The associative sublime: Gerard, Kames, Alison, and Stewart

Rachel E Zuckert*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

8 Scopus citations


According to the two best-known accounts of the sublime in the eighteenth century – those of Burke and Kant – the sublime is an aesthetic experience markedly distinct from that of the beautiful: Instead of pure pleasure in response to orderly, proportioned objects, the sublime is a mixed response involving fear and frustration as well as heightened energy and delight. The objects that arouse this response – in the first instance, large or powerful objects – inspire negative feelings because cognitively or (in imagination at least) physically they challenge the aesthetic spectator. Thus a chief philosophical problem concerning the sublime is to explain how the painful experience of such objects could nonetheless be a source of pleasure, a question similar to the “paradox of tragedy” (the question why we are attracted to tragic works, given that they arouse painful feelings), which also occupied many eighteenth-century thinkers. This conception of the sublime as mixed and challenging is often assumed in current discussions, as, for example, in those concerning the “postmodern” sublime. It is, however, by and large not shared by the Scottish philosophers and contemporaries of Burke, whose accounts of the sublime are the subject of the present chapter: Alexander Gerard, Lord Kames (Henry Home), Archibald Alison, and Dugald Stewart. Although they do identify large objects as paradigmatic objects of the sublime, these thinkers often describe our response to such objects as serene, pleasurable elevation. Thus their accounts tend not to raise, nor indeed do they attempt to solve, such a “problem” of the sublime. They are concerned instead with a logically prior question, namely, whether (or how) the sublime can be understood as a single, unified aesthetic category, a definite type of response to a specifiable class of objects. In answering this question, they attempt to be true to the plurality, richness, and complexity of the sublime as human beings experience it and to the way it is presented in the literary and philosophical tradition. They do so, in large part, by claiming that appreciation of the sublime is characterized by imaginative association. As a result of the centrality of association to the sublime in their accounts, I shall argue, Dugald Stewart’s suggestion that the sublime is something like a family-resemblance concept represents the ultimate purport of their accounts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Sublime
Subtitle of host publicationFrom Antiquity to the Present
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages13
ISBN (Electronic)9780511978920
ISBN (Print)9780521194372
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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