Sublimity as a Symbol of Moral Dignity

Guest post by Meredith Drees

In Kant’s Critique of Judgment, he states that “sublime is what even to be able to think proves that the mind has a power surpassing any standard of sense” (25:250). [1] My aim in this essay is to argue that experiences of sublimity give us a glimpse of morality and true freedom, and that sublimity is best described as a symbol of moral dignity. I shall argue that an experience of the sublime is not only instructive for us as knowers, but it also has practical import. Kant explains an experience of the sublime as follows:

What happens [during an experience of the sublime] is that our imagination strives to progress toward infinity, while our reason demands absolute totality as a real idea, and so the imagination, our power of estimating the magnitude of things in the world of sense, is inadequate to that idea. Yet this inadequacy itself is the arousal in us of the feeling that we have within us a supersensible power (25:250).

We judge something as sublime when it presents formlessness or boundlessness, and this gives rise to a feeling of pain because our imagination is incapable of grasping the whole of what is presented. The overall result is a negative pleasure that is associated with respect. This striving for accord between the imagination and reason reveals to us that we should regard as small anything that nature may present, when it is compared with our capacity to reason. [2] However, the displeasure brought about by the conflict between these two faculties allows us to see that we are “aesthetically confined within bounds” (27:260), and inadequately equipped for conceiving of the absolute.

It is an internal state of mind that we can truly call sublime; the sublime “must not be sought in things of nature but must be sought solely in our ideas” (25:249). We call objects in nature such as a starry night sky or a stormy sea “sublime,” but this just insofar as they “awaken a feeling of a supersensible faculty in us” (250); as the imagination seeks to harmonize with reason’s ideas, the sublime resists the senses and makes us aware of the magnitude of our power of reason.

Meteora, Greece. Photo taken by Meredith Drees.

During an experience of sublimity, the imagination proves inadequate to its usual role in the process of judgment, and it therefore fails to comply with the demands of reason (25:250, 26:256, 29:265). Although the imagination proves its own limits and is left unable to determine an idea, we are left with a feeling of respect (Achtung) for our own capacity to strive toward rational ideas. For example, when I look at a thunderstorm, I become aware that this power in nature could destroy me. Yet, the thunderstorm could never destroy humanity’s shared capacity for reason.

Kant draws an analogy between the feeling of sublimity and the moral feeling, and his analogy is suggestive of the fact that one’s eagerness to gaze at a thunderstorm or St. Peter’s in Rome, for example, is connected with the development of one’s capacity for moral feeling. When the inclinations are confronted with the moral law (in cases in which the moral law directs a person to do something other than that toward which the inclinations are drawn) there is a resulting feeling of pain. However, at the same time, one has a positive feeling toward the law itself—a feeling of respect. Respect (Achtung) for the moral law, the delight at one’s freedom to be moral mixed with the pain of frustrated desire, is not a cause or basis but an accompaniment of moral judgment. When I experience the sublime, I get the same feeling of respect for what I am as a rational being. This is particularly important since respect is the counterforce to the inclinations.

Kant explains that “the beautiful prepares us for loving something, even nature, without interest; the sublime, for esteeming it even against our interest (of sense)” (29:267, my italics). The sublime presents a picture of the painful struggle that we sometimes endure when we act in accordance with our duty. Thus, it is sublimity that best represents moral motivation as it exhibits the proper relationship between reason and the inclinations during a moral judgment. In what follows, I will suggest that sublimity genuinely characterizes morality—moral dignity, in particular—through reason’s dominance over sensibility (29:269).

