The Aesthetic and Critical Theories of John Ruskin

Modern Approaches to the Sublime

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

R. G. Collingwood, son of Ruskin's biographer and himself a prominent interpreter of Ruskin as well as an aesthetician in his own right presented, at different stages in his career, two twentieth-century approaches to the problem of beauty and sublimity. In his Outlines of a Philosophy of Art (1925), he attempted to unify sublimity and beauty making the sublime an "elementary form of the beautiful." Sublimity "is beauty which forces itself upon our mind, beauty which strikes us as it were against our will and in spite of ourselves, beauty which we accept passively and have not discovered.... The sublime is the first and most elementary form of the beautiful. Sublimity is the mere revelation of beauty as beauty, the inrush of aesthetic experience." (Essays in the Philosophy of Art, ed. Alan Donagan [Bloomington Ind., 1964], pp. 78-79.) In his later Principles of Art (1938), however Collingwood took a basically Crocean position and stated that the term "beauty" is merely used to express admiration and consequently has no aesthetic implication ([Oxford, 1963], pp. 38-39).

Both points of view develop from the idea that beauty is an emotion: Collingwood thus first believed that since both beauty and sublimity are a matter of emotional experience, they are forms of the same emotion. He later assumed, with Croce, that since beauty is merely the successful expression of emotion, and since all art is expression, to say that something was beautiful only expressed a judgment that this something was a good work of art. Therefore, the term "beauty," and its corollary term, "sublimity," were abandoned, for their use only suggested the presence of what Collingwood felt were nonexistent problems.

Another twentieth-century aesthetician, E. F. Carritt, The Theory of Beauty (1914) (6th ed., London, 1962), decided after a detailed discussion that the term "sublime" was too vague to admit of much useful application. In answer to Carritt, a recent writer on this subject, F. R. Sparshott, suggests that "The awe in which we located the distinctive reaction to the sublime is close to the effect ascribed by Rudolf Otto (1917) to 'the holy'; and perhaps advances in the psychology of religion stand the best chance of carrying the study of sublimity beyond the 'indulgence in poetic fiction' which Kant censured." (The Structure of Aesthetics [Toronto, 1963], pp. 8C-81.) Lastly, the effect of the eighteenth-century sublime on modern aesthetic theory appears with particular clarity in D. W. Prall's statement in Aesthetic Judgment (1929) that "One is always struck by great beauty, the feeling is called forth suddenly by a blow upon the senses. Instead of saying that we feel something, we say that something makes us feel, that something strikes us" ([New York, 1967], 5-6).

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