Kant and Nietzsche: The Tragedy of the Sublime

Or... The Innocence of Nudity

Nietzsche’s ‘philosophy of the future’ can be enacted without the practice of punishment, while Kant’s ethical theory cannot. To reach this conclusion, I will argue that Nietzsche gives us a better, more nuanced version of Hume’s philosophy, whereas Kant never quite gets beyond Hume, though he argues otherwise. I would like to argue that while both ground their ethical theories in a pivotal aesthetic experience (sublime and tragic), Kant’s ethical theory is ultimately overcome by Nietzsche’s critique. I will argue that Nietzsche allows us to see Kant as not going quite far enough, and, indeed, as willing the life-denying ascetic ideal. Nietzsche’s positive project allows us to fully realize the impossibility of foundations yet continue to act ethically in the face of this realization. He accomplishes this by never leaving the realm of the aesthetic (the realm of image and illusion); he aestheticizes life itself, thus ethical actions remain a part of aesthetic (in his case, tragic) experience.

Hume, in his drive to push empiricism to its ultimate limits, has provided us with a seemingly inextricable ethical dilemma. He argues that

Since morals… have an influence on the actions and affections, it follows, that they cannot be derived from reason; and that because reason alone… can never have any such influence. Morals excite passions, and produce or prevent actions. Reason of itself is utterly impotent in this particular. The rules of morality, therefore, are not conclusions of our reason. (Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, 408).
This poses a very difficult problem. If reason is cold and dispassionate, a faculty separate from the emotions and the passions (as most rationalists would like to maintain) then it cannot serve as a stable foundation for moral decisions, as these decisions are guided by the passions.♥1 Kant, who has taken Hume’s problematic as one of the most troubling conclusions of empiricism, attempts to provide an answer. His solution is found in the realm of aesthetics and involves a new conception of the self that clashes radically with Hume’s. Hume argues (against Descartes) that what is called the ‘self’ is merely three relationships between the respective products of our faculty of representation (imagination) and the senses. In effect, we are no more than a collection of memories of sense experiences and relationships between them, which also arise from experience. Through the experience of the sublime, however, Kant believes we are able to realize our true, universal, rational nature. From this aesthetic realization, Kant first grounds rationality then the rationally derived categorical imperative that guides his ethical theory.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, wants to argue a quasi-Humean position. Rather than getting beyond Hume, per se, Nietzsche seems (to me) to be affirming Hume’s conclusions. Nietzsche believes that Kant does not go far enough with his ‘sublime’ experience. The realization that our imagination and senses are not adequate to the presentation of the nature of the world does not, for Nietzsche, necessarily lead to an appreciation of the truly rational nature of the world. For Nietzsche this experience illustrates a far more disturbing reality: that there is no ultimate foundation for reality (no God, no Truth, no Good). Reality is simply a projection of reality; it is merely a number of chimerical illusions and masks. Nietzsche critiques Kant because he reels back in horror and attempts to construct a new foundation even after he has seen that foundations are untenable. Rather than attempting to remove yourself from these conclusions, Nietzsche thinks the only life-affirming mode of existence is to accept them without reservation.

Before I move on to Nietzsche’s critique of Kant I would first like to provide a more detailed discussion of the Kantian sublime and how exactly Kant founds rationality and ethical judgment upon it. Kant defines the sublime as that which