When we behave morally, e.g., when we discipline ourselves, we liberate the will from the control of our desires. Kant maintains that “we are conscious of ourselves as obligated by an a priori moral law,” which commands us to fulfill our duty even in the case that doing so requires a struggle. Specifically, sometimes fulfilling our duty involves a struggle “against circumstances in nature or against our natural inclinations.” We must not cater to our inclinations or excuse ourselves from our moral duty. However, it is sometimes permissible to act in accordance with our inclinations (i.e., when the moral law does not direct us to do otherwise). Other times we desire to act in accordance with our inclinations even when the moral law has directed us to do otherwise. This results from a mistaken supposition that there is something more important about ourselves, personally, than moral action. When we realize that acting in accordance with our inclinations is forbidden, reason has triumphed over sensibility by following the moral law [3] instead of our desires.

The cognitive relations between reason and the imagination during a judgment of the sublime are analogous to the cognitive relations between reason and the imagination, when reason dominates the inclinations. An experience of the sublime gives a person a “flash” of the appropriate relationship between reason and the inclinations; it is in this way that sublimity symbolizes reason’s dominance over the senses and represents moral motivation. [4] This flash, as I am calling it, acquaints a person with Achtung and as Kant puts it, “it calls forth our strength (which does not belong to nature [within us]), to regard as small the objects of our natural concerns” (28:262). In this way, the sublime shows us the authority of reason and our ability to act in accordance with the moral law. [5] Kant states:

Our imagination, even in its greatest effort to do what is demanded of it and comprehend a given object in a whole of intuition (and hence to exhibit an idea of reason), proves its own limits and inadequacy, and yet at the same time proves its vocation to obey a law, namely, to make itself adequate to that idea. Hence, the feeling of the sublime in nature is a respect for our own vocation (S27, 257).

Through this experience, we see the superiority of the rational vocation of our cognitive powers over any power of sensibility (27:257). An element of fear is present in sublimity, but the object which provokes it “[raises] the soul’s fortitude above its usual middle range and [allows] us to discover in ourselves an ability to resist…which gives us the courage that we could be a match for nature’s seeming omnipotence”(28:261).  Hence, Kant argues that we call something sublime because it brings to the forefront our power to regard the objects of our natural concerns (our inclinations) as small and comparatively unimportant. We are able to regard nature’s might—something that we are subjected to in the case of our natural concerns—as something that cannot overcome us (28:262). Hence, in an experience of the sublime, we feel a cognitive relation to something greater than sense.

It is important to notice that an experience of the sublime is not only instructive for us as knowers, i.e., an experience of the sublime is not just a way of gaining knowledge about morality, or being acquainted with a characterization of it, but it also has practical import—it teaches us that we can act against the inclinations. We will encounter instances in practical life that tempt our inclinations and draw us to act in a manner opposite to that which the moral law directs. However, since the sublime gives us a flash of the appropriate relationship between reason and the senses, after having that experience, we have gained a certain awareness of our power of reason and our own moral capacity. We know that it is possible for us to act against our interest of sense because we have been shown reason’s authority over the inclinations. Indeed, the sublime (because it makes us aware of these possibilities) teaches us to respect our capacity of reason, and hence, it teaches us about the possibility of carrying out our moral vocation.

Bay of Banderas in Mexico. Photo taken by Meredith Drees.

In my view, “dignity” best characterizes just what it is that sublimity symbolizes as Kant describes it. Experiences of sublimity can teach us to keep “humanity in our person from being degraded.” Our natural concerns should not have “such dominance over us, as persons, that we should have to bow to [them]” (28:262). As a result, we are driven to remember, in practical cases, that reason always has authority over the inclinations; the inclinations ought not take over in cases in which we desire something other than that toward which the moral law directed us. This prompts us to respect our capacity to reason and its authority, and to act in accordance with it as opposed to anything else. We might think of some of Kant’s examples of sublimity, such as “bold, overhanging and, as it were, threatening rocks…volcanoes with all their destructive power, hurricanes with all the devastation they leave behind, the boundless ocean heaved up, [or] the high waterfall of a mighty river” (28:262). The sight of any of these is fearful, yet attractive (especially if we are out of harm’s way when we make our observation). As we experience nature’s might, we know that in a match against it, we would have to succumb to its dominance. As we come face to face with our own limitations, we are reminded of one way in which humanity is superior to nature: We have the ability to judge ourselves independent of the volcano, the waterfall, and the hurricane, because we have the power of reason, and we have the capacity to be moral. The volcano can destroy the objects of daily life such as property and even the human body, but it is no match for humanity’s shared power of reason, which cannot be degraded even by the boundless might of nature.

