Essays on Art, Aesthetics, and Culture
2. The Visible, the Invisible, and the Sublime: Reflexions on the Lyotardian Sublime
Remember to distinguish between true Sublimity of Mind and Stile, and a vain flatulence of both.
— Samuel Werenfels (1711)
“Today […] the ‘sublime’ is no longer with us”, Mary Mothersill asserts in her book, Beauty Restored (1984).1 Her claim can be interpreted in at least two different ways: it can mean that no art created today deserves to be called “sublime”, or that the category of the sublime is now seen to be philosophically inane and cannot therefore legitimately be used in characterizing any natural phenomena or works of art. It is clearly the latter thought she has in mind, for she claims that unlike “[t]he concept of beauty, like the concept of knowledge or of right”, the concept of the sublime is not a “standing concept”.2 The sublime, “picks out a collection of ideas which is historically local; the components hang together for a while (in this case for a little over a hundred years) and are then dispersed”, she says, and maintains that “[a] philosophical theory that places any weight on such a collection will come, sooner or later, to look dated and to resist interpretation”.3
Mothersill’s traditionalist and triumphalist view of the history of philosophical concepts leads to a neglect of less entrenched concepts and their potential: concepts and conceptions, which are situated, as it were, at the margins of the main philosophical tradition may, in fact, shed light on the central concepts,...
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