The American Love Boat

The eighteenth century used to be the “Age of Reason.” But not anymore. Now it has become the “Age of Sen-sibility.” The heart has replaced the head. Everywhere recently literary and historical scholars have discovered that in the so-called Enlightenment feelings seem to have been more important than thought, emotion more important than intellect. Perhaps this recent scholarly tendency is symptomatic of our time, with its often mawkish sentimentality and lots of people, including the President, feeling other people’s pain. Or perhaps it is due to the new interest in gender history and the ways in which feminine feelings asserted themselves in the eighteenth century, particularly in the new form of the novel. But whatever the reasons there is no denying the extent to which scholars have come to regard sentiment and sensibility as the animating moral force of the eighteenth century.

Sensibility meant the receptivity of the senses, the capacity of people to receive impressions through their senses and thereby develop understanding and sensitivity. In the English-speaking world interest in this receptivity grew out of the sensationalist epistemology systematized by John Locke in the late seventeenth century. It is hard for us today to appreciate the intellectual breakthrough represented by Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) and by the radically new value placed on knowledge acquired through the senses. In the late sixteenth century Sir Humphrey Gilbert was certain that there was a western passage through the New World to China. It was true, he admitted, that no one had yet seen the passage. But that did not matter. The difference between brute beasts and men, or between the simple and the wise, Gilbert wrote in his Discourse for a Discovery of a New Passage to Cathay (1576), “is that the one judgeth by sense only and gathereth no surety of anything that he hath not seen, felt, heard, tasted or smelled, and the other not so only, but also findeth the certainty of things by reason, before they happen to be tried.”

A century later no one could put the mind ahead of the senses as assuredly as Gilbert had done. By Locke’s time, the senses, and thus the capacities of ordinary people, had assumed a significance that the succeeding century would only expand, especially as theorists developed a new understanding of neurology. Drawing on Newton’s work on Opticks, physicians and others set forth the idea that sense impressions gathered from the external world excited vibrations that passed along nerve fibers to the brain or the soul and thus affected the character of people. Few revolutions in Western consciousness have been more important than the emergence of the culture of sensibility.

By the middle of the eighteenth century the senses and sensibility had come to dominate the Western world, and reason had become something of a handmaiden to emotion. Indeed, David Hume went so far as to assert that “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions; and can never pretend to any…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.