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Intersections Between Awe and the Sublime: A Preliminary Empirical Study

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This empirical study examines how philosophical work on the sublime relates to contemporary psychological work on awe. We operationalized several aspects of the sublime drawing from prominent philosophical theories and analyzed them in relation to three different measures of awe: the modified Differential Emotions Scale (mDES), the awe sub-scale of the Dispositional Positive Emotion Scale (DPES), and the Awe Experience Scale (AWE-S). We carried out an Exploratory Factor Analysis on our items on the sublime. We found high correlations between these items and the measures of awe, especially with the self-loss and connectedness dimensions of the AWE-S. By operationalizing aspects of the sublime drawn from influential philosophical theories and comparing them with psychological measures of awe, we find a large degree of overlap between awe and the sublime, suggesting that these two literatures could inform one another.
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Research Article
Intersections Between
Awe and the Sublime:
A Preliminary Empirical
Study
Robert R. Clewis
1
, David B. Yaden
2
and Alice Chirico
3
Abstract
This empirical study examines how philosophical work on the sublime relates to
contemporary psychological work on awe. We operationalized several aspects of the
sublime drawing from prominent philosophical theories and analyzed them in rela-
tion to three different measures of awe: the modified Differential Emotions Scale
(mDES), the awe sub-scale of the Dispositional Positive Emotion Scale (DPES), and
the Awe Experience Scale (AWE-S). We carried out an Exploratory Factor Analysis
on our items on the sublime. We found high correlations between these items and
the measures of awe, especially with the self-loss and connectedness dimensions of
the AWE-S. By operationalizing aspects of the sublime drawn from influential philo-
sophical theories and comparing them with psychological measures of awe, we find a
large degree of overlap between awe and the sublime, suggesting that these two
literatures could inform one another.
Keywords
awe, sublime, empirical aesthetics, factor analysis, sublimity
1
Philosophy Department, Gwynedd Mercy University, Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania, USA
2
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine,
Baltimore, Maryland, USA
3
Faculty of Arts and Philosophy, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan, Italy Milan
Corresponding Author:
Robert R Clewis, Gwynedd Mercy University, 1325 Sumneytown Pike, PO Box 901, Gwynedd Valley, PA
19437, USA.
Email: clewis.r@gmercyu.edu
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Article reuse guidelines:
sagepub.com/journals-permissions
DOI: 10.1177/0276237421994694
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The sublime has been the topic of a vast body of literature in philosophy for
more than two millennia (Clewis, 2019a; Costelloe, 2012; Porter, 2015). While
the sublime appears to be a topic of emerging interest in psychology, too
(Bethelmy & Corraliza, 2019; Gordon et al., 2017; Pelowski et al., 2019; Van
Elk et al., 2016; see also Ishizu & Zeki 2014), empirical psychologists have
typically devoted more attention to awe. This interest was spurred by a seminal
article on awe by Keltner and Haidt (2003) and has since been extended to a
number of psychological sub-fields, including the empirical studies of the arts
(Cotter et al., 2019). These interesting developments naturally raise the question:
how does contemporary psychological work on awe relate to philosophical work
on the sublime?
There is little consensus in either psychology or philosophy about how awe
and the sublime are related to each other (Arcangeli et al., 2020). Some research-
ers hold that awe is a component of the sublime, others claim that the sublime is
a kind of awe (Kone
cni, 2005, 2011), and still others hold that the two are
related but do not specify how. A fourth perspective is simply to conflate the
two concepts and use them interchangeably (Pelowski et al., 2019, p. 8). Giving
an example of the first approach, Bethelmy and Corraliza (2019) propose that
awe is part of the “sublime experience toward nature.” (The other key compo-
nent of the sublime is what they call “inspiring energy.”) Bethelmy and Corraliza
propose to view the sublime as a “unifying feeling that encompasses awe and
positive and pleasurable emotions within a single construct.” Although in their
recent review Arcangeli and colleagues do not set out to defend a particular view
of the awe-sublime relation, they claim that “there are no prima facie reasons
against” the position that the sublime is a kind of awe. They think that, unlike
the other positions, the view that the sublime is a kind of awe “remains a
workable option” (Arcangeli et al., 2020). They conclude that “further interdis-
ciplinary studies should go deeper in the specification of, and comparison
among, the more promising options we have delineated here” (Arcangeli
et al., 2020). The present study can be viewed as a response to this call.
