he writings of Addison, Burke, and Johnson contained two themes particularly important to conceptions of the sublime. The first was that the sublime should be discussed in terms of its effects upon the perceiver. This concern with the person who enjoys sublimity marked an important change in the course of English aesthetics, since the reactions of the perceiver became, for the first time, more important than the qualities of the pleasing object; and indeed, this shift of critical interest is the history in outline of English aesthetics during the preromantic period. Classical, Renaissance, and eighteenth-century aestheticians who believed that beauty was derived from order defined the beautiful in terms of the qualities of the beautiful object. Thus, the proportions of the Venus di Milo and the proper mixture of unity and variety which it incorporates were, for these critics, the sources of its beauty.
On the other hand, those eighteenth-century writers, such as Hume, who derived beauty from utility, and Alison, who derived it from association, suggest that aesthetics should consider the role of the perceiver. But Hume and Alison, and Reynolds, who derives beauty from custom, are not concerned with an aesthetic reaction. Rather they wish to discover what it is that makes certain qualities in a beautiful object pleasing. Thus, according to Hume, men adjudge certain human or equine proportions to be beautiful because these particular proportions are the most efficient for the wellbeing or usefulness of man and horse. On the other hand, Alison believes that the observer finds certain proportions beautiful merely because he has become accustomed to them and because he has associated pleasant thoughts with them. Although these critics no longer placed complete emphasis on the formal qualities of the pleasing object, they did not examine very deeply the process by which these qualities are perceived as beautiful. Dennis, Burke, and other formulators of the theory of the sublime, who were primarily concerned with the effect of the sublime object upon the observer, therefore, introduced important new interests into English aesthetics; for theories of sublimity, not theories of beauty, applied the psychological speculations of Hobbes, Locke, and Hume himself to aesthetics.
Last modified 1988