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Emily Brady, The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature (Cambridge University Press, 2013)

The sublime is a concept with a long and rich history in aesthetics and the philosophy of art, from classical and eighteenth-century theories through to more recent post-modern ideas. This history is testament to the significance of the sublime as an aesthetic concept and category of value, but it also points to reasons for the demise of the concept. For some the sublime is rather outmoded, best relegated to the history of aesthetics, while for others, its recent transformations have brought it so far from its earlier meanings, as celebrated in the eighteenth-century, to make it unrecognizable.

It was against this background that I was motivated to write the book. I believe that the sublime remains an interesting and useful concept, at the very least in relation to nature and the relatively new subfield of environmental aesthetics. The book covers more territory than that, with its main aim to reassess and to some extent reclaim the meaning of the sublime as developed during its heyday in eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, and to mark out its relevance for contemporary discussions in philosophy from aesthetics to environmental philosophy.

After presenting early versions of chapters of the book to a couple of conference audiences, I recall the same objection coming up in discussion: Shouldn’t the sublime be replaced with something carrying less weighty historical and metaphysical baggage, for example ‘awe’ or ‘grandeur’? The thought was that these concepts would also better capture the broader (sometimes postmodern) meanings of the sublime that we see today across a range of disciplines. But many of us continue to be overwhelmed by great things in nature and beyond – the night sky, massive waterfalls, great thunder and lightning storms, expansive, deep canyons, skyscrapers, massive dams, and so on. We continue to use ‘sublime’ meaningfully for a range of things having great size or power. The edgy feeling of this kind of aesthetic response outruns landscape tastes of the past, as we continue to seek out extraordinary places and phenomena. The core meaning of the concept and its paradigm cases as developed in aesthetic theory in the past still resonate, even if our experiences of sublimity are situated differently in a number of ways in the present day.

At the same time (and not coincidentally), I found that the sublime had largely disappeared from the scene in analytic philosophy, though it had received some attention in the Continental tradition, e.g., Lyotard (and of course also in other disciplines). Aestheticians know that beauty once suffered a similar fate, but that it is now very much back on the agenda. Although the sublime is a less ubiquitous concept compared to beauty, this gap reinforced my interest in pursuing the topic, not only to revive it, but also for trying to understand more negatively valenced forms of aesthetic response, and the distinctive ways in which imagination and emotion function in the sublime – capacities of perennial interest to aestheticians.

In terms of the book’s scope, I begin with the sublime as a Western European concept, trace its development mainly in that context, and rehabilitate it within that philosophical framework. While similar and related concepts are discussed in non-Western traditions, I say very little about them. Also, although the book leans more toward the analytic tradition, the scope of the topic and my treatment of it should also find an audience beyond analytic aesthetics. In reviving the core meaning of the sublime, I want to stimulate thinking about it with regard to nature, an area that has been neglected in continental approaches to the sublime in favor of the arts.

The first part of the book is historical, presenting key theories of the sublime from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and revealing their significant contribution to understanding the concept. Drawing strongly from Kant, I distill the sublime’s core meaning and paradigm cases, arguing that the natural sublime became central during this period. In these chapters, I ask: What constituted the objects of the sublime, and how did nature emerge as its principal subject matter? How do emotion and imagination function in the sublime? Can the sublime be defended against the claim that it involves self-aggrandizement? The second part of the book develops the sublime’s core meaning and considers its philosophical significance today by engaging it with issues in aesthetics and, also, environmental thought. Questions guiding my analysis include: Can the arts and architecture be sublime? What is distinctive about the sublime as a form of aesthetic value, and how is it to be distinguished from other categories, especially more ‘difficult’ forms of aesthetic appreciation? What is the relevance of the metaphysical dimension of the sublime today? In what ways is the sublime relevant to valuing the environment, both aesthetically and ethically?

