Getting a Handle on Kant’s Distinction between the Beautiful and the Sublime

Contained in Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) Critique of the Powers of Judgment are his reflections on beauty and the sublime. Beauty, writes Kant, can be defined as something that is good in itself that pleases the eye; it is absent any utility or service to some other good. Being agreeable with reason and the eyes, it needs no further justification. And so Kant writes the following (the bold is Kant’s):

That is good which pleases by means of reason alone, through the mere concept. We call something good for something (the useful) that pleases only as a means; however, another thing is called good in itself that pleases for itself.

His example of that which is good in itself is decoration: “Flowers, free designs, lines aimlessly intertwined in each other under the name of foliage, signify nothing, do not depend on any determinate concept, and yet please” (416). For Kant, such pretty things do not threaten us with the least danger; they are readily comprehended by both reason and the eye. And though they don’t need to do so, they also seem to affirm the ultimate rightness of the world, justifying it at some level. They’re pleasing; they’re agreeable. Like a piece of music.

But there is another category that pleases the eyes, yet also unsettles. This is the sublime, which in its ultimate form is the “absolutely great” (433). By its sheer power and magnitude (size), the sublime taxes our powers of comprehension and imagination even as we find ourselves, despite our fear, curiously attracted, wishing to come near and contemplate it (without necessarily placing ourselves in mortal peril, though we might well do so to come near to it, as a moth is attracted to a flame).

Kant associates the sublime with the colossal and monstrous. His distinction between these two is one of degree: the colossal is less sublime than the monstrous in that, with the colossal, conceptualization “is almost too great for our faculty of apprehension” and is thus made merely difficult. In comparison, the monstrous is that which, “by its magnitude,” dumbfounds our conceptualizations (either in reason or imagination) utterly.

Though not Kant’s example, the monstrous sublime is nicely captured by William Blake’s famous poem, “The Tyger,” wherein he puzzles over the tiger’s existence: “what immortal hand or eye dare framed thy fearful symmetry? . . . Did he that made the lamb, make thee?”

Blake, in other words, is asking the following question: what is God doing making gorgeous monsters that eat beautiful and innocent things? Kant is asking a similar question: what is God doing making sublime monsters that eat our tidy intellectual frames; our powers of comprehension?

For Kant, the monstrous sublime eludes our categories and notions of the way things ought to be, and is illustrated by the visitor to St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome. Kant writes that, on entering, one experiences “a feeling of inadequacy.” The difficulty is in “presenting the ideas of a whole” to one’s reason, and the imagination, reaching “its maximum,” tries to extend itself, yet “sinks back into itself” and “is thereby transported into an emotionally moving satisfaction” (434).

This inner Jacob-wrestle with the monstrous points to another distinction Kant makes between the beautiful and the sublime: beauty is objective (something adhering to things in themselves, whether we notice them or not), whereas the sublime is a byproduct of our own incomprehension and mortal vulnerability: “[T]rue sublimity must be sought only in the mind of the one who judges, not in the object of nature, . . .” (436). Presumably God, comprehending all and subject to no dangers, is not vulnerable to sublime emotions. In this sense, the sublime as subjective is akin to Freud’s notion of the uncanny (unheimlich): a thing difficult to account for in one’s house, mental or otherwise. (“Why do I keep having dreams about my fourth grade teacher? I can’t get my head around this: she doesn’t belong in them–and yet, oddly, she does.”)

The subjective nature of the sublime is also illustrated by Kant in his emphasis on the right distance that one must stand in relation to a sublime object, offering the Egyptian pyramids as an example: “[I]n order to get the full emotional effect of the magnitude of the pyramids one must neither come too close to them nor be too far away.” To be too close one sees only a heap of stones; to be too far away one apprehends merely a form in the distance; but to find a middle ground, “the eye requires some time to complete its apprehension from the base level to the apex, but during this time the former always partly fades before the imagination has taken in the latter, and the comprehension is never complete” (434).

Put another way, stepping back, one concludes the pyramids are colossal (difficult but not impossible to comprehend); stepping forward, monstrous (alluding comprehension); and stepping forward yet more, a mere pile of blocks.

But it is not in relation to human architecture, but in panoramic nature that magnitude is most keenly felt. Kant’s examples are “[b]old, overhanging, as it were threatening cliffs, thunder clouds towering up into the heavens, bringing with them flashes of lightning and crashes of thunder, volcanoes with their all-destroying violence, hurricanes with the devastation they leave behind, the boundless ocean set into a rage, [and] a lofty waterfall on a mighty river, . . .”. Such things make our capacities seem a “trifle in comparison with their power” (438).

And yet, to return to Kant’s original definition of the sublime—that which is “absolutely great”—we discover Kant’s strategy of human resistance to outward displays of great magnitude: there is something greater than outward magnitude, and that is the infinite.

The infinite does not belong to nature, but to the human mind. It is the mind, in its very power to conceive of the existence of both God and the infinite (the “absolutely great”)—and of its capacity to locate vast nature as a mere subset of the infinite, that is a counter-balance to the monstrous sublime in nature. In thus encountering the monstrous sublime, we are brought back upon ourselves—back to our own inner mystery, the inner sublime:

Nature is here called sublime merely because it raises the imagination to the point of presenting those cases in which the mind can make palpable to itself the sublimity of its own vocation even over nature.

The mind’s vocation, in other words, is directed to the infinite, the “absolutely great,” and instances of great outward magnitude thus remind us of who we ultimately are, even if we do not have the capacity to visualize it or imagine it. Our “faculty of reason,” though blind to infinity, gropes in its direction, possessing an “independent” and monstrous sublime power, a “nonsensible standard which has that very infinity under itself as a unit against which everything in nature is small, […]” (439).

And so the mind is moved by the monstrous sublime, wherein with beauty our contemplation is calm (437). Kant likens our experience of the monstrous sublime, in its shifting back and forth between nature’s magnitude and the mind’s infinitude as akin to an agitation or “vibration, i.e., to a rapidly alternating repulsion from and attraction to one and the same object” (Ibid.)

There is an Emily Dickinson’s poem that seems to rather nicely approximate Kant’s notion of the sublime as a squaring off of mind and nature in a gargantuan and sublime struggle for supremacy. The disturbing calm of Dickinson’s narrative voice adds a curious and ironic twist to the poem’s sublime subject. In the poem, Dickinson imagines herself, in one hand, hefting “the brain like a shopper picking through cabbages at the market” (Paglia 625) and, in the other hand, hefting three sublime things—the sky, the sea, and God:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

For—put them side by side—

The one the other will contain

With ease—and You—beside—


The Brain is deeper than the sea—

For—hold them—Blue to Blue—

The one the other will absorb—

As Sponges—Buckets—do—


The Brain is just the weight of God—

For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—

And they will differ—if they do—

As Syllable from Sound—


Source for Kant quotations: The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Second Edition 2010). In this text, a selection from Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment begins on page 411.

Source for Camille Paglia quotation: her book, Sexual Personae (Yale 1990).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Getting a Handle on Kant’s Distinction between the Beautiful and the Sublime

  1. Pingback: Beauty That Is Also Repellant | Prometheus Unbound

  2. Pingback: Sink Eye, Space Eye, and The Empty One | Prometheus Unbound

  3. Pingback: Would Edmund Burke Have Approved of Artists Blending the Sublime and the Beautiful? | Prometheus Unbound

  4. Anonymous says:

    This is an example of the internet being a good thing

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