…cannot be contained in any sensuous form, but rather concerns ideas of reason, which although no adequate presentation of them is possible, may be excited and called into the mind by that very inadequacy itself which does admit of sensuous presentation (Kant, The Critique of Judgment, 92).
Thus the sublime is empirically indescribable and cannot be ‘presented’ to our senses. >From this indescribability or unpresentability (what Kant calls the “unfathomable depth of this suprasensible faculty, the consequences of which extend beyond the reach of the eye of sense” (Kant, The Critique of Judgment, 123)) we are able to get beyond the purely empirical Humean subject. Our senses and imagination are inadequate for the presentation of the sublime yet we continue to experience it. For Kant, this ‘experience’ is not an experience of anything empirical (though its origins are in the empirical world). Instead, our experience of the sublime is precisely our experience of the inadequacy of our senses and our imagination: this experience is an experience of our own innate, universal rationality. The Kantian subject is thus capable of experiencing things outside of Hume’s principles of association (resemblance, contiguity and causation)♥2. Essentially, the sublime leads us to the realization that the sublime itself is “that, the mere capacity of thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of sense” (Kant, The Critique of Judgment, 98). Or, more directly, the experience of the sublime is “for us a law (of reason), which goes to make us what we are… and that which makes us alive to the feeling of our supersensible side of our being harmonizes with that law.” (Kant, The Critique of Judgment, 106). This last bit illustrates how it is that Kant grounds his morality in this aesthetic experience. An action is moral if it harmonizes with this ‘feeling’ for the sublime, that is, if it harmonizes with precisely the law of our nature.

Kant wants to get beyond Hume insofar as he wants us to be able to ground our ethical principles rationally. His search for an empirically unpresentable experience is, in effect, an effort to move rationality out of the temporal realm of sense perception and into a position where it can provide us with a more grounded morality (rather than one based on an empirical pleasure principle). This desire eventually (over the course of his Critique of Practical Reason and Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals) allows him to formulate the categorical imperative, one formulation of which is as follows: “Act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature” (Kant, Groundwork , 270) or “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (Kant, Groundwork 270). So, Kant wants us only to act upon maxims that can be universalized (or which harmonize with the law of our own nature). This is the foundation for morality. Morality is not some sort of empirical principle, but deciding whether or not any particular action can be made into a universal law that accords with our innate rationality. Thus, it is immoral to steal not because it doesn’t maximize pleasure or utility but because stealing cannot form a logically coherent universal system. ♥3

The perfect application of the categorical imperative leads to Kant’s ‘kingdom of ends’ where every person is treated, not instrumentally (as a means to some other end), but as ends in themselves. Similarly, each moral action and decision is treated as something devoid of interest entirely. For the Kantian, the truly moral act is not interested even in its own morality. So, in effect, while a society made up of some Kantians may require punishment in order to enforce rationality, a purely Kantian society would be a society in which any conception of punishment would make no sense at all. If everyone acts perfectly rationally then everyone acts as a perfect self-legislator who cannot help but act morally. Enforcing morality is no longer necessary once we realize who and what we truly are because morality necessarily, and dispassionately, follows from this realization. Thus we have come full circle: while Hume’s morality was nothing but passionate interest, Kant’s is nothing but rational disinterest.

Nietzsche sees this morality-in-itself as symptomatic of the ascetic ideal, of Western decadence, and of the will to nothing that began with Socrates. Rather than a pure and separate morality, free from the fray of the world, Nietzsche will attack Kant’s position (furthered by Schopenhauer♥4 ) as the interested desire “to gain release from a torture” (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 106). Nietzsche states that

