This paper has been circulated in the Newsletter of the Society for Russian Religious Philosophy, 1, Spring 1995, 11-19.

Copyright (c) David A. Goldfarb, 1995.

This material is offered here only for personal, classroom and scholarly use, but not for republication.

Click on note numbers to jump to the notes. Click on [RETURN] to return to the text.


Kant's Aesthetics in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground

David A. Goldfarb

Mid-Atlantic Slavic Conference, Columbia University, 18 March 1995

When we consider Dostoevsky, we tend to think first of a literature of existential despair, alienation, and a resulting amoralism. Nothing seems further from Dostoevsky than either the Idealistic aesthetics or the strict ethics of Immanuel Kant, who is the direct object of the narrator's contempt in Dostoevsky's Zapiski is podpol'ia. Critics have tended to read the Underground Man's rant as a direct expression of the author's view, though it contains so many contradictions that it cannot be said to express any view, directly. I would like to step back from the text, set aside the problem of the author's intention,1 and read the text anew as fiction, to ask, despite the Underground Man's frequent jibes at Kant's theory of "the sublime and the beautiful" in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground (14),2 is there a more profound sense in which Dostoevsky affirms Kant's theory?

Dostoevsky and Kant seem strange bedfellows, because Dostoevsky's supreme man of ressentiment, who admits of chance as a motive for action, and acts out of "spite" rather than adherence to a rigid moral imperative, appears to be the antithesis of the follower of Kant's Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. The fundamental principle of the categorical imperative, recall, is this: "Act on that maxim which can at the same time have for its object itself as a universal law of nature" (Kant, Groundwork 105 [81]).3 While Kant has traditionally been criticized for the rigidity of this standard of universality, particularly in cases where seemingly universalizable beliefs come into conflict, we should note that Kant's placement of adherence to law as the highest principle embodies a regard for others that is not entailed by moral skepticism. The skeptic allows no adjudication of conflicting moral principles, because they are rooted in private sentiment, and not facts that could be subject to reason. Kant's test demands that moral principles be universalizable in form.

There seem to be two motivational principles for action suggested in the Notes from Underground. The one that leads us to the familiar existentialist reading is the moral skepticism of the principle, declared by the narrator to Liza in part II, that "the world can go to hell, as long as I can always have my tea" (83).4 The underlying tenet here is the Humean claim that there is no rational argument against such a view, because morals are matters of sentiment rather than of fact. This is precisely the sort of ethical claim to which Kant was responding, when he proposed the test that one must "Act always on that maxim whose universality as a law you can at the same time will" (Kant, Groundwork 104 [81]). If the belief that "the world can go to hell, so long as I can always have my tea" were universal, no one would get any tea.

We cannot take this principle as stated at face value, if we want to come up with a consistent reading of the Underground Man's beliefs. If the Underground Man actually believed that "the world can go to hell, so long as I can always have my tea," he would, after all, really be Chernyshevsky's egoistic man, always directed by the motive of vygoda, "advantage," "comfort" or "pleasure." It is clear that Dostoevsky's polemic toward the end of Part I is directed against Chernyshevsky's view, so we would have to take this declaration of utilitarian egoism as a case of the narrator "lying," something he admits to having done frequently, "out of spite" (4),5 or as what Mikhail Bakhtin calls the "loophole" that allows the Underground Man to contradict himself, turning his monologue into dialogue (Bakhtin 233).6 The narrator is taking up Chernyshevsky's position, here, for the purpose of beating it down elsewhere. This fact does not yet entail an acceptance of Kantian ethics, but we can certainly see that Kant and Dostoevsky have a common enemy in utilitarianism.

