ROBERT CLEWIS | The Kantian Sublime and the Revelation of Freedom | Cambridge University Press 2009


By Melissa Zinkin 

Since the 1980s, there has been a steady stream of writings on the sublime, many of which make use of Kant’s concept of the sublime. But there has been only a handful of sustained scholarly works on the sublime in Kant. Clewis’s book, which emphasizes the connection between the sublime and enthusiasm in Kant’s writings, tracing Kant’s thoughts on these topics back to his early work, is a very welcome addition to Kant scholarship. The underlying question that the book is concerned with is how to reconcile what seem to be Kant’s contradictory views on the French Revolution. On the one hand, in his political writings, Kant unequivocally condemns all revolution as being against public right. Yet, on the other hand, in The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant writes that he sees in the enthusiasm of the onlookers to the French revolution a moral predisposition and a hope for progress. Kant writes of the French Revolution:

The revolution of a gifted people which we have seen unfolding in our day may succeed or miscarry; it may be filled with misery and atrocities to the point that a right thinking human being, were he boldly to hope to execute it successfully the second time, would never resolve to make the experiment at such cost—this revolution, I say, nonetheless finds in the hearts of all spectators (who are not engaged in this play themselves) a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm, the very expression of which is fraught with danger; this participation, therefore, can have no other cause than a moral predisposition of the human race.—AA 7:85

According to Clewis, we can reconcile Kant’s two attitudes towards the French Revolution by distinguishing between the usurpatory means by which the revolutionary establishment of a new republic is achieved and the end of a republic that respects the rights of all its citizens. Kant favours the end, but not the means. Yet, in Kant’s moral philosophy the value of one’s ends is determined by the means. So how can Kant favour the end while still condemning the means? Clewis’s answer is that Kant’s approval of the end of the French Revolution is not moral approval, but aesthetic. This is why Kant expresses his approval with regard to the enthusiasm of the spectators to the revolution, who are responding aesthetically to the idea of a new republic—and not in terms of the morality of the revolution itself. Yet, as Clewis will argue, for Kant, this aesthetic response still has moral significance.

In order to justify the above interpretation of Kant’s views on the French Revolution, which I find to be insightful and, for the most part, correct (although for reasons that differ a bit from Clewis’s—see below), Clewis needs to show that (1) enthusiasm is an aesthetic response, and (2) that, although it is an aesthetic response, it nevertheless has moral significance. He does this by linking (1) enthusiasm to the sublime and (2) the sublime to morality, while (3) making sure to maintain the distinction between the aesthetic sublime and morality. Clewis’s book thus provides a rich and detailed analysis of Kant’s concepts of the sublime, of enthusiasm as well as the moral feeling of respect, showing their differences and interconnections. Indeed, what distinguishes the sublime, respect and enthusiasm?

As many commentators have noted, the feeling of the sublime and the feeling of respect have many similar features; they are both feelings that involve, first, a negative fearful feeling of subordination to something greater than us, and then, a positive feeling. In the case of the sublime, the positive feeling is the feeling that nature is not too great for us to take in, or that it does not have dominion over us and consequently that we have our own higher vocation, and, in the case of respect, it is the positive (or at least non-negative) feeling of being inclined towards the moral law. The sublime, respect and enthusiasm are also all complex and “obscure” (AA 4:410n) feelings that have some connection to morality. Moreover, to complicate things, Kant sometimes uses these terms together as if they constituted one and the same concept, and sometimes he uses them interchangeably. Kant writes, for example, that “since the mind is not merely attracted by the object, but is also always reciprocally repelled by it, the satisfaction in the sublime does not so much contain positive pleasure as it does admiration or respect, i.e., it deserves to be called negative pleasure” (AA 5:245). Here, the sublime “contains” respect. Or, he writes in the second Critique that our moral duty is itself sublime. He writes: “Duty! Sublime and mighty name that embraces nothing charming or insinuating” (AA 5:86). He also calls enthusiasm “aesthetically sublime” (AA 5:272).

How are we to sort these meanings? According to Clewis, the moral feeling of respect is distinct from the sublime; respect is what determines the will and motivates us to act, whereas the feeling of the sublime is a feeling that we possess ideas of reason (infinity, freedom, the moral law) (p. 133). It is important to Clewis that these two feelings be kept distinct, since he wants to argue that the “sublime […] discloses human freedom” (p. 23) and contributes to morality (p. 11). If the sublime were already itself a moral concept, such claims by Clewis would be uninteresting. Yet, unlike respect, enthusiasm, for Clewis, is a form of the sublime: it is “an aesthetic feeling of the sublime”. In what follows, I will go over Clewis’s discussion of these three concepts, focusing on the Critical philosophy, and show how he pieces them together into his theory of Kant’s account of the French Revolution. I will then offer some comments.