If our aestheticians never weary of asserting in Kant’s favor that, under the spell of beauty, one can even view undraped female statues “without interest,” one may laugh a little at their expense: the experiences of artists on this ticklish point are more “interesting,” and Pygmalion was in any event not necessarily an “unaesthetic man.” Let us think the more highly of the innocence of our aestheticians which is reflected in such arguments; let us, for example, credit it to the honor of Kant that he should expatiate on the peculiar properties of the sense of touch with the naïveté of a country parson! (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 104).
Putting humor aside (disinterestedly), Nietzsche is making a serious point here. He is arguing that the truly aesthetic experience (that of artists like Pygmalion or Stendhal) cannot be ‘disinterested’. Rather, this disinterestedness is but a poisoned, negating form of interest itself; in its most refined form it is the Schopenhauerean will to nothing. In the wake of the realization that our faculties (of presentation and representation) are inadequate to the aesthetic experience of the sublime, Kant and Schopenhauer recoil. Rather than diving headlong into the experience, as Nietzsche would undoubtedly propose, Kant steps back, removes himself from the unpresentable. He does not ‘experience’ the sublime, rather, his experience is of his own inability to experience the sublime. Kant himself states that
The sublime may be described in this way: It is an object (of nature) the representation of which determines the mind to regard the elevation of nature beyond our reach as equivalent to a presentation of ideas (Kant, The Critique of Judgment, 119).
It is also “what pleases immediately by reason of its opposition to the interest of sense” (Kant, The Critique of Judgment, 118). Yet, “instead of the object, it is rather the cast of the mind in appreciating it that we have to estimate as sublime” (Kant, The Critique of Judgment, 104). So, our experience of the sublime is not an experience of the sublime-object (within which the experience originates), rather it is a removed experience: an experience of our foundational self. Nietzsche sees this sort of removal as precisely the problem. At the very the moment of Kant’s most important realization (one that allows him to ground his ‘metaphysics of morals’) there is an experiential gap. Nietzsche notes:
Ascetic ideals reveal so many bridges to independence that a philosopher is bound to rejoice and clap his hands when he hears the story of all those resolute men who one day said No to all servitude and went into some desert: even supposing they were merely strong asses and quire the reverse of a strong spirit (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 107).
What Nietzsche sees in Kant is not strong independence from Hume, Descartes or the world itself. He sees Kant, like Schopenhauer, recoiling and removing himself from his own realization. Kant’s inability to accept the terrible truth of the world (that it is illusory and unpresentable) forces him to construct (using the Humean faculties he has, ostensibly, rejected) a self that is purely rational, an unmoved mover of sorts: the ultimate philosophical desert. What, then, is Nietzsche’s own reaction to the Humean predicament?
Ah, my friend! That your Self be in the action, as the mother is in the child: let that be your maxim of virtue! Truly, I have taken a hundred maxims and your virtues’ dearest playthings away from you; and you scold me now, as children scold. They were playing on the sea-shore – then came a wave and swept their playthings into the deep: now they cry. But the same wave shall bring them new playthings and pour out new coloured sea-shells before them! Thus they will be consoled; and you too, my friends, shall, like them, have your consolations – and new coloured sea-shells! Thus Spoke Zarathustra.” (Nietzsche, Zarathustra, 120).
Amid the prophetic language here, Nietzsche describes the consequences of his argument against Kant (and ascetic ideals in general). We cannot hold fast to our virtues, even our supposedly rationally divined virtues-in-themselves. That is, we cannot treat our actions instrumentally, as means to harmonizing with some rational nature. It is this desire to make our experience ultimately decidable and rational that is, for Nietzsche, the contradiction hidden within Kant’s project. Nietzsche argues that when Kant situates ethical decisions within the realm of disinterestedness he is acting on an interest to escape the problems posed by the aesthetic realization that disinterestedness is a form of interest. Thus, Kant’s work is itself subsumed into the realm of chimera, as is Nietzsche’s. The difference between the two is that Nietzsche affirms the chimeras and illusions instead of denying them. As he mentions in the above quote, let “your Self be in the action.” We should, according to Nietzsche remove the middleman of rationality and maxims in general (hundreds of which he has taken from us) and learn only to create rather than discover.

Now I would like to move on to a discussion of how exactly I think Nietzsche’s own ethical theory allows us to affirm Hume’s somewhat frightening conclusions. This discussion hinges on the difference between the Kantian sublime and Nietzsche’s theorization of tragic experience. Kant’s mistake was in privileging the rational, static self over the fleeting desires of the will. Nietzsche argues that the pure, rational self is a construct of precisely the interested will to power. By positing a rational law, a disinterested rational law, to which we can’t help but adhere as rational beings, our will to power turns in on itself. Nietzsche sees this rational self as a construction that allows the will to power (in the absence of other ‘objects’ to dominate) to police and dominate itself. Kant’s rationality is a self-constructed prison that confines only itself.