Insofar as sublimity also gives us a feeling of elation as we experience the boundless and limitless, it has the unique power of making Achtung palatable to us. By sublimity, we are elated in the midst of difficulty, and we are given strength.  Therefore, the experience of sublimity—via its representation of the moral feeling—gives us, as it were, a revelation about reason, and we are thus carried to apply it to the practical. Kant sums up the point at 29:271:

If we judge aesthetically the good that is intellectual and intrinsically purposive (the moral good), we must present it not so much as beautiful but rather as sublime, so that it will arouse more a feeling of respect (which disdains charm) than one of love and familiar affection. For human nature does not of itself harmonize with that good; it can be made to harmonize with it only through the dominance that reason exerts over sensibility.

It is in the context of the sublime, which involves a displeasure that is purposive for reason, that we witness reason’s power, and hence, the feeling of Achtung teaches us moral dignity. It not only makes us aware of reason’s power, but it teaches us that, in our practical lives, that power should be given due respect, and that it should never be defeated by nature. In the Critique of Judgment, Kant shows us that experiences of sublimity evoke in the mind of their experiencing subjects a sense of the superiority of our moral destiny.


[1] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar, (IA: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987). All references are to this translation.

[2] Reason and the imagination are the same faculties that function in relation to one another when we make a moral judgment. Importantly, the judgment of sublimity is analogous with the moral judgment because the cognitive relations between reason and the imagination during a judgment of the sublime are analogous to the cognitive relations between reason and the imagination in the practical cognition of an object of practical reason.

[3] According to Kant, our choices and actions must accord with the Moral Law. Kant’s Categorical Imperative says, “act in such a way that the maxim of your will [could] always hold at the same time as a principle laying down universal law” (Critique of Practical Reason, §7 5:30). When faced with a moral choice, Kant asks us to imagine that everyone would choose as we do, and then reflect on the result.

[4] Paul Guyer concedes this point. He states: “the experience of the sublime can seem virtually identical with the fundamental moral feeling of respect for duty itself.” The key point, he maintains, is that “duty is characterized as sublime because the experience of it is…the experience of a power of resistance against natural inclinations.” See “Symbols of Freedom in Kant’s Aesthetics,” Values of Beauty, pg. 229

[5] Similarly, Yu Liu argues that reason’s triumph at the expense of the imagination during an experience of the sublime represents how “things might be if moral freedom were given a realistic chance in the realm of sense-oriented nature.” See Liu’s “Kant’s Paradise Lost and Regained,” Studies in Romanticism, pg. 193.

Works Cited/For Further Reading:

Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment, trans. Werner S. Pluhar, (IA: Hackett Publishing Company, 1987)

Guyer, Paul. Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics, (NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

Liu, Yu. “The Beautiful and the Sublime: Kant’s Paradise Lost and Regained.” Studies in Romanticism. Vol. 42 (2003)

About the Author:

Dr. Meredith Drees has spent her philosophical career studying the connection between aesthetic experience and morality. Her view is that aesthetic experience has an ineluctable moral component, which enables it to play various roles in moral education and development. She specifically focuses on the work of Plato, Kant, and Iris Murdoch. Dr. Drees is currently the chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Kansas Wesleyan University. She is also the Director of Experiential Learning and the Wesleyan Journey Program. Dr. Drees earned her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Kansas in 2014. Her areas of specialization are Ancient Philosophy, Aesthetics, Ethics, Kant’s Critique of Judgment, and Iris Murdoch. She has additional interests in C.S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and Feminist Theology. 

Twitter: @meredith.drees

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