Sublime: A Philosophic False Friend

Oh false friends, you make my life hell. This is a word that people all over the place misunderstand and misuse all the time. That word is one of my philosophic concepts from Mr. Kant; Sublime.

Most people often use the word sublime much in the same way that they use the word decadent. They believe it to be something luxurious or wonderful. Once again, this is very wrong. If that is wrong, then what is the correct definition? It is sort of the opposite. Rather than being a good and pleasant thing, sublime is a horrifying thing. Yes, it may be beautiful at times, but it is so in a terrifying way. You might describe it as mind-blowing. Think of the night sky free of light pollution. You can see millions of stars. You cannot even fathom how many there really are. That is what Kant would describe as being part of the “mathematical sublime”. Something so incomprehensible that you cannot help but stand there admiring it it wonder. Kant would also consider this as part of the “noble sublime”. The other two feelings of the sublime are the “terrifying sublime” and the “splendid sublime”. The “splendid sublime” would be like a waterfall or a thunderstorm. They are beautiful to look, but are also incredibly dangerous. If one were to think of the “terrifying sublime”, it is best described as an explosion in a movie. Sure, they look awesome, but in real life they are horrifying and people die because of them. However, since it is in a movie there is no immediate danger to the viewer.

If all that is a bit too complicated to understand, I will give you a quote from Kant’s Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime that describes the sublime perfectly. The sublime is anything that will “arouse enjoyment but with horror”.