Vision of the Sublime


Gazing up to the heavens dotted with innumerable stars, who wouldn't be moved by its manifestation or mystified by its expanse? Standing before the open vastness of the ocean or magnificent sight of snow capped Himalayas, how wouldn't one glance at the sudden surge of emotions aroused from deep within? Who would not be exalted, discovering the irresistible simplicity and wonder of a mathematical idea? Who wouldn't get keen about the utter brilliance of your artistic or musical work?


Sense of Sublime, as the above situations bespeak of, can be a fascinating subject in philosophy and psychology. We may discuss some of its dimensions.

The sense of sublime, primitive rolling around in its existence and central to human experience, would manifests itself in every such contexts described. As Grant Allen in their work The Origin of the Sublime puts it - "There is in all likelihood no feeling naturally more strangely compounded and much more indefinably singular than that we call feeling of Sublime". It is an inexplicable feeling blended with awe and unspeakable joy, anxiety about something mysterious, or veneration for something profound. This experience with sublime may be evoked in every pursuit of religion, philosophy, science, arts etc. This is how precisely Erwin Chargaff, famous biologist whose contribution to understand of the structure of DNA left unacknowledged by Nobel Committee, reflects this emotion in their article in Journal Nature -

"It is the sense of mystery that, in my view, drives the true scientist; the identical blind force, blindly seeing, deafly hearing, unconsciously remembering, that drives the larva in the butterfly. If the scientist has not experienced, at least a couple of times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation having an immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he's not a scientist." What Chargaff delineates as "confrontation with the immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears" is the thing that we define as moments of sublime.

Philosophers and psychologists have experimented with conceptualize this mind-set as "Aesthetic Appreciation". Edmund Burke's famous treatise, "A Philosophical Inquiry to the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful", would have been a breakthrough in the uniting notion of sublime in philosophy with psychology. In their work, he posits that this effect caused by the great and sublime is 'astonishment' and can be reckoned as 'of the highest degree'; while others are its inferior effects like reverence, admiration and respect. Based on evolutionary biologists Keltner & Haidt, 'Awe' as a possible experience can include -

"Both a perceived vastness (whether of power or magnitude) as well as a need for an accommodation, which is the inability to assimilate an experience into current mental structure."

We could clearly identify this meaning of 'Awe' with our subjective experience. While we are confronted with objects of physical grandeur, supreme works of arts and science, or religious or philosophical ideas, a rapid awareness dawns which transcends our current comprehension of the nature of things, as well as an emergent overwhelming force, so overpowering that our mental faculty reaches loss to accommodate its sheer depth, mystery or might.

There's always been a clear debate amongst early philosophers with the idea to associate or discern the Sublime from Beautiful. Marko Ursic in their essay, Sublimity of the Sky from Kant to Sayantana and beyond, examines this difference as distributed by Emmanuel Kant in his treatise Critique of Judgment (1790)-"The Beautiful naturally is the question of the form of the object, this also consists in limitation, whereas the Sublime shall be found in an object without the form, so far as it immediately involves, or by its presence provokes a representation of limitlessness, yet which has a super-added thought of its totality".

What it means is that our thought of beautiful exists as an aesthetic idea within our mind and is not a manifestation of the object being perceived. This is a concept in the mind with the subject and is intuitive in nature. It cannot be given an adequate perception that would realize the cognitive whole symbolized from the concept. This wholeness of cognition in the concept transcends all possible experiences and therefore by virtue of this limitation of mind to perceive that experience it cannot become recognition. However, the argument has a deviation when Kant says that the whole could exist as the "general without concept" in the "aesthetic idea" given to the subject of the perception. Hence it is really an experience subjective which pleases "in general and without a concept".

Sublime, according to Kant, exists as an "aesthetic idea" in the mind, which aesthetic idea coveys the concept of infinity or limitlessness in a more cognitive form i.e. the wholeness inside the cognition could be recognized from the aesthetic idea. Sublime is more inner than the beautiful.

Kant also discerns between "mathematical" and "Dynamical" sublimes in nature. Mathematical sublime happens by the immeasurability of the sublime such as the night sky or even the cosmos which overwhelms our imaginations capacity to comprehend it or hold it. This inadequacy within our "faculty of senses" evidences its "smallness". "Dynamical sublime purely is the term for immeasurability of the might of nature. Organic beef experience fear by stormy ocean, thunderous clouds or volcanoes while knowing ourselves that we're safe and hence without getting afraid. While the above analysis is much more inclined towards sublime in nature, it is equally applicable towards the sublime in arts or sciences.

One depiction that will come very close to the idea of sublime is the scene from the movie "Contact" determined by novel by Carl Sagan where Ellie, the protagonist, is transported along with her alien aircraft with a series of wormholes to far reaches from the cosmos. The sequence is breathtaking in its depiction as it shows her get a hearty space-time continuum which culminates right into a sublime moment when she encounters with spectacular check out the cosmos.

When she returns she's got no evidence to demonstrate what she had been through. When she is inspired to prove the experience, in their own response she says a thing that would only reinforce what's been discussed earlier -
"I had an experience. I can't prove it. I am unable to even explain it. All I will tell you is that everything I know as a human being, everything I will be, tells me that it was real. I had been given something wonderful. A thing that changed me. An image of the universe that made it overwhelmingly clear precisely how tiny and insignificant and also at the same time how rare and precious most of us are. A vision that informs us we belong to something greater than ourselves that we're not, that no one is alone."