Emily Brady’s The Sublime in Modern Philosophy

THE SUBLIME IN MODERN PHILOSOPHY: AESTHETICS, ETHICS, AND NATURE. By Emily Brady. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. Xi+227. Hard Cover $72.00, ISBN: 9780521194143.

People commonly refer to pleasurable experiences of nature as experiences of beauty. Sometimes, however, beauty does not seem to be the appropriate term, causing some people to turn to the sublime. Unfortunately, the sublime has been outmoded and neglected in much recent philosophy, especially analytic philosophy, while beauty has enjoyed some recent popularity in the literature on aesthetics. Emily Brady offers a wonderful analysis of the sublime, showing that, rather than forgetting about it, the sublime is an important aesthetic category for the natural world. More specifically, she sets out to show that the sublime supplies a unique aesthetic-moral relationship between people and the natural environment.

Dividing her book into two parts, she begins with a historical overview of the sublime, ultimately arguing for the importance and superiority of Kant’s contribution. The primary purpose of this historical survey of the sublime is to uncover the term’s focal meaning as well as central cases or examples of the sublime. Brady shows how the sublime began with Longinus as a literary device of grandeur but, in the hands of 18th century philosophers, the sublime came to be associated with the human experience of nature. The world was being explored in new ways, especially as science and technology have enabled such exploration. In other words, people were able to see the world in new ways, which opened up new mysteries. John Dennis, influenced by Longinus, makes the turn toward the sublime as it relates to external objects. This is seen, as Brady shows, in Dennis’s description of his travels through the Alps. He describes the mixed pleasure he felt during his time there. This notion of mixed pleasure—mixed because it involves both terror and joy—is very important for the sublime. And it remains to be a characteristic of the sublime even in present discourse. In addition to the experience of mixed pleasure, which occurs in the beholder, the sublime also seems to be an aspect of the object itself. Presenting an overview of philosophers, like Addison, Baillie, Gerard, Burke, and Alison, Brady reveals several recurring attributes of sublime objects: magnitude (or vastness), uncommonness, and powerfulness. Most typically, the sublime is thought to be something so great, like the Grand Canyon or the ocean, that it cannot be taken in all at once with the senses. And this vastness exposes the finitude of humans to the powerful forces of nature. This kind of experience does not occur too frequently, which adds to the power of the moment of apprehension.

Following this progression of ideas about the sublime, Kant solidifies the sublime as an aesthetic category, even though his position has been thought as self-admiring. Due to Kant’s emphasis on the role of the imagination, it seems that the real object of the sublime is the human mind. Through a careful analysis, Brady demonstrates that this conclusion would be too hasty. After all, as Brady reminds us, Kant presents the sublime as an aesthetic category; thus, we should see it in light of Kant’s own categorization, despite that it sometimes seems to exist only in the human mind. So, Kant maintains the main elements of the sublime from his predecessors, like the focus on nature, the division between the mathematical (vastness) and dynamical (powerful), and the special experience marked by the mixed pleasure of joy and terror. But Kant moves beyond previous theories with his connection in the sublime between aesthetic experience and human freedom. We are related to external nature, but we differ from it through our freedom.

In the second part of the book, Brady begins to develop her own view of the sublime as an important and distinct aesthetic category for the natural environment. However, she first considers and rejects the possibility that the sublime can be a property of works of art, specifically the visual arts. Brady, in her historical survey, showed that the sublime became attached to natural objects, particularly ones that had the requisite vastness and power. And many paintings around the 18th Century depicted images of the sublime in nature. But are these paintings sublime in themselves? Brady argues that due to the lack of vastness and power, these paintings do not possess the property of sublimity, even though they do depict a sublime environment. Even very large works of land art are only deemed sublime as they are formed in a natural environment that is already considered sublime. So, in these cases, the artifact is in a sense sublime by virtue of its existence in a sublime environment.

Brady then assesses the relationship of the sublime with the similar, yet distinct, category of tragedy. Similar to tragedy, some people, like Burke, believe that the experience of the sublime is somewhat paradoxical. The sublime provides an experience of terror, yet we enjoy the experience of it. Brady supports the view of tragedy that claims that the experiences of characters in a tragedy helps us to understand and sympathize with aspects of the human condition, like death and suffering. In this way, the paradox is thought to dissolve. In the sublime experience, we also confront the human condition, particularly our existential limitations, through the terrifying power of nature. But in order to take pleasure in the sublime, one must have some distance from the terrifying experience of nature. Through these sublime experiences, we are reminded of our relation to the natural world and even to each other, which Brady takes to demonstrate the link between the aesthetic and the moral in these challenging aesthetic experiences.

Making her case for the environmental sublime, Brady begins with the contrasting example of easy beauty. Some objects provide a calm or restful aesthetic experience, but other objects provoke a more difficult experience. There is a kind of terror standing at the edge of the rim at the top of the Grand Canyon, and this experience is different from the easy beauty of a flower. Many painters around the 18th century depicted human beings in sublime environments. Most notably, Caspar David Friedrich depicted scenes of nature’s power and vastness with a person (or people) just out of harm’s way. In real life, this kind of situation causes a different, difficult kind of aesthetic experience. And beauty no longer is the appropriate word for the property of this experience, yet it seems to be aesthetic. Following Kant, Brady proposes that the sublime is indeed the proper concept to describe this experience. And, further, the environment is the proper place to find the sublime. And the sublime cannot be reduced to any other aesthetic property, e.g. beauty, despite similarities that may hold.

Brady has provided an excellent (and much needed) account of the sublime for the contemporary world, especially for analytic philosophers. Despite advances in our understanding of the natural world and developments in technology, the sublime is still relevant as the environment still possesses power, vastness, and mystery. Since she specifically mentions that accounts of the sublime are underdeveloped in the analytic tradition, I think she could have interacted a bit more with some Continental philosophers. She mentions a couple, like Lyotard, but does not spend much time showing how her notion of the sublime differs from what they claim. Despite this slight weakness, Brady’s book presents an eloquent explanation that should instigate a newfound interest in the sublime as a topic of research and as an experience to be sought.

[Originally published in American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, 88-3 (Summer 2014) Summer.]

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