The Sublime and Respect

Chapter 2 of Clewis’s book deals with Kant’s concept of the sublime in his Critical philosophy. This chapter, which discusses what kind of objects elicit our experience of the sublime, makes several contributions to our understanding of the sublime. Notably, Clewis makes a distinction between a free and a dependent sublime and he introduces the idea of a moral sublime. Here, I will focus on Clewis’s interesting account of the moral sublime. According to Clewis, in addition to the mathematical and the dynamical sublime, there is also an experience of the moral sublime. In the moral sublime, what elicits the aesthetic experience is not something like the vast St. Peter’s basilica in Rome (Kant’s mathematical sublime), nor something like overhanging and threatening cliffs (his dynamical sublime), but rather something that has a moral content, such as duty, the moral law, or the dutiful actions of others. According to Clewis, not only does the moral sublime account for some of Kant’s statements which combine moral concepts with the sublime, such as when he calls duty sublime in the second Critique, but it also allows for there to be an aesthetic response to a mental state that has moral content. This will be an important point for Clewis’s discussion of the enthusiastic response to the French Revolution.

Clewis argues further that for Kant there is such a thing as a sublime of mental states, which is a subset of the moral sublime. Clewis lists as sublime mental states: righteous anger, enraged despair, moral sadness, moral sorrow, and enthusiasm. These examples are Kant’s own, taken from his remarks after the discussion of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment. Clewis divides this list of the sublime of mental states into two further categories: those that elicit the sublime and those that are feelings of the sublime. What Clewis has in mind in his discussion of mental states that elicit the sublime are those mental states in others that we judge to be sublime (p. 95). Here he includes “righteous anger”, “courageous affect” and “enraged despair” from Kant’s list. According to Clewis, these affective mental states are sublime, since they are morally based. As for sublime mental states that are themselves feelings of the sublime, these include enthusiasm. Clewis writes that enthusiasm is an “affect that is part of the experience of the sublime”, which “is morally based”, but “does not directly support morality in the sense of achieving, or aiming to achieve, a moral or instrumental end” (p. 92). Enthusiasm is thus on the side of aesthetics rather than morality. Unlike respect, it does not motivate the will.

I think that Clewis’s idea of the morally sublime is very interesting. The mathematical sublime has to do with the failure of the imagination to apprehend infinity, and the dynamical sublime is an aesthetic response to fear-inducing power (pp. 94–5). The former has to do with our being confronted with extensive magnitudes (an extent of space or time), the latter with intensive magnitudes (degrees of power). Yet there are things that we confront, which overwhelm us and have neither of these ontologies: namely moral ideas. Just as the mathematical sublime overwhelms the imagination and the dynamical sublime overwhelms our powers of resistance, we could say that the moral sublime overwhelms our moral capacity, or good will. In the face of someone who is an exemplar of morality, we might feel our own moral capacities stretched and feel overwhelmed. We ask ourselves: am I capable of acting like that?

But here I have some questions and concerns. First, I do not think that the examples from Kant that Clewis refers to when he discusses the mental states that elicit the sublime, are intended by Kant to be the mental states of others. Rather they are our own mental states. Kant writes:

Every affect of the courageous sort (that is, which arouses the consciousness of our powers to overcome any resistance […]) is aesthetically sublime, e.g., anger, even despair (that is, the enraged, not the despondent kind). […] But even tumultuous movements of the mind […] can in no way claim the honor of being a sublime presentation, if they do not leave behind a disposition of the mind that, even if only indirectly, has influence on the consciousness of its strength and resolution in regard to that which brings with it intellectual purposiveness (the supersensible).—AA 5:272–3

Here, it seems that Kant is talking about one’s own emotions being sublime, and not the emotions of others. What Kant has in mind with these affects is that, while not themselves related to the faculty of desire and hence not motives for actions, they still contribute to our moral activity by strengthening the will in its determination to act. If this is the case, then I do not think that Clewis can use these passages as evidence that for Kant the spectators find the mental states of the actors in the French revolution sublime. Here, I would also like to note that the sublime affects that Kant refers to above are those that arouse the consciousness of our powers to overcome resistance. Here, sublimity does not reveal to us freedom, rather power.

