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”