Emily Brady’s The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature published by Cambridge University Press in 2013, explores the meaning of the concept of the sublime and its implications for metaphysics, aesthetics, ethics, and the environment. An historical discussion is provided in the first part of the book, providing a historical survey with a careful reading which begins in the eighteenth century with a special focus on Kant, and followed by Romanticism and John Muir’s wilderness aesthetic. The second part of the book shows the relevance of the concept to contemporary discussions in philosophy such as aesthetics and the arts, and environmental ethics. A full review of this book, by Sandra Shapshay, can be found at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.
A member of the Society and Space board, Brady is the author of Aesthetics of the Natural Environment (Edinburgh 2003), the co-author of Environment and Philosophy (Routledge 2000) and the co-editor of Aesthetic Concepts: Essays after Sibley (Oxford 2001), Humans in the Land: The Ethics and Aesthetics of the Cultural Landscape (Oslo Academic Press 2008), and Human-Environment Relations: Transformative Values in Theory and Practice (Springer 2012). She has published numerous articles and book chapters mostly around the topics of aesthetics, ethics, and the environment. Some of her most recent publications include “Imagination and Freedom in the Kantian Sublime” (2013), “Aesthetic Value and Wild Animals” (2014), and “Aesthetic Value, Ethics and Climate Change” (forthcoming 2014). Brady is Professor of Environment and Philosophy at the Institute of Geography and the Lived Environment and an Academic Associate in Philosophy at the University of Edinburgh.
Vahid Jafarzadehdarzi: Thank you, Professor Brady for doing this interview; it was a pleasure reading your book. You spend a great a deal of time on Kant’s approach to the sublime. You appreciate the way he relates nature, aesthetics, and morality in his view of the concept, and there finds a connection between the self and nature. Why is his view so important in understanding the core meaning of the sublime as you say? What does he do with the eighteenth century reading of the concept?
Emily Brady: Thank you. As I see it, it’s important to reassess Kant’s theory of the sublime – for Kant scholarship as well as for a proper understanding of the history of the sublime and its relevance today. Many interpretations of Kant’s theory argue for a human-centred sublime, where humans appear to recognize their power over nature through an experience of their own freedom or autonomy. I contest this reading of the sublime as self-admiration and show that for Kant, our distinctive positioning with respect to the rest of nature reveals a deep connection to it, as something metaphysically and actually greater than ourselves. There are two other reasons why his theory is especially significant. Kant focuses largely on nature widely understood – human and non-human nature. The overall argument of the book is that the historical and contemporary sublime is largely associated with natural environments. Also, his theory is, arguably, more philosophically rich and sophisticated compared to other early theories of the sublime.
Often, when people discuss Kant’s theory they neglect the many discussions of the sublime that preceded his own. Eighteenth-century aesthetics in Britain is especially interesting and one can see a range of influences on Kant. Once we get a handle on them, interestingly, Kant’s theory appears less original, though insightful enough!
VJ: It is interesting how you use Muir’s writings on wilderness aesthetics to show the transition from the historical romantic sublime to the contemporary reading of the concept. Is it the empirical and natural aspects of the concept that he is bringing back to it?
EB: Yes, this is why I find Muir’s nature essays so interesting. His accounts of the sublime and grandeur in Yosemite and elsewhere provide rich aesthetic descriptions of places he knew fairly well. He doesn’t provide a theory as such, but the detail and language of his writing give real insight into how we might grasp the sublime through first hand accounts, as conveyed by an early environmentalist. This can give us a more grounded and in some ways less metaphysical handle on the sublime. Of course, we also need to understand the historical context of Muir’s writing – a romantic wilderness aesthetic, and one uninformed by recent criticisms of the idea of wilderness.
VJ: Why do you think it is important to criticize the sublimity of art in order to grasp the core meaning of sublime? It seems that such a criticism is what mainly distinguishes your view from postmodern views on the sublime, such as Lyotard’s: as he goes for the sublime as avant-garde art, you are suggesting a natural aesthetic understanding of sublimity.
EB: Yes, this is probably a key point that distinguishes my ideas about the sublime from postmodern ones. In Chapter 5, I argue that the core meaning of the sublime, outlined in terms of paradigm cases rather than a strict philosophical definition, is explained through natural objects or phenomena having qualities of great height or vastness or tremendous power which cause an intense emotional response characterized by feelings of being overwhelmed and somewhat anxious (though ultimately an experience that feels exciting and pleasurable). Building on eighteenth-century views, including Kant, I argue that the sublime in art is secondary – although artworks can depict, represent, convey, and express the sublime, they can’t be sublime in and of themselves. I support this by pointing to the size and scale, formlessness, disorder and wildness, physical vulnerability, affect, and the metaphysical quality of the sublime. I discuss a range of cases, plus a few exceptions, for example, some forms of land art and, from architecture, skyscrapers.
By arguing against sublimity in art, I don’t mean to devalue the arts at all, I’m just trying to pin down exactly what’s going on (for example, I discuss “profundity” as covering some cases of what is otherwise called the sublime in art). Also, I do think Lyotard’s approach is interesting for the way it draws out ideas related to sublimity but, ultimately, I think he’s after something else, and I try to show how this is the case.
