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08 Mar 2016
Gazing up to the heavens dotted with innumerable stars, who may not be moved by its manifestation or mystified by its expanse? Standing prior to open vastness of the ocean or magnificent sight of snow capped Himalayas, how wouldn't one glance at the sudden surge of emotions aroused from deep within? Who would not be exalted, discovering the irresistible simplicity and wonder of a mathematical idea? Who wouldn't get keen about the utter brilliance of an artistic or musical work?

A feeling of Sublime, as the above situations bespeak of, is really a fascinating subject in philosophy and psychology. We might discuss some of its dimensions.

A feeling 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 of the Sublime puts it - "There is in all likelihood no feeling anyway more strangely compounded and much more indefinably singular than that we call feeling of Sublime". It is an inexplicable feeling mixed with awe and unspeakable joy, nervous about something mysterious, or veneration for something profound. This example of sublime may be evoked in every pursuit of religion, philosophy, science, arts etc. This is the way precisely Erwin Chargaff, famous biologist whose contribution to understand of the structure of DNA left unacknowledged by Nobel Committee, reflects this emotion in his article in Journal Nature -

"It will be the sense of mystery that, in my opinion, 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 hasn't experienced, at least a couple of times in his life, this cold shudder down his spine, this confrontation having an 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 frame of mind as "Aesthetic Appreciation". Edmund Burke's famous treatise, "A Philosophical Inquiry in to the Origin of Our Ideas from the Sublime and Beautiful", was a breakthrough in the uniting idea of sublime in philosophy with psychology. As part of his 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. As outlined by evolutionary biologists Keltner & Haidt, 'Awe' as an 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 can clearly identify this concise explaination '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 abrupt awareness dawns which transcends our current knowledge of the nature of things, followed by an emergent overwhelming force, so overpowering which our mental faculty are at loss to accommodate its sheer depth, mystery or might.

There's always been a clear debate amongst early philosophers 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 given 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, which consists in limitation, whereas the Sublime is usually to be found in an object devoid of the form, so far as it immediately involves, or by its presence provokes a representation of limitlessness, yet which has a super-added thought of its totality".

What it means is that our understanding of beautiful exists just as one aesthetic idea inside our mind and is not a sign of the object being perceived. It's a concept in the mind in the subject and is intuitive naturally. It cannot be given an acceptable perception that would realize the cognitive whole symbolized inside the concept. This wholeness of cognition from the concept transcends all possible experiences and hence by virtue of this limitation of mind to perceive that have it cannot become recognition. However, the argument has a deviation when Kant claims that the whole could exist because "general without concept" in the "aesthetic idea" provided to the subject of the perception. Hence it becomes an experience subjective which pleases "in general and without a concept".

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

Kant also discerns between "mathematical" and "Dynamical" sublimes anyway. Mathematical sublime happens from the immeasurability of the sublime for example the night sky or cosmos which overwhelms our imaginations capability 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. We would experience fear by stormy ocean, thunderous clouds or volcanoes while knowing ourselves that we are safe and hence without getting afraid. While the above analysis is a bit more inclined towards sublime naturally, it is equally applicable for the sublime in arts or sciences.

One depiction which comes very close to the idea of sublime will be the scene from the movie "Contact" depending on novel by Carl Sagan where Ellie, the protagonist, is transported with your ex alien aircraft using a series of wormholes to far reaches of the cosmos. The sequence is breathtaking in their 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's no evidence to show what she had experienced. When she is required to prove the experience, in her own response she says a thing that would only reinforce what's been discussed earlier -
"I had an event. I can't prove it. I can't even explain it. All I can tell you is that everything I understand as a human being, everything I am, tells me that it was real. I used to be given something wonderful. Something changed me. An idea of the universe that made it overwhelmingly clear exactly how tiny and insignificant 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 nobody is alone."


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