Sunday, July 30, 2017

John Rawls – Theory of Justice

Instead of the classical utilitarianism of Bentham, Rawls offers a new solution to combine social justice and liberalism in the Theory of Justice. Theorist of the contract, this work is considered today in the United States as a classic of political philosophy and often as the greatest book of the contemporary philosophy.

John Rawls founded his thought on his readings : mostly Aristotle and the classics of English political philosophy (Locke, Hume, Hobbes). His contractualism is partly inspired by Rousseau but without a theory of the state of nature. His conception of morality is rooted in Kant’s ethics. Rawls criticizes utilitarianism of Bentham and Mill.

Rawls and utilitarianism – the veil of ignorance

Bentham’s utilitarianism believes that humanity’s aim is the happiness, which everyone seek to obtain what is good and avoid what is painful. Similarly, the purpose of the government is to seek the ommon welfare, considered as the sum of the utility of individuals. This is to get maximum satisfaction for everyone.

Yet this argument is problematic. Consider to understand the following situation: you have to organize a collective struggle against a fatal disease highly contagious. But to make the serum necessary to protect general must sacrifice two victims at random. According to the utilitarian criterion we face the following choice: either all die or die and only two others survive. It is therefore prefer the second solution. Utilitarianism goes even further: those who will sacrifice the two less useful to society. But here is the moral conscience is shocked and, in particular, the Kantian principles. Kant, indeed, at least two reasons we should forbid such a choice:

Everyone is an individual and, as such, there is no individual who more or less valuable than another. Discrimination is unethical. We must all have the same rights.

One of the formulations of the categorical imperative tells us never to humanity (in my person as in that of others) only as a means but always at the same time as an end. Now it is clear that the two people killed are taken only as a means and not at the same time as ends.

Should we then sacrifice the entire population, however, because morality forbids the sacrifice of two of us? This is where the theory of Rawls who is considering a purely hypothetical original situation in which individuals react under a veil of ignorance. This hypothetical situation is not without thinking of the Social Contract Rousseau or Locke. This is, indeed, to derive the principles of political authority of a convention by which first isolated the partners together to form a community of law. But Rawls believes that policy so we are always tempted to try the theories based on the personal benefits that their application would give us. Therefore a position where partners are located behind a veil of ignorance so that they know nothing of what will be their place in society (boss or worker, active or inactive), their natural abilities (strong or weak , invalid or handicapped etc..) and without pre-conception of the good (and therefore not under the influence of any religion). The contractor does not even know what the “circumstances of his own company” that is to say what its economic power, its political system, its cultural level. It is in this context that people agree on what should be the principles of justice.

In our previous example, is more important then the result (save thousand people at the expense of sacrificing two or all) because the ends do not justify the means. Each person will decide according to his own conception of Good. Imagine another example or fifty people living in a swamp with malaria. To save the people, we must drain the swamp. The hard work will probably victims (say two) and three not benefit individuals who are already immune. Is it necessary or not to drain the swamp? Under the veil of ignorance it is not known, nor whether it is one of those immunized, or if you are part of those who die in the works. All we know is that it does not dry out if you have three chances to survive in fifty (because you will be part of the immune), while if it dries out the probability rises to forty-eight out of fifty. No doubt, under the veil of ignorance, we will vote unanimously drying.

Rawls : The Justice as Fairness

Assuming, therefore, subjects placed behind the veil of ignorance, all selfish reasons (they are concerned about their future) and endowed with reason, on what general principles of division of property can they agree?

According to Rawls all citizens in this situation will agree on two principles:

– The first principle (the principle of equal liberty), “each person must have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberty for all, consistent with a single system for all.” This means that everyone has the same basic rights and duties. Everyone wants the same basic rights: freedom of movement, expression, assembly, property etc.. “The basic liberties may be restricted in the name of freedom.” Freedom is inalienable, and here is revealed Rawls liberal and close to the Enlightenment.

– The second principle (the principle of inequality) states that the inequalities (economic and social) are justified only if: attached to positions, jobs available to all under conditions of equal opportunity impartial (principle of equal opportunities). This assumes that the company must reduce the maximum possible natural differences.

These principles are hierarchical: the principle of equal liberty has priority over the other two and the principle of equal opportunity has priority over the difference principle.