I begin, in the first chapter, by tracing the concept chronologically with respect to its subject matter, qualities, and objects during its heyday in the eighteenth century. My attention is mainly to Britain, where the sublime flourished in particular, and to ideas that preceded discussions on the Continent by Kant and others. Here I show that although the sublime has its roots in literary style and rhetoric reaching back to Longinus, philosophers brought the concept to the fore of aesthetic theory and opened it out to include a range of subject matter, with nature becoming more and more central. We find great variety of sublime objects and phenomena as discussed by Addison, Gerard, Burke, Alison and others. I also point up key aspects of the sublime, namely, vastness and power, intense mixed emotions of anxious excitement and astonishment, expanded imagination, and the role of the self in relation to feelings of admiration.

Like many monographs, the book grew out of arguments from a couple of papers, which also indicate where my interest in the sublime originated. While teaching at Lancaster University in the 1990s, I began thinking about how we might use Kant’s theory of the sublime to develop a notion of respect for nature. His theory has been highly influential, but such an interpretation is, to many, controversial, especially when set against some of the self-aggrandizing language used by Kant to describe how humans become aware of their own freedom and reason through sublime experiences of the natural world. That thinking fed into a paper that became the basis for two chapters on Kant. In Chapter 2, I discuss a notable influence on Kant’s work, Moses Mendelssohn, and then turn to the pre-Critical and Critical phases of Kant’s theory, setting out their main ideas and indicating how his theory is both indebted to but also extends beyond the sublime as theorized in Britain. Despite its metaphysical framework, it provides a sophisticated philosophical understanding of the concept as a distinctive and meaningful aesthetic category, and one which requires less reconstruction than might be assumed. Chapter 3 then addresses a major problem for the enduring significance of Kant’s theory, especially with respect to natural aesthetics. Because Kant appears to place more emphasis on the human mind and freedom as sublime, this seems to leave much less room for attributing the sublime to the external world. Rejecting this interpretation, I reassert the centrality of natural objects and phenomena to his theory. With this new interpretation in hand, I show how Kant extends core ideas of the concept into new territory relating to nature and self, with an important propaedeutic role with respect to morality.

While writing the book I felt that each chapter could become book-length in itself, so I worked towards a happy medium between coverage and depth. With that in mind, Chapter 4 examines Kant’s influence on two other German philosophers, Schiller and Schopenhauer, and then his legacy in British Romanticism. Schopenhauer’s theory stands out, certainly, and other scholars have been paying more attention to his view (e.g., Sandra Shapsay). Apart from these writers, in the nineteenth century the sublime attracted less interest in philosophy, but it enjoyed an important place in poetry, literature, the arts, and in actual experience of landscape. Continuing my earlier line of argument, I discuss the Wordsworthian sublime and defend it against the objection that it is ultimately self-regarding, overly humanistic, and ‘egotistical’. Drawing on recent interpretations of Wordsworth from the perspective of ecocriticism, I show how the humility and self-awareness of the sublime characterize the human subject as part of nature, where nature is conceived more holistically. This Romantic conception is then located, at the turn of the century, in the more empirical and conservation-conscious sublime of John Muir’s nature essays. Muir is a challenging writer to study within philosophical aesthetics because his work is comprised of nature essays – essentially a descriptive aesthetics. But we can learn a great deal from his adventures and reflections in terms of continuity and development of the concept of the natural sublime.

