Literary Theory

The Thin and The Thick Sublime

Shadi Daryoush

We speak of the sublime experience as the moment of amazement and being delightfully overwhelmed and thrilled by the strikingness of the sublime appearance; but the sublime experience seems to be often linked to extravagant metaphysical ideas. Sandra Shapshay in her essay “Contemporary Environmental Aesthetics and the Neglect of the Sublime”, argues that the discussion of sublime response to natural environment is largely absent from contemporary environmental aesthetics due to the lack of a conception of sublime response that is secular and compatible with the environmental aesthetics. Therefore, she constructs two philosophical accounts of ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ sublime response as respectively, the initial less cognitive and the secondary more logical reaction to the sublime experience.

To start with, there is a need to address the definition of thin and thick sublime in Shapshay’s terms. First, she declares that there are two main types of explanation on the source of sublime pleasure: the physiological and the transcendental. According to Shapshay, the thin sublime can be best described by Burkean physiological explanation. Burke sees the pleasure in the sublime as the merely relative, negative pleasure of the release from pain, anxiety, tension, and terror. When one feels safe but beholds something terrifying; According to Burke, there arises ‘delight’, a negative pleasure deriving from the lessening of pain such as caused by fear or some other inherently unpleasant emotion. This does not require any special scientific knowledge; simply being human, equipped with the senses every human has should be enough. In essence, the thin sublime experience requires little to no cognitive involvement, therefore it can be best regarded as the initial reaction in the face of the sublime experience.

The transcendental approach for the sublime explanation involves a greater contribution from the reasoning faculty and is subject-oriented in a way that “endeavors to capture a sense of the subject’s feeling of elevation in the experience”. On the question of why such a feeling would require explicit or rational reflection more than that of Burkean’s feeling of the lessening of the subject’s pain, Shapshay demonstrates that the feeling of elevation “involves something akin to respect for one’s own rational nature and vocation”, like the description of Kantian sublime, or “for one’s own attitudinal freedom”, like the Schopenhauerian description (Shapshay 188). Such a feeling of respect involves more reflective, cognitive content than does a simple lessening of pain, and consequently, a greater contribution from the cognitive faculties.

The thick sublime is defined as the reflection on the sublime experience through the use of intellectual contemplation on the connection of the observer and the sublime scenery. Shapshay proves this cognitive connection by addressing the tools that the observer uses in order to interpret the experience through the use of metaphors. In engaging a metaphor, one does not take the identification literally, but rather imaginatively. Other instances would be the usage of form, syntax, harmony, etc. in the description of the sublime experience. In this process, insights may be suddenly glimpsed, rather than arrived at by following a thread of logical entailments.

In conclusion, the thin sublime experience is an initial reaction to the sublime vision that is nearly unrelated to logical thinking; it is a state that triggers our most basic senses. On the other hand, we can simply characterize the thick sublime response as an afterthought on the thin sublime experience or a play of ideas concerning the relationship of human beings and the environment.




Works Cited

Burke, Edmund, and James Boulton. Edmund Burke: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Prairie State Books). ۱st ed., University of Notre Dame Press, 1968.

Carroll, Noël. “On Being Moved by Nature: Between Religion and Natural History.” Landscape, Natural Beauty and the Arts, ۱۹۹۳, pp. 244–۶۶. Crossref,

Shapshay, S. “Contemporary Environmental Aesthetics and the Neglect of the Sublime.” The British Journal of Aesthetics, vol. 53, no. 2, 2013, pp. 181–۹۸. Crossref,

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