A just society is not egalitarian but it is an equitable society where the position giving the greatest benefits are available to all and the benefits obtained by some also benefit left behind. For example, if some are rich enough to acquire works of art, however, they place them in museums where the poorest can admire them. Inequality does not advantage all are unfair.

Conclusion on Rawls’ Theory of Justice :

The Rawlsian ideal is a democratic ideal. Dictatorial regimes can not be accepted as members of law in a reasonable society of peoples.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Hannah Arendt and the human condition

The Human Condition is a work by Hannah Arendt published in 1958.

Hannah Arendt studies the vita activa for itself, regardless of the vita contemplativa: this leads to re-establish the hierarchy among the various activities of the vita activa, and more specifically to reaffirm the priority of the action on the work. This statement of the role of the action aims to give men the desire to leave a trace in the world beyond their own death,to satisfy their quest for immortality. In other words, Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, gives full meaning to political action based on a clear conceptual thinking of the human condition and in particular to the philosophical question of choice, the relationship with death.

The book is composed of two parts. A systematic study, sitting on the conceptual distinction between the public and private, can clarify the political significance of the three main activities of the vita activa, work, work and action, their role in the quest immortality. Then a landmark study, sitting on the presentation of the two events in modern times that are scientific and secularization, to understanding “what we are doing” the human condition: the threat of total inertia, the gradual disappearance of any action, makes it particularly important for the future of man to save from oblivion the quest for immortality.

Prologue of the Human Condition

In the prologue, Hannah Arendt says the question that arises throughout this book. It begins with two examples of current at the time of publication of the book: the conquest of space and the automation of work.

The conquest of space is according to Hannah Arendt main upheaval of the twentieth century, more precise does the nuclear (that in which it differs from her first husband, Günther Anders): this victory makes it a little more concrete the dream to leave the land, the “desire to escape from the prison land (…), the desire to escape the human condition“. In this sense, the conquest of space is for her a new stage of secularization, a theme that returns in the last chapter of the book, and is also very present in his essay on the concept of history.

The second example, the automation of work, is very similar in the sense that technological progress is likely to free man from the drudgery of work: in both cases is a fundamental aspect of the human condition which is given involved. Hannah Arendt condemns the loss of meaning associated with these phenomena, such as with the automation of work:

“This is a society of workers that we will deliver from the chains of work and this company knows nothing of business higher and more rewarding for which it would be worthwhile to gain this freedom” (Hannah Arendt quotes)

The purpose of the book is precisely to say what those activities are highest, not to lose sight of: “What I propose is very simple: nothing more than to think what we are doing [what we are doing] “[3], in other words to explain how technological change concerns us from our own that should be seen what the human condition.

Hannah Arendt says she will answer that question in two ways:

– First in a systematic way, setting out three main activities of the human condition: work, work and action (Chapters III to V)

– And so history by explaining the origin of the alienation of modern (twentieth) through the detailed study of the modern period (seventeenth-twentieth) (Chapter VI).

Before the systematic part, Hannah Arendt begins with two introductory chapters on the human condition and the distinction between public and private.

I. The human condition

Hannah Arendt raises part of its systematic study with a brief presentation of the three main activities of the human condition that it uses the term “human condition”. The presentation of work, work and action enables it to emphasize the concept of birth, central in his thought:

“This action is most closely related to the human birth, the beginning inherent in birth can be felt in the world only because the newcomer has the ability to undertake new, c that is to say acting. In this sense an initiative of action, and thus birth, is inherent in all human activities. In addition, the action is the political activity par excellence, the birth rate, as opposed to mortality, is perhaps the central category of political thought, as opposed to metaphysical thought”

The primacy of action, the birth rate, has been overshadowed by the metaphysical tradition that affirms the superiority of the vita contemplativa vita activa: “There are the action, too, among the necessities of life on earth , so that there remained no truly free contemplation“. By restoring the conceptual differences between work, work and action, is to think of Hannah Arendt’s vita activa for itself – which did not prevent him, in The Life of the mind to question the contemplativa vita.

This rejection of the action and metaphysics in the birth rate is linked with the distinction made by Arendt between eternity and immortality:

“The duty of mortals, and their size possible, lie in their ability to produce things – works, deeds and words – that should belong and, at least to some extent, belong to the endless duration of so that through them mortals could find a place in a cosmos where everything is immortal except themselves”.