The second part of the book moves from historical to contemporary discussions of the sublime. In Chapter 5, I pause to outline the core meaning of the sublime in light of what has been established in the first part of the book. This meaning, understood in terms of paradigm cases rather than a strict philosophical definition, is explained through natural objects or phenomena having qualities of great height or vastness or tremendous power which cause an intense emotional response characterized by feelings of being overwhelmed, somewhat anxious, though ultimately an experience that feels exciting and pleasurable. With this core meaning in hand, the main business of the chapter is to consider whether artworks can be sublime in this more ‘original sense.’ Building upon a position held by some eighteenth-century theorists (including Kant), I argue that the sublime in art is secondary, that is, although artworks can depict, represent, convey, and express the sublime, they cannot be sublime in and of themselves. I support this argument with a set of reasons relating to size and scale, formlessness, disorder and wildness, physical vulnerability, affect, and the metaphysical quality of the sublime. My discussion considers a range of cases, plus a few exceptions from land art and architecture. I suspect that this will be the most controversial chapter in the book: the view that art cannot be sublime will strike many as untenable. But given the meaning of the sublime that I develop, which will go some way to distinguishing it from other aesthetic concepts such as profundity, I hope to persuade my readers otherwise.

The aim of next pair of chapters is to distinguish the sublime from neighboring aesthetic categories and to show why it remains a distinctive aesthetic concept. More specifically, I argue that the sublime belongs to a set of categories that identify more difficult forms of aesthetic appreciation, in contrast to what might be called ‘easy beauty.’ I first came across ‘difficult’ aesthetic appreciation in Allen Carlson’s work, and these chapters provide an opportunity to further explore this interesting territory. We see the familiar pairing from the history of aesthetics of the sublime and tragedy in Chapter 6, but I give this pairing a new twist by discussing them in the context of the natural sublime. Through an analysis and comparison of the ‘paradox of tragedy’ and the ‘paradox of the sublime,’ I show how each can illuminate the other and pave the way to resolving both. I follow the approach that, in fact, these paradoxes can be explained away if we recognize the complexity and value of more negative forms of aesthetic experience, through the exercise of ‘negative emotions’ and their edifying effects.

Continuing my project of refining the meaning of the sublime in relation to other aesthetic concepts, Chapter 7 discusses this with respect to ‘grandeur,’ ‘terrible beauty,’ and ‘ugliness.’ I build upon distinctions between the sublime and the beautiful by considering its relationship to grandeur as an adjacent concept that is more positively valenced and argue that experiences of grandeur lack the more mixed ‘negative pleasure’ of the sublime. Turning to the more negative concepts of terrible beauty and ugliness, while sharing something with them, the sublime is distinguished at least by its greatness in terms of both scale and power. The value of more difficult forms of aesthetic appreciation becomes clearer when we consider how they expand and enrich the emotional and moral dimensions of our aesthetic interactions through uneasy but meaningful relationships with the natural world.

With the rise of philosophical interest in the environment, it seems a logical step from reclaiming the natural sublime of the eighteenth century to exploring its relevance to discussions about the natural environment today. Chapter 8 thus completes my argument for the relevance of the sublime to contemporary philosophy and solidifies my position that the main territory of the sublime is the natural world. Recalling the two early papers which motivated arguments in the book, a second paper served as the basis for this chapter, inspired by Ronald Hepburn’s work in aesthetics of nature and presented at a conference session in his honor. To carve out a new, an environmental sublime, I defend the concept against claims that it is historically outmoded, metaphysically suspect, and anthropocentric, drawing to some extent on arguments from preceding chapters. In particular, I point to ways in which this more challenging, yet exciting, form of aesthetic appreciation feeds into a distinctive kind of aesthetic-moral relationship with environment. This type of appreciation is deeply comparative, as we feel insignificant, humbled by the greatness of nature rather than masterful over it. The admiration we feel in the sublime, as well as a perspectival shift of self, can feed into new forms of self-knowledge and potentially ground respect for nature, not in spite of, but very much because of nature’s irresistible scale and power.

Opportunities for experiencing sublimity are not common, but I don’t think they’re rare either. Ranging from the amazing panorama of space on a clear night to the less common sighting of the full breach of a magnificent whale, the astonishing character of these experiences explains the sublime’s singular effect. This astonishment, felt through a distinctive type of aesthetic response, is significant, deserving careful consideration for locating a new role for the sublime in aesthetics and other fields.


© Emily Brady

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