The find it beautiful, not the other way

The Kantian sublime is not contained in the nature as we know of
today, but also expanded into feelings that we experience through everyday
life. When the sublime is expanded into everyday life, I think that the human
attitude towards such situations no longer longs to transcend the fear about
the nature that we have imagined that would surely obliterate us, but rather
faces fear head on and becomes one with nature itself to experience delight and
pleasure. Therefore, the value of the sublime through our artistic moments is
hugely important because we would not recognize and realize beauty without
having felt the sublime.

            In his third
critique, Kant says that “the delight which determines the judgment of taste is
independent of all interest” (Kant, Analytic of the Beautiful, Book I – §2).

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This means we don’t need or want anything from the object. Yet, we are
interested in it just for what it is, or we are pleased with its existence. We
take pleasure in something because we find it beautiful, not the other way
around. For example, when we see a beautiful sunset, it can be awe-inspiring
and stop us in our tracks at the mercy of its beauty. At this point, our
interest in the sunset isn’t because it cures an appetite we have, nor does it
serve our moral agenda. Instead, our interest in the sunset is for just what it
is and how it causes us to feel when we experience it, not how it can serve us,
or what we can take from it. You have no other attachment or interest in the
sunset, other than it is beautiful. Kant says things that we find agreeable, or
something that the senses find pleasing is not a disinterested interest, since
the pleasure we take from it has a motive.

            Similarly, he says
that delight we take in things that are good are coupled with our interests, so
they are not beautiful for Kant because they cater to our interest in what we
subjectively consider good. The difference between having a disinterested
interest in something, or having interest in it because you find it agreeable
or good is that our interest “is determined not merely by the representation of
the object, but also by the represented bond of connexion between the Subject
and the real existence of the object” in those things we find agreeable or good
(Kant, Analytic of the Beautiful, Book I – §5). This clearly doesn’t qualify as
the disinterested interest Kant finds necessary for aesthetic judgment.

Ultimately, this first dimension to Kant’s analysis of aesthetic experience
shows that humans are able to transcend their own self-interest within the
realm of aesthetic experience. It shows that we are able to care about and
appreciate things that can offer nothing to us other than its existence. This
disinterested interest we have in something beautiful is the feeling of
experiencing something as an end in itself, not as merely an instrumental means
to an end. In the presence of beautiful things, we are liberated from our base,
human desires, and elevated to disinterested interest in something other than

            Kant’s next dimension
of our aesthetic experience is the quantitative dimension. Kant thinks that
when we see something that we believe to be beautiful, we believe it to be
universally and objectively so. When we experience the beauty of the sunset,
our faculties are excited in such a way that we know anyone with the same
faculties in the same circumstance would also experience the sunset as
beautiful. Our faculties are freed by our own self-transcendence caused by the
disinterested interest we experience in the object, and the pleasure we feel is
due to the free-play of our faculties and imagination during the experience. In
other words, when we are moved to say, “this is beautiful”, we don’t mean that
it is beautiful to us, or beautiful right now. We mean that this is beautiful
to everyone who is made like us, and we are willing to defend our belief
against someone who claims differently, often with the expectation that we will
be able to change the doubter’s mind. Francesco Belfiore in his book The
Triadic Structure of the Mind: Outlines of a Philosophical System asserts
that “The aesthetic judgment is conceived as a sort of free play that, rather
than according to definite concepts, would act in harmony with the general law
of understanding” (P. 269). This quantitative dimension of aesthetic experience
ties in nicely with another dimension Kant names, which is modality. This is
the idea that something you find to be beautiful is necessarily so, and someone
who says they don’t find it beautiful isn’t seeing it correctly, or aren’t
leaving themselves open to aesthetic experience.

            Next, Kant’s most
important dimension addresses the relation that we try to assign to beautiful
things. Objects of beauty cause us to recognize a certain purposive nature of
it; yet, we are unable to ever pinpoint the exact purpose of it. With the
sunset example, as we see the sun disappear into the horizon, the process
appears to be purposefully composed and organized. It is possible that instead
of a beautiful sunset, the sky could instead simply change from day to night.

Instead, the sun slowly and majestically sinks into the Earth every day as it
casts rays of spectacular color and warmth that illuminates the clouds. Because
this is how the sun sets, we recognize that things seem to be ordered and
purposeful; however, we can’t identify what the purpose is. Another example is
when we experience abstract art as beautiful, we can often tell that the lines,
color, and figure of the painting has been thoughtfully organized and placed;
yet, we can’t identify what the order is, or the purpose behind the picture.

