Gerard, Kames, Alison, and Stewart

In Timothy M. Costelloe (ed.), The Sublime: From Antiquity to the Present. Cambridge University Press. pp. 64 (2012)

Authors
Rachel Zuckert
Northwestern University
Abstract
This essay concerns the theories of the sublime proposed by Alexander Gerard, Henry Home (Lord Kames), Archibald Alison, and Dugald Stewart. All four thinkers, I argue, aim to provide a philosophical account of the unity of the concept of the sublime, i.e., to respond to the question: what might all objects, art works, etc. that have been identified as sublime (or “grand”) in the philosophical, literary, art-theoretical, and rhetorical tradition have in common? Yet because they find the objects called “sublime” to be so disparate, and because – contra Burke and Kant, the classical philosophical theorists of the sublime, they cannot identify one single feeling that could define the experience of the sublime, they ultimately endorse (what we would call) a “family-resemblance” view of the sublime: certain objects cause in us certain feelings (and so are classed together); other objects are then (for other reasons, i.e., not because they give us similar feelings) associated with some of the previous objects – and therefore we take these objects, and the feelings they may arouse, as sublime as well. Some – notably Gerard and Allison – take our act of appreciation of the sublime to be itself an act of free imaginative association, connecting the perceived object to other objects, memories, feelings, etc. The importance of association in aesthetic appreciation itself might also suggest that the category of the sublime must be a pluralistic and open one: because we may always find new objects sublime, via new associations. As a result, I suggest, these thinkers – by contrast to many other writers on the sublime – allow that art can be as sublime, or even more sublime, than natural objects and indeed can render natural objects sublime.
Keywords sublime  aesthetics  Scottish Enlightenment  philosophy of art
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