Furthermore, with regard to Clewis’s category of the moral sublime, I wonder whether there really is space for something called the moral sublime, a feeling of being aesthetically affected by a moral idea that is distinct from the feeling of respect. In fact, is that not just what respect is—a feeling of awe towards something that is morally bigger than us? I think Clewis is right to emphasize the difference between respect and the sublime by saying that the feeling of respect is what determines the will, whereas the feeling of the sublime is not connected to the will but rather to feeling and judgment. However, when the experience is of something moral, an idea, rather than some magnitude in nature, does this not in some way affect the will? Indeed, if the faculty that is trying to apprehend this overwhelming moral idea is reason itself then it is arguable that the will is already involved. Kant himself writes that “the intellectual, intrinsically purposive (moral) good, judged aesthetically, must not be represented so much as beautiful but rather as sublime, so that it arouses more the feeling of respect […] than that of love” (AA 5:271).

Here, indeed, Kant writes that we can have an aesthetic response to the morally good and that this response is sublime. But then he also says that it arouses respect. It seems that what differentiates the sublime and respect here is that ‘sublime’ is a term that applies to a representation, and then respect refers to our attitude towards that representation. Yet, I think that, for Kant, once we aesthetically represent to ourselves what is morally good, we must also be compelled by this representation to have a moral feeling of respect. So perhaps the two are logically distinct, but respect must always follow from the moral sublime.

For Clewis it is important to keep the sublime and the feeling of respect distinct, since the aesthetic feeling of the sublime is what can reveal that we possess ideas of reason (p. 133). The feeling of the sublime can do this because it is the feeling that we are superior to nature within us as well as nature without us (AA 5:264), namely, that we are free. For Clewis, since the sublime can “reveal” freedom, it can indirectly contribute to morality (p. 126). I agree with Clewis that the sublime supports morality, although I wonder if rather than “revealing” our freedom, the sublime supports morality by giving us a feeling of the power of our own mind to soar above certain obstacles (AA 5:272). In my view, what the sublime gives us a sense of is not the fact that we have a free will, but rather that this will that we have can be strong. In fact, this can be a point of contrast between respect and the feeling of the sublime. The feeling of respect is the effect of the moral law on the will and is hence a felt consciousness of the moral law. The sublime, by contrast, is the feeling of the strength of the will to enact what is moral.

Kant writes (and this is not even in the dynamical sublime, but rather in the mathematical sublime), that “a faculty for being able to think the infinite of supersensible intuition as given […] surpasses any standard of sensibility, and is great beyond all comparison […] not […] from a theoretical point of view […] but still as an enlargement of the mind which feels itself empowered to overstep the limits of sensibility from another (practical) point of view” (AA 5:255). The feeling here is of empowerment, not freedom.

Clewis also notes that the sublime supports morality, since, as Kant says (AA 5:267), it “prepares us to esteem something even against our self-centered interests”  (p. 139). Clewis concludes his discussion of the ways in which the sublime can contribute to morality with the intriguing suggestion that “certain feelings that are part of the experience of the sublime may transform from aesthetic judgments into practical judgments” (p. 141). In my view, it is indeed possible for the feeling of the sublime to become practical. This is because it is an affect and thus can serve to strengthen the will and make it more capable in attaining its end.


In Chapter 5, Clewis argues that there is a kind of aesthetic enthusiasm that is an aesthetic feeling of the sublime. Kant defines enthusiasm in the Critique of Judgment as “the idea of the good with affect”. Clewis wants to associate enthusiasm with the feeling of the sublime, since, if enthusiasm is sublime, then we can be said to have a moral interest in it, just as we do in the sublime, since (as he has argued) the sublime reveals to us our freedom and supports our morality. This would then explain Kant’s endorsement of the enthusiasm of the spectators to the French Revolution. By a “feeling of the sublime” Clewis does not mean that enthusiasm has the sublime as its object. Rather, what he means is that enthusiasm is itself a form of the aesthetic feeling of the sublime (p. 186).

It does indeed seem as if the enthusiastic response to the French Revolution that Kant describes is very similar to the experience of the sublime. In The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant writes: “[T]his revolution, I say, nonetheless finds in the hearts of all spectators (who are not engaged in this play themselves) a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm, the very expression of which is fraught with danger; this participation, therefore, can have no other cause than a moral predisposition in the human race” (AA 7:85). From this description of an affective response to something fearful that is nevertheless felt from a safe place, it does indeed seem as if what Kant here calls enthusiasm is very similar to the sublime. Clewis argues that, moreover, enthusiasm is not itself a moral feeling, since here the feeling of enthusiasm does not produce an interest. “The enthusiastic onlooker remains uninvolved and does not advance the goals of the revolutionaries” (p. 187). In other words, unlike the moral feeling of respect, which determines the will, here, enthusiasm does not move the spectators to act at all. Rather, Clewis argues, the enthusiasm is aesthetic, since it is a feeling of negative pleasure in response to an idea (the idea of a republic) that stretches the mind.