VJ: The paradoxical aspect of the sublime and its distinction from the similar paradoxes in arts such as paradox of tragedy plays an important role in the discussion of your book. What is peculiar about this paradox and what can be learned from its resolution?
EB: In philosophical aesthetics, the paradox of tragedy has been written about quite a lot. That paradox asks why we take pleasure from tragic drama or, more broadly, what some philosophers have called ‘painful art’. It has also been said that other challenging aesthetic experiences may involve a similar paradox, for example, the sublime and ugliness. Schopenhauer was one philosopher who recognized the paradox of the sublime. Why would we want to experience more difficult, or even displeasurable kinds of aesthetic experience? In the book, one of my aims is to make distinctions between the sublime and other aesthetic categories and their corresponding aesthetic experiences (between the sublime and tragedy, the sublime and ugliness, and the sublime and terrible beauty). Exploring the possibility of a paradox of the sublime is part of this aim, and discussing the two paradoxes in tandem can help us to understand how each one might be resolved. There are key differences of course. With art tragedy we’re dealing with portrayals of human wickedness, reversals of fortune, etc. With the sublime it is the challenging and threatening qualities of nature and human vulnerabilities within nature.
In the end, I think that both the paradox of tragedy and the paradox of the sublime can be explained away – dissolved – if we come to see the complexity and value of these challenging forms of aesthetic experience, through the exercise of ‘negative emotions’ and their edifying effects. Following Aaron Ridley’s ideas (after Nietzsche) in relation to tragic art, my approach is to find value in encountering and engaging with those threatening qualities and our feeling of vulnerability in the face of them. The sublime gives us a way into a kind of meaningful aesthetic-moral relationship with the environment.
VJ: The natural sublime, its very notion, is about the relation between nature and human. It is also a place in nature; it is a part of environment. How does the sublime as you see it relate us to the environment? How does the environmental sublime expand our understanding of sublimity and make it relevant today? Also, what kind of environmental ethics is your concept of sublime suggesting?
EB: There are lots of questions here – all answered, I would say, in the final chapter of the book. There, I argue against a set of criticisms the sublime – that it’s historically outmoded and irrelevant, metaphysically vague, and anthropocentric. I’m not able to go into those arguments here, but building on discussions in earlier chapters, I develop the position that experiences of the sublime are deeply comparative, as we feel insignificant, and humbled by the greatness of nature rather than masterful over it. The admiration we feel can induce a perspectival shift of self and feed into new forms of self-knowledge. It can also potentially ground respect for nature, not in spite of, but very much because of the scale, greatness, unpredictability, and so on of storms, expanses of deserts, seas and oceans, huge mountains, and the vast night sky, to mention a few examples. In this respect, the sublime underpins, again, a form of aesthetic-moral relationship with environments – a relationship that can be challenging and exciting, existential in tone.
The sublime is an interesting aesthetic category for the ways it may expand and enrich our aesthetic interactions through uneasy – yet meaningful – relationships with environments, especially beyond the well-worn categories of beauty and pretty scenery. There is much more to our aesthetic engagement with environments than “easy beauty,” and the sublime, importantly, can open up new perspectives on the world.
The environmental ethic that the sublime underpins is thus relational and non-anthropocentric, but not in a way that excludes the human perspective. You can’t exclude that when you’re discussing aesthetic judgment and experience, but you can dehumanize that perspective to some extent. If we balance humility and humanity in the sublime, we can also find a great deal of room for admiration and respect for nature.
VJ: In order to respond to political objections to the anthropocentric aspect of the concept of sublime it seems to me that you purify the concept from its political implications to make it relevant to contemporary ethics. Some might suggest that the sublime entails values such as greatness, vastness, power etc. that could imply a hierarchal sexist perspective; how does the environmental sublime overcome such objections without neglecting the political implications of the concept?
EB: That’s a very good question! In the final chapter of the book, as I mentioned in my answer to your last question, I move away from an anthropocentric perspective as built into the concept of the sublime, and try to show how the sublime can teach us about humility in relation to environment. I don’t grapple with the political sublime in the book, but I think one would be able to build upon some of the ideas of a non-anthropocentric sublime to show that the concept is really more complex and can in fact outrun various criticisms of the sublime as representing political power or domination. If you take human power and self-aggrandizement out of the concept of the sublime, and put that power into non-human nature, that’s a first step perhaps? That could be seen as a kind of purification, but I would see it more as a shift in emphasis. We can also adopt a richer understanding of sublime qualities and their range, that is, not reduced to power alone.
VJ: In the last of your Acknowledgments, you say you are the most grateful to the Yosemite, mountains of Scotland, and the Lake District. Finally, I would ask you to say a few more words about that experience as an ending point to this interview.
EB: There are personal meanings first, but maybe they can’t be separated from my intellectual life since the two are so often intertwined for philosophers. These are places that I visited with family or friends when I was a child, and more recently too. In that sense, mentioning them is very much about experiencing extraordinary places with people I care about. So, they have that significance for me. They have also given me such incredible, deeply affecting experiences, really shaping my thinking about the natural sublime, and what’s distinctive about it.
Ultimately, though, I wanted to convey appreciation for those places in and of themselves, as things that have existed for thousands of years before me – and will carry on for thousands more. This speaks, I believe, to the admiration and respect that can emerge from sublime feeling.