Thursday, September 8, 2011

Kant's Sublime

"Vue de la montagne du Nant d'Arpenaz" in De Saussure 
"Voyages dans les Alpes..."
1779 à 1796 mentioned by Kant in the Critique of Judgment  #29 (Meredith trans., 115) More images and text on de Saussure
Does Kant's concept of the sublime have any relevance to us today?  It is really rather odd.  He thinks it is not the objects of nature or art that are sublime but rather the subject who experiences the sublime.  Our imagination tries to represent something absolutely great to us, but then fails, and this is painful.  In failing, however, it recognizes that there is something supersensible (transcendent) that causes it to engage in this effort, thus giving it pleasure in the thought of its own freedom.  The feeling of freedom I know, and I can also comprehend some of what Kant is saying when I take a hike in the Sierras.  However, I do not find myself thinking about myself or my incredible power in relation to nature when I experience something which seems sublime to me.  Whereas Kant really does believe in the noumenal or supersensible realm in which resides God and our own eternal soul (the source of our freedom) I cannot buy into this.  Simon Morley in his introduction to The Sublime (Documents of Contemporary Art, 2010) thinks that most contemporary artists interested in the sublime are interested in an immanent sublime.  That sounds intriguing, although isn't it an oxymoron?  The sublime by its nature seems to be transcendent.  My thought here is that when we experience the sublime we experience something as if it intimates a transcendent realm, as if there were a god, as if I had a soul which allowed me to act with total freedom.  These are all illusions -- yet needed to make life meaningful.  They give mythological meaning to an experience which is itself real.  Nietzsche uses the necessary illusion in a number of contexts.  He sees truth as a  necessary illusion in his “Truth and Lies” paper. The doctrine of eternal recurrence (found in Thus Spoke Zarathustra) has been referred to as a necessary illusion. (See Nietzsche: disciple of Dionysus by Rose Pfeffer, 176)  In The Birth of Tragedy he even sees the phenomenal world as a necessary illusion.  Paul Rée, who influenced Nietzsche, saw moral consciousness and freedom as necessary illusions.  Religion itself can be seen as a necessary illusion.  It is arguable that Nietzsche saw his key religious figure, Dionysus, as a necessary illusion.  That humanity is something extra-special in the universe is a necessary illusion too, as is also the idea that we have free will. William James also thought we should act as if the free will were real...thus seemingly holding it to be a necessary illusion.  Vaihinger also develops Nietzsche's idea of necessary illusion in his book The Philosophy of As If.  Although Kant definitely did not believe in necessary illusions he did believe that we should act as if God exists, etc..  Pfeffer correctly points out that Nietzsche really gets the idea, contra Vaihinger, from Kant's Critique of Judgment.

No comments: