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Organic Sublimity: a Kantian Exploration in Aesthetic Appreciation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011

Joseph Kupfer
Iowa State University


You are standing in the redwood forest of California, craning your neck to see the top of the giant sequoias. You marvel at their grandeur, as the trees seem to pierce the sunny clouds, but you might find the sequoias even more marvellous if you knew they were over 200 feet high. And wouldn't you stand in still greater awe if you realized that these trees are more than 2,000 years old? Knowing the age of sequoias and other living things can be the basis of a distinctive aesthetic experience – the organically sublime.

Copyright © Kantian Review 2007

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1 The influential work of such eminent scholars as Ronald Hepburn and Allen Carlson has provided the basis for a vigorous emerging tradition of theorizing on the importance of knowledge to the appreciation of nature. See, for just a few examples: Hepburn, Ronald, ‘Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 3 (1963)Google Scholar; Crawford, Donald, ‘Art and Nature: Some Dialectical Relationships’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 42 (1983)Google Scholar; Carlson, Allen, ‘Nature, Aesthetic Appreciation, and Knowledge’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 4 (1995)Google Scholar; Budd, Malcom, ‘The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 36, 1996Google Scholar; and Stecker, Robert, ‘The Correct and the Appropriate in the Appreciation of Nature’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 37 (1997)Google Scholar.

More recent discussions have opened up avenues of thought that are especially germane to investigation of organic sublimity. We will have recourse, for instance, to the scientific basis of normative categories of nature, as discussed by Matthews, Patricia, ‘Scientific Knowledge and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 60 (2002)Google Scholar, and to the knowledge-laden appreciation of ‘unscenic nature’ analysed by Fudge, Robert ‘Imagination and the Science-Based Appreciation of Unscenic Nature’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 59 (2001).Google Scholar

2 Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Judgment, trans. Pluhar, Werner S. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987)Google Scholar. References will include section and paragraph numbers from the official Akademie edition Vol. 5, followed by page numbers from the Pluhar text.

3 Kant claims that the experience cannot be found enjoyable unless the perceiver runs no practical risk (Critique of Judgment §28: 260–1; 119). This independence from the practical consequences of the object is similar to Kant's point about our enjoyment of beauty, which is free from desire for the object as an existing thing which might satisfy our practical interests.

4 Anything approaching an adequate summary of Kant's view would take more space than I have here. I add only a brief explanatory note. For Kant, feeling overwhelmed by the size or force of nature is merely the initial phase of the sublime experience. The discomfort we first experience is resolved by our awareness of our reason's superiority over nature. Mathematical sublimity rests on what is ‘absolutely great… beyond all comparison great’ (§25: 248; 103). We are superior to nature because we can think the idea of the infinite, whereas nature's great size can never be truly infinite. In dynamic sublimity, we are superior to nature in that however great the forces of nature, we alone are capable of conceiving the moral law and obeying its moral force. And the force of the moral law is of a higher order altogether than the merely physical forces of nature. I follow Kant in claiming both that the organically sublime overwhelms our cognitive powers and that we eventually realize our superiority to the natural. However, I propose a modified version of this superiority as well as an alternative, more naturalistic account of the transformation of our initial displeasure into delight.

5 Among his many helpful comments, John Fisher made observations in this vein in responding to a shorter, earlier version of this paper presented at the 58th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics (25–28 October 2000) Reno, Nevada. I do not claim to have cornered the market on all manner of aesthetic awe. As Kant himself noted, we are also awestruck by large and ancient artefacts, such as great cathedrals and the pyramids. Yet this strain of awe seems to have a different tone or mood from that of the organically sublime.

The awe we feel at long-lasting architecture seems to be based in admiration of skill in general, like the appreciation we feel for the craft or ingenuity requisite for landing a man on the moon or programming a computer to play invincible chess. Part of the marvel we feel at natural phenomena, I suggest, stems from its otherness, its independence from human endeavour. On the other hand, we do indeed admire the human genius that is responsible for what might be considered artefactual splendour or sublimity.

