The Symbolic and the Sublime

Part four of my commentary on Deleuze’s Kant seminars

As we saw in the third part of this commentary, the synthesis and the schema are both acts of the productive imagination carried out in the interest of the understanding. As such they are operations of knowledge as detailed in the first of Kant’s Critiques, The Critique of Pure Reason. Yet the development of Kant’s thinking, which has its end in his third critique, The Critique of Judgment, finds that both can be overwhelmed in experience. For the synthesis it is the sublime which overwhelms it, for the schema it is symbolism.

The Sublime
Deleuze credits the capacity of the imagination to be overwhelmed by the sublime to the fragility of its structure. At its foundation the imagination’s synthesis is not governed by knowledge, but by an aesthetic comprehension; how what is seen and understood makes us feel. This structure is intrinsically unstable, open to being overwhelmed by phenomena in front of which the imagination discovers its limit and its impotence: “the immense ocean, the infinite heavens, all that overturns it.” Deleuze calls this the “passion of the imagination,” through which it “starts to stutter” and “vacillate on its own ground” (4, 9). The overwhelming of the productive imagination’s capacity to synthesise determinations of time and space, leading to a sense of disorientation, is the the experience of the sublime. We are overwhelmed by nature, in our contemplation of the vastness of the ocean or the infinity of space, our imagination is no longer “at the service of the concepts.” We cannot understand what is before us.

The Symbol
As a result of this analysis Kant reasons that if there is a limit to the synthesis in the form of the sublime, then there must be something analogous for the schema. This is found in our contemplation of the beautiful, in which the imagination is freed from the control of the concepts of the understanding, the basis of the schema. This means the imagination can reflect on what is before it, that is contemplate its form without the need for a concept. Reflection is the basis of our ability to symbolise, that is associate what we see with a concept that does not immediately apply to it.

This shows itself in the capacity of what Deleuze calls the “free materials of nature,” colour, sounds etc, to make us think. The imagination as free can relate these materials to concepts other than those that they directly relate to. We can, for example, reflect on the colour white in our imagination, and through that reflection we can relate it to a concept that is not directly related to it; we detect a connection by analogy between white and this other concept. This concept is an Idea of reason, an inexpressible concept, which is made accessible in our reflection on the colour white. Deleuze gives an example from Kant:

The white lily is no longer simply related to concepts of colour and flower, but awakens the Idea of pure innocence, whose object, which is never given, is a reflexive analogue of white in the fleur-de-lis. (DI, 66)

Towards the end of the last of his four 1978 seminars on Kant, Deleuze discusses symbolism in relation to the schema, by drawing a schema, a diagram of the process by which death, as a spiritual event, is symbolised as the setting sun:
A = the sun, a = to set [A is the concept of the sun, a is its schema of setting]
B = Death, b = intuition = x of death [B is the Idea of death, b is the intuition of an empty schema of death]
Here symbolisation takes place when schema a is applied to concept B, for which we have no intuition of a schema. At this point this schema ceases being a rule of production in relation to its concept, and becomes a rule of reflection in relation to the other concept. The sun’s schema of setting is reflected upon in the imagination, we see an analogy between it and death, it is thereby transposed onto the Idea of death.

From both examples we can say that an Idea of reason can only be seen as an object of an indirect presentation in the imagination’s reflection on the free materials of nature.

Index of my posts on Deleuze’s Kant Seminars
Part One: Synthesis and Time
Part Two: More on Time
Part Three: The Schema

Part Four: The Symbolic and the Sublime

All Deleuze Posts