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The emotional experience of the sublime

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2020

Tom Cochrane*
University of Sheffield, Sheffield, S3YQB, UK


The literature on the venerable aesthetic category of the sublime often provides us with lists of sublime phenomena — mountains, storms, deserts, volcanoes, oceans, the starry sky, and so on. But it has long been recognized that what matters is the experience of such objects. We then find that one of the most consistent claims about this experience is that it involves an element of fear. Meanwhile, the recognition of the sublime as a category of aesthetic appreciation implies that attraction, admiration or pleasure is also present.

However, there is also a sense of fear and attraction when we watch car chases or fights. Neither of these is an occasion for the sublime so much as a visceral sort of excitement. As such, I will argue that it is not quite fear, but something that often manifests itself as fear that can be located in our experiences of the sublime.

Research Article
Copyright © The Authors 2012

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1 Henceforth I will use the word ‘attraction’ to indicate any of these positively valent responses, which are not equivalent but which all generally gear the subject towards increasing the presence of the object in their lives somehow (typically by attending to it more in the cases under consideration here).

2 Cf. James Kirwan, Sublimity: The Non-Rational and the Irrational in the History of Aesthetics (London: Routledge 2005), 162.

3 A key claim of psychological models of environmental preferences. See especially R. Kaplan and S. Kaplan, The Experience of Nature: A Psychological Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1989).

4 Not least because our response to horror films typically involves an element of disgust that we do not observe in the sublime. Cf. Noel Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror (New York: Routledge, Chapman and Hall 1990), 240 n. 20, who rejects an identification between the attractions of the sublime and the attractions of horror for largely this reason. Carroll instead argues that the attraction of art-horror is grounded in its stimulation of curiosity (158-94).

5 John Dennis, The Grounds of Criticism in Poetry (London: George Straban 1971/1704), e.g. §137. Joseph Addison, Remarks on Several Parts of Italy etc. in the years 1701, 1702, 1703 (Printed for T. Walker, located at <> 19thJan 2010, 1773), 261.

6 Third Earl of Shaftesbury (Anthony Ashley Cooper), ‘The Moralists: A Philosophical Rhapsody,’ in Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, Douglas den Uyl, ed. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Vol. 2 2001/1711), 389-90. James Usher, Clio: Or, a Discourse on Taste, third ed. (London, 1772), 110-12. Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Located at <> 19thJanuary 2010, 1756): Part 1, section VII in particular. Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement, trans. James Creed Meredith (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2007/1790), especially §28: 90-1 on the dynamic sublime. Friedrich Schiller, ‘Concerning the Sublime,’ in Essays, Hinderer & Dahlstrom, eds. (New York: Continuum 1993/1801), 74. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E.F.J. Payne (New York: Dover 1966/1818), Vol. I, 224, also 204-5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin 1992/1888), 50-1. William Wordsworth, ‘The Sublime and the Beautiful,’ from The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, W.J.B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, eds. (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1974), Vol. 2, 220-2.

7 ‘My Limbs were all in a tremble — I lay upon my Back to rest myself, and was beginning according to my Custom to laugh at myself for a Madman, when the sight of the Crags above me on each side, and the impetuous Clouds just over them, posting so luridly and so rapidly northward, overawed me. I lay in a state of almost prophetic Trance and Delight — and blessed God aloud, for the powers of Reason and the Will, which remaining no Danger can overpower us!’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘Letter to Sara Hutchinson 6thAugust 1802,’ in Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Earl Leslie Griggs, ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000/1802), 841.

8 Malcolm Budd, The Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003), 83. Philip Fisher, Wonder, The Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (London: Harvard University Press 1998), 2. Kirwan (162).

9 While extreme largeness is paradigmatically sublime, extreme smallness is not. Poisonous insects or viruses, despite their highly dangerous nature, are not usually recognized as sublime objects (though see Burke 1756: Part 2, section II), perhaps because they do not perceptually threaten annihilation in the immediate way that storms and volcanoes do.

10 Clearly this is comparable to the Kantian account, though I emphasize the feelings that result here.

11 There is a great deal of evidence for the pervasive cross-modal processing of the brain. For a review see Asif Ghazanfar and Charles Schroeder ‘Is Neocortex Essentially Multisensory?’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10 (2006).

12 Usher (1769, 116) provides a good example of this sort of claim. For a review and sceptical analysis of such claims see Sircello, GuyHow is a Theory of the Sublime Possible?The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 51 (1993) 541-50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13 In natural cases at least. I discuss the derivation of the artistic sublime from the natural sublime in the section on the imaginative identification model below.

14 There is some empirical evidence that high sensation seeking individuals are more likely to report positive emotions having confronted natural physical threats: den Berg, Agnes E. van and Heijne, Marlien terFear Versus Fascination: An Exploration of Emotional Responses to Natural Threats,’ Journal of Environmental Psychology 25 (2005) 261—72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Yet it need not be the case that sensation seekers are appreciating the negative feelings involved. They may well be more sensitive to one or other of the positive emotions outlined below.

15 Cf. Brady, EmilyImagination and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature,’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56 (1998) 139—47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16 E.g. Shusterman, RichardSomaesthetics and Burke's Sublime,’ British Journal of Aesthetics 45 (2005) 323-41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Zuckert, RachelAwe or Envy? Herder contra Kant on the Sublime,’ Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 61 (2003) 217—32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Also see Budd and Kirwan.

17 See Shusterman for a review, as well as Ryan, VanessaThe Physiological Sublime: Burke's Critique of Reason,’ Journal of the History of Ideas 62 (2001) 265—79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Both authors rehabilitate Burke's idea that physiological explanations can be usefully applied to the sublime.

