Vision of the Sublime


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Gazing up in 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 notice the sudden surge of emotions aroused from deep within? Who may not be exalted, discovering the irresistible simplicity and sweetness of a mathematical idea? Who wouldn't get captivated with the utter brilliance of your artistic or musical work?

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

A feeling of sublime, primitive in the existence and central to human experience, would manifests itself in most such contexts described. As Grant Allen in the work The Origin of the Sublime puts it - "There is probably no feeling naturally more strangely compounded and much more indefinably singular than that we call sense 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 all of the pursuit of religion, philosophy, science, arts etc. This is one way precisely Erwin Chargaff, famous biologist whose contribution in understanding 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; exactly the same blind force, blindly seeing, deafly hearing, unconsciously remembering, that drives the larva to the butterfly. If the scientist has not experienced, at least a few times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation with the immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears, he isn't a scientist." What Chargaff delineates as "confrontation by having an immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears" is what we define as moments of sublime.

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

"Both a perceived vastness (whether of power or magnitude) plus a need for an accommodation, the actual inability to assimilate an event into current mental structure."

We are able to clearly identify this definition 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 sudden awareness dawns which transcends our current idea of the nature of things, as well as an emergent overwhelming force, so overpowering that the mental faculty are at loss to accommodate its sheer depth, mystery or might.

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

What it really means is that our understanding of beautiful exists being an aesthetic idea inside our mind and is not a sign 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 within the concept. This wholeness of cognition within the concept transcends all possible experiences so because of this by virtue of this limitation of mind to perceive that have it cannot become recognition. However, the argument takes a deviation when Kant says that the whole could exist because the "general without concept" in the "aesthetic idea" provided to the subject of the perception. Hence it is really an experience subjective which pleases "in general and without having a concept".

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

Kant also discerns between "mathematical" and "Dynamical" sublimes naturally. Mathematical sublime happens from the immeasurability of the sublime like the night sky or even the cosmos which overwhelms our imaginations ability to comprehend it or hold it. This inadequacy inside our "faculty of senses" evidences its "smallness". "Dynamical sublime purely is the term for immeasurability of the might of nature. We may experience fear by stormy ocean, thunderous clouds or volcanoes while knowing ourselves that we are safe and hence without being afraid. While the above analysis is more inclined towards sublime anyway, it is equally applicable on the sublime in arts or sciences.

One depiction which will come very close to the idea of sublime could be the scene from the movie "Contact" depending on novel by Carl Sagan where Ellie, the protagonist, is transported with your ex alien aircraft by way of a series of wormholes to far reaches from the cosmos. The sequence is breathtaking in the depiction as it shows her enable you to 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 show what she had experienced. When she is inspired to prove the experience, in her response she says something which would only reinforce what needs been discussed earlier -
"I had an event. I can't prove it. I am unable to even explain it. All I will tell you is that everything I realize as a human being, everything We are, tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful. Something which changed me. An image of the universe that got overwhelmingly clear how tiny and insignificant at the same time how rare and precious all of us are. A vision that informs us we belong to something in excess of ourselves that we're not, that none of us is alone."