Knitting Society Together: Sentimentalism and the Sublime

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One of the more common problems of modernity is the realization that man’s harmony with nature is out of joint. All the giants take up the problem that morality can no longer be grounded in the senses, the aesthetic, or in the imaginary: Kant, Hegel, Althusser, Lacan and others. But it was the Sentimentalists who were the ones that developed the most cogent theoretical framework defending the grounding of morality in the aesthetic faculty. The Sentimentalists produced a school of thought that Hume waged his important critique against, and for which Kant waged his against, and so on, so one might track and identify a sort of lineage of this death of the aesthetics hold over morality starting with the Sentimentalists.

Kant’s entire ethical project sought to ground moral duty outside of any faculty of imagination or sentiment, and this project, should also be historicized into the rise of commodity capitalism. In other words, the aesthetic – as a mode of study in western academe coincided with the rise of commodity-based capitalism. The aesthetic can be seen as a sort of spiritual alternative to commodity relations, as Terry Eagleton so eloquently puts it in his tome, The Ideology of the Aesthetic.


Francis Hutchinson and Adam Smith, the chief architects of Sentimentalism posited that politics springs from a failure of imagination. It is pity and compassion that are the grounds of our solidarity, as they both involve an imaginary empathy amongst our fellow citizens. Because “all human creatures are related to us by resemblance,” says Adam Smith, relations with others involve a kind of artistic miming of their inward condition, a set of imaginary correspondences. Hume prefigures this idea with the image that we as human feel when watching a tragic drama. The principal of social cohesion becomes the source of our anarchy because it is rooted in the imaginary. Similar to this line of aesthetic immersion with the moral and political, is Edmund Burke’s belief that via the aesthetic, man is able to ground morality based on an intricate process of mimesis with fellow men in society. The sublime is for Burke what allows for society of mimesis to have a dynamism that keeps itself fresh, and not a wilderness of mirrors. In other words, the wilderness of mirrors is the sublime – but it is important to note the complex change in meaning and identification of the sublime from Burke to Kant, to Lacan. For Burke, “we submit to what we admire, but we love what submits to us; in one case we are forced, in the other flattered, into compliance.”

The sublime, for Burke, is a realm not of authority relations, (for Kant, the sublime is a purely masculine realm of militaristic desire repressed, as it is for Freud and Lacan to a degree), but one where we submit to a certain beauty that leads to solidarity between men. Yet, it is important to note that Burke divorces beauty from moral truth because of the sexualized impasse between men and women. He recognizes that the sublime is masculine but that it must be overcome through a process of mimesis.

Moral sense becomes, by the time of Kant, equivalent to confessing that there is no longer any rationally demonstrable basis for value, even if we experience it. For Kant, the only way that we can grasp reality is to be grounded to the physicality of material reality – this process is the aesthetic itself. To define the aesthetic in Kantian terminology would be to offer the following: the aesthetic is merely common knowledge reaching out to an object. It is the moment of letting go of the world and clinging to the formal act of knowing it. Yet, for Kant, the aesthetic is merely pseudo knowledge. The aesthetic is pseudo knowledge precisely because it is rooted in the imaginary dimension. “Reality” in the aesthetic dimension becomes totalized and purposive, reassuringly pliable to the centered subject.

In Kant’s view, we ascribe onto the object (in the aesthetic) “a felt harmony of our own creative powers,” – what Freud would have referred to as projection. On a very different side of the theoretical coin of the aesthetic, Althusser argues that any ‘social illusion’ cannot exist unless that illusion is permitted by a world that hails the subject. For Althusser’s critique of ideology, in the “age of rationalism,” unity, purpose, and harmony must be shrunk into the subject’s world, and recoiled from the outer material world. The aesthetic then comes to mean a residual left over from a former world, where a metaphysical reality was alive. Ideology does not so much as center the subject as it does to castrate the desire of the subject for Althusser.

Aesthetic judgments for Kant are impersonally personal. If the subject transcends their own ephemeral needs and desires they reach universal subjectivity. What we find with the deconstructive turn, the subject is no longer grounded in any Kantian impersonal universality, but is turned inward to a cauldron of desires that contradict and find no recognition from an outer world, let alone from others Intersubjectively. What we find then is the Sentimentalist project that foregrounds our understanding of the aesthetic becomes a bleak impossibility.

Eagleton’s The Ideology of the Aesthetic

One response

  1. John

    If you follow through on all of the links and footnoted references available via this reference, you will find a very comprehensive Understanding of the etiology of the state of the world altogether in 2010.

    Also our entire culture is based on this taboo

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