Sensation and the Sublime: Revisiting the physiological basis of aesthetic encounter

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University of Wisconsin Press

The sublime has always been a part of Western landscape architectural discourse and design technique. Both emerged in tandem as entwined forms of experimentation with the world in 18th and 19th-century Europe. Encounters with the sublime were subjects of intense interrogation through oration, prose, poetry, philosophical inquiry, and design itself. Even though landscape architecture is deeply enmeshed with the sublime and other aesthetic encounters, the overall understanding and engagement with these notions have become hindered by cliché, generalities, and a socio-cultural trend toward the technoscientific. The reliance on Immanuel Kant’s theories of the ‘mathematical’ and ‘dynamic’ sublime has reduced the sublime to little more than Reason rescuing the subject from a failure in aesthetic synthesis or an expression of natural power. Here, aesthetic encounters are relegated to an interior subjectivity reinforced by Descartes’ dualism. This is problematic in the sense that it relegates the sublime to something that can be written off as ‘merely subjective'. Yet this is not how it was understood by the early writers on the matter, some of whom developed their thoughts from designing. This paper argues that the sublime is a physiological force as opposed to the generally held, and clichéd, psychological modality. By returning to the work of Edmund Burke, Thomas Whately, Uvedale Price, and Frederick Law Olmsted we can see that those looking at this problem afresh saw it markedly different than the contemporary canon. Here we will see that the sublime affirms the power of landscape illuminating what escapes reason’s grasp.

Landscape aesthetics, Edmund Burke, Neuroaesthetics, Affect