views updated May 08 2018


SENSIBILITY. During the eighteenth century, cultures of sensibility came into general existence in several European countries and colonies; they persisted well into the nineteenth century, and while they have been fragmented as coherent middle-class cultures, the values they embodied have persisted into the twenty-first century. In their intense interest in the operation of the mind and in interpersonal relations, these cultures displayed the rise of what we think of as modern consciousness and, within it, psychology. Their context was the time and space that newly developing consumer economies first afforded significant numbers of women and men, and they were preoccupied with pleasure and pain, as more and more people found themselves able to choose more of the former and to transcend more of the latter. How widespread the culture was in any nation depended, therefore, on the extent of the consumer revolution in the eighteenth century and thereafter. Cultures of sensibility existed in such urban centers as Edinburgh and Paris, but appear to have been most widespread in England, Holland, and the British colonies that became the United States. They both displayed transnational characteristics (among multilingual and often well-traveled elites) and reflected local ones, as people drew upon their language and other modes of expressiontears above all, but other physiological signs (legible to other people of sensibility), such as blushes and tremblingin response to their own thoughts, to interpersonal exchanges, to the "distress" of others, and to "sublime" natural phenomena.

The word "sensibility" denoted the receptivity of the senses and referred to the psycho-perceptual scheme systematized in the late seventeenth century in the nerve theory of Isaac Newton and the environmental psychology of John Locke, both of whom were influential, not only in their native England, but in European philosophical thought in general. Sensibility (and "sensible" and "sentiment") connoted the operation of the nervous system, the material basis for consciousness. By the mid-eighteenth century, "sensibility" stood for a widely held body of beliefs signifying a particular kind of heightened consciousness of self and others, and incorporating a "moral sense"a conscience, but also something thought to be an equivalent of the other senses, like sight and touch. The coexistence of reason and feeling was assumed, but the proportion of each was endlessly debated, above all because of what many saw as the dangers of unleashed feelings.

Notable eighteenth-century expositions of sensibility's operation ranged from the philosophical publications (1711) of the third earl of Shaftesbury (16711713) and those of his disciple, the Scot Francis Hutcheson (16941746), in the 1720s; to Abbé Prévost's novel Manon Lescaut (1731); to the internationally influential novels of Samuel Richardson (16891761), published 17401754; to the neurology (published 1751) of another Scot, Robert Whytt (17141766), and that (published 1753) of the Swiss, Albrecht von Haller (17081777); to The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) by Adam Smith (17231790); to Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloise (1761) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The sorrows of young Werther, 1774). The latter two demonstrated the sexually subversive possibilities in the responsiveness of sensitive nerves and the aggrandizement of feeling. Much the same can be said of two playful novels by Lawrence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (17591767) and A Sentimental Journey (1768). The consequences of these sexual potentials were emulation and recoil, heightening tensions over the value of sensibility. From the 1740s the boundaries of sensibility and satire were crossed and recrossed frequently.

The French Revolution was a turning point in the history of sensibility because its opponents attributed it in part to the emotional abandon of Rousseau. Indeed, its ideology, like that expressed by the American Declaration of Independence (1776), did manifest some of sensibility's values. The debate over the proportions of reason and feeling in persons of sensibility was politicized, and the need for women to channel their feelings toward moral and domestic goals was reemphasized. The word "sentimental," which had been used positively, became a label for "excessive sensibility" and self-indulgence.

Sensibility and sentimentalism continued to flourish at all levels through the nineteenth century, both on the Continent and in the New World, developing into or accompanying Gothic, anti-Gothic, romantic, and realistic forms through the nineteenth century. The tradition extended through antislavery narratives and sentimental novels (Harriet Beecher Stowe), reform-oriented novels (Charles Dickens), and in popular and religious forms (Gustave Flaubert). While there were significant changes in the language of sensibility over time, its major terms and values were still important to the exquisitely conscious upper-class Europeans and Americans described by Henry James at the turn of the twentieth century. Mark Twain continued to place central value on heightened consciousness and on the morality of inner feeling even while he replaced the language of sensibility with fresh democratic forms.