The quest for immortality is so peculiar to the mortal who bears the birth rate and thus its weakness: it acts (acts and words) to try to leave a trace beyond his presence on earth. Any other approach is the metaphysical quest for eternity, to force to assert the supremacy of the soul and thought, affirming louder than the lower earthly concerns, forgets the action:

“What matters is that the experience of the eternal, as opposed to that of immortality, and does not give rise to any activity”

The purpose of Hannah Arendt in this book, by giving back to three important activities of the vita activa, is to “rescue from oblivion the quest for immortality that was originally the driving force of the vita activation. “[8] key phrase by which it explicit what is opposed to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger who claims to share lead a fight against the” oblivion of Being. ”

II. The public and private

The introduction to the systematic study of the concepts of work, work and action, continues with the study of the conceptual distinction between the public and private, hidden by the advent of the social. The organization of the company is based in fact, the model of the family:

“Inside [social groups], equality, far from parity, means nothing as equal members against the despotism of the father, except that in society, where the number sufficient to enhance tremendously the natural power of the common and unanimous opinion, it has been possible to dispense with the authority actually exercised by a man representing the common interest, the correct opinion. The phenomenon of conformism is characteristic of this final stage of evolution. (…) The point is that society at all levels excludes the possibility of action, which was once ruled the home. Each of its members, on the contrary it requires a certain behavior, imposing innumerable rules, all of which tend to “normalize” its members to make them work right, eliminate spontaneous gestures or extraordinary feats”

Mass society, characterized by conformism that eliminates the possibility of individual initiatives, is reflected by the disappearance in the public domain because it leaves more room for what needs to appear publicly, the quest for immortality: “Nothing will probably reflects more the loss of public in modern times that the almost total disappearance of genuine concern for immortality. ”

Also, what should remain private is publicly exposed with the advent of the social. This is particularly true of the work becoming public has no limits, resulting in a “growth against the natural nature [which] is usually considered the increase in the constant acceleration of productivity”. This call to self-limitation of work prefigures the critique of political ecology, growth, and current thinking around the ideas of voluntary simplicity and decay.

In short, the confusion between the public and the private sector, the concern of the life cycle specific to the consumer society (production and consumption) replaces the quest for immortality. To rescue from oblivion this quest, Hannah Arendt proposes to restore “the place of business of the vita activa, some to appear in public, others hide in the private sector“.

In light of these two introductory chapters, it appears that the purpose of the systematic part of The Condition of modern man is not to define the work, the work and action, but to locate each of these activities between the public and private, to clarify the role they can fit in the quest for immortality, and thus their political sense.

“I do not want to attempt a comprehensive analysis of the activities of the vita activa (…) but I would try to define with some precision the political significance. ”

III. The labor

Hannah Arendt begins the systematic analysis of various activities of the vita activa by work, she recalls the difference with the work: it takes place in the world, it lasts and can be used by later generations, while the result of the work is perishable, it is intended to be used to ensure the preservation of life.

Arendt acknowledges Marx have highlighted the significance of the work as “vital processes of fertility” , but it opposes the idea of ​​a revolution that would have the task of “emancipating man, the issuing of work“. Not only seek to free themselves from the drudgery does not actually break free of the vital necessity of work, but also the quest for wealth wiped out the difference between work and the work, because then:

“So it accelerates the rate of wear than the objective difference between use and consumption, between the relative durability of use objects and going back and forth faster consumer goods, eventually becomes insignificant”

The threat of such an affluent society, or “spectrum of a true consumer society“, as she says in a nod to the famous opening words of the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels, as Arendt originated the “fact that the animal laborans had the right to occupy the public domain and yet, as long as he remains the owner, it can not be a true public domain, but only in private activities spread light.

The model proposed by Hannah Arendt is rather that of sobriety, the joy of living simply, we must accept “to take on the burden, toils and sorrows of life”  because “the” happiness “, the “joy” of labor is the human way to experience the absolute bliss to be alive [the sheer bliss of Being Alive]. Such an attitude implies to keep the work in the private sphere: the human is not able to leave traces in the world, leaves nothing in the hope of achieving immortality and thus can have no meaning policy. Understand and accept the futility of the work helps preserve the public domain and so make way for the work, only activity that creates a world of objects in which it is possible to act in search of immortality.

