A Two-Tiered Theory of the Sublime

British Journal of Aesthetics 61 (2):123-143 (2021)
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By the start of the twenty-first century, the notion of ‘the sublime’ had come to seem incoherent. In the last ten years or so considerable light has been shed by empirical psychologists on a related notion of ‘awe’, and a fruitful dialogue between aestheticians and empirical psychologists has ensued. It is the aim of this paper to synthesize these advances and to offer what I call a ‘two-tiered’ theory of the sublime that shows it to be a coherent aesthetic category. On this theory, sublime experiences begin in an ‘awe response’ (the ‘thin sublime’) and might, with the additional element of temporally-extended reflection, turn into a ‘thick sublime’ response. Building on accounts of the sublime as a species of ‘aesthetic awe’ (Clewis, 2019a and 2019b; Arcangeli, et al., 2020) I aim to show that this two-tiered theory helps to explain why sublime experiences seem to have a basic, primordial core, but also seem to be historically and culturally quite variable (as Nicolson, 1963 [1959]; Battersby, 2007; and McMahon, 2017 have stressed). On this model, the cultural and historical variability comes in largely at the point of the temporally-extended reflection characteristic of the thick sublime, due to the cognitive stock that the subject brings to the encounter. Thus, sublime experiences really lend themselves to being interpreted quite variously by the subject (as well as by the theorist) of these experiences, as, for example, affording insight into the Divine, our moral vocation, or our metaphysical unity with the entire universe, among other lofty thoughts.



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Sandra Shapshay
Hunter College (CUNY)

Citations of this work

The Sublime of Consciousness.Takuya Niikawa & Uriah Kriegel - forthcoming - British Journal of Aesthetics.
What Is the Monumental?Sandra Shapshay - 2021 - Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 79 (2):145-160.
Why the Sublime Is Aesthetic Awe.Robert R. Clewis - 2021 - Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 79 (3):301-314.
Consciousness is Sublime.Takuya Niikawa - forthcoming - Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy.
Art and Transformation.Antony Aumann - 2022 - Journal of the American Philosophical Association 8 (4):567-585.

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