Sublime / No.88 / April, 2015
08.04.2015 - 06.05.2015

Sublime / Beyond imagination

“The sublime is that, the mere capacity of thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of sense.”

Immanuel Kant


The sublime, as an aesthetic category is ranked second after the beautiful, but mainly as opposed to it. However, the determining factor, which made the sublime the most debated aesthetic concept in the world of philosophy in the XVIII century, was its trait as a psychophysiological topic. Immanuel Kant sees the sublime as a sum of felt phenomenological experiences when the limits of our imagination and logic are exceeded, a phenomenon resulting in the awe of the viewer.

For example, a building or a storm is an object/ phenomenon, which amazes us through its size and force. Usually, being overwhelmed leads to a feeling of fear and discomfort, while witnessing the sublime results in a pleasant experience. What it is that actually overwhelms us is not the object/ phenomenon itself, but the fact that in the process of observing it, we realize how insignificant it is compared to the infinity of the Absolute whose dimensions we cannot even imagine. In consequence, we prefer to think the overwhelming phenomenon can it itself be overwhelmed by something greater, and that there are even smaller or more tremendous phenomena, like us. So, according to Kant, the sublime is a chain of experiences, fluctuating between fear and pleasure – the pleasure to understand there is something greater than us. Although Edmund Burke perceives the sublime as a combination of fear and pleasure, he completely discriminates reason, as opposed to Kant. Burke differentiates the beautiful from the sublime through the effect an object has over the body and the senses, and which results in fear or pleasure. While the beautiful leads directly to relaxation, which gives birth to the feeling of pleasure, the sublime leads to the tension of the body and fear, because through the pure power of this feeling (the strongest, in Burke’s opinion), fear reverses into pleasure once the viewer is high on the adrenaline provided by being afraid. Moreover, the tension associated with the sublime comes from awe, thus highlighting the fact that the sublime contains in itself the idea of both immensity, infinity and darkness, loneliness and silence, simply because these concepts hide things we do not know and we are not yet able to imagine. We have to admit that philosophical theories on the sublime could be labeled as strictly related to the history of art, and relevant in the Romantic era. Nevertheless, the role of phenomenological and postmodern philosophy (focused on the piece of art which only becomes meaningful through the eyes of the observer) applied to contemporary art disentangle the philosophy of the sublime in order to help us discover why it is that we tend to like something which we would not simply call “beautiful”.