18 Cf. Shusterman (341).

19 Baillie, JohnAn Essay on the Sublime,’ printed in Art and Enlightenment: Scottish Aesthetics in the 18thCentury, Friday, Jonathan ed. (Imprint Academic 2004/1747), 90.Google Scholar

20 A Treatise of Human Nature : Book 2, part III, section VIII. Note, however, that Hume's remarks are too brief to be considered a fleshed out theory of the sublime. For discussion see Noel, JustineSpace, Time and the Sublime in Hume's Treatise,’ British Journal of Aesthetics 34 (1994) 218-25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar See also the accounts of Dennis, Hutcheson, Gerard, and Usher (helpfully surveyed in Kirwan, 7-12).

21 Budd, 84-6

22 Kant, 92

23 ‘Even humility, taking the form of an uncompromising judgement upon his shortcomings … is a sublime temper of the mind voluntarily to undergo the pain of remorse as a means of more and more effectually eradicating its cause’ (Critique of Judgement §28: 94).

24 Zuckert (2003): 225, in reference to Johann Herder, Kalligone in Werke Vol. 8. (Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag 1998/1800), Vol. 8, 890. Cf. 891 and 893-4.

25 Though not strictly necessary. I do not want to dogmatically insist that every single case across the long and varied history of this phenomenon does admit the greatness, or value for its own sake, of the sublime object. I just think it is vastly more common that we do, especially in contemporary times.

26 Cf. Gregory Currie, ‘There is the sense of having your body disposed in a way which resembles (perhaps minimally) the geometry of the object viewed, and the dynamical relations to other things its position suggests, as one imagines standing upright supporting a heavy load, in response to the sight of a load bearing column, or imagines swaying in the wind like a tree.’ Currie derives his discussion from the notion of einfühlung advanced by Theodore Lipps and others. Currie, GregoryEmpathy for Objects,’ in Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, Coplan, Amy and Goldie, Peter eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011).Google Scholar

27 It is a central feature of feed forward models of motor planning that we can model bodily states triggering efferent feelings independently of actual bodily changes, allowing one to evaluate the likely affects of that behaviour. For example I may imagine running for the bus to help me decide if it is worthwhile making the effort. E.g. Hurley, SusanThe Shared Circuits Model (SCM): How Control, Mir roring, and Simulation Can Enable Imitation, Deliberation, and Mindreading,’ Behavioral and Brain Sciences 31 (2008) 158.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

28 However, the experience may well be intensified by deliberate imaginative engagement. Compatible with the idea that one can lose oneself in contemplation of the sublime, one could imagine being the sublime object. A monumental object like the starry sky might even encourage one to imagine the entire universe as a unified substance, where one visualises this substance as somehow infused with one's sense of first-person consciousness. Cf. Romain Rolland's idea of ‘oceanic feeling’ discussed in Freud, Sigmund Civilization and its Discontents trans. Strachey, James (New York: W.W. Norton 1962), 1120.Google Scholar

29 Alvin Goldman, Simulating Minds (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2004), Ch. 6.

30 E.g. Gregory Currie, Gregory and Ravenscroft, Ian Recreative Minds (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2002).CrossRefGoogle Scholar Noordhof, PaulExpressive Perception as Projective Imagining,’ Mind and Language 23 (2008) 329-58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar Freedberg, David and Gallese, VittorioMotion, Emotion and Empathy in Esthetic Experience,’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences 11 (2007) 197203.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed

31 Since this is a broadened notion of simulation I would be very wary of appealing to any supposed basis in mirror neurons — neurons that fire both when we observe another person engaging in an action and when performing the same action ourselves.

32 E.g. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1980).

33 E.g. Barsalou, L.W. Simmons, W.K. Barbey, A.K. and Wilson, C.D.Grounding Conceptual Knowledge in Modality-Specific Systems,’ Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7 (2003) 8491.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed Gallese, Vittorio and Lakoff, GeorgeThe Brain's Concepts: The Role of the Sensory-Motor System in Conceptual Knowledge,’ Cognitive Neuropsychology 22 (2005) 455—79.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed T.W. Schubert, ‘Your Highness: Vertical Positions as Perceptual Symbols of Power,’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2005) 1-21.

34 E.g. by imagining qualities of impassiveness, inscrutability to others, unworldliness, or indifference. Tony Smith's six foot steel cube ‘Die’ is a good example of this sort of sublimity. For discussion, see Beidler, Paul G.The Postmodern Sublime: Kant and Tony Smith's Anecdote of the Cube,’ Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 53 (1995) 177-86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

35 Cf. accounts of emotional contagion by music such as Davies, StephenInfectious Music: Music-Listener Emotional Contagion,’ in Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives, Goldie, Peter & Coplan, Amy eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2011).Google Scholar

36 Kirwan, 163-4. Cf. also Herder, ‘Our feelings naturally correspond to, even reflect the properties of object: in seeing a wide calm sea, we have feelings of breadth and calm; in seeing high waves or towering trees, we feel uplifted’ (Zuckert, 221, in reference to Herder, 876 and 892-3).

37 There is a parallel here with vicariously enjoying the success of another person. While psychologically, we may get a sense of reward because the feelings of power or success are ‘internally’ experienced, the conscious or reflective attitude accompanying this need not be framed in terms of enjoying one's own success.

38 I would like to thank Patrizia Lombardo and Cain Todd, as well as three anonymous referees of this journal, for their helpful advice on earlier versions of this paper.

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