The sublime is an aspect of experience that has attracted a great deal of scholarship, not only for scholarly reasons but because it connotes aspects of experience not exhausted by what Descartes once called clear distinct perception. That is, the sublime is an experience of the world which involves us in orientating ourselves within it, and this orientation, our human orientation, elevates us in comparison to the non-human world according to traditional accounts of the sublime. The sublime tells us something about our relation to the world rather than anything about the world per se. Nonetheless there is an objective sense of the sublime in that the narratives involved are culturally endorsed rather than invented by an individual. This means that objects can be judged worthy or not of evoking experiences of the sublime. In other words, it is not an idiosyncratic matter.
Immanuel Kant’s formulation of this involved explaining how such an experience is possible in terms of his system of the mind. Jane Forsey notes that Kant takes the features of the sublime as given and extrapolates from them certain features of the mind as if any concept of the sublime must implicate the mental architecture of his account (2007). Further to this she argues that in fact the concept of the sublime does implicate a particular system of the mind but neither Kant nor anyone else can successfully formulate it because the concept itself frames certain contradictions. According to Forsey, two consequences follow. First she argues that Kant’s system of the mind does not support the features of the sublime; and secondly that no system could as the very concept is incoherent.
If Forsey can show that Kant was mistaken in presenting his account as coherent given his commitments, this would be of interest in its own right. However, her stronger claim is that we cannot separate any concept of the sublime out from Kant’s theoretical underpinnings. That the way the features of the mind are meant to operate in experiences of the sublime are contradictory simply points to the fatal flaws in the whole concept. Her conclusion is that there is no coherent account of the sublime available to us.
I will argue that Forsey bases her reasoning on the assumption that a foundational empiricist or direct perception holds; and she interprets Kant’s notions of imagination, understanding and reason as though they are grounded in just such an account of perception. This is revealed in her interpretation of Kant’s phrase “beyond cognition”. Once this foundationalism is replaced with an account of perception more aligned with current research on perception, both philosophical and empirical, then an account of the sublime is available. Further to this however, I argue that what constitutes the narrative of the sublime is historically contingent. Before setting out my arguments, I consider Forsey’s argument in more detail.