Nietzsche, on the other hand, offers us an aesthetic experience that reveals the even more fundamental♥5 reality of the world. Nietzsche’s pivotal aesthetic experience requires a combination of de-individuating Dionysian music as well as more formal♥6 Apollonian illusions. Through the ‘clash’ between these two, we get both a loss of self but also a representation of that selflessness to our ‘self’. Thus, Nietzsche’s tragic experience is at once the Apollonian realization that our senses/memory are illusory and the Dionysian experience that our very selves are merely contingent formations. It is the distinct conjunction of these two experiences that allows Nietzsche to get beyond or pass over Kant’s conclusions. We are not purely rational, eternal beings: rather, we are simply a confluence of sense data and experiences floating around in a world that is itself contingent, we are our bodies and experiences rather than our ‘minds’ (in the Cartesian or Kantian sense). This is Hume’s conclusion. The important difference between Hume and Nietzsche is that rather than merely seeing this as a philosophical position that should urge us to question philosophical thinking as such, Nietzsche believes that we should affirm this conclusion in almost the same way that Kant would have us ‘live’ the categorical imperative. Hume, at the end of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding states that

Divinity or Theology, as it proves the existence of a Deity, and the immortality of souls, is composed partly of reasonings concerning the particular, partly concerning general facts. It has a foundation in reason, so far as it is supported by experience. But its best and most solid foundation is faith and divine revelation (Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 114).
So, though Hume rejects the idea of founding any sort of morality or religion purely within abstract reason, he still allows that revelation and faith may be outside the scope of his critique (though his personal atheism may cast some light on how seriously he took this possible ‘escape’). Nietzsche, on the other hand, rejects even these concepts; he sees them as continuations of the Plato-Christ-Kant-Schopenhauer cycle.♥7 Instead, he proposes a radically different philosophy, one that would almost completely alter what has been heretofore considered philosophy. Nietzsche, like Kant wants to shift our focus to the aesthetic. For him, however “art, and not morality, is presented as the truly metaphysical activity of man… the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon” (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 22). While Kant believes that the aesthetic realm is the key that allows access to the more important ethical realm, Nietzsche thinks that the move from aesthetics to ethics cannot be made, and indeed should not be made. Instead, Nietzsche’s tragic experience allows the aesthetic realization to become the driving force behind life itself. It allows him to ask: “What, seen from the perspective of life, is the significance of morality?” (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 22). His answer comes in the form of
a philosophy that dares to move, to demote, morality into the realm of appearance—and not merely among “appearances” or phenomena (in the sense assigned to those words by Idealistic philosophers), but among “deceptions,” as semblance, delusion, error, interpretation, contrivance, art (Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, 22-23).
Morality is then situated within the realm of illusion and delusion, precisely against Plato and Kant, but this is not a point against it. Rather, this allows morality to function as a creative force, rather than as a restrictive calculus.

In conclusion, it appears as if Kant’s attempt to move beyond Hume forces him to fall into a framework that is, given Nietzsche’s critique, mired in self-denial. Rather than owning up to the experience of the sublime (and the Nietzschean reality) Kant attempts to move into a realm of disinterest precisely because of an interest in avoiding the torturous masks that comprise reality. Thus, Kant’s vision of a kingdom of ends, where punishment no longer makes sense is unattainable; the idea that we can all act disinterestedly (by harmonizing with our truly rational natures) is always necessarily based on an interest to deny the world of accident. So, any attempt to realize the disinterested kingdom of ends (where punishment makes no sense) would be self-defeating because disinterest itself is based on an interest in denying the world. Nietzsche, however, offers us a radical but not impossible/incoherent alternative. He never moves from the aesthetic (in his case, ‘tragic’) experience into the austere, removed rational-ethical realm of Kant’s categorical imperative. Rather, this ethical realm is kept within the confines of a very interested aesthetics of living. Instead of seeing the aesthetic experience as a bridge to something else, he figures it as a way to escape the problem of asceticism and life-denial completely. He takes the Humean realization and uses it as a way to see life itself as a work of art. Thus, while Kant’s rationalist ethics is, given the Nietzschean critique, doomed to failure because of its denial of interestedness, Nietzsche’s will to power allows him to truly escape the need for punishment. While suffering is not eliminated (as it might have been within the true kingdom of ends) punishment no longer makes sense. If life becomes simply an aesthetic problem or, more correctly, an aesthetic process, then any practice that we called ‘punishment’ would become a practice of self-creation. Rather than an external incitement to predetermined ‘moral’ action, punishment (and its accompanying suffering) would all be affirmed, and thus subsumed, into the aestheticization of life itself. Nietzsche’s unremitting amor fati escapes the need for any sort of punishment.

