The Kantian Sublime: From Morality to Art

By Paul Crowther | Go to book overview
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1 The Background to Kant's Mature Theory of the Sublime


The sublime is an aesthetic concept of ancient lineage. In the eighteenth century, however, it underwent a major revival, and received especially important reformulations in the works of Joseph Addison and Edmund Burke. I shall now very briefly outline the salient aspects of these two theories in turn. First, through his conception of the 'great' (set out in his famous Spectator articles on 'The Pleasures of the Imagination') Addison is able clearly to separate those experiences which we would now commonly regard as 'sublime' from those which we would describe as 'beautiful'. He also gives an important description of what is positive in the experience of the sublime. Consider, for example, the following passage.

Our imagination loves to be filled by an object, or to grasp at anything that is too big for its capacity. We are flung into a pleasing astonishment at such unbounded views, and feel a delightful stillness and amazement in the soul at the apprehension of them. The mind of man naturally hates everything that looks like a restraint upon it, and is apt to fancy itself under a sort of confinement, when the sight is pent up in a narrow compass, and shortened on every side by the neighbourhood of walls or mountains. On the contrary, a spacious horizon is an image of liberty, where the eye has room to expatiate at large on the immensity of its views. 1

On these terms, Addison's major claim is that our encounter with vast natural phenomena involves a sense of being liberated from perceptual confinement. We experience an exhilarating feeling of self-transcendence.

Edmund Burke's theory of the sublime, however, takes us in a


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