IV. The work

The systematic analysis of the major human activities continues with the work, which lasts, which is the result of reification. The main feature of the work is to have a foreseeable end, and thus to offer a world of homo faber security “because he is or has become master of nature, but because that he is master of himself and his actions. ”

The automation of work, and through it the lack of limits of work, the quest for wealth, security threat this world. The tools that make a world give way to the machines that impose their rhythm and destroy the world:

“For a society of workers the world of machines replacing the real world, even if this pseudo-world can play the most important role of human artifice, which is fatal to offer more sustainable living and more stable that ‘themselves. ”

The advent of labor and manufacturing work in the public domain lost its meaning at work. To provide security and self-control, the work has indeed need to be created in private before being publicly exposed:

“This isolation is the condition of living necessary for any control, which is to be alone with the” idea “, the mental image of the future object. (…) It was only stopping when his product is completed, the worker can get out of its isolation. ”

The usefulness of the appearance of the work in the public perceives the example par excellence of works of art without being themselves immortal, they offer a “feeling of immortality” because they welcome the action and speech and allow it to survive at the time of action:

“Doing great deeds and great words to say “leaves no trace, no one product that can last after the moment has passed and the act of the verb. (…) The men of speech and action (…) need the artist, the poet and historian, the builder of monuments or writer, because without them the only product of their activity, the history they play and they say, would not survive a moment. ”

The work provided it is created in private, preserved the quest for abundance specific to the company workers, creates a world in which the actions and words can leave a mark and hope to achieve immortality.

V. The action

The action, activity that is devoted the last step in the systematic analysis, is the ability to take initiative, but a beginning:

“It is in the nature of beginning that starts something new that we can not expect from what has gone before. (…) The new is always a miracle. The fact that man is capable of action means that from him we can expect the unexpected, it is able to perform what is infinitely improbable. And this in turn is possible only because each man is unique, so that at birth only nine something happens in the world.

The act shows the uniqueness of a man, he is the “unveiling [disclosure]” of that. Paradoxically, this uniqueness is manifested in the plurality, in a network already set up other men, from which two important consequences: the irreversibility (the act will inevitably be consequences in the network of human relationships that already exist) and unpredictability (the act does not reach its goal). The action has a dimension of vulnerability: no one can claim to control the effects of his actions, no one is the author of his life.

Hannah Arendt criticizes the various attempts to escape this fragility: whether the design of policy by the Romans, who want to foresee all the consequences of their actions, or the ideal of a genius producing a work of art remaining isolated from the world,

“It is always to escape the calamities of the action by taking refuge in a business where a man, isolated from all, remains master of his actions from beginning to end. (…) Fleeing the fragility of human affairs and take refuge in the strength of calm and order, it is actually an attitude that seems so commendable that the majority of political philosophy since Plato easily interpreted as a series of tests to discover the theoretical and practical means of escape in the final policy.

Rather than flee the fragility act requires the courage to expose themselves in public if the action can be likened to an art, so it’s not sculpture, but rather “dance or the play of the actor “. The action is intended to appear in the public domain, it is what can leave a trace, without which he can not hope to achieve immortality:

“If the strength of the production process is absorbed and exhausted in the product, the strength of the action process is never exhausted in a single act, it can grow on the contrary when the consequences of the act multiply, these processes are what lasts in the field of human affairs (…) The process of an act can last until the end of time, until the end of humanity. “Given the threat of extinction of any public space, and thus the possibility of immortality by its action“. Hannah Arendt proposes two remedies to the burdens of the fragility: forgiveness is the cure possible irreversibility, and promise for the unpredictability. These remedies are made possible by the miracle of birth, the perpetual arrival of new men. Birth and thereby assume the fragility of the action, it is what gives hope in the possibility of rescue from oblivion the quest for immortality:

“It is this hope and faith in the world that found perhaps the most succinct expression, the most glorious in the little phrase from the Gospels announced their” good news “:” A child is born.”

VI. The vita activa and the modern age

If the systematic study of work, work and action has to have their political significance, placing each of these activities between the private and the public domain, the historical study now aims to meet the original question of Arendt: understanding what we are doing, what modernity has the effect of alienation in the world. This historical study is based on the description of both processes.

