This title already raises the conundrum that "the sublime" has regularly, although in different ways, posed. The substantivized form of the adjective suggests something one could point to where sublimity resides. The sublime might even be misconstrued (as it was by Edmund Burke) as a property of certain objects. But the sublime refers to no thing; it is instead an effect produced by the limits of our capacities for perception and representation. As such the sublime has played a vital role in the history of aesthetic theory as well as in postmodernist debates about representation and the limits of knowledge.
The sublime was first theorized by the pseudonymous Longinus in On the Sublime, written in the first century CE. Longinus conceives sublimity as a quality of elevated prose of great rhetorical power. Not until the seventeenth century does the sublime become associated with natural phenomena, and then with the incomprehensible excesses of natural force. In A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Burke provided an empiricist account of kinds of objects and situations that induce sublime perceptual experiences. Where beauty is found for Burke in things, the perception of which seems to harmonize with human sensory capacities, the sublime object of perception challenges our senses or exceeds our perceptual grasp. Burke equivocated on the implications of his empiricism, however, by conceiving sublimity as a property of these perceptually challenging objects or scenes, rather than understanding sublimity as a kind of secondary quality to be located in the relationship between perceiver and perceived.
Immanuel Kant provided in his Critique of Judgment (1790) the essential formulation of the sublime that has organized most subsequent discussion. Beauty, sublimity, and aesthetic qualities generally are for Kant no properties of objects; they are the felt effects of judgments that reflective perceivers make on the form and content of their experience. A judging subject finds something beautiful when its appearance or design, without or before applying conceptual rules to it, invigorates her cognitive capacities generally, and inspires an imaginative appreciation of the object. Judgments of beauty, then, reflect a harmony between feeling and cognition that is absent in the judgment of the sublime. People feel sublimity, to the contrary, in cases where their efforts to comprehend something are stymied by vastness, complexity, or by the natural might of that which threatens to overwhelm them.
These varieties of sublimity reflect Kant's germinal distinction between the mathematical and the dynamical sublime. The subject encounters mathematical sublimity when attempting to comprehend perceptually an object too vast (the starry heavens) or too grand (the great pyramids, from the correct distance) to take in all at once. The mathematical sublime exceeds one's conceptual grasp by inducing in the subject perceptual riches too extensive to subsume satisfactorily under available categories. It points up the limits of human capacity to perceive comprehensively and to represent to humans conceptually what is perceived. The frustration of this nevertheless gives rise to aesthetic pleasure for Kant, because the humbling of certain human cognitive capacities reminds people of the superiority of reason's capacity to think the infinite. For this reason, the sublime has regularly invited a theological interpretation throughout the European tradition.
The judging subject feels dynamical sublimity when threatened by the extraordinary forces of violent nature. This strain of Kant's theory of sublimity inspired the subsequent generation of Romantic poets, not to mention the later Nietzschean appreciation of Dionysian artistic impulses. Throughout the nineteenth century, the sublime is associated with excesses of natural force, tormented outpourings of emotion, and the transgression of norms of representation. Hence in the twentieth century the effects of sublime experiences were embraced by the sequence of artistic avant-garde movements that sought to induce ecstatic or liminal aesthetic responses designed to challenge conventional artistic or cultural norms. What a culture already possesses the conceptual apparatus to represent adequately cannot be sublime; the goal of the avant-garde was to allude to something that defies available means of representation.
Not surprisingly, then, the sublime was of great interest to postmodern theorists of the late twentieth century. Developments in multiple fields (the crisis of representation in anthropology, attacks on the representational theory of the mind in philosophy) encouraged postmodernists to embrace sublimity as the irrational and humiliating counterpoint to modernist categorizing zeal and its bureaucratic rationality. To embrace sublimity and to induce its manifestation in judging subjects is, as Jean-François Lyotard put it in The Postmodern Condition (1984), "To present the fact that the unpresentable exists" (p. 78). Rather than regard that humbled subject as the last word on the sublime, however, future theorists of this perennial notion may see the sublime, that which challenges human perceptual and conceptual reach, as a regular inducement to strive to extend that reach, rather than a reason to cease the attempt.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, edited by Alan Phillips. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990.
Kant, Immanuel. Critique of Judgment. Translated by Werner S. Pluhar. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1987.
Longinus. On Great Writing (On the Sublime). Translated by G. M. A. Grube. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1991.
Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Kirk E. Pillow (2005)