The Underground Man is also motivated by an aesthetic principle. If morality were the only motivation for action, after all, we would not need to worry about it. The masochistic idea that the Underground Man would break out of Chernyshevsky's "crystal palace" merely for the sake of doing so, is highly consistent with Kant's aesthetic notion that the feeling of the sublime is produced by violating the boundaries of the elegant and the useful, and that the pleasure of the sublime is one wholly unto itself, serving no other function. As Kant states it in the Critique of Judgement:

The beautiful in nature is connected with the form of The object, which consists in having [definite] boundaries. The sublime, on the other hand, is to be found in a formless object, so far as in it or by occasion of it boundlessness is represented, and yet its totality is also present to thought. Thus the beautiful seems to be regarded as the presentation of an indefinite concept of understanding, the sublime as that of a like concept of reason. Therefore the satisfaction in the one case is bound up with the representation of quality, in the other with that of quantity (Kant, Judgement 82-83).
The aesthetic principle of the sublime in the context of Dostoevsky has clear ethical consequences, we shall see, blurring the distinction between ethics and aesthetics.

The narrator seems to launch a direct attack against the "sublime and the beautiful," but the reader will again have to gauge whether he is "lying out of spite." In the narrator's most protracted lampoon involving Kant's aesthetic, he imagines himself having become a sentimental critic, "drinking to everything beautiful and sublime." "I would have sought out the beautiful and sublime in the nastiest, most indisputable trash," he says.

I would have become as tearful as a wet sponge. An artist, for example, has painted a portrait of Ge. At once I drink to the artist who painted that portrait of Ge because I love everything beautiful and sublime.... I'd demand respect for myself in doing this, I'd persecute anyone who didn't pay me any respect. I'd live peacefully and die triumphantly--why, it's charming, per fectly charming! And what a belly I'd have grown by then, what a triple chin I'd have acquired, what a red nose I'd have developed (14).7
The object of satire here is hardly Kant's theory, but the imperiousness of certain critics and their insipid appropriation of German Romantic aesthetics as a marker of unrelated social status. Notice that the expression "beautiful and sublime" in these satiric references (e.g. 32) appears always as hendiadys, "i prekrasnoe i vysokoe" (4:171) where the items do not describe an opposition of quality and quantity, but a single sublimely beautiful thing. It seems as if, for the moment, the narrator does not even understand that there is a difference.

The narrator must be "lying," adopting a pose here, however, because his strongest argument is saved for the very Kantian notion of a "pleasure of despair" (7),8 or a masochistic, sublime pleasure in pain. For Kant,

The feeling of the sublime is . . . a feeling of pain arising from the want of accordance between the aesthetical estimation of magnitude formed by the imagination and the estimation of the same formed by reason. There is at the same time a pleasure thus excited, arising from the correspondence with rational ideas of this very judgment of the inadequacy of our greatest faculty of the sense, in so far as it is a law for us to strive after these ideas (Kant, Judgement 96, my emphasis).
This feeling is once removed from the objects in question. The pain does not result from the immensity of nature itself, but the inconsistency of the imagination and reason. The pleasure results from our sense of our potential to comprehend that inconsistency. It is a feeling in the mind that results from a representation in the mind removed from reality, like Dostoevsky's dialogue itself, which Bakhtin describes as "a word about a word addressed to a word" (Bakhtin 237).

The difficulty that the comparison of Dostoevsky to Kant reveals is not between these two thinkers, but between Kant's ethics and Kant's aesthetics themselves: It seems that the pursuit of sublimity somehow sets aside morality. The sublime is a purely subjective feeling, while morality demands universalization in Kant. Kant compares the sublime and the beautiful, thus:

We must seek a ground external to ourselves for the beautiful of nature, but seek it for the sublime merely in ourselves and in our attitude of thought (Kant, Judgement 84).
The feeling of the sublime is entirely internal, the painful pleasure of the apprehension (within the mind) of inconsistency between reason and imagination (within the mind). Kantian morality entails the application of will beyond the self, and the imagination of others inflicting that will onto the self in turn, externally.

