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Kant divides humanity into three broad divisions regarding sources of aesthetic pleasure. The common person derives pleasure (“gratifies an inclination”) from coarse things and activities that require neither thought nor exceptional talents. Then there are the delicate pleasures that involve more talent and intellectual excellence. The highest division involves “finer feeling” and this is further divided, significantly as it turns out, into the “beautiful” and “sublime” and this is the focus of this book. Briefly, the beautiful, while charming,is fleeting and less certain, whereas the sublime is principled and noble and involves the intellect and not the things of the heart. Kant further divides the sublime into the “terrifying,” “noble,” and “splendid.” These divisions resemble Plato’s categorization of humanity into the appetitive, spirited, and philosophic. The subdivisions of the sublime category are not easily grasped and Kants discussion of various characteristics that fall under the sublime and beautiful struck me as somewhat arbitrary and not conceptually tight.This book is more about Kant’s formal ethical theory, as a precursor to The Critique of Moral Judgment, than about aesthetics as the title might suggest. “Subduing one’s passions through principles is sublime,” Kant writes. This means setting aside emotions and fulfilling the “stern duty of justice” and expressing the “universal affection toward the human species.” That principled affection is supplemented by various social sentiments (“delightful sociability”; “goodheartedness” - elements of the beautiful), but these emotions are not a solid foundation for universal ethical behavior because they depend on immediate pleasure that varies with circumstance. In viewing principled ethical behavior in this way, Kant removes motivation from the body and lodges it in the mind so that the “sublime” moves one to regard others with universal affection. Affection becomes stripped of emotion and is intellectualized. Hence, universal affection is “sublime, but also cold.” In his division between the sublime and the beautiful, Kant regards women as “beautiful, elegant and adorned.” They stand in contrast with men who set emotions aside (“A man must never weep other than magnanimous tears”) and who possess “deep understanding” and the sublime. “The fair sex has just as much understanding as the male,” Kant writes, “but it is a beautiful understanding, whereas ours should be a deep understanding, an expression that signifies identity with the sublime.” Even acknowledging that Kant is a product of his age and culture, his description of women is jarring. “Laborious learning or painful pondering,” he writes, “even if a woman should greatly succeed in it, destroy the merits that are proper to her sex, and because of their rarity they can make of her an object of cold admiration; but at the same time they will weaken the charms with which she exercises her great power over the other sex.” It goes on like this for many painful pages. “The content of woman’s great science…is humankind, and among humanity, men. Her philosophy is not to reason, but to sense.” “The virtue of a woman is a beautiful virtue,” but “the male sex should be a noble virtue….I hardly believe that the fair sex is capable of principles….But in place of it Providence has put in their breast kind and benevolent sensations, a fine feeling for propriety, and a complaisant soul.” As a woman ages, “…gradually the sublime and noble qualities must take the place of the beautiful, in order to make a person always worthy of a greater respect as she ceases to be attractive.” But until that consolation happens, the role of the woman is clear: “A woman is embarrassed little that she does not possess certain high insights, that she is timid, and not fit for serious employments, and so forth; she is beautiful and captivates, and that is enough.” Well, of course, Kant sees nothing at all wrong with the “beautiful.” It’s just that the sublime is higher, much higher, on his scale of humanity. It gets even worse. Kant divides nations as well into categories and, not surprisingly, his Germany is sublime, along with England and Spain, in contrast to Italy and France, which are beautiful. Then there are the Negroes of Africa, who have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to cite a single example in which a Negro has shown talents….” As compared to whites, the differences appear “to be as great in regard to mental capacities as in color.” “The [black] religion of fetishes so widespread among them is perhaps a sort of idolatry that sinks as deeply into the trifling as appears to be possible to human nature. A bird feather, a cow’s horn, a conch shell, or any other common object, as soon as it becomes consecrated by a few words, is an object of veneration and of invocation in swearing oaths. The blacks are very vain but in the Negro’s way, and so talkative that they must be driven apart from each other with thrashings.” Given these views, Kant’s great hope that education can rescue people from “old illusions, in order early to elevate the moral feeling in the breast of every young world-citizen” does not look like it applies to women and Negroes who are who they are by nature. Given this Kant perspective, one wonders just what “universal affection toward the human species” means for him and the degree to which personal subjectivity infects his sense of universal affection.

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