Clewis concludes this chapter by arguing that, like the sublime, enthusiasm reveals to us that we are free, since it is a response to the idea of the morally good in us, which presupposes practical freedom. Like the sublime as well, enthusiasm also indirectly promotes morality, since it can enable us to perceive the moral goodness of a morally good object. In the case of the French revolution, enthusiasm can enable us to see that the revolution is about a morally good end (p. 197) while not motivating us to act on it. Thus, Clewis can conclude, Kant can take an interest in the enthusiasm of the spectators to the French revolution, since the enthusiasm functions as a sign of morality.


I learned a lot from reading this book and benefitted from thinking about the issues involved. I would like to conclude by putting in my two cents and providing an alternative interpretation to Clewis’s account of enthusiasm and the French Revolution, which actually will end up, I think, supporting Clewis’s own insights.

As Clewis notes (pp. 40, 216), in his early Essay on the Maladies of the Head, Kant writes “nothing great has ever been accomplished in the world without [enthusiasm]” (AA 2:267). And this statement appears again in Kant’s discussion of enthusiasm in the Critique of Judgment. There, Kant writes, “the idea of the good with affect is called enthusiasm. This state of mind seems to be sublime, so much so that it is commonly maintained that without it nothing great can be accomplished” (AA 5:272). Clewis argues, however, that Kant’s early statement is just wrong and in the later statement in the Critique of Judgment, Kant must have realized his mistake and changed his mind; that is why Kant writes, “it is commonly maintained that without [enthusiasm] nothing great can be accomplished”. In Clewis’s view, Kant uses the phrase “it is commonly maintained” to distance himself from the claim he mentions. For Clewis, Kant cannot think that all great acts require enthusiasm, since that would mean that the spectators’ enthusiastic response to the French revolution was a moral endorsement of it, and Clewis wants to argue that it is an aesthetic endorsement.

But Clewis misunderstands here what Kant means by ‘great’. Clewis thinks that what Kant means by ‘great’ is what is ‘morally good’. Clewis writes, “if we take something ‘great’ to designate a morally good event or act, the claim lacks plausibility, since clearly one can achieve morally worthy ends without being enthusiastic about it” (p. 41). But suppose we did not take ‘great’ to mean ‘morally good’ in this way. Indeed, suppose we took ‘great’ in the sense that Kant uses it in his discussion of the sublime. There, Kant says that when we say that something is ‘simply great’, we do not apply a mathematical standard but rather an ‘aesthetic’ one. If we understood ‘great’ in this way, then we would see that the great things that, according to Kant, require enthusiasm in order to be accomplished are not mere moral acts, but that they are more like supererogatory acts—acts that, indeed, involve great sacrifice.

There has been some interesting discussion of supererogation in Kant. Commentators have argued that if, for Kant, the moral worth of an action consists wholly in its being done for duty, then this leaves no room for actions that go beyond duty to have any extra moral worth; either one acts from duty or one does not.[1] Commentators thus argue that in Kant’s moral theory there is no room for supererogatory acts. Yet, perhaps actions that go beyond duty, and which are hence ‘great’, are not merely moral acts, but acts that have aesthetic value as well. Such acts are those that are not done from the motive of duty alone, but perhaps include something extra, like enthusiasm based on friendship or patriotism, which add an affect to our concept of the good and inspire us to do acts beyond what is required of us. Perhaps, in Kant’s account of enthusiasm, we can therefore find a place for supererogation by considering it in the context of aesthetic greatness rather than moral duty, and in the context of empowerment rather than moral freedom.

I think that this view in fact supports much of what Clewis wants to say about the French Revolution. I’d be interested to hear what he thinks. It is not just that the spectators thought that the idea of a republic was morally good, but that they had an affect towards it, of solidarity; what Kant calls “wishful participation”—this is in fact the feeling that for Kant “borders on enthusiasm” (AA 7:85). It is such solidarity, which Kant calls a moral predisposition of the human race that makes possible the achievement of ‘great’ things that have never been achieved before. For Kant, however, this feeling only borders on enthusiasm, since the spectators do not, in fact, feel quite empowered enough to act.

[1] See D. Guevara, ‘The Impossibility of Supererogation in Kant’s Moral Theory’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 59,3 (1999): 593–624.


(This text was previously presented at an Author Meets Critics session on Robert Clewis’s book at the Pacific APA meeting in Seattle, Washington State, USA on April 5, 2012)

© Melissa Zinkin 2013

Melissa Zinkin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at SUNY Binghamton, USA and publishes broadly on Kant’s philosophy. Her most recent publications are “Kant and the Pleasure of ‘Mere Reflection'” (Inquiry 2012) and “Kant on Negative Magnitudes” (Kant-Studien 2012).