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Sublime, the

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M040-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

Article Summary

The origin of the term ‘the sublime’ is found in ancient philosophy, where, for example, Longinus linked it with a lofty and elevated use of literary language. In the eighteenth century, the term came into much broader use, when it was applied not only to literature but also to the experience of nature, whereafter it became one of the most hotly debated subjects in the cultural discourse of that age.

The theories of Addison, Burke and Kant are especially significant. Addison developed and extended the Longinian view of the sublime as a mode of elevated self-transcendence, while Burke extended John Dennis’s insight concerning sublimity’s connection with terror and a sense of self-preservation. While Addison and Burke encompassed both art and nature in their approaches, Kant confined the experience of the sublime to our encounters with nature. In his theory, the sublime is defined as a pleasure in the way that nature’s capacity to overwhelm our powers of perception and imagination is contained by and serves to vivify our powers of rational comprehension. It is a distinctive aesthetic experience.

In the 1980s and 1990s Kant’s and (to a much lesser extent) Burke’s theories of the sublime became the objects of a massive revival of interest, in the immediate context of a more general discussion of postmodern society. Kant’s theory, for example, has been used by J.-F. Lyotard and others to explain the sensibility – orientated towards the enjoyment of complexity, rapid change and a breakdown of categories – that seems to characterize that society.

Citing this article:
Crowther, Paul. Sublime, the, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M040-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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