The first process is described by Hannah Arendt scientific progress, especially the invention of the telescope. The invention had the effect of allowing the man to have an Archimedean point to observe the Earth from outside. Developments in philosophy, and in particular the cogito as a response to Cartesian doubt, are only an extension of this alienation of the world. No truth exists, and so the vita contemplativa itself disappears, that is to say that thought is no longer seen as a way to reach eternity

“The philosopher turns away most of the perishable world of illusions to enter the world of eternal truths, he turns away from one or the other, and withdrew into itself. ”

The second process described, which is actually earlier, is the emergence of Christianity and a new hope: the announcement of the immortality of the individual life. Then the quest for immortality in this world, hoping to leave a trace of its actions on future generations, which is futile: the hierarchy of the vita activa is reversed, the life cycle of work before taking first place attributed to the action. Secularization, and therefore the challenge set by the certainty that radical Christianity has already started this process: immortality is more accessible than the individual life but only one in this case, the process vital.

The two historical processes described have led to the demise of the hope of eternity and that of immortality, never to leave the place that life cycle. Therefore, there is no reason to act in the world, to take initiatives:

“It is quite conceivable that the modern era – which began with an explosion of human activity so new, so full of promise – in the end the most inert passivity, the more sterile that history has ever known. ”

The tendency to inertia, the gradual disappearance of any action, that “what we are doing.” So the future of man is at stake and that involves trying to rescue from oblivion the quest for immortality.

Hannah Arendt concludes his book by suggesting that in addition to the work and action, thought it might also have a role in this quest for immortality. This issue will be the subject of his unfinished book, The Life of the mind.

Arendt and the Greek as a model for the human condition

In The human condition, one of the greatest political philosophy paper, Arendt establishes a triple characterization of the human life. The existence devoted to the vita activa, homo faber, and finally the animal laborans, which are marked respectively by three activities: the action, the creation of work and work. Modernity has, she says, saw the coronation of the animal laborans. However, the activity of this last work, has led the isolation of men over others and the world. In the work, “the man in the world is united or not with other men, alone with his body, facing the brutal necessity of life.” Of this isolation from the breakdown in communication between individuals, capable of producing only the distinction between them. The uniformity and unity are the major characteristics of modernity. This standardization also meant to change the direction of policy. Among the Greeks, its essence was to ensure freedom as a “power-start”, as power to start with ourselves a series, to break with the existing order of the world. The same policy was considered in antiquity as an art, which leads Arendt to the polis where “freedom as virtuosity [can] occur.” The policy was an absolute end. Among the moderns, on the contrary, it has become a means to the preservation of life and safeguard its interests. “Politics” in the modern sense is a perversion of the original meaning of the policy, which was the only human dignity: a parody. The policy is no longer seen as the realization of freedom, but judged in terms of an end that the animal has built in the supreme value: the preservation of life. Sphere of freedom, it became a field of necessity. To act, it has become art.

Policy, public opposition to the private sphere, is now considered that guarantees freedom out of his sphere. In other words, the change of meaning is a ruin of its meaning in that it means the decline in the public domain. However, the atrophy of public space has been accompanied by hypertrophy of the private space that led to the empire of necessity. According to Arendt, live only in the private sphere involves the deprivation of the world and reality, the break with others. Others become away by modernity, characterized by a society of workers isolated from each other, the reality of the self and the world is more tangible since the world “can be understood in that many talk about and mutually exchange their opinions and perspectives. “Without others, ie, without discussion, the alienation from the world total, the world is absurd, empty of meaning. This breakdown in communication between people, Arendt called the” desolation ” . But it is interesting to note that the analysis conducted by Arendt on totalitarianism and the modernity coincide on many points. laborans The animal, being a-political, has deserted the world itself, while the man of act of living: he is a being “sorry”. This criticism, radical modernity will serve to illuminate Arendt’s theory of the space of appearance.

This change of policy direction specifically disrupted and destroyed a public space. Modernity has made award-winning work on the action. Arendt characterizes it as

“The only activity that puts directly related to men, not through objects or matter, corresponds to the human condition of plurality, the fact that they are men and not men, who live on earth and inhabit the world. ”

The action, expression of freedom, to be distinguished from, terms of utility, and labor activity subject to the need. Human plurality, which is embodied by the action, based on the identity and difference of individuals. For on the one hand equality, which is opposed to Arendt compliance, enables people to communicate, communicate, and also the distinction of things related to the diversity of their place in the world. The space of appearance, intermediate space that is to say an “in-between [that] relates and separates men at the same time,” requires not only action but also the word “dumb action would no longer work because there would be more of an actor. ” The identity of the agent can not emerge without the word, as well as the meaning of his action. It enables the public space in that it then allows the exchange between individuals. The “polite”, Arendt makes it a model of public space, is “the system the most talkative of all” and thus relies on persuasion and discussion rather than on coercion and violence. A power produced from the union of action and speech, has replaced violence in modern public spaces. Arendt, identifying the silence, secrecy and political modernity, frontally opposed to the polis, discredits the policy, which was originally the location of speech and action, then turning it into a place of violence and silence.

