In aesthetics, the sublime (from the Latin sublīmis) is the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual, or artistic. The term especially refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement, or imitation.
The first known study of the sublime is ascribed to Longinus: Peri Hupsous/Hypsous or On the Sublime. This is thought to have been written in the 1st century AD though its origin and authorship are uncertain. For Longinus, the sublime is an adjective that describes great, elevated, or lofty thought or language, particularly in the context of rhetoric. As such, the sublime inspires awe and veneration, with greater persuasive powers. Longinus' treatise is also notable for referring not only to Greek authors such as Homer, but also to biblical sources such as Genesis.
This treatise was rediscovered in the 16th century, and its subsequent impact on aesthetics is usually attributed to its translation into French by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux in 1674. Later the treatise was translated into English by John Pultney in 1680, Leonard Welsted in 1712, and William Smith in 1739 whose translation had its fifth edition in 1800.
The development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality in nature distinct from beauty was first brought into prominence in the 18th 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 concepts of the sublime in his The Spectator, 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 Remarks on Several Parts of Italy etc. 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" (that is, from sight rather than from 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 poem Night Thoughts (1745), are generally considered the starting points for Burke's analysis.
Edmund Burke's concept of the sublime was developed in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756). Burke 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." 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.
Burke's treatise is also notable for focusing on the physiological effects of the sublime, in particular the dual emotional quality of fear and attraction noted by other writers. Burke described the sensation attributed to the sublime as a negative pain, which he called delight, and which is distinct from positive pleasure. Delight is taken to result from the removal of pain (caused by confronting the sublime object) and is supposedly more intense than positive pleasure. Though Burke's explanations for the physiological effects of the sublime experience (such as tension resulting from eye strain) were not taken seriously by later writers, his empiricist method of reporting from his own psychological experience was more influential, especially in contrast to Kant's analysis. Burke is also distinguished from Kant in his emphasis on the subject's realization of his physical limitations rather than any supposed sense of moral or spiritual transcendence.
See also Immanuel Kant's Aesthetic philosophy
Kant, in 1764, made an attempt to record his thoughts on the observing subject's mental state in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. He held that the sublime was of three kinds: the noble, the splendid, and the terrifying.
In his Critique of Judgment (1790), Kant officially says that there are two forms of the sublime, the mathematical and the dynamical, although some commentators hold that there is a third form, the moral sublime, a layover from the earlier "noble" sublime. Kant claims, "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 evidently 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). For Kant, one's inability to grasp the magnitude of a sublime event such as an earthquake demonstrates inadequacy of one's sensibility and imagination. Simultaneously, one's ability to subsequently identify such an event as singular and whole indicates the superiority of one's cognitive, supersensible powers. Ultimately, it is this "supersensible substrate," underlying both nature and thought, on which true sublimity is located.
To clarify the concept of the feeling of the sublime, Schopenhauer listed examples of its transition from the beautiful to the most sublime. This can be found in the first volume of his The World as Will and Representation, § 39.
For him, the feeling of the beautiful is pleasure in simply seeing a benign object. The feeling of the sublime, however, is pleasure in seeing an overpowering or vast malignant object of great magnitude, one that could destroy the observer.
- Feeling of Beauty – Light is reflected off a flower. (Pleasure from a mere perception of an object that cannot hurt observer).
- Weakest Feeling of Sublime – Light reflected off stones. (Pleasure from beholding objects that pose no threat, objects devoid of life).
- Weaker Feeling of Sublime – Endless desert with no movement. (Pleasure from seeing objects that could not sustain the life of the observer).
- Sublime – Turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from perceiving objects that threaten to hurt or destroy observer).
- Full Feeling of Sublime – Overpowering turbulent Nature. (Pleasure from beholding very violent, destructive objects).
- Fullest Feeling of Sublime – Immensity of Universe's extent or duration. (Pleasure from knowledge of observer's nothingness and oneness with Nature).
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Hegel considered the sublime a marker of cultural difference and a characteristic feature of oriental art. His teleological view of history meant that he considered "oriental" cultures as less developed, more autocratic in terms of their political structures and more fearful of divine law. According to his reasoning, this meant that oriental artists were more inclined towards the aesthetic and the sublime: they could engage God only through "sublated" means. He believed that the excess of intricate detail that is characteristic of Chinese art, or the dazzling metrical patterns characteristic of Islamic art, were typical examples of the sublime and argued that the disembodiment and formlessness of these art forms inspired the viewer with an overwhelming aesthetic sense of awe.
Post-Romantic and 20th century
The last decades of the 19th century saw the rise of Kunstwissenschaft, or the "science of art"—a movement to discern laws of aesthetic appreciation and arrive at a scientific approach to aesthetic experience.
At the beginning of the 20th century Neo-Kantian German philosopher and theorist of aesthetics Max Dessoir founded the Zeitschrift 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".
Thomas Weiskel re-examined Kant's aesthetics and the Romantic conception of the sublime through the prism of semiotic theory and psychoanalysis. He argued that Kant's "mathematical sublime" could be seen in semiotic terms as the presence of an excess of signifiers, a monotonous infinity threatens to dissolve all oppositions and distinctions. The "dynamic sublime", on the other hand, was an excess of signifieds: meaning was always overdetermined.
According to Jean-François Lyotard, the sublime, as a theme in aesthetics, was the founding move of the Modernist period. Lyotard argued that the modernists attempted to replace the beautiful with the release of the perceiver from the constraints of the human condition. For him, the sublime's significance is in the way it points to an aporia (impassable doubt) in human reason; it expresses the edge of our conceptual powers and reveals the multiplicity and instability of the postmodern world.
According to Mario Costa, the concept of the sublime should be examined first of all in relation to the epochal novelty of digital technologies, and technological artistic production: new media art, computer-based generative art, networking, telecommunication art. For him, the new technologies are creating conditions for a new kind of sublime: the "technological sublime". The traditional categories of aesthetics (beauty, meaning, expression, feeling) are being replaced by the notion of the sublime, which after being "natural" in the 18th century, and "metropolitan-industrial" in the modern era, has now become technological.
There has also been some resurgence of interest in the sublime in analytic philosophy in the last 20 years, with occasional articles in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism and The British Journal of Aesthetics, as well as monographs by writers such as Malcolm Budd, James Kirwan and Kirk Pillow. As in the postmodern or critical theory tradition, analytic philosophical studies often begin with accounts of Kant or other philosophers of the 18th or early 19th centuries. Noteworthy is a general theory of the sublime, in the tradition of Longinus, Burke and Kant, in which Tsang Lap Chuen takes the notion of limit-situations in human life as central to the experience.
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- Joseph Addison, Remarks on Several Parts of Italy etc. in the years 1701, 1702, 1703. 1773 edition, printed for T. Walker. Chapter on ‘Geneva and the Lake’: 261 Located on Google books, accessed 11.12.07
- Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Part I, Section VII, "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling...." In Part II, Section II, Burke wrote: "...terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime."
- Beardsley, Monroe C. "History of Aesthetics". Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Vol. 1, p. 27, Macmillan, 1973. But, Edmund Burke disagreed. "Nor is it, either in real or fictitious distresses, our immunity from them which produces our delight...it is absolutely necessary that my life should be out of any imminent hazard, before I can take a delight in the sufferings of others, real or imaginary...it is a sophism to argue from thence, that this immunity is the cause of my delight...." A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Part I, Section XV.
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