Lately I've been reading and rereading The Abolition of Man, by C. S. Lewis. He opens by discussing "the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall" and the way that an English textbook he was reviewing had (in his view) butchered the story. For reference, here's the version of the story that Lewis seems to be drawing on, from A. C. Bradley's 1909 lecture "The Sublime":

Coleridge used to tell a story about his visit to the Falls of Clyde; but he told it with such variations that the details are uncertain, and without regard to truth I shall change it to the shape that suits my purpose best. After gazing at the Falls for some time, he began to consider what adjective would answer most precisely to the impression he had received; and he came to the conclusion that the proper word was ‘sublime.’ Two other tourists arrived, and, standing by him, looked in silence at the spectacle. Then, to Coleridge’s high satisfaction, the gentleman exclaimed, ‘It is sublime.’ To which the lady responded, ‘Yes, it is the prettiest thing I ever saw.’

The authors of the textbook (which Lewis calls "The Green Book") remark as follows:

When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall... Actually... he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.

Lewis is thoroughly unimpressed and annoyed by this paragraph, and spends much of the first chapter of his book discussing it. But one of his early comments, which is really a bit of an aside, seems questionable to me. Here's what he says:

Even on their own view—on any conceivable view—the man who says This is sublime cannot mean I have sublime feelings. Even if it were granted that such qualities as sublimity were simply and solely projected into things from our own emotions, yet the emotions which prompt the projection are the correlatives, and therefore almost the opposites, of the qualities projected. The feelings which make a man call an object sublime are not sublime feelings but feelings of veneration. If This is sublime is to be reduced at all to a statement about the speaker’s feelings, the proper translation would be I have humble feelings.

Lewis was a professor of literature at Oxford and an admirer of the Romantics, so I'm not trying to act like I know the subject better than he does. I'm a total novice, and most of my knowledge of this stuff is from secondary literature.

But from what I can tell (please do not take the following paragraph to be an assertion of fact), while Lewis' statement that the sublime inspires humble feelings would accurately describe Burke's conception of the sublime, but not Kant's, and Coleridge follows Kant on this. Kant and Coleridge regard one of the features of the sublime as being boundaryless or nearly so. The sublime may indeed inspire veneration in their account, but because it inspires transcendent feelings, not necessarily humble feelings per se. This would seem consistent as well with Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey; while viewing the landscape he records having "a sense sublime" when he considers how "interfused" we are with nature. (I'm aware his views of the sublime were not identical with Coleridge's views.)

Alright, it's possible I've butchered Burke, Kant, Coleridge, and Wordsworth. But for those of you who know this stuff well, am I right that Lewis might be wrong when he says it's absurd to say that sublimity would inspire sublime feelings?

  • I note that it is not Coleridge but the anonymous writer who claims that "this is sublime" means "my feelings are sublime." In ordinary usage, one would feel humbled beside something sublime. Note that Wordsworth attributes sublimity not to the landscape but to his own sense.
    – Mary
    Sep 6, 2021 at 18:00
  • 3
    On Kant's view of the sublime, Lewis is wrong that "This is sublime" is a projection of "I have humble feelings". Quite the opposite, for Kant "experience of the sublime consists in a feeling of the superiority of our own power of reason, as a supersensible faculty, over nature", SEP, The Sublime. However, Lewis may be technically correct that applying "sublime" to feelings is a category error. Still, such linguistic transfers are so common that it borders on nitpicking.
    – Conifold
    Sep 6, 2021 at 23:05
  • But Kant didn't write that passage.
    – Mary
    Sep 26, 2021 at 18:47
  • @Mary True, but Lewis said that his statement is true of "any conceivable view," which would presumably include Kant's, especially since Kant was one of the most prominent writers on the sublime. Sep 28, 2021 at 15:31
  • i've read a llittle on the sublime, and without returning to notes i've made i want to add that humility is a viable, despite the elevation of reason @Conifold response to sublimity. sublime feelings is a thing, and the term begins with Longinus' rhetoric "The effect of elevated language upon an audience is not persuasion but transport,"
    – user71226
    Jan 25 at 6:29

1 Answer 1


I'd say you seem determined to be a person from Porlock.

The sublime is the whole situation. Who is humble, in the moment the inward voice is silenced? Who is left to feel the sublime? For a moment, inside and outside disappear.

Sublimation, vapourising & condensing into a new purified form. Wordless. Beyond concepts.

Shaftsbury, Dennis & Addison, who might likely have shaped Coleridge's idea of the sublime, acknowledge it can involve a feeling of horror - awful in the old sense. The British tradition has been described as distinct from the Kantian, and is noted for its rejection of the idea that aesthetic judgment and ethical conduct are unconnected. Burke emphasised the physiological experience, and recognition of limits.

Kant's terrifying aspect of the sublime, surely fits that also. For Kant an earthquake is humbling, in escaping our ability to fully experience it, an intrusion from the 'supersensible substrate' of both nature and thought.

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