Arendt and the hatred of modernity

In parallel to a theoretical model of public space, where free speech between a plurality of free men exchanged a plurality of ideas in an open confrontation, Arendt concludes that modernity has destroyed this model of politics . It is now important to see what are the foundations and intuitions of that conception.

What is striking in effect throughout the work of H. Arendt is the constant reference to the Greeks, and to a lesser extent to the Romans, it makes it a reference unsurpassable model of politics:

“Men have never, before or since, thought so highly political activity and given so much dignity in his field”

Thus, the trial of Arendt is clear: modernity is a corruption of political activity. Guarantor of freedom, it has become way of preservation of life, that is involved in a sphere other than his own, drawing its legitimacy elsewhere than itself. Condition of possibility of communication between citizens, the only way to build a common world, the technology-policy has, as evidenced, according to Arendt, the erection of the secret system of government, as a principle opacity, it was exploited for the benefit of biological necessity. Yet this loss of meaning, which is responsible for the technical nature of the policy was directly reflected in the space of appearance. The model of the ecclesia was cleared to make way for representative government, for which Arendt is suspicious. These are based, of course, a limitation of their power, but this limitation is not intended to allow the political activity of citizens, as governments do not guarantee that private freedom. Any idea of ​​government means for her escape, an escape from the action. Therefore, parliamentary governments, and through them the whole political modernity, involved the destruction of the Greek model of the ecclesia. The secret, as a principle of opacity, ruined political activity in favor of the silent acquiescence of the masses. The silence of the power leads that of the public, condemned to passivity in the public domain and free private order. By the structural nature of the silence of political modernity, we must ask whether, hollow, does not hide the desire to subject the company to the regime of transparency, such as denaturing hypertrophy of advertising in the sense that nothing should can not be immediately visible? This transparency would do it no violence? Identification Arendt of silence and secrecy is not it excessive? Can we not imagine a gap between political action and publicizing, or better yet between reflection and action itself? The accusation against Arendt’s public sphere, that of being the place to practice the technical reason (in the service of sustaining life), does it do not fall into a category of critics whose denominator common final rejection of modernity, in which there is nothing to hope or to believe that negative?

Thus, despite the living Arendt plea for the public space, it seems difficult to give him credit in the context at hand. The model that we propose is a paradise lost. Lost as she says,

“Things have changed so much since ancient times, when politics and freedom were identified, as in modern circumstances they shall be completely separated from each other.”

Or freedom and decouple politics is empty the contents of freedom, make politics a caricature of what it was, and thus ruining any real public space, at least as a place of effective public participation in power. Arendt’s position is properly nostalgic and reactionary: it enhances the public space, not to exist, but as having existed and could no longer exist, as it was and can not be. It provides no solution to break with the violence and silence it identifies with modernity.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Kant and the Sublime


The sublime is at the heart of Kant’s aesthetic philosophy.

Kant defines sublime as that is beyond all comparison (that is absolutely) great, either mathematically in terms of limitless magnitude, or dynamically in terms of limitless power. This is the standard meaning, derived from Kant.

The term ‘sublime’ is used to designate natural objects that inspire a kind of awed terror through sheer immensity.

In the 18th century, it was common to consider asthetic experience under the paired concepts of the beautiful and the sublime. The sublime was held to be satisfying either, as for Edmund Burke, in virtue of of the pleasurable nature of the terror that it arouses, or, as for Kant, in virtue of its intimation of a capacity of the mind to apprehend the limitless or indeterminable.