The continuing persistence of this tradition through the nineteenth century, however, is remarkable only if one neglects its deep popular appeal and its links to consumerism. As the word "culture" implies, the phenomenon was by no means limitedto intellectual and literary expressions. Its different origins had included the code of behavior of the Renaissance courts of Italy and France, subsequently imitated by aristocrats and would-be aristocrats throughout Europe, then absorbedbyupwardly mobile groups below them in the social pile, in accordance with "the civilizing process" described by Norbert Elias. Also key had been changesof religious thought (to which Newton and Locke were connected) in England, as well as in France and Holland. Some of the ideals and corresponding behavior were absorbed by evangelized working-class audiences, as well as by the increasingly literate bourgeoisie. That the culture's chief feature was the elevation of pleasurable feelings meant that it held appeal for all, including those who had been denied literacy, let alone formal theological and intellectual, trainingthose who now found valueinthe"heart"alone, and an empowering sense of victimization and of moral superiority. Thus sensibility can be detected in overlapping Christian, bourgeois, and reformist ideologies and identities, as well as in mere fashion, but could also sponsor, even revolutionize, individual consciousness.


Both elite and popular thought reimagined God to reflect the more positive reconceptualization of human nature that had arisen amid gentler material circumstances. God was now seen to be benevolent and responsive to the same signals of human wishes and needs as men and women of sensibility, although representations of the older God of inflexible justice and condemnation persisted. Religious campaigns for "the reformation of manners," from the later seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, aimed at inculcating, in objects from upper-class debauchees, working-class males, and uncouth frontiersmen to frivolous women, the non-European colonized, and the enslaved, the habits Max Weber (18641920) was to call the "Protestant ethic" (although subsequent scholars have pointed out such an ethic was not limited to Protestants). During the eighteenth century one sign of such reformation was a feeling heart. Colin Campbell has shown that the religious traditions explored by Weber had in fact incorporated the emotional materials from which sensibility and consumer psychology were developed; complacent religious feelings, first stimulated by a sense of religious goodness, were extended to embrace the pleasures derived from consumer goods.

"Taste" in goods expressed sensibility (and was identified with morality), but unsuccessful struggles by elites to maintain standards demonstrated that aesthetic dikes could not prevail against the flood of consumer and producer desires. Home was where new objects (from novels to tea sets, more elaborate cuisine to chamber pots) were primarily enjoyed, and where their owners expressed the feelings with which they were invested. Sensibility was generated in more sentimental families, where children were nurtured in more indulgent, future-oriented ways. Women became more central as consumers as well as mothers; their demand was crucial to the new economies. But new male capitalists had their own interests (in addition to religious imperatives and those emanating from their wives and mothers) in internalizing, or at least displaying, sensibility as they pursued commercial ends rather than the warrior and knightly ideals of the feudal past. Liberated commerce was seen as a reform integral to the "civilizing process," albeit susceptible to the corruptions of ambition, greed, and insincerity at the hands of unfeeling men. Extending from cities to international and imperial horizons, it required the reputation and trustworthiness manifested by sensibility, although men might feel threatened in that sensibility by the charge of effeminacy, to which they were vulnerable because they now shared much with women. Their new, related republican ideologies embodied values that overlapped with those of cultures of sensibility.


The empowerment of bourgeois women extended from home to public heterosocial spheres beyond the traditional churchgoing to shopping, visits, assemblies, dances, and even masquerades, where fashions and manners transmitted sensibility. In entering the new culture women were not limited by class (although enjoyment of the range of possibilities was); in daily working relations with employers, in their exposure to sensibility's religious outlets, and motivated by their own interests at home, particularly in the challenge of reforming men, they seized new opportunities. Increasingly women became literate, writing in a wide range of forms, from private letters to published poetry and novels, specializing in the sentimental.

These and other kinds of female self-assertion provoked powerful opposition. Sensibility was thus of ambiguous value to women; it could be deemed the cause of nervous disorders and sexual corruptibility as well as the source of moral superiority. A major symbol of sensibility was the often feminized figure of "virtue in distress," archetypically Richardson's heroine in Clarissa, drugged and raped by Lovelace. Women and their male allies elevated sensibility as a standard, demanding that unfeeling men of archaic or new, competing cultures, reform themselves and their treatment of women. If one root of feminism lay in that empowering sense of victimization and the "relief" (a common term in women's sentimental writings) brought out by its private and public expression, another lay in criticism of the disabling effects of gendered sensibility exaggerated at the expense of intellect. The most developed argument here was Mary Wollstonecraft's (17591797) Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), which aimed to reform women's manners, which she said were utterly sensitized to pleasing men.