This idea of perceived purposively without apparent purpose closely relates
back to Kant’s second dimension concerning the disinterested interest we must
have in something to find it truly beautiful. If we could identify the purpose
behind beautiful things, we could potentially lose our disinterested interest
in the object, and our experience of it as beautiful.

            For Kant, it is
exactly this experience of purposively without apparent purpose, combined with
the other dimensions of aesthetic experience, which shows us that we belong in
the world. The fact that we see things as beautiful without being instrumental,
the way in which we objectively and necessarily believe in the beauty of
things, and the purposively we recognize in a beautiful thing without an
apparent purpose, all come together in one unified aesthetic experience that
shows us we belong in the world. It does this this through giving us the
pleasure of being surrounded by nature that is truly beautiful, not just
useful. Kant relates human experience of natural beauty with moral goodness
when he says that the ability to find natural things beautiful without being
instrumental “is always a mark of a good soul; and that, where this interest is
habitual, it is at least indicative of a temper of mind favorable to the moral
feeling that it should readily associate itself with the contemplation of
nature” (Kant, Analytic of the Sublime, Book II – §45). Kant also
mentions an example of someone seeing a beautiful bird and following it through
nature out of admiration and love, even at risk to themselves. Kant says “This
means that he is not alone pleased with nature’s product in respect of its
form, but is also pleased at its existence, and is so without any charm of
sense having a share in the matter, or without his associating with it any end
whatsoever” (Kant, Analytic of the Sublime, Book II – §45).

            The fact that nature
exists in such a way that we can enjoy and find it beautiful for just its
existence is proof, for Kant, that we do belong in this world. Kant’s view of
the sublime ends up with a similar realization as his view of beauty, that it
empowers and shows us we belong in the world, but it takes a more indirect path
to the conclusion. To understand Kant’s view on the effects of the sublime, you
must begin with understanding his rules for experiencing the sublime, and how
he defines what exactly the sublime is. Kant believes we experience the sublime
in nature when we are in the presence of, or witness the effects of, something
bigger, mightier, and more powerful than us. The power of the sublime as it
compares to us is unfathomable and infinite, and no object can be said to be
sublime since the nature of sublimity exceeds any qualities of an object. We
feel small, powerless, and alienated in the presence of the sublime. Thus, Kant
says, the experience of the sublime only truly occurs in nature. These
encounters induce fear in us, but not a fear of immediate danger, but a fear of
what nature could do to you if it wanted to. For example, those who visited
Cuba and Florida during the aftermath of hurricane Irma didn’t experience
immediate fear or danger since the storm already passed, but they did
experience the sublime. What they felt is the fear of what the hurricane had
the power to do to them if they had been there, and how little control they
have over nature’s will.

            Kant thinks our brain
literally short circuits as it tries to balance reason and imagination in the
presence of the sublime. Our reason tries to grasp and understand its vastness
in totality, but is at odds with our imagination, which has the ability to at
least try and imagine the infinite power of the sublime. The indirect fear we
feel as we experience the sublime pushes us to feel that we don’t belong in the
world. Although our experience of the sublime initially causes us to feel at
danger in the world, it doesn’t end here, for Kant. At first, Kant’s view that
the sublime causes us to feel that we don’t belong in the world seems to be
quite the opposite of Kant’s view of beauty’s effect on us, but the two still
relate. Kant thinks that in the face of the sublime we not only recognize how
fragile life can be, but we also have a sense of the untouchable freedom that
lies within us. Although nature has the power to absolutely destroy you, it can
never touch your freedom. We are still free to confront the sublime in nature,
even knowing its power over us.

            In the experience of
our smallness, we are enlightened as to how great we really are. The
realization of our own freedom lifts us up above this world that can decimate
us at any moment, but cannot touch our intellect and personal freedom. It is
liberating to know that there is a certain dignity inside of us that isn’t
threatened by the sublime, although it threatens our physical existence.

Although we may often feel alone, unsafe, or out of place in the world, it can
never rob us of our own freedom. Experiencing the sublime is an opportunity for
us to recognize a certain dignity we have that can’t be taken away from us by
nature’s might. And, for every ravenous tornado, there is an intrinsically
beautiful flower that reminds of us our own ability to self-transcend our own
selfish interests, and reassures us that we do belong in this world, alongside
nature’s delicacies, as well as nature’s life-threatening sublime.


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