The Sublime



Concept of the Sublime

The sublime has been a predominate concept of aesthetic theory in Western art and philosophy, receiving its more explicit formulation in early eighteenth century philosophy. Its presence as a concept in Native American aesthetics is not as explicitly stated as it is in Western thought, but there are strong indications that the sublime as an aesthetic property of Native American culture has been in evidence for centuries. One only needs to examine, for example, the notions of ugliness, exaltation, greatness, beauty, and so on, in the comedy and tragedy in the rituals of the clowns and the dances of the modern Pueblos (See Louis Hieb, 1972). In Zuni art and culture, the notions of the sublime as appreciation through aesthetic non-verbal judgment is evident in the relationship of the beautiful (tso'ya) and the dangerous (attanni) (See Zuni World View and Bibliography).

Beginnings As Literary Criticism

The first study of the value of the sublime is the treatise ascribed to Longinus On the Sublime (Peri hupsous), a document that has been thought to have been written as early as the first century A.D., but first published in 1554. Longinus' view that artistic genius was the skill of metaphor was essentially a restatement of Plato and Aristotle, but differed from these early Greek philosophers's conception of the elements of literary style as ornamental and subordinated to thought and passion. For Plato, rhetoric was not an art separate from the context of the problems of metaphysics and morals. It was subordinate to truth and goodness as depicted by his Socratic method in dialogue, and can be viewed as a method of inquiry and debate. This is not entirely unlike Aristotle's view of rhetoric as the art of persuasion, but whereas for Aristotle the aesthetic and psychological effect of the elements of style should be measured by the response of an audience, for Plato it is measured in the virtue of the man. Longinus gauged the effect of artistic genius through an expressive and elevated style of language which is measured through the excesses of the artist. A positive estimation of this talent and Longinus' concept of the sublime is given in Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism in 1711. Pope's references can be summarized in the lines "Whose own Example strengthens all his Laws, and Is himself the great Sublime he draws" (lines 679-680).

Longinus' influence of the sublime extended well into the eighteenth century as a concept utilized by French rhetoricians, predominately relevant to literary criticism. The French influenced more conservative English literary critics such as John Dennis, but it was Dennis and other English writers at the beginning of the eighteenth century that explored the notion of a naturally sublime, or the sublime in external nature. British philosopher Edmund Burke and German philosopher Immanuel Kant investigated the subject (compare Burke's A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 1756, and Kant's Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, 1764), with both men categorically distinguishing the sublime from the beautiful. Later writers have tended to include the sublime in the beautiful.

Concept of the Sublime in Eighteenth Century Philosophy

British Philosophy

The development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature distinct from beauty was first brought into prominence in the eighteenth century in the writings of Anthony Ashley Cooper (third earl of Shaftesbury) and John Dennis, in expressing an appreciation of the fearful and irregular forms of external nature, and Joseph Addison's synthesis of Cooper's and Dennis' concepts of the sublime in his The Spectator (1711), and later the Pleasures of the Imagination. All three Englishmen had, within the span of several years, made the journey across the Alps and commented in their writings of the horrors and harmony of the experience, expressing a contrast of aesthetic qualities.

John Dennis was the first to publish his comments in a journal letter published as Miscellanies in 1693, giving an account of crossing the Alps where, contrary to his prior feelings for the beauty of nature as a "delight that is consistent with reason", the experience of the journey was at once a pleasure to the eye as music is to the ear, but "mingled with Horrours, and sometimes almost with despair." Shaftesbury had made the journey two years prior to Dennis but did not publish his comments until 1709 in the Moralists. His comments on the experience also reflected pleasure and repulsion, citing a "wasted mountain" that showed itself to the world as a "noble ruin" (Part III, Sec. 1, 390-91), but his concept of the sublime in relation to beauty was one of degree rather than the sharp contradistinction that Dennis developed into a new form of literary criticism. Shaftesbury's writings reflect more of a regard for the awe of the infinity of space ("Space astonishes" referring to the Alps), where the sublime was not an aesthetic quality in opposition to beauty, but a quality of a grander and higher importance than beauty. In referring to the Earth as a "Mansion-Globe" and "Man-Container" Shaftsbury writes "How narrow then must it appear compar'd with the capacious System of its own Sun...tho animated with a sublime Celestial Spirit...." (Part III, sec. 1, 373)

Joseph Addison embarked on the Grand Tour in 1699 and commented in the Spectator (1712) that "The Alps fill the mind with an agreeable kind of horror". The significance of Addison's concept of the sublime is that the three pleasures of the imagination that he identified; greatness, uncommonness, and beauty, "arise from visible objects" (sight rather than rhetoric). It is also notable that in writing on the "Sublime in external Nature", he does not use the term "sublime", but uses terms that would be considered as absolutive superlatives, e.g. "unbounded", "unlimited", as well as "spacious", "greatness", and on occasion terms denoting excess.