6 Kant actually says that the object may be formless or regarded as formless, but I shall simplify and treat all cases of sublimity as though they are formless (§25: 250; 105).

7 Strictly speaking, we cannot predicate beauty of the object either. What is actually beautiful is the harmonious interplay of the imagination and understanding, not the natural object. However, Kant accepts a ‘transfer’ of the predicate (beautiful) to the object in virtue of its determinate form. He takes a more rigorous view of the sublime since its apparent formlessness seems to deprive us of anything resembling an object in the ordinary sense of the term. In addition, we actually like the beautiful object as it is presented in intuition, but do not like the object of sublimity. So, it is an easier transition, in the case of beauty, from faculty-harmony to object in light of the fact that the object is immediately enjoyed. Paul Guyer explains Kant's different attitudes towards beauty and sublimity this way: ‘in the case of beauty, the harmony of imagination and understanding is supposed to be induced solely by the form of an external object; thus although the feeling of pleasure is of course internal… it is not misleading to ascribe beauty to the object as well. But in the case of the dynamical sublime, our pleasure depends upon the way in which physically fearsome natural phenomena turn our thought to [our] indestructible moral personality… it is our own moral character which is ultimately the object of our pleasure’, Kant and The Experience of Freedom (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 220–1.Google Scholar

8 This is what Kant means by ‘a magnitude that is equal only to itself (§25: 250; 105).

9 The estimation of magnitude is aesthetic, ‘by the eye’ rather than logical, based on numerical concepts. Mathematical estimation that proceeds by numerical concepts to infinity does not strain the imagination because there is not the need to grasp the totality in a single intuition (and because the unit of number is irrelevant; it could be in feet, metres, miles, etc.). However, when presented with the object that occasions the experience of the sublime, the ‘absolute measure’ is conditioned therefore by the limits of human imagination, by what is subjectively possible to ‘take in in one intuition’ (§26: 251; 108). Obviously, the details of how Kant explicates this subjectively grounded ‘maximum’ are beyond the scope of our present discussion.

10 Allison, Henry, Kant's Theory of Aesthetic Taste (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2001), p. 315.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

11 An obvious difficulty for the concept of organic sublimity within Kant's own theory is that organisms possess determinate form and so can only be beautiful, whereas the sublime exceeds the bounds of form. Therefore, were Kant to embrace my notion of organic sublimity, he would seem to be faced with a contradiction: a formed object that would harmonize with the understanding's limits of conceptualization, yet an object that was so unbounded as to lead the imagination in the futile attempt to bring it under a single intuition. And thence, to the (ultimately satisfying) idea of the infinite. The difficulty, however, is only apparent. The ‘object’ of organic sublimity is not the physical organism simpliciter, and certainly not its mere appearance, as in the beautiful. Rather, the object of our attention is the organic processes that have been proceeding for thousands of years in the case of the sequoia, and millions of years in the case of the ancient forest and shark. Our inability to grasp in one intuition the organic processes that have proceeded for these great stretches of time does not conflict with the susceptibility of the appearance of a single organism to be bounded in a unified intuition. Moreover, the temporal span involved in forest and shark does closely approximate the spatial size of oceans and the starry heavens.

12 Allison, Kant's Theory of Taste, p. 322.

13 Ibid., p. 325, for elaboration on this point.

14 Both the feeling of sublimity and morality involve an initial displeasure on Kant's account. In the moral, we feel humiliated in recognizing the authority of the moral law over our (sensible) claims of self-love.

15 Hence Kant's excursus into war and its sublime aspect: ‘Even war has something sublime about it…‘ (§28: 263; 122).

16 Kant argues that this process of thought may not be in a given individual's consciousness, yet all have the capacity for it (§28: 262; 121).

17 Paul Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom, p. 260.

18 For now, I put to the side micro-organisms, both as individuals and as species, but I will return to them.

19 Patricia Matthews, ‘Scientific Knowledge and the Aesthetic appreciation of Nature’, p. 3. Matthews argues persuasively for a parallel between the norm of an object needed to judge particular examples and the categories of art discussed by Walton, Kendall, ‘Categories of Art’, Philosophical Review, 79 (1970)Google Scholar. We view the work of art differently, and consequently have a different aesthetic response, depending upon whether we see it as a painting or a frieze, depending upon whether we view it as an example of the school of Realism or of Expressionism.

20 Ibid., p. 6.

21 We may, of course, create narratives for non-organic very old objects, such as rocks and stars, short-lived organisms and artefacts for that matter. But the mere presence of narrative, even necessarily incomplete ones, is not sufficient for the awe taken in the organically sublime. This clarificatory note on the place of narrative in organic sublimity is prompted by the thoughtful comments made by John Fisher on an earlier version of this paper (see endnote 5).

22 See Rolston, Holmes, ‘Aesthetic Experience in Forests’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 56 (1998).Google Scholar

23 Using the forest as an example does raise questions of identity and individuation. What makes a forest an object of distinct appreciation when today's flora are not the same as its constituents 1,000 years ago, let alone 200 or 300 million years ago? I will leave these questions for another time, noting in passing my confidence in roughly the same principles of identity and identification that enable us to consider ancient cities or rivers the same despite great alteration in their constituents.

24 For the sake of simplicity I will speak of the shark as representing its species, as the tiger shark or great white shark indeed does. However, it should be understood that in some cases, with regard to certain features, the shark of today may not represent its species so much as the entire order - Selachii. The most primitive species of sharks, those possessing more than five gills, such as the Hexanchus griseus, would appear to be the most ancient and unchanged of extant species. And this species has probably existed much as we now find it for over a million years. The oldest shark fossil on record, Cladoselache, is 350 million years old, found near Cleveland, Ohio, of all places.

See Aldo Leopold's poetic interpretation of the modern crane as representative of its prehistoric species, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949), pp. 102–3.Google Scholar

25 I confine my discussion to predatory sharks.

26 Robert Fudge, ‘Imagination and the Science-Based Aesthetic Appreciation of Unscenic Nature’, p. 277.

27 Ibid., p. 278.

28 Alternatively, it may be that on Fudge's account the true object of appreciation is the conception of systems itself, of which the bog is but an instantiation. In order to avoid this seemingly awkward implication of his view, Fudge would need to elucidate the notion of the perceptual shift that I suggest may be animating his discussion.

29 So much of the shark's anatomy adapts it to predation. For example, its cartilaginous rather than bony skeletal structure enables the shark to whip its tail and body with great flexion, which contributes to the shark's great speed. In addition, some sharks are incredibly sensitive to electric impulses, which facilitates their ability to track prey.

30 In the finale of the experience, recall, our delight is in our mind's ability to transcend nature by thinking the idea of infinity which is greater than anything nature by itself can offer up.

31 For example, pp. 322–7, Kant's Theory of Taste.

32 When we discover that a prehistoric forest is endangered, the impetus to imagine its indefinite procession into the future is brought to the surface and rudely brought to a halt. The frustration of our subconscious projection, then, might be part of our dismay at the loss of the forest. A similar rude awakening may also be at play when a long-lived entity is imperilled or an ancient species is threatened with extinction. Mention of contemporaneity in experience may call to mind Kant's remarks about the temporal regress performed by the imagination in the experience of the sublime:

Comprehending a multiplicity in a unity (of intuition rather than of thought), and hence comprehending in one instant what is apprehended successively, is a regression that in turn cancels the condition of time in the imagination's progression and makes simultaneity intuitable. (§27: 259; 116)

33 Kant is here discussing how the imagination operates so as to effect the simultaneity of representations that can make possible the unity and identity of successive appearances. In the experience of the sublime, the imagination must do the work that concepts did in the first Critique. Because no concept is available to provide the recognition that unites successive representations, Kant extends his theory of the imagination to include aesthetic comprehension. But this is a different process, serving a different function, from the polar temporal movement that I am proposing as may be found in organic sublimity. Kant is concerned with the temporal conditions necessary for any experience of unity of successive representations in the sublime (including, or especially, those involving spatial magnitude). As such, Kant's temporal regress refers to the possibility of the sublime in time, as it unfolds. The contemporaneity of which I speak, on the other hand, is concerned with time as the object of attention within sublime experience. For a careful elucidation of Kant's temporal regress, see Makkreel's, Rudolf‘Imagination and Temporality in Kant's Theory of the Sublime’, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 42, (1984), pp. 303–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

34 This might resemble the famous duck-rabbit phenomenon, in which we cannot hold both gestalts simultaneously, and instead enjoy the flip-flop of perceptual identification and reidentification.

35 Kant argues that ‘the feeling of the sublime in nature is respect for our own [moral] vocation’ (§27: 258, 114). In the mathematically sublime, our respect is truly for the law of reason that commands us to estimate any large sensible object by the supersensible idea of the infinite. However, we substitute the sensible, large object of nature for our own rational faculty and its law, and speak liberally as though the mountain range or volcano were sublime and worthy of our respect.

36 Paul Guyer, Kant and The Experience of Freedom, p. 259. Elsewhere, Guyer notes that the sublime recalls or symbolizes the submission of sense experience to moral law (p. 253).

37 Kant uses the term ‘subreption’ to capture the ‘trick of slipping in a concept of sense as if it were the concept of an intellectual characteristic’ (§27:258,114, note 22).

38 Accompanying the moral feeling of respect, maintains Kant, is the pain of humiliation. We feel humiliated because, whatever checks our self-conceit, following the lead of our inclinations, humiliates us. And recognition of the authority of the moral law ‘strikes self-conceit down’ [Critique of Practical Reason, trans., Beck, Lewis White (New York: Macmillan, 1985), pp. 76–7]Google Scholar. For Kant, humiliation naturally accompanies respect for the moral law. In my view, humility is rather different from humiliation. Consequently, being humbled by the organically sublime need not be unpleasant. When humbled, we are edified by discovering that talents, virtues or interests are less worthwhile than we had thought they were. Humbling experiences resemble humiliations in that both compel a lowering of our self-assessment. However, being humbled promotes a salutary readjustment in our self-understanding (and is experienced as such), whereas humiliation is a bitter self-exposure. For further explanation of the distinction between being humbled and suffering humiliation, see Kupfer, Joseph, ‘The Moral Perspective of Humility’, Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 84 (2003).Google Scholar

39 Hill, Thomas, Autonomy and Respect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 112CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For additional discussion of humility and the aesthetic experience of nature, see Snow, Nancy, ‘Humility’, journal of Value Inquiry, 29 (1995).Google Scholar

40 Keeping with Kant, we may wish to say that we have moral obligations ‘regarding’ nature but not directly ‘towards’ nature, The Doctrine of Virtue, trans. Gregor, Mary J. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1964), pp. 108–9Google Scholar, Sections 16 and 17. For Kant, moral obligations can only be to moral beings, such as people; duties regarding nature, then, are truly duties to other humans or all humanity. Although I tend to agree with Kant, the claim I make for the moral aspect of organic sublimity can equally accommodate the narrow Kantian construction as well as the more generous attribution of duties towards nature per se. Consequently, I will speak loosely of duties towards nature, without presuming thereby to have adjudicated this sometimes contentious issue.

41 I am indebted to Anne Margaret Baxley and an anonymous reader of this journal for their insightful comments on earlier versions of this paper. Heeding their advice and answering their incisive questions helped me formulate my position more cogently and connect it with Kant's thinking more clearly.