Johannes Kinker (1764-1845): Beyond the Sublime
In his address, Van Hemert praises another early follower of Kant, who was moreover much more famous than he himself ever would be: Friedrich Schiller. Schiller was one of the great models for Van Hemert’s good friend Johannes Kinker. Kinker was a man to be reckoned with. He was a committee member of numerous societies, a respected poet and thinker, and also a well-known playwright. As a young lawyer, he had entered service in the same law firm as Willem Bilderdijk, with whom he became very friendly. Shortly after Bilderdijk left the Netherlands in 1795, Kinker became engrossed in Kant’s works, much to Bilderdijk’s dismay. They gradually drifted apart, and more than once would later confront each other as true rivals. Between 1799 and 1803, Kinker was one of the most important contributors to Van Hemert’s Magazijn, and even after that he continued to disseminate Kantian ideas whenever the occasion arose. His first explicit exposition of the sublime dates from 1805. That year he wrote an allegorical morality play in honour of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the well-known Amsterdam actress Johanna Wattier. The play’s title is revealing: De vereeniging van het verhevene met het schoone (The Union of the Sublime and the Beautiful). Kinker’s text was put on stage on 31 October 1805 at the Amsterdam municipal theatre. The performance was the highlight of the celebrations marking Wattier’s anniversary. At the end of the evening, Kinker went on stage and recited a ‘lyrical poem’ in which he praised Wattier’s talent again.
On account of his close relation with Paulus van Hemert, Kinker is usually seen as a Kantian, but Iets over het schoone (Something about the Beautiful) (1823) actually shows that Kinker did not refrain from criticizing Kant’s work. To a certain extent this can also be deduced from the title of his play for Wattier. Kant draws a sharp distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, whilst Kinker actually tries to link both categories again. A number of aspects of Kinker’s thinking suggest that he was closer to the philosopher he was in awe of, Friedrich Schiller. In his philosophical writings, Schiller also took Kant’s Critiques as his starting point but he did not appropriate Kant’s insights indiscriminately. Schiller’s main problem with Kant’s aesthetics was their purely subjective status: the work of art itself as a cause of the sublime experience was completely ignored by Kant. As a poet and playwright, Schiller wanted to know more about the object that is called beautiful or sublime than about the subjective experience that ascribes that characteristic to it. He adopted Kant’s analysis but explicitly inquired about the (artistic) object that Kant neglected.
With both Schiller and Kinker, the sublime gradually takes on the character of an exalted form of beauty. Moreover, in their work – just as in Van Hemert’s – the sublime experience has an explicitly ethical dimension. Thus, for example, Schiller begins his essay Über das Erhabene with the message that everything is subject to necessity (read: primitive impulses), except humanity: man is the being that wills. This free will is our highest good and only in difficult situations is our will put to the test, which is why one can appear great in fortune, but sublime only in misfortune. In his magnum opus, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man , he argues resolutely that beauty is a guiding principle that can put us in a position to become better people. Art (this refers above all to the theatre) is the means par excellence for exemplifying this image. Thus in his analysis Schiller goes beyond Kant: he adds an analysis of the object and gives that object a central position in his project for aesthetic education.
In his analysis of the beautiful Kinker goes one step beyond. He starts by asking what the beautiful is and at the same time deals with his understanding of the sublime, which he calls a ‘sort of’ beauty at the end of the text. This is where he is in direct contradiction with Kant, despite following him to a large degree in his analysis of the beautiful. He examines Kant’s analysis of the beautiful point by point and concurs completely, except with the notion of ‘necessary pleasure’ according to which each new object that is experienced as beautiful also is necessarily beautiful, although its beauty is not subject to general rules or laws. According to Kinker, Kant, when discussing this aspect, somewhat contradicts himself when he suggests that, although the object of beauty generates a number of feelings, it does not lead to knowledge. In rejecting this part of Kant’s analysis of the beautiful, Kinker concludes that knowledge is involved in the experience of beauty. According to Kinker, in this experience we can actually combine the sensible with the supersensible and thus via the sensible come into contact with the supersensible. Kant considers these two areas as necessarily separated from one another: the experience of the sublime brings us face to face with this fundamental separation. For Kinker, there is in essence only one world, in which the sensible and the supersensible form a unity. This unity is pre-figured in the beautiful object. In this analysis of the beautiful, the Kantian sublime is unimaginable: the absolute liminal experience in which man’s dual nature is felt does not work here as it appears that this duality can be discarded.
The importance of Over het schoone (About the Beautiful) cannot be overestimated in the context of Kinker’s own development either. In fact this work is the final part of a series of writings on the aesthetic, the basis of which was laid down in the introductions of the three-part publication of his Gedichten (Poems). Taken together, these texts reveal Kinker as a thinker inspired more by Schiller than by Kant in the development of his views on aesthetics.