After reading Immanuel Kant’s, “Critique of Judgment,” I would like to comment on his definitions of beauty and the sublime. These definitions do not only exist on paper, but also in real life examples that I have experienced. For the most part, I agree with Kant’s definitions of the beautiful and the sublime because of my personal experiences, but believe that there are other elements that contribute to our judgment of aesthetics than simply our needs, reason and imagination.
Kant’s definition of the beautiful is something that we like, regardless of whether or not it is useful to us. He divides the feeling of pleasure into three parts, agreeable, beautiful and good. Of these three categories, he separates beauty, clarifying that we do not use self-interest or reason to see beauty; we simply like what we see. “We call agreeable what gratifies us, beautiful what we just like, and good what we esteem…of all these three kinds of liking, only the liking involved in taste for the beautiful is disinterested and free, since we are not compelled to give out approval by any interest, whether of sense or of reason” (pg. 8, 210). Kant also describes beauty as “an object’s form or purposiveness insofar as it is perceived in the object without the presentation of a purpose” (pg. 13, 236), meaning that beauty is a property of the object, serving as a purpose to the object, but not as an answer to the need or interest of the person beholding the object. Therefore, beauty is not a thing that happens to us, it is a thing that belongs to the object that is beautiful. Because of this idea that beauty belongs to the object that is beautiful, it is important to understand the idea of a “universal voice” which stems from it. “The universal voice,” Kant reminds us, “is only an idea” (pg. 9, 216), an idea that there is a possibility that everyone can agree on this judgment of aesthetic as beautiful. So in all, Kant’s idea of beauty is that it is something that simply exists, neither responding to reason nor interest, but aesthetically pleasing to those who behold it.
The sublime, in Kant’s view, is something that is “absolutely large” (pg. 14, 248), that is, something that is not necessarily large in size, but large in its reality, to the point where we cannot comprehend its largeness in our imagination or with our reason. Because the sublime has a reality that is so large, “what happens is that our imagination strives to progress toward infinity, while our reason demands absolute totality as a real idea, and so the imagination, our power of estimating the magnitude of things in the world of sense, is inadequate to that idea. Yet this inadequacy itself is the arousal in us of the feeling that we have within us a supersensible power” (pg. 16, 106). Our minds simply cannot comprehend the magnitude of a sublime thing, hence making us feel inadequate, threatened, or possibly afraid.
To the same extent that the beautiful makes us feel calm, the sublime makes us feel tense. Kant explains this difference as “in presenting the sublime in nature the mind feels agitated, while in an aesthetic judgment about the beautiful in nature it is in restful contemplation” (pg. 115, 258). The sublime can also be seen as different from the beautiful simply because of the fact that the beautiful is something one likes and is drawn to, where as the sublime is something fearful and incomprehensible that one wants to resist. When describing the sublime in nature, Kant says that a threat must be realized and the person feeling threatened must also recognize the subliminal thing as fearful and want to resist it. Though Kant talks about the fearfulness of a sublime thing, he also says that an object can be fearful without one being afraid of it. He uses the example of God, explaining that one can fear God without being afraid of him because he or she does not want to resist God, yet because God is capable of anything, including imposing something one would want to resist, he or she must recognize God as fearful (pg. 120, 261). This example helps us to understand that Kant’s idea of the sublime is not that it necessarily stems from our emotions, but rather, from our reason because we do not simply accept the sublime thing as it is, like we do the beautiful, but try to understand it, and when we cannot, must reason whether or not to be afraid of it.
I have encountered the beautiful on several occasions, but the account that I am going to discuss is the beauty of the scene of a local farm near my house during a late autumn afternoon. This particular farm is known for its cornfields, which are split down the middle by a sleepy two lane road. This sleepy road leads to my house, so I have to fortune of being able to take in the beauty of the farm on my rides home. I could say that it is the warm colors that make this scape so attractive, or the way the light hits the tops of the forested hills in the background, or how the wind blows the cornstalks gently, but those are simply products of the beauty as a whole. The truth is, I’m not entirely sure what makes the scene so beautiful to me, but I am certain that I like it, and I enjoy the emotions it evokes in me. To observe the farm on a fall afternoon, for me, brings feelings of calm, thoughtfulness, and overall contentedness. Kant would agree with me that the scene I am describing is beautiful, because I like it, and it is that liking that makes all the difference between something that simply exists and something that exists as beautiful.
I have also experienced the sublime, most memorably when I went parasailing. At five hundred feet above the earth, hanging from a parachute by only two ropes and one belt, the Atlantic Ocean below me was as terrifying as it was expansive. The ocean is an unknowable deepness, and being dangled above it, forced to look out over it and try to take in its magnitude was a frightening experience. When I try to think about the ocean, it is frustrating because it is hard to understand just how deep and how incredibly large it is. Kant’s description of the sublime, as something that one cannot fully comprehend because it is “absolutely large” and one’s imagination cannot stretch to those unbelievable bounds or to the concept of infinity, applies here because in my experience, I was also unable to grasp the full magnitude of the ocean. While parasailing, I could see more of one body of water than I had ever been able to before in my life, and that alone gave me an overwhelming feeling of being small, but I could also see the horizon and where it appeared that the ocean dropped off the earth, and I tried to picture the ocean continuing on, as science and history have taught me it does, but I couldn’t complete the picture. My imagination could not completely grasp the largeness of the ocean, nor the mystery of the deepness of it. This kind of limitation was very unsettling as I was suspended over the massive expanse of water.
Looking back on my experiences of beauty and the sublime, I realize that Kant’s ideas on the beautiful and the sublime are universal, although I believe that there are other elements as well that contribute to our aesthetic judgments. Kant really analyzes the ideas of beauty and the sublime, and as much as I agree with his conclusions, I think that recognizing what is beautiful and what is sublime is more dependent on the emotions of the person having the experience, rather than necessarily entirely on the purposiveness of the object being looked at or the limits of our comprehension. As humans, we respond to experiences initially with emotion, and then with reason. Though Kant seems to neglect the initial response and concentrate mostly on the rational response to beauty and the sublime, I can appreciate his examination of the human reaction to those things that have such a strong effect on us, both emotionally and rationally.