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March 08 2016


Vision of the Sublime

Gazing up into the heavens dotted with innumerable stars, who couldn't survive moved by its manifestation or mystified by its expanse? Standing prior to the open vastness of the ocean or magnificent sight of snow capped Himalayas, how wouldn't one have the sudden surge of emotions aroused from deep within? Who couldn't survive exalted, discovering the irresistible simplicity and sweetness of a mathematical idea? Who wouldn't get captivated with the utter brilliance associated with an artistic or musical work?

Sense of Sublime, as the above situations bespeak of, is really a fascinating subject in philosophy and psychology. We'd discuss some of its dimensions.

The sense of sublime, primitive in their existence and central to human experience, would manifests itself in every such contexts described. As Grant Allen in their work The Origin from the Sublime puts it - "There is perhaps no feeling as the name indicated more strangely compounded and much more indefinably singular than that we call sense of Sublime". It is an inexplicable feeling mixed with awe and unspeakable joy, fear of something mysterious, or veneration for something profound. This connection with sublime may be evoked in every 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 as part of his article in Journal Nature -

"It could be the sense of mystery that, i think, drives the true scientist; precisely 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 several 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 with an immense invisible face whose breath moves him to tears" is what we define as moments of sublime.

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

"Both a perceived vastness (whether of power or magnitude) along with a need for an accommodation, which is inability to assimilate an event into current mental structure."

We can easily clearly identify this definition of 'Awe' with our subjective experience. When we're confronted with objects of physical grandeur, supreme works of arts and science, or religious or philosophical ideas, an unexpected awareness dawns which transcends our current idea of the nature of things, accompanied by an emergent overwhelming force, so overpowering which our mental faculty is a loss to accommodate its sheer depth, mystery or might.

There has always been a clear debate amongst early philosophers either 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 provided by Emmanuel Kant in his treatise Critique of Judgment (1790)-"The Beautiful as the name indicated is the question in the form of the object, and this consists in limitation, whereas the Sublime is usually to be found in an object minus the form, so far as it immediately involves, or by its presence provokes a representation of limitlessness, yet having a super-added thought of its totality".

Just what it means is that our thought of beautiful exists as an aesthetic idea in your mind and is not a characteristic of the object being perceived. It is just a concept in the mind in the subject and is intuitive as the name indicated. It cannot be given an acceptable perception that would realize the cognitive whole symbolized within 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 have it cannot become recognition. However, the argument takes a deviation when Kant states that the whole could exist since the "general without concept" in the "aesthetic idea" presented to the subject of the perception. Hence it is really an experience subjective which pleases "in general and with no concept".

Sublime, according to Kant, exists being an "aesthetic idea" in the mind, and these aesthetic idea coveys the concept of infinity or limitlessness in a more cognitive form i.e. the wholeness in 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 as the name indicated. Mathematical sublime happens by the immeasurability of the sublime like the night sky or the cosmos which overwhelms our imaginations ability to comprehend it or hold it. This inadequacy in our "faculty of senses" evidences its "smallness". "Dynamical sublime purely refers to 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 more inclined towards sublime naturally, it is equally applicable to the sublime in arts or sciences.

One depiction links 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 with her alien aircraft by way of a series of wormholes to far reaches from the cosmos. The sequence is breathtaking rolling around in its depiction as it shows her enable you to space-time continuum which culminates in to a sublime moment when she encounters with spectacular check out the cosmos.

When she returns she gets no evidence to prove what she had been through. When she is required to prove the experience, in her own response she says an issue that would only reinforce what has been discussed earlier -
"I had an experience. I can't prove it. I can not even explain it. All We can tell you is that everything I know as a human being, everything I'm, tells me that it was real. I used to be given something wonderful. Something which changed me. An idea of the universe that managed to get overwhelmingly clear just how tiny and insignificant possibly at the same time how rare and precious all of us are. A vision that says we belong to something more than ourselves that we're not, that no one is alone."

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