Volume 38, Issue 4, Winter 2016
Engaging the Sublime without Distance
Environmental Ethics and Aesthetic Experience
Over the past decade or two, a number of scholars have proposed that the aesthetic experience of the sublime offers a ground on which to build an environmental ethic. Among these scholars, Emily Brady has offered the most sustained and comprehensive analysis of this topic. Her position is firmly grounded in Kant’s aesthetic theory. She (and others) conclude that the experience of the sublime provides a robust aesthetic basis for an environmental ethic; however, Kant’s aesthetic theory presents difficulties for this position insofar as he claims that the experience of the sublime reveals the superiority of humans (via our morality and faculty of reason) over nature. One source of Kant’s anthropocentrism is his concept of “safe distance.” However, drawing on Arnold Berleant’s theory of aesthetic engagement and Thoreau’s account of the sublime in “Ktaadn,” an engaged—or de-distanced—experience of the sublime offers a more solid foundation for an aesthetically grounded environmental ethic.