Dostoevsky posits painful pleasure as a response to nature in the opposition to "consciousness" or reason. The moans of a toothache, for instance, "express the sufferer's enjoyment,"9 the narrator says. Particularly they "express all the aimlessness of the pain which consciousness finds so humiliating, the whole system of natural laws about which you really don't give a damn, but as a result of which you're suffering nonetheless, while nature isn't" (10-11).10 The humiliation of consciousness in the face of nature's limitlessness is exactly Kant's description of the feeling of the sublime. The sublime is the pain resulting from the failure of reason to comprehend the immensity of quantity in nature.11

This feature of the sublime might in turn explain Dostoevsky's idea of the conflict between free will and "arithmetic." On the one hand, the Underground Man is making a straightforward argument that the relation of human desires to interests cannot be understood mechanistically when he states:

You'll shout at me (if you still choose to favor me with your shouts) that no one's really depriving me of my will [in Chernyshevsky's Crystal Palace]; that they're merely attempting to arrange things so that my will, by its own free choice, will coincide with my normal interests, with the laws of nature, and with arithmetic (22).12
But having anticipated the question, he asks in response to his imagined interlocutors, "But gentlemen, what sort of free choice will there be when it comes down to tables and arithmetic, when all that's left is two times two makes four? Two times two makes four even without my will. Is that what you call free choice?" (22).13 The narrator's observation that , "Two times two makes four even without my will" really has nothing to do with the belief that desires could be rationalized. Either the Underground Man is reading Chernyshevsky too literally and becoming incoherent, or "arithmetic," here, is no longer a metaphor for the mechanistic understanding of desire, but rather the expression of an opposition between human quantities and the infinite.

"Even if man turned out to be a piano key, even if this could be demonstrated to him by natural science and pure mathematics," the narrator claims, "even then he still won't become reasonable; he'll intentionally do something to the contrary, simply out of ingratitude, merely to have his own way" (22).14 That is to say, if human desires could be reduced to small rational numbers and simple ratios, the desire for sublimity would impel us to reach beyond the bounds of the known for a glimpse of the infinite. How could the rational even have meaning if we could not imagine the irrational?

Though a detailed analysis of the second part of the Notes from Underground is beyond the scope of this paper, we might observe that we can read it as a demonstration of the Kantian pursuit of the sublime. Each event in succession--the attempt to get thrown out of a bar, the clash with the officer on the Nevsky Prospekt, the confrontation building to the challenge of Zverkov to a duel, the abuse of Apollon, the servant, and finally the sentimental seduction of Liza that results in a treacherous rape--pushes the limits of violence and humiliation further and further. In each case the the object of the Underground Man's offense is increasingly helpless, while his psychological relation to his object is closer, increasing the depth of possible shame. He has constructed a sequence of events in which, as he states earlier, "each thing will be more repugnant than the last" (40).15

This sequential and additive violation of the moral boundaries might be taken as the moral enactment of dialogue. Each scene entails a boundary to be violated through its loophole. The state of continuous violation is a way of remaining suspended in the sublime, and in the end, the Underground Man indicates that he really does know the difference between the "beautiful and sublime," when he asks, "Which is better: cheap happiness or sublime suffering?" (88).16

Taking this problem into consideration, the Underground Man might be seen as acting not out of "spite" as he claims, but from a maxim that one ought assert the freedom of the will for its own sake, even doing harm to oneself (see 20) in a world where good action would be universally regulated by appeal to Chernyshevsky's "advantage" or "self-interest." Stated this way, the problem suggests the solution that perhaps the feeling of the sublime is the source of judgement in the assessment of maxims that might serve as "universal laws" in the way Kant suggests, and ironically, that the Underground Man exemplifies Kant's aesthetic-moral principle that "[I]t is just this freedom from dependence on interested motives which constitutes the sublimity of a maxim and the worthiness of every rational subject to be a law-making member in the kingdom of ends; for otherwise he would have to be regarded as subject only to the law of nature--the law of his own needs" (Kant, Groundwork 106 [85]). The Underground man's ironic "individualism" is not about satisfying his own needs, but fulfilling the maxim of individuality for its own sake, even when his own material needs are contradicted. It is individualism without egoism.


