection to reading, my blog on the sublime and feee will in Schiller’s philosophy, and my blog on the sublime in minimalist art in relation to death. Enjoy!

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