We can see the efforts to soften men as women's chief expression of the application of sensibility to reform. But both sexes also worked (although usually separately) in humanitarian efforts. "Humanity" became synonymous with the sympathy automatically stimulated in the nervous system of people "of feeling," and it was a nongendered term; indeed, it was a term intended to undermine all invidious distinctions, even though humanitarians often marked their efforts with condescension and racism. "Humanitarianism" is an umbrella term for a startling variety of reforms, some of which had been attempted from the very beginning of the eighteenth century. Most of these focused on the abuses of the bodies of human beings (some were concerned with animals, too); this preoccupation mirrored the physicality of the sensibility of the reformers themselves. Instances of humanitarian targets were the physical abuse of enslaved Africans, the flogging of children, sailors, and criminals, judicial torture, and the seduction and abandonment of women.

The sympathy that cultivators of sensibility felt for such victims (Adam Smith's 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments took for its opening model the irresistible sympathy he argued human beings felt for their "brother" on the rack) was the expression of the transcendence of age-old deprivations and sufferings on the part of those who were now consumers. An essential condition for the rise of cultures of sensibility, however, was the unevenness and inequity of the consumer revolutionindeed, that it depended on the exploitation of others. If eighteenth-century people, developing their consciousnesses and indulging their delicate feelings in conditions of comfort, remained aware at some level of the harsh circumstances of their predecessors, more immediate was the contrast between prosperous consumers and those around them still living in misery. Contrasts were central to the self-conception of women and men of sensibility and included art versus nature; rural life versus the city; the past versus the present; private, domestic retreats versus the bustling, public "world"; and most fundamental, pleasure versus pain. All of these contrasts stimulated feelings of sensibility, from schadenfreude (taking pleasure in another's pain) to nostalgia, from self-indulgence to sympathy. Men and women of feeling, finally, were preoccupied with their own sincerity and insinceritya debate over the culture of sensibility that continues today.

See also Consumption ; Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von ; Haller, Albrecht von ; Locke, John ; Newton, Isaac ; Passions ; Prévost d'Exiles, Antoine-François ; Revolutions, Age of ; Richardson, Samuel ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques ; Sade, Donatien-Alphonse-François de ; Smith, Adam ; Sterne, Laurence ; Sublime, Idea of the ; Women .


Barker-Benfield, G. J. The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Chicago, 1992.

. "The Origins of Anglo-American Sensibility." In Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility in American History. Edited by Lawrence J. Friedman and Mark D. McGarvie. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2003.

Brissenden, R. F. Virtue in Distress: Studies in the Novel of Sentiment from Richardson to Sade. London, 1974.

Campbell, Colin. The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism. Oxford and New York, 1987.

Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Oxford and Cambridge, Mass., 1994.

Fiering, Norman S. "Irresistible Compassion: An Aspect of Eighteenth-Century Sympathy and Humanitarianism." Journal of the History of Ideas 37 (1976): 195218.

Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, 17891799. New York, 1989.

. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. London and New York, 1987.

Todd, Janet. Sensibility: An Introduction. London and New York, 1986.

G. J. Barker-Benfield


views updated May 18 2018


Sensibility, declared the Scottish moralist Hugh Blair (1718–1800), is the "temper which interests us in the concerns of our brethren; which disposes us to feel along with them, to take part in their joys, and in their sorrows" (Sermons, p. 24). Blair, whose work on aesthetics and morality would later become staple reading for Harvard undergraduates like Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1820s, took Romans 12:15 as his text for this particular sermon: "Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that do weep." But the social efficacies of sensibility were not confined to the religious realm. Drawing on John Locke's theory that early sense impressions ultimately determine character, writers and moral philosophers of the eighteenth century sought to place sensibility in a social context to determine its role in shaping an ethical, productive and happy citizenry. "Sweet sensibility!" writes the anonymous author of The Hive (1795), "Tis from thee that we derive the generous concerns, the disinterested cares that extend beyond ourselves, and enable us to participate [sic] the emotions of sorrows and joys that are not our own." Sensibility was, these writers averred, the emotional glue that held society together, countering the tendency to self-love. Blair's essay was published in New York and Philadelphia in 1790, and the Scottish common sense school of moral philosophy (including the earl of Shaftesbury [1671–1713], Francis Hutcheson [1694–1746], David Hume [1711–1776], Adam Smith [1723–1791], among others) to which he belonged was instrumental in defining American notions of sensibility and sentiment well into the 1830s.