  1. I am not making any claims, here, about Dostoevsky's personal beliefs regarding Kant's writings or how Kantian ideas may have come to Dostoevsky, historically, either directly or through the filters of the other German Romantics and the Russian critics who were influenced by them. The issue here is an intertextual one: how are Kant's ideas worked out in Dostoevsky's text? [RETURN]
  2. Page numbers in parentheses refer to Katz's translation of the Notes from Underground or the corresponding Russian text, unless otherwise indicated. [RETURN]
  3. Numbers in brackets refer to the second edition, published in Kant's lifetime. [RETURN]
  4. "svetu provalit'sia, a chtob mne chaj vsegda pit'" (4:237).[RETURN]
  5. "So zlosti navral" (4:134). [RETURN]
  6. Presumably, Bakhtin is adapting this term from the narrator's own statement, "I had a noble loophole for everything" (39), "u menia byla blagorodnaia lazeika na vse" (4:180). [RETURN]
  7. "pit' za zdorov'e vsego prekrasnogo i vysokogo.... v gadchaishei, besspornoi driani otyskal vy prekrasnoe i vysokoe. IA sdelalsia by slezotochiv, kak mokraia rubka. Khudozhnik, naprimer, nappisal kartinu Ge. Totchas zhe p'iu za zdorov'e khudozhnika, napisavshego kartinu Ge.... Uvazheniia k sebe za eto portebuiu, presledovat' budu togo, kto ne budet mne okazyvat' uvazheniia. ZHivu spokoino, umiraiu torzhestvenno,-- da ved' eto prelest', tselaia prelest'! I takoe cebe otrastil by ia togda briukho, takoi troinoi podborodok coorudil, takoi by sandal'nyi nos sebe vyradotal" (4:147-48). [RETURN]
  8. "naslazhdenie otchaianiia" (4:138). [RETURN]
  9. "byrazhaetsia naslazhdenie stradaiushchego" (4:143). [RETURN]
  10. "V etikh stonakh vyrazhaetsia, vo-pervykh, vsia dlia nashego soznaniia unizitel'naia bestsel'nost' vashei boli; vsia zakonnost' prirody, na kotoruiu vam, razumeetsia, naplevat', no ot kotoroi vy vse-taki stradaete, a ona-to net" (4:143). [RETURN]
  11. It is interesting to note that this originally Kantian opposition could be seen as the origin of the dialectic between stixiinost' and soznatel'nost', which will become fundamental to marxist-leninism. On this dialectic, see Clark (367). [RETURN]
  12. "By krichite mne (esli tol'ko eshcho udostoite menia bashim krikom), chto ved' tut nikto s menia voli ne snimaet; chto tut tol'ko i chlopochut kak-nibud' tak ustroit', chtob volia moia sama, svoei sobsvennoi volei, sovpadala s moimi normal'nymi interesami, s zakonami prirody is s arifmetikoi" (4:158-9). [RETURN]
  13. "Ekh, gospoda, kakaia uzh tut svoia volia budet, kogda delo dokhodit do tablichki i do arifmetiki, kogdo budet odno tol'ko dvazdy dva chetyre v khodu? Dvazhdy dva i bez moei voli chetyre budet. Takaia li svoia volia byvaet!" (4:159). [RETURN]
  14. "esli on deistvitel'no by okazalsia fortep'iannoi klavishei, esli v eto dokazat' emu dazhe estestvennymi naukami i matimaticheski, tak i tut ne obrazymitsia, a narochno naprotiv chto-nibud' sdelaet, edinstvenno iz odnoi neblagodarnosti; sobstvenno chnob nastoiat' na svoem" (4:158). [RETURN]
  15. "vse budet odno drugogo podlee" (4:181). [RETURN]
  16. "chto luchshe,--deshevoe li schastie, ili vozvyshennye stradaniia?" (4:242). Note, here, that Dostoevsky is using the more technical term for "sublime," "bozvyshennoe"; whereas, in the satirical references, he uses "vysokoe." [RETURN]

Works Cited


Last updated February 9, 1996. If you have any suggestions or comments on this page or anything in this archive, please e-mail me.

David A. Goldfarb