The Concept of the Sublime in Eighteenth Century Philosophy

The development of the concept of the sublime as an aesthetic quality 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 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", 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, where the sublime was not an aesthetic quality in opposition to beauty, but a quality of a grander and higher importance than beauty.

Joseph Addison made 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 wellas "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 Essay on 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 a stark contrast to the classical notion of aesthetic quality in Plato's Philebus,, Ion,, and Symposium, , and suggested ugliness as an aesthetic quality.

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, 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. The application of the synthetic a priori, of the judgment of taste, requiring a transcendental deduction, validated the judgment as universal. This treatment of judgments of beauty is analogous to the arguments made in the Transcendental Aesthetic and Transcendental Deduction of the Critique of Pure Reason,. In those arguments, for example, the intuition of space is presupposed by the mind and not a result of its perceptions. If space is universally presupposed in perception, then the axioms of geometry must be true for everyone. Like space, time, and the categories, beauty belongs to the understanding.

The sublime, on the other hand, was for Kant a feeling of satisfaction celebrating reason itself and our capacity as moral beings. The feeling 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 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 at once existential in that we realize our own finitude, or smallness, but is universal in the realization of our own moral worth as an autonomous being belonging to the fraternity of mankind which shares a moral destiny through its capacity to apply the moral laws of practical reason. The judgments of the sublime arise from two principles of reason, the mathematical and the dynamic, which are both elements that have a common thread throughout Kant's writings on pure and practical reason. The sublime reflects the exaltation of reason and the nobility of the human spirit, whereas judgments of beauty belong to the "mere" understanding.

In his discussion of the sublime in the Critique of Judgment,, Kant distinguishes between the sensible concept of measuring things by comparison, and an absolute which as a concept of reason defies comparison and is "great beyond every standard of the senses". It is the same concept of reason that Kant refers to in the Critique of Practical Reason, as a source of free, uncaused activity, and in the Critique of Pure Reason, as the Unconditioned which unifies and completes the conditioned knowledge of the understanding. The sublime is the satisfaction derived from the realization of this concept of reason and its aim at infinite totality. In all three Critiques, Kant had warned that these concepts of unity and the unconditioned are only ideas that regulate the search for empirical knowledge. Towards the end of the eighteenth century other philosophers would utilize Kant's aesthetic theory and his notion of the unconditioned to try and reconcile the knower and the known, re-integrating the sublime and beauty in an Absolute which embodied the idealism which Kant had spent his career intent on refuting.


Addison, Joseph. The Spectator,. Ed. Donald E. Bond. Oxford, 1965.
Brett, R.L. The Third Earl of Shaftesbury. , London, 1951.
Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. , London, 1958.
Collingwood, R.G. The Idea of Nature,. Oxford, 1945.
Cooper, Anthony Ashley, Third Earl of Shaftesbury. The Moralists: A Philosophical Rhapsody, in Characteristics, , Vol. II. Ed. John M. Robertson. London, 1900.
Dennis, John. Miscellanies in Verse and Prose, in Critical Works, , Vol. II. Ed. Edward Niles Hooker. Baltimore, 1939-1943.
Hipple, Walter John, Jr. The Beautiful, the Sublime, and the Picturesque in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetic Theory. , Carbondale, IL, 1957.
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment. , 1790.
Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory. , Ithaca, 1959.
Nicolson, Marjorie Hope. "Sublime in External Nature". Dictionary of the History of Ideas. , New York, 1974.
Stolnitz, Jerome. "On the Significance of Lord Shaftesbury in Modern Aesthetic Theory". Philosophical Quarterly, , 43(2):97-113, 1961.

Chet Staley
Amerindian Arts

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