Addison's notion of greatness was integral to the concept of the sublime. An art object could be beautiful but it could not rise to greatness. His work Pleasures of the Imagination, as well as Mark Akenside's Pleasures of the Imagination (1744), and Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1745), are generally considered as the starting points for Edmund Burke's concept of the sublime in A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). The significance of Burke's writings is that he was the first philosopher to argue that the sublime and the beautiful are mutually exclusive. The dichotomy is not as simple as Dennis' opposition, but antithetical to the same degree as light and darkness. Beauty may be accentuated by light, but either intense light or darkness (the absence of light) is sublime to the degree that it can obliterate the sight of an object. The imagination is moved to awe and instilled with a degree of horror by what is "dark, uncertain, and confused." While the relationship of the sublime and the beautiful is one of mutual exclusiveness, either one can produce pleasure. The sublime may inspire horror, but one receives pleasure in knowing that the perception is a fiction.

Burke's concept of the sublime was an antithetical contrast to the classical notion of the aesthetic quality of beauty as the pleasurable experience described by Plato in several of his dialogues (Philebus, Ion, Hippias Major, and Symposium) and suggested ugliness as an aesthetic quality in its capacity to instill feelings of intense emotion, ultimately creating a pleasurable experience. Prior to Burke, the classical notion of the ugly, most notably related in the writings of Augustine of Hippo, had conceived it as lacking form and therefore as non-existent. Beauty was, for St. Augustine, the consequence of the benevolence and goodness of God's creation, and as a category had no opposite. The ugly, lacking any attributive value, was a formlessness in its absence of beauty. For Aristotle the function of art forms was to create pleasure, and had first pondered the problem of an object of art representing the ugly as producing "pain" (without reference to the absence of pleasure) in the (Poetics). Aristotle's detailed analysis of this problem involves his study of tragic literature and its paradoxical nature to be shocking as well as having poetic value.

Immanuel Kant

The eighteenth century was an active period for investigation of the sublime as an aesthetic quality with many writers making contributions, but Immanuel Kant was the first philosopher to incorporate aesthetic theory into a philosophic system in the Critique of Judgment. In accordance with his critical method of the first two Critiques, Kant poses the question "How are judgments of taste possible?" In other words, what is the logical status of a judgment of taste and how can we be certain that a judgment concerning aesthetic quality can be known to be universally true? For Kant, judgments of taste, or beauty, corresponded to the four primary divisions of his categories of the understanding, with the essential element for universalization as the "moment" of "relation" that presupposed a disinterested state where the satisfaction derived was independent of desire and interest (See Beardsley, EOP).

In the chapter "Analytic of the Beautiful" in the first division of the Critique of Judgment , Kant states that beauty is not a property of artwork or natural objects, but instead a consciousness of the state of feeling the pleasure derived from having made a judgement of taste. It may appear that we are using reason to decide what we find beautiful, but the judgment is not a cognitive judgment, "and is consequently not logical, but aesthetical" (§ 1). A judgement of taste is in fact purely subjective and is based upon nothing but a feeling of satisfaction derived from the presence of an object. It is a disinterested pleasure, and its universality is by means of our shared interests for what is good and "the satisfaction in the presence of an object or action", and of our knowing of the object's existence (§ 4).

In the chapter "Analytic of the Sublime" Kant identifies the sublime (Erhabenen) as a judgment which, like beauty, is subjective. Both beauty and the sublime share the characteristics of a moral judgement in that they are disinterested, and universal, but unlike beauty the sublime shares the character of moral judgments as a concept of reason. The feeling of the sublime is derived from one's estimation of natural objects which relates a boundlessness and lack of form, and the realization that they are not equal to the expectations of one's moral ideas, which is at the same time our exaltation in the realization of our own capacity as moral and rational beings.

In his investigation of the sublime, Kant states "We call that sublime which is absolutely great"(§ 25). He distinguishes between the "remarkable differences" of the Beautiful and the Sublime, noting that beauty "is connected with the form of the object", having "boundaries", while the sublime "is to be found in a formless object", represented by a "boundlessness" (§ 23). Kant then further divides the sublime into the mathematical and the dynamical, where in the mathematical "aesthetical comprehension" is not a consciousness of a mere greater unit, but the notion of absolute greatness not inhibited with ideas of limitations (§ 27). The dynamically sublime is "nature considered in an aesthetic judgment as might that has no dominion over us", and an object can create a fearfulness "without being afraid ''of'' it" (§ 28). He considers both the beautiful and the sublime as "indefinite" concepts, but where beauty relates to the "Understanding", sublime is a concept belonging to "Reason", and "shows a faculty of the mind surpassing every standard of Sense" (§ 25). The feeling of the sublime is experienced when our imagination fails to comprehend the vastness of the infinite and we become aware of the ideas of reason and their representation of the boundless totality of the universe, as well as those powers that operate in the universe which we do not grasp and are beyond our control. The feeling is the realization our own finitude, but is also universal in the realization of our capacity as an autonomous, rational agent sharing in mankind's interest in what is good through the capacity to apply the moral laws of practical reason.