Sensibility, the heightened awareness of the senses, both emotional and physical, became a popular subject not only for moralists, but also for novelists and poets in the latter half of the eighteenth century. The English author Laurence Sterne's A Sentimental Journey (1768), about a man who travels through France encountering painful scenes over which he empathetically weeps, initiated a series of publications on the virtues of sensibility whose influence crossed the Atlantic. As the historian Roy Harvey Pearce discovered, diaries of Americans in the 1770s revealed men and women who self-consciously tried to imitate Sterne's hero. And the first American novels published in the 1790s took as their subject the joys, and the sorrows, of sensibility. The two—joy and sorrow—were, in fact, considered inextricable, since the generous nature that moves one beyond the self makes one susceptible to grief as well as to happiness. But in the emotional economy of the eighteenth century, such a trade-off was by and large represented as worthwhile. As Hannah More put it in her poem, Sensibility (1795), "Would you, to 'scape the pain, the joy forego, / And miss the transport to avoid the woe?"

By the end of the eighteenth century, the cult of sensibility had produced its share of critics and detractors, at first mostly British. Since, as Sterne and More implicitly suggested, even sorrow itself could become a source of pleasure, sensibility was considered, dangerously, a possible end in itself. Although ideally a vehicle to compassion and thus social harmony, extreme delicacy of feeling could devolve into emotional self-indulgence. Artificial feeling, rather than genuine and active care for another, threatened to make a mockery of sensibility. Moreover, delicacy of feeling was potentially at odds with "manly rigor." Though the true man was popularly represented in British fiction from the 1760s through the 1780s as someone capable of generosity and benevolence, writers began to worry about the effects of refined feeling on the human constitution. "The only ill consequence that can be apprehended from [sensibility] is, an effeminacy of mind, which may disqualify us for vigorous pursuits and manly exertions," wrote Vicesimus Knox in his Essays, Moral and Literary (1792). Women, who were believed already more susceptible to emotional instability than men, were particularly at risk in indulging their fantasies of feeling through such things as excessive novel reading. But the danger to society of overly sensitive men posed an even greater threat. As Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's widely read The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) showed, along with a feminizing of the mind and spirit was the tendency of self-reflection to produce an unhealthy desire for solitude and an aversion to the pleasures and needs of the community. Sensibility, then, while denoting at first blush one's capacity for socialization, could—when indulged too freely—result in estrangement, melancholy, and finally, even madness or death.

American writers at the turn of the century acknowledged the dangers to the body and the body politic of, as one of them said, a "too great delicacy and sensibility." But by and large, the potential for sensibility to create a feeling of community and nationhood remained a grounding principle throughout the early national period. The death of George Washington in 1799 occasioned numerous discourses on the necessity of public mourning and the bond of "social sympathy" produced by mutual grief; in one funeral oration by Samuel Bayard, such grief was declared to be a confirmation of Americans' "sensibility as men." Critiques of such views of feeling and of justice based on feeling—in the writings of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), for example—would not be taught at American universities until the 1830s. Prior to that time, notions about the relationship between politics and sentiment were predominantly framed by mid-to-late-eighteenth-century ideas that confirmed the sensitive man, embodied in the artist or poet (Longfellow, for instance), as the true American, both in his own example of sensibility, and his ability to cultivate it in others.

See alsoEmotional Life; Fiction; Romanticism; Sentimentalism .


Ellison, Julie. Cato's Tears and the Making of Anglo-American Emotion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Fliegelman, Jay. Prodigals and Pilgrims: The American Revolution against Patriarchal Authority, 1750–1800. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996.

Todd, Janet. Sensibility: An Introduction. New York: Methuen, 1986.

Elizabeth Barnes


views updated May 21 2018

sen·si·bil·i·ty / ˌsensəˈbilitē/ • n. (pl. -ties) the ability to appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic influences; sensitivity: the study of literature leads to a growth of intelligence and sensibility. ∎  (sensibilities) a person's delicate sensitivity that makes them readily offended or shocked: the scale of the poverty revealed by the survey shocked people's sensibilities. ∎  dated Zool. sensitivity to sensory stimuli.


views updated May 17 2018

sensibility (sen-si-bil-iti) n. the ability to be affected by, and respond to, changes in the surroundings. Sensibility is a characteristic of cells of the nervous system.