“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kant vs. Burke: The Rematch

I had a good time teaching a class about Kant and Burke today. I found myself talking about how you could argue that the contradictions between capitalism and democracy, or between environmentalism and ecology, or between consumerism and religion, is also an aesthetic debate between Burke and Kant. We've been living in these guys' heads for two hundred plus years!

Burke sees the sublime embodied in some empirical X: a big mountain, a terrifying monarch. Bushco's “Shock and Awe” is the Burkean sublime—as long as you watch it on your TV and are not underneath it when the bombs start falling. An opponent of revolutions (unless they were happening at a safe distance across the Atlantic), Burke appealed to the weight of tradition as a sublime authority to which we should submit.

For Kant on the other hand, all such X's can only ever be triggers for the real experience of the sublime, which is inner freedom, total, unconditional, scary. The sublime is inner space. You're in a library: what's weird is, you're surrounded by infinities, universes of inner space.

Now for Kant this is part of the democracy virus (the other part is beauty) that he's trying to install in the European psyche.

WHEREAS consumerism embodies the sublime in some X: an SUV for instance is an experience of safe power on so many levels: you can just visualize the ad of the SUV driving through some wilderness, the occupants “safe” from the rigors of actually living in it (which would stop it being experienced as wilderness) and “powerful” as they take in the mighty grandeur. The SUV occupants are virtual version of us, the couch potatoes. An SUV is basically a huge sofa on wheels with a windshield TV screen.

LET IT BE KNOWN THAT ecology without nature sides with the Kantian sublime. It's not about preserving the abstract wilderness. It's about Freddie, the polar bear (let's give him a name), a real person who is really living on a shrinking piece of ice. It's not even about polar bears in the abstract. It's about this polar bear, this unique one here, and his inner space.

All I did to get there was to extend inner space to non-human sentient beings.

Then OOO extends inner space to non-sentient objects. Whoah.


Anonymous said...

Thought-provoking as always, Timothy. Off-topic question: in your opinion, is consciousness a hyperobject, of which individuals are local manifestations - or is it merely a property? I tend to think the former; which demystifies the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation, rendering it a process that occurs constantly, in all spatio-temporal directions, rather than as traditionally thought (as I understand it) a linear, chronological one.

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Josh, it's not off topic! There is definitely a school of Buddhism that sees it that way (it's called Mind Only). It's also not dissimilar to Plotinus (Neoplatonism). I would argue that even if it's "confined" to one person, consciousness could still be a hyperobject.

gac said...


Nice post. I wonder what you would think about Levinas' conception of the Other as a rupture that transcends and is not reducible to the "same"... self, consciousness, reason etc. I am not aware that Levinas extended his phenomenological analysis to environmentalism, but the idea of the environment as being a rupture in our effort to "totalize" reason, thought etc is an interesting project.

By the way, I am currently working on a research project that contrasts Nishida's phenomenological analysis of emptiness and no-self to Levinas' idea of infinity and transcendence.

Timothy Morton said...

Thanks Gregory. I do argue something like that in The Ecological Thought. The Nishida piece sounds fascinating--would you like to send it to me?

gac said...


Why yes I would be happy to send you a copy. I am currently working on it so it will be a couple of weeks.

By the way I found you blog accidently while doing research on the possibility of adopting the Kantian sublime, transcendence and Hannah Arendt's views on Kantian morality (communicability) towards an environmental ethic. Your posts on the sublime were great and I will be ordering your books on the same.

gac said...


It has been a while since you asked for the paper on Levinas and Nishida. Due to a family health emergency during the Christmas season the paper was delayed. However, it is now completed and if you are interested I would be glad to send you a copy.


Greg Conrow

Brassmoose said...

Hello Timothy--very late to the party on this one, but I enjoyed reading this post and I'm wondering if you talk about the relationship between Burke's sublime and consumerism in any of your publications--or if you know of any that do. I'm particularly interested in the sublime's relationship to visual culture in this regard--and perhaps susceptibility to commercial exploitation. Am following up on a hunch. Would be grateful for your insights. Have found your work very illuminating.