♥Heart Notes♥

  • ♥1 This is obviously a simplification. Hume provides (I think) very strong arguments for thinking why this might be so. For the purposes of this writeup, however, I will not deal with the complexities of Hume’s work.
  • ♥2 Given the brief nature of this writeup, I will not discuss the intricate arguments that Hume provides regarding his principles of association and how they relate to the empirical subject. These arguments are laid out in Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding most explicitly in Sections 2 and 3. Nor will I discuss exactly how Hume illustrates that reason is incapable of moral judgment, which he discusses at length in Book II, Section 3 and in Book III, Section 1 and 2 of his A Treatise of Human Nature.
  • ♥3 This is, obviously, a simplification. Kant states that: “Some actions are so constituted that their maxim cannot even be conceived as a universal law of nature without contradiction, let alone be willed as what ought to become one. In the case of others we do not find this inner impossibility but it is still impossible to will that their maxim should be raised to the universality of a law of nature, because such a will would contradict itself.” (Kant, Groundwork, 271). In this paper I will ignore this complication due to length considerations, my argument does not hinge upon this distinction between the ability to conceive and the ability to will.
  • ♥4 Nietzsche sees Schopenhauer as another Königsbergian because “Schopenhauer made use of the Kantian version of the aesthetic problem” (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 103). That is to say, Schopenhauer, like Kant, sees the effect of aesthetics as counteracting “sexual “interestedness,” like lupulin and camphor” (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, 104). More directly, Schopenhauer wants to see art as a tool to deny the will, just as Kant believes perfect aesthetic contemplation (in the form of the sublime) allows us to escape the confines of our own contingent, empirical world.
  • ♥5 This realization is not a foundation or a ground for Nietzsche. I use the word ‘fundamental’ only to indicate that Nietzsche believes this step goes further, or is more honest, than Kant’s experience of the sublime. It may be seen as a foundation for Nietzsche’s anti-foundational critique, but here I think that language betrays what Nietzsche might call our metaphysical misunderstandings.
  • ♥6 I use ‘formal’ in the sense of a form or shape. The Apollonian form given to Dionysian music in the Greek chorus, for example, allows the experience of de-individuation to be considered rather than merely consumed.
  • ♥7 Nietzsche would I think, reject Revelation as something similar in form to the bad conscience or guilt. Rather than a truly ‘divine’ otherworldly word-of-God, revelation would then be seen as a process by which the will to power (lacking any other object upon which to act) turns in upon the subject and ‘splits’ to create a space in which the will can expand even amidst seemingly insurmountable constraints. Here, I’m sure, Nietzsche would mention the figure of the ‘philosophical desert’ and connect it with Moses and the burning bush: the asceticism of revelation leads to a real, physical, worldly asceticism. Similarly faith would be seen merely as the internalization of a worldly process. He discusses the birth of God(s) and his/their function in the will to nothingness extensively in the second essay of On the Genealogy of Morals (specifically sections 6 to 8) and, of course, the whole of the third essay is applicable.


  1. David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Eric Steinberg, (Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 1977 1993).
  2. David Hume, “On Reason and the Emotions: The Fact/Value Distinction” excerpted from A Treatise of Human Nature (1738), pp. 405-412 in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Fourth Edition, edited by Louis P. Pojman (Toronto, Wadsworth Publishing, 2002).
  3. Immanuel Kant, “Foundation for the Metaphysic of Morals” excerpted from Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by H.J. Paton (London, Random House, 1948), pp. 255-275 in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, Fourth Edition, edited by Louis P. Pojman (Toronto, Wadsworth Publishing, 2002).
  4. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, the edition I have has no information...it is tattered.
  5. Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Walter Kaufman and R.J. Hollingdale (New York, Vintage Books/Random House, 1967 1989).
  6. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York, Vintage Books/Random House, 1967).
  7. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, translated by R. J. Hollingdale (London, Penguin Books 1961, 1969).

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