Romantic and Post-Romantic Periods

Towards the end of the eighteenth century and in the nineteenth century other philosophers, specifically the German Idealists, would utilize Kant's aesthetic theory in attempts to reconcile the perceived alienation of the knower and the known in Kant, re-integrating the sublime and beauty in an Absolute which embodied the idealism that Kant had spent his career intent on refuting. The Romantics were essentially preoccupied by the sublime and especially by the sublime in Nature. The last decades of the nineteenth century saw the rise of Kunstwissenschaft, or the "science of art", which was a movement to discern laws of aesthetic appreciation and arrive at a scientific approach to aesthetic experience.

At the beginning of the twentieth century Neo-Kantian German philosopher and theorist of aesthetics Max Dessoir founded the Zeitschift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, which he edited for many years, and published the work Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft in which he formulated five primary aesthetic forms: the beautiful, the sublime, the tragic, the ugly, and the comic.

The experience of the sublime involves a self-forgetfulness where personal fear is replaced by a sense of well-being and security when confronted with an object exhibiting superior might, and is similar to the experience of the tragic. The "tragic consciousness" is the capacity to gain an exalted state of consciousness from the realization of the unavoidable suffering destined for all men and that there are oppositions in life that can never be resolved, most notably that of the "forgiving generosity of deity" subsumed to "inexorable fate". (Emery, EOP)

References and Further Reading

*Addison, Joseph. The Spectator. Ed. Donald E. Bond. Oxford, 1965. ISBN: 019818610X
*Aristotle. Basic Works. Trans. Richard Mckeon. New York, 1941. ISBN: 0394416104
*Beardsley, Monroe C. "History of Aesthetics". Encyclopedia of Philosophy,Vol. 1-2. McMillan, 1973. ISBN: 0028949501
*Brett, R.L. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury. London, 1951. ASIN: B0007IYKBU
*Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. London, 1958. ISBN: 0935005285
*Chapman, Emmanuel. Saint Augustine's Philosophy of Beauty. New York, 1939. ASIN: B0007FBXH2
*Collingwood, R.G. The Idea of Nature. Oxford, 1945. ISBN: 0313251665
*Cooper, Anthony Ashley, Third Earl of Shaftesbury. "The Moralists: A Philosophical Rhapsody", 1709. Available in Characteristics, Vol. II. Ed. John M. Robertson. London, 1900. ISBN: 1417949740
*Dennis, John. "Miscellanies in Verse and Prose", in Critical Works, Vol. II. Ed. Edward Niles Hooker. Baltimore, 1939-1943. ASIN: B0007E9YR4
*Dessoir, Max. Aesthetics and theory of art. Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft. Translated by Stephen A. Emery. With a foreword by Thomas Munro. Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1970. ISBN: 0814313833
*Emery, Stephen A. "Dessoir, Max". Encyclopedia of Philosophy, McMillan, 1973. ISBN: 0028949501
*Hieb, Louis A. "Meaning and Mismeaning: Toward an Understanding of the Ritual Clowns".  New Perspectives on the Pueblos.  Ed. by Alfonso Ortiz.  Pp. 163-195.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1972. ISBN 0826302289
*Hipple, Walter John, Jr. The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetic Theory. Carbondale, IL, 1957. ASIN: B000BU72QO
*Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment. 1790. ISBN: 1573928372
*Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Translated by John T. Goldthwaite. University of California Press, 2003. ISBN: 0520240782
*Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory. Ithaca, 1959. ISBN 0295975776
*Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. "Sublime in External Nature". Dictionary of the History of Ideas. New York, 1974.
*Plato. The Works of Plato. Jowlett translation. ISBN: 007553651X
*Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Criticism. ISBN 1419106406
*Schopenhauer, Arthur. The World as Will and Representation. Volume I. New York:Dover Press. ISBN: 0028949501
*Stolnitz, Jerome. "Beauty". Encyclopedia of Philosophy, McMillan, 1973. ISBN: 0028949501
*Stolnitz, Jerome. "On the Significance of Lord Shaftesbury in Modern Aesthetic Theory". Philosophical Quarterly, 43(2):97-113, 1961.
*Stolnitz, Jerome. "Ugliness". Encyclopedia of Philosophy, McMillan, 1973. ISBN: 0028949501

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