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Journal of the History of Ideas 62.2 (2001) 265-279

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The Physiological Sublime: Burke's Critique of Reason

Vanessa L. Ryan

The eighteenth-century discussion of the sublime is primarily concerned not with works of art but with how a particular experience of being moved impacts the self. The discussion of the sublime most fully explores the question of how we make sense of our experience: "Why and how does this object move me?" Focusing on the perceiving subject, most critics cast the British discussion of the sublime as reflecting a gradual shift towards a Kantian focus not on the object judged, but on the judging mind. Certainly, eighteenth-century thinkers move away from understanding the sublime as a set of qualities that are presumed to be internal to a given object, and shift their attention to the mental effects of those objects. Yet the increasing interest in the perceiving subject in eighteenth-century British thought should not be understood as necessarily anticipating a Kantian perspective. In his classic work on the sublime Samuel H. Monk claims that this aspect of the British debate provides a preliminary discussion of the Kantian "autonomy of the subject" and that it constitutes a movement towards the "subjectivism of Kant." 1 This reading of British aesthetics exclusively in [End Page 265] terms of a preparation for the Kantian description of the subject obscures the differences between the British and the German traditions. It thereby fails to accommodate the reluctance of British thinkers to give up the social and ethical when faced with the sublime: instead of explaining the commonality of the aesthetic experience by positing a "disinterested" and "autonomous" subject, thinkers such as Adam Smith, John Dennis, and Edmund Burke subordinate the freedom of the individual subject in an attempt to reconcile the aesthetic affect with moral conduct.

The teleological and Kantian understanding of British eighteenth-century aesthetic theory is largely the result of the central position that has been given to its most famous theorist, Edmund Burke. Although Burke's conception of the sublime differs in some points markedly from that of his British contemporaries, his treatment of the sublime in the Philosophical Enquiry (1757) has come to represent eighteenth-century British thought, and as such it is routinely compared to Kant's analytic of the sublime. Yet at the point where the British tradition seems to come closest to the Kantian, namely, in the writings of Burke, it also most clearly marks its distance from it. Burke is in some ways the least Kantian of eighteenth-century British thinkers. Whereas Kant holds that the sublime allows us to intuit our rational capacity, Burke's physiological version of the sublime involves a critique of reason. The sublime for Burke is a question not of the subject's increasing self-awareness but of the subject's sense of limitation and of the ultimate value of that experience within a social and ethical context.

One of the most intransigent problems in distinguishing the strains of thought on the sublime is that the relationship between the object and its sublime effect--between the object taken to arouse heightened response and the affective quality of such a response--is so variously conceived. The sublime experience is seen as leading, on the one hand, to an overpowering of the self and, on the other hand, to an intense self-presence and exaltation, sometimes even to self-transcendence. The central question is thus not to what extent the sublime is located in the subject, but in what way the experience of the sublime affects the perceiving subject: Does the sublime enlarge us, or diminish us? 2 Does the sublime annihilate our sense of self, or does it affirm and heighten our sense of identity? These two opposing views of the effect of the sublime on the self can be seen in the contrast between Kant and Longinus, whose theories exerted an enormous influence in Britain, especially on Burke. Whereas Longinus emphasizes that the sublime overpowers and dominates the self, Kant holds that the feeling of...


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