Sensibility and the Sublime
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Philosophic attention shifted after Hegel from Kant s emphasis on sensibility to criticism and analyses of the fine arts. The arts themselves seemed as ample as nature; a disciplined science could devote as much energy to one as the other. But then the arts began to splinter because of new technologies: photography displaced figurative painting; hearing recorded music reduced the interest in learning to play it. The firm interiority that Hegel assumed was undermined by the speed, mechanization, and distractions of modern life. We inherit two problems: restore quality and conviction in the arts; cultivate the interiority the sensibility that is a condition for judgment in every domain. What is sensibility s role in experiences of every sort, but especially those provoked when art is made and enjoyed?"
Indifference is ambiguous. It may express several responses: one misses a stimulus because inattentive, or because it isn’t understood; one ignores things noticed because they’re ordinary; or one is unmoved by their conspicuous virtues. This fourth possibility may seem baffling: how can one be emotionally indifferent if the work at hand is seen for the achievement it is? That seems implausible to people who respond emotionally to art, though it isn’t surprising in those whose dominant response in every domain is intellectual rather than emotional.
Affirming something’s beauty is, accordingly, high praise qualified by an ambiguity reminiscent of Socrates’ question to Euthyphro: Is it good because the gods love it or do the gods love it because it’s good? Are we satisfied because suffused with self-generated feeling, or is good feeling the effect of seeing things as they are? 46 There is a critical ambiguity in this alternation: thought leads feeling or thought has no leverage because feeling drowns its every initiative. Weeping doesn’t justify saying that a movie is sad in itself because sentimental people weep at every film they see.
Plato remarked that poets—unable to explain or justify the 64 truths they utter—channel verbal magic from a source beyond themselves. Our explanation for creativity is more prosaic because we know the ampliative modes: teaching them doesn’t make people creative, though it does demystify the work they do. Artists learn a style’s rules by seeing or hearing work that embodies them; they play with form after discerning its plasticity: Scarlatti and Chopin altered musical expectations while using the standard keyboards of their time.
37 Similarity is often normal and normative because people are constrained by similar needs, 37 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Random House, 1969), pp. 35-36. 31 circumstances, resources, and skills. Yet differences can’t be ignored because sensibilities vary like finger-prints. All are specific to an individual’s physiology, context, and education: each has preferences expressing his or her singular interiority. Variety doesn’t entail riotous difference because individual responses are shaped by common social and material denominators.
Yet thought’s freedom is vapid if there is nothing to think but mind itself: autonomous decoupled minds— sensibilities—risk emptiness and isolation if no other content is provided. Descartes responded that mathematical ideas are innate: each mind educates itself by resolving sensory data until it discerns their geometrical form. There may be some innate ideas—there are innate heuristics, reminiscent of Kant’s categories and schemas—but cultivation requires immersion in practices, tastes, and information that distinguish individual artists, styles, and cultures.