For Kant, a basic type of aesthetic experience is the sublime. The sublime names experiences like violent storms or huge buildings which seem to overwhelm us; that is, we feel we 'cannot get our head around them'. This is either mainly 'mathematical' - if our ability to intuit is overwhelmed by size (the huge building) - or 'dynamical' - if our ability to will or resist is overwhelmed by force (e.g. the storm). The problem for Kant here is that this experience seems to directly contradict the principle of the purposiveness of nature for our judgment. And yet, Kant notes, one would expect the feeling of being overwhelmed to also be accompanied by a feeling of fear or at least discomfort. Whereas, the sublime can be a pleasurable experience. All this raises the question of what is going on in the sublime

Kant's solution is that, in fact, the storm or the building is not the real object of the sublime at all. Instead, what is properly sublime are ideas of reason: namely, the ideas of absolute totality or absolute freedom. However huge the building, we know it is puny compared to absolute totality; however powerful the storm, it is nothing compared to absolute freedom. The sublime feeling is therefore a kind of 'rapid alternation' between the fear of the overwhelming and the peculiar pleasure of seeing that overwhelming overwhelmed. Thus, it turns out that the sublime experience is purposive after all - that we can, in some way, 'get our head around it'.

Since the ideas of reason (particularly freedom) are also important for Kant's moral theory, there seems to be an interesting connection between the sublime and morality. This Kant discusses under the heading of 'moral culture', arguing for example that the whole sublime experience would not be possible if humans had not received a moral training that taught them to recognize the importance of their own faculty of reason.

Traditionally, the sublime has been the name for objects inspiring awe, because of the magnitude of their size/height/depth (e.g. the ocean, the pyramids of Cheops), force (a storm), or transcendence (our idea of God). Vis-à-vis the beautiful, the sublime presents some unique puzzles to Kant. Three in particular are of note. First, that while the beautiful is concerned with form, the sublime may even be (or even especially be) formless. Second, that while the beautiful indicates (at least for judgment) a purposiveness of nature that may have profound implications, the sublime appears to be 'counter-purposive'. That is, the object appears ill-matched to, does 'violence' to, our faculties of sense and cognition. Finally, although from the above one might expect the sublime experience to be painful in some way, in fact the sublime does still involve pleasure - the question is 'how?'.

Kant divides the sublime into the 'mathematical' (concerned with things that have a great magnitude in and of themselves) and the 'dynamically' (things that have a magnitude of force in relation to us, particularly our will). The mathematical sublime is defined as something 'absolutely large' that is, 'large beyond all comparison' (sect.25). Usually, we apply some kind of standard of comparison, although this need not be explicit (e.g. 'Mt. Blanc is large' usually means 'compared with other mountains (or perhaps, with more familiar objects), Mt. Blanc is large'). The absolutely large, however, is not the result of a comparison

Now, of course, any object is measurable - even the size of the universe, no less a mountain on Earth. But Kant then argues that measurement not merely mathematical in nature (the counting of units), but fundamentally relies upon the 'aesthetic' (in the sense of 'intuitive' as used in the first Critique) grasp of a unit of measure. Dealing with a unit of measure, whether it be a millimeter or a kilometer, requires a number (how many units) but also a sense of what the unit is. This means that there will be absolute limits on properly aesthetic measurement because of the limitations of the finite, human faculties of sensibility. In the first place, there must be an absolute unit of measure, such that nothing larger could be 'apprehended'; in the second place, there must be a limit to the number of such units that can be held together in the imagination and thus 'comprehended' (sect.26). An object that exceeds these limits (regardless of its mathematical size) will be presented as absolutely large - although of course it is still so with respect to our faculties of sense.

However, we must return to the second and third peculiar puzzles of the sublime. As we saw above with respect to the beautiful, pleasure lies in the achievement of a purpose, or at least in the recognition of a purposiveness. So, if the sublime presents itself as counter-purposive, why and how is pleasure associated with it? In other words, where is the purposiveness of the sublime experience? Kant writes,

  “ We express ourselves entirely incorrectly when we call this or that object of nature sublime ... for how can we call something by a term of approval if we apprehend it as in itself contrapurposive?”

This problem constitutes Kant's principle argument that something else must be going on in the sublime experience other than the mere overwhelmingness of some object. As Kant will later claim, objects of sense (oceans, pyramids, etc.) are called 'sublime' only by a kind of covert sleight-of-hand, what he calls a 'subreption' (sect.27). In fact, what is actually sublime, Kant argues, are ideas of our own reason. The overwhelmingness of sensible objects leads the minds to these ideas.

