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  • Reassessing Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature in the Kantian Sublime
  • Emily Brady (bio)

I. Introduction

The sublime has been a relatively neglected topic in recent work in philosophical aesthetics, with existing discussions confined mainly to problems in Kant's theory.1 Given the revival of interest in his aesthetic theory and the influence of the Kantian sublime compared to other eighteenth-century accounts, this focus is not surprising. Kant's emphasis on nature also sets his theory apart from other eighteenth-century theories that, although making nature central, also give explicit attention to moral character and mathematical ideas and generally devote more discussion to art and artifacts than Kant did.2 Recent postmodern and poststructuralist theories of the sublime tend to concentrate on the concept in art and literature.3 New work in aesthetics of nature has mined Kant's discussion of natural beauty, yet little attention has been given to his treatment of the sublime or, indeed, to non-Kantian understandings of the sublime.4 In this essay I examine the ambiguous place of aesthetic appreciation of nature in Kant's theory of the sublime. Given the significance and influence of his theory, I take my project to be a prolegomenon to any contemporary debate on the relevance of the sublime to aesthetics of nature more generally.

Critical discussions of Kant's mature theory of the sublime, as it appears in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, point to the difficulties and complexities of his ideas and the ambiguous positioning of the sublime between aesthetic and moral concerns in his critical philosophy.5 Although Kant's theory is deeply indebted to eighteenth-century accounts of the sublime, it is this aesthetic-moral positioning within the framework of transcendental idealism that sets his account apart from them. It may also explain to some extent why his views have had a stronger impact than Burke's on subsequent [End Page 91] discussions in philosophy.6 However, there are several problems internal to Kant's theory, for instance, whether or not sublime judgment is a form of aesthetic judgment, as Kant maintains. Also, given the sublime's role within Kant's critical project, the metaphysical and moral claims of his theory do not work well descriptively. That is, the experience of the sublime as theorized by Kant doesn't fit with the more concrete phenomenological account of our experiences of raging seas, stormy skies, hurricanes, high mountains, etc.

But a more serious problem emerges when we consider Kant's theory in light of recent arguments made about aesthetic appreciation of nature. Most philosophers writing on this topic agree that aesthetic appreciation of nature, if it is to be appropriate to its objects, must involve appreciating nature as nature, and not as, say, art or a product of human design.7 Now, although natural objects are central to Kant's theory of the sublime, according to Kant, they are not themselves sublime, and it is actually the human capacities of reason and freedom that we judge to be sublime. It might thus appear that the Kantian sublime is too humanistic to serve as a plausible theory for understanding aesthetic appreciation of nature. One might wonder, indeed, if other theories of the sublime would be more useful in theorizing those experiences of the natural world that overwhelm.8

It is not my intention to address recent discussions of aesthetic appreciation of nature but rather to determine whether Kant is open to charges that serve as grounds for dismissing his views from the start. I believe that although Kant's theory is ambiguous in its approach to aesthetic appreciation of nature, it has more to offer than might first appear. Rather than merely reducing sublime feeling and value to an awareness of our moral vocation, I advance a more measured approach that recognizes the complexity and subtlety of Kant's account. Specifically, I argue that we cannot overlook his insistence that judgments of the sublime fall squarely within the aesthetic domain and, as such, natural objects become significant to appreciation. In opposition to claims that natural objects are mere triggers of the sublime response, I show how they may be given a proper, if indirect...


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