I will be participating on a panel at the German Studies Association in October. The panel concerns "The Pre-Kantian Sublime." In preparation I am doing a lot of reading. I will be posting thoughts on my reading as I go along, but today I would like make a couple of prefatory observations. It strikes me that the aesthetic discourse of the sublime in the 18th century is heralded by two important philosophic ideas.
The first is Cartesian rationalism, which emancipated humans from the authority of tradition, handing the authority for arriving at truth to humans themselves. Descartes himself declared that his program was to construct a foundation that was all his own and should not necessarily be imitated by others. The point, however, was this: individuals, using their own powers of cognition, can discern what is true.
The second is Lockean philosophy, according to which the materials of our reason and all knowledge derive from our experience, which we then, through reflection, assemble into principles.
The one separated the mind from the body, and indeed gave the former control other the latter. The other was the reverse, giving precedence to the body. The result of both, however: "subjective" truth.
I mention these two because aesthetics, as it came to be articulated in the 18th century, was not about "principles" of art but, instead, about "affective experience." The grounds of knowledge about the world were to be found in the individual. In other words, subjectivity. The sublime was the opening movement in this modern sense of aesthetics, right after the turn of the 18th century. Stay tuned.
I'm heading to Washington, D.C., for a few days of visiting friends and museums.