chapter  II
3 Pages

II.15 Sensibility


It is important to maintain the subtle distinctions developing at this period between the palpable quality of sensibility as a bodily or visceral response to ‘external, sensible, objects’, and the cognitive processes connected with sentiment, or ‘the internal Operations of our Minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves’.3 Sensibility is the foundational category of experience or ground on which the discourse of sentiment

gets built. ‘Sensibility’ as a historical epoch, or Foucauldian ‘episteme’, develops from this new emphasis on sensory experience, growing into a remarkably widespread European literary and cultural movement of the eighteenth century. The Age or Cult of Sensibility names a set of patterns, investments and vocabularies prominent – with curious and significant variations – from the 1730s through to the 1790s. As a move - ment, Sensibility is often characterized in terms of epistemological contrasts with what came before, particularly early modern science, neoclassicism and Enlightenment rationalism. Inger Brodey suggests for example that in ‘direct opposition to classical and Augustan thought, feeling takes the place of reason as the supreme human faculty; feeling rather than reason now provided the only hope of community within the tenets of Sensibility.4 Jerome J. McGann also emphasizes processes of historical reaction, arguing that the ‘momentous cultural shift’ named by ‘sensibility’ and ‘sentiment’ shaped later movements: ‘both romanticism and modernism organized themselves in relation to the traditions of sensibility and sentiment’.5