The meaning and signiﬁcance of the sublime has been most famously considered by Kant in his Critique of Judgement (sections 18ff.). Put simply, the sublime moment of cognition is one in which an object is presented to the mind which, in turn, can comprehend it only in terms of an absolute magnitude which itself deﬁes conceptualisation (e.g. the overwhelmingly large): ‘That is sublime in comparison with which everything else is small’ (ibid., section 25). As such, the sublime moment is one which involves the aesthetic rather than cognitive/empirical capacities of the human mind: it embodies a feeling. Within the Kantian model there are two modes of representing an object as sublime: the dynamical and the mathematical. The mathematical relates to the notion of largeness or magnitude, in that the mathematically sublime involves the presentation of something of such sheer magnitude (such as huge objects) that our understanding is unable to provide a concept capable of containing it. The dynamical sublime, on the other hand, involves the presentation of such magnitude in terms of force or might (exempliﬁed by the fearful might of nature, e.g. volcanoes, storms, hurricanes), which again cannot be contained within a concept. The sublime is ultimately a consequence of the demands of our rationality, in so far as reason demands that any object presented to the mind through the imagination (which structures our empirical intuitions of the world around us) be presented as a totality. The imagination itself, however, is incapable of doing this since it is tied to the empirical world of nature, and no empirical presentation of the feeling of absolute magnitude involved in the sublime is possible within this domain, i.e. it is impossible on the empirical level to present an object of absolute largeness, since the empirical world itself can only be understood in terms of relationships of relative, not absolute, magnitude. For Kant, therefore, the sublime moment, and resultant feeling which arises from it, resides not in the actual object which inspires it, but in the human mind: ‘It is a magnitude that is equal only to itself. It follows that the sublime must not be sought in things of nature, but must be sought solely in our ideas’ (ibid.). The sublime, therefore, involves the presentation of an idea which can have no empirical referent. Rather, the sublime object is the object of an idea (the idea of absolute magnitude). For Kant, this chain of reasoning leads to two conclusions. First,
when we consider ourselves as ‘natural beings’, the sublime moment allows us to ‘recognise our physical impotence’ (ibid., section 28), i.e. it demonstrates ﬁnitude of human existence when understood in the
context of the sheer and fearful might of nature. On the other hand, however, since the sublime feeling does not reside in nature, but only in the human mind, it allows us at the same time to consider ourselves as being to some extent independent of nature, and thereby demonstrates our superiority over it: ‘This keeps the humanity of our person from being degraded, even though a human being would have to succumb to that dominance [of nature]’ (ibid.). The sublime feeling thus functions as a means of elevating the human imagination in such a way that the displeasure which accompanies it (namely the feeling of impotence in the face of nature) is off-set by the fact that it also causes a feeling of pleasure, in that ‘this very judgement . . . is [itself] in harmony with rational ideas’ (ibid., section 27). Reason is thus identiﬁed by Kant with the absolute measure of what is greatthe sublime. Moreover, since the attainment of rationality is the prerequisite of the attainment of freedom, and such freedom makes us cultured and moral beings, the Kantian account of the sublime is linked to his account of the nature and purpose of culture. More recently, Kant’s analysis of the sublime has been taken up, by
thinkers such as Jean-Franc¸ois Lyotard, as a means of explicating postmodernism.