The pleasures of contra-purposiveness: Kant, the sublime, and being human

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Deligiorgi, Katerina (2014)

When Paul Guyer surveyed the literature on the sublime about twenty years ago, he noted the flourishing of psychoanalytic and deconstructionist interpretations of the sublime by literary theorists and offered his own interpretative essay on Kant’s sublime as a contribution to a sparsely populated field. Today the situation is reversed. In the field of philosophical aesthetics, understood to include analytic aesthetics as well as theoretical approaches to literary and visual culture, serious doubts have been raised about the coherence of theories of the sublime and indeed the usefulness of the concept. By contrast, the sublime is increasingly studied by Kantians who value its role in Kant’s moral psychology and consider it a useful, and in some cases indispensible, element to his ethics. The questions the present paper sets out to answer are: Is a coherent theory of the sublime possible? Is the sublime a useful concept? Is the chief interest in the sublime moral? The answers, briefly, are: yes, yes, and no. Although the argument supporting these conclusions focuses on Kant’s analysis, the aim is to show how a certain conception of human agency permits an aesthetic interpretation of the sublime with broader application and significance.
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