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date: 03 December 2020

Sentimentlocked

  • James ChandlerJames ChandlerDepartment of Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago

Summary

“Sentiment” is a term that signifies differently in its different English forms (sentiments, sentimental, sentimentality, sentimentalism), and these forms themselves signify differently at different times and in different languages. In French, whence it derives, the verb sentir means “to feel” or “to sense,” and a relatively clear distinction can be made in that language between sentir and penser (“to think”), and likewise between un sentiment and une pensée. In English, however, especially in the 18th century when the notion of the sentiment became central to empiricist moral philosophy, the term tends to straddle thought and feeling. In the accelerated development of the concept in the work of David Hume and his friend Adam Smith, sentiment might best be understood as feeling reflected in thought, which later figured centrally in William Wordsworth’s account of the poetic process. Even before Wordsworth, Laurence Sterne had deployed the recently coined English adjective sentimental, and he exploited this new understanding to develop a new and massively influential mode of ambivalence in fiction. Such an understanding also helped to underwrite the fully elaborated 1795 theoretical intervention of the Anglophile German writer Friedrich Schiller, who had to invent the German adjective sentimentalisch from the Anglo-French term. Schiller distinguished the sentimental mode in poetry from the naive on the dual grounds, already established in British writings on the subject, that the sentimental involved “mixed feelings” born of an act of “reflection.” Even as this more technical understanding of the sentimental mode was being developed, however, critique of “sentimentality” in a strictly pejorative sense was underway. In modernist literary theory, certainly, much energy is mobilized around this critique, as is clear from a foundational work in the institution of “practical criticism” by I. A. Richards at Cambridge, who produced a full taxonomy of the forms of sentimentality, a deviant kind of emotional responsiveness he opposed to another, which he called “inhibition.” The modernist intolerance of what it called “sentimentality” would be taken up as part of a broader and more programmatic critique of commercialized culture under capitalism in later work by Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and T. W. Adorno and by Jean Baudrillard.

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