Now, such presentations of reason are necessarily unexhibitable by sense. Moreover, the faculty of reason is not merely an inert source of such ideas, but characteristically demands that its ideas be presented. (This same demand is what creates all the dialectical problems that Kant analyses in, for example, the Antinomies.) Kant claims that the relation of the overwhelming sensible object to our sense is in a kind of 'harmony' (sect.27) or analogy to the relation of the rational idea of absolute totality to any sensible object or faculty. The sublime experience, then, is a two-layer process. First, a contrapurposive layer in which our faculties of sense fail to complete their task of presentation. Second, a strangely purposive layer in which this very failure constitutes a 'negative exhibition' ('General Comment' following sect.29) of the ideas of reason (which could not otherwise be presented). This 'exhibition' thus also provides a purposiveness of the natural object for the fulfillment of the demands of reason. Moreover, and importantly, it also provides a new and 'higher' purposiveness to the faculties of sense themselves which are now understood to be properly positioned with respect to our 'supersensible vocation' (sect.27) - i.e. in the ultimately moral hierarchy of the faculties. Beyond simply comprehending individual sensible things, our faculty of sensibility, we might say, now knows what it is for. We will return to this point shortly. The consequence of this purposiveness is exactly that 'negative pleasure' (sect.23) for which we had be searching. The initial displeasure of the 'violence' against our apparent sensible interests is now matched by a 'higher' pleasure arising from the strange purposiveness Kant has discovered. Interestingly, on Kant's description, neither of these feelings wins out - instead, the sublime feeling consists of a unique 'vibration' or 'rapid alternation' of these feelings (sect.27).

The dynamically sublime is similar. In this case, a 'might' or power is observed in nature that is irresistible with respect to our bodily or sensible selves. Such an object is 'fearful' to be sure, but (because we remain disinterested) is not an object of fear. (Importantly, one of Kant's examples here is religion: God is fearful but the righteous man is not afraid. This is the difference, he says, between a rational religion and mere superstition.) Again, the sublime is a two-layered experience. Kant writes that such objects 'raise the soul's fortitude above its usual middle range and allow us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist which is of a quite different kind...' (sect.28). In particular, nature is called 'sublime merely because it elevates the imagination to the exhibition of those cases wherein the mind can be made to feel [sich fühlbar machen] the sublimity, even above nature, that is proper to its vocation' (sect.28, translation modified). In particular, the sublimity belongs to human freedom which is (by definition) unassailable to the forces of nature. Such a conception of freedom as being outside the order of nature, but demanding action upon that order, is the core of Kant's moral theory. Thus we can begin to see the intimate connection between the sublime (especially here the dynamically sublime) and morality

This connection (for the sublime in general) becomes even more explicit in Kant's discussion of what he calls 'moral culture'. (sect.29) The context is to ask about the modality of judgments on the sublime - that is, to they have the same implicit demand on the necessary assent of others that judgments on the beautiful have? Kant's answer is complicated. There is an empirical factor which is required for the sublime: the mind of the experiencer must be 'receptive' to rational ideas, and this can only happen in a culture that already understands morality as being a function of freedom or, more generally, conceives of human beings as having a dimension which in some way transcends nature. The sublime, properly speaking, is possible only for members of such a moral culture (and, Kant sometimes suggests, may reciprocally contribute to the strengthening of that culture). So, the sublime is subjected to an empirical contingency. However, Kant claims, we are justified in demanding from everyone that they necessarily have the transcendental conditions for such moral culture, and thus for the sublime, because these conditions are (as in the case of the beautiful) the same as for theoretical and practical thought in general. The claims about moral culture show that, for Kant, aesthetics in general is not an isolated problem for philosophy but intimately linked to metaphysical and moral questions. This is one more reason why it is important not to assume that the Critique of Aesthetic Judgment is a book merely about beauty and sublimity. Moreover, this 'link' has an even greater significance for Kant: it shows reflective judgment in action as it were relating together both theoretical and practical reason, for this was the grand problem he raised in his Introduction.

Kant's treatment of the sublime raises many difficulties. For example, only the dynamically sublime has any strict relationship to the moral idea of freedom. This raises the question of whether the mathematical and dynamically sublime are in fact radically different, both in themselves as experiences, and in their relation to 'moral culture'. Again, Kant gives an interesting account of how magnitude is estimated in discussing the mathematical sublime, but skips the parallel problem in the dynamically sublime (how does one estimate force?). Finally, many readers have found the premise of the whole discussion implausible: that in the sublime experience, what is properly sublime and the “We learn not philosophy, we learn to philosophize”