Kant is an 18th century German philosopher whose work initated dramatic changes in the fields of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, and teleology. Like many Enlightenment thinkers, he holds our mental faculty of reason in high esteem; he believes that it is our reason that invests the world we experience with structure. In his works on aesthetics and teleology, he argues that it is our faculty of judgment that enables us to have experience of beauty and grasp those experiences as part of an ordered, natural world with purpose.
Overview: For Kant, the other basic type of aesthetic experience is the sublime. The sublime names experiences like violent storms or huge buildings which seem to overwhelm us; that is, we feel we 'cannot get our head around them'. This is either mainly 'mathematical' – if our ability to intuit is overwhelmed by size (the huge building) – or 'dynamical' – if our ability to will or resist is overwhelmed by force (e.g. the storm). The problem for Kant here is that this experience seems to directly contradict the principle of the purposiveness of nature for our judgment. And yet, Kant notes, one would expect the feeling of being overwhelmed to also be accompanied by a feeling of fear or at least discomfort. Whereas, the sublime can be a pleasurable experience. All this raises the question of what is going on in the sublime
Kant's solution is that, in fact, the storm or the building is not the real object of the sublime at all. Instead, what is properly sublime are ideas of reason: namely, the ideas of absolute totality or absolute freedom. However huge the building, we know it is puny compared to absolute totality; however powerful the storm, it is nothing compared to absolute freedom. The sublime feeling is therefore a kind of 'rapid alternation' between the fear of the overwhelming and the peculiar pleasure of seeing that overwhelming overwhelmed. Thus, it turns out that the sublime experience is purposive after all – that we can, in some way, 'get our head around it'.
Since the ideas of reason (particularly freedom) are also important for Kant's moral theory, there seems to be an interesting connection between the sublime and morality. This Kant discusses under the heading of 'moral culture', arguing for example that the whole sublime experience would not be possible if humans had not received a moral training that taught them to recognize the importance of their own faculty of reason.
Traditionally, the sublime has been the name for objects inspiring awe, because of the magnitude of their size/height/depth (e.g. the ocean, the pyramids of Cheops), force (a storm), or transcendence (our idea of God). Vis-