In recent work in philosophy, meanwhile, some theorists have held that the
sublime and awe are distinct but somehow related. (Perhaps surprisingly, there
is no philosophy of awe in the history of philosophy, whereas there is a vener-
able tradition surrounding the philosophy of the sublime.) For instance, Brady
(2019) thinks of awe and the sublime as “neighboring concepts.” In short, a lack
of clarity regarding the awe-sublime relation has led to a scholarly gap that we
address in this paper.
Philosophy of the Sublime
To justify our working definition of the sublime, and to provide background on
the items we devised in order to measure aspects of the sublime, we provide a
brief (and necessarily selective) overview of the philosophical literature on the
2Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
sublime. Philosophical discourse on the sublime has a particularly rich history
going back, at least in the Greco-Roman tradition, to around the first century
CE, namely to a work On the Sublime (Peri Hypsous) by an author simply
known as Longinus or pseudo-Longinus (2019). Some scholars argue that
since Plato wrote about hypsous, the sublime goes back even to Plato and to
the Pre-Socratics before him (Kirwan, 2005; Porter, 2015; Shaw, 2017).
Centuries later, Augustine (1961, p. 147) described a mixture of love and
horror, and Aquinas (1947–1948) described a unique kind of affective fear
that is felt before a “sublime” truth that cannot be fully comprehended (p. 1927).
In an influential treatise on the sublime, Edmund Burke (1757)––the author
who is probably most cited by contemporary psychologists studying awe and the
sublime––characterized the experience as a kind of “delight” caused by “terror”
(Burke, 2019). Such (modified) terror was paradigmatically induced by objects
with qualities such as power, vastness, obscurity, darkness, and seeming end-
lessness. Burke offered detailed psychophysiological descriptions of the experi-
ence, drawing from his understanding of the science of his day. In addition, he
emphasized a distinction between the sublime and the beautiful. Whereas the
experience of the sublime was triggered by qualities such as ruggedness and
vastness, the feeling of beauty was elicited by features such as being small,
smooth, polished, light, and delicate. Burke did not merely describe the sub-
lime’s psychological effects, but also characterized features of the objects or
conditions that were likely to elicit the experience. Moreover, he conceived of
the sublime as an intense, bedazzling emotion (Burke, 2019, p. 80), which would
distinguish it from wonder, which is traditionally understood in philosophy to
be cognitive and reflective and to have less arousal.
In 1764, Immanuel Kant took up Burke’s ideas in the first half of a short
treatise on the sublime and related topics in anthropology. In Observations on
the Feeling of the Sublime and Beautiful, Kant divided the sublime into the
terrifying, noble, and magnificent sublime (Kant, 2019b). But this was not
Kant’s major contribution to the sublime––a point sometimes missed in the
psychology literature (e.g., Bethelmy & Corraliza 2019). It was not until his
work of 1790, The Critique of the Power of Judgment, that Kant presented his
influential theory of the sublime, distinguishing the sublime into the dynamical
(powerful) sublime and the mathematical (extensive) sublime (Kant, 2019a).
Kant described the experience as a mixed but ultimately pleasant coordination
between the mental capacities of reason and imagination. For Kant, the typical
stimulus of the sublime experience was a marvel of nature. For this reason, his
ideas have been important for contemporary theories of the environmental sub-
lime (Brady, 2013, 2019). Even if he emphasized the natural sublime, Kant also
acknowledged the possibility of feeling the sublime in response to art, though he
added that the representation should at the same time be beautiful (Kant,
2019a).
Clewis et al. 3
Kant’s ideas were further developed by Arthur Schopenhauer and G.W.F.
Hegel in various ways relevant to our understanding of the sublime. While
rejecting Kant’s ultimate grounding of the sublime on a human capacity for
morality, Schopenhauer accepted Kant’s view that aesthetic experience required
adopting a “disinterested” perspective. The sublime gave us insight into the
world as it was in itself, in which we are all part of a larger whole
(Schopenhauer, 2019). In order to experience the sublime, it was necessary to
adopt a perspective in which private interests are downplayed or ignored, in a
kind of loss of self. Thus, the experience involved an awareness of the smallness
of everyday things and even of life itself, though (pace Kant), the sublime was
not an experience in which reason finds its place in a moral order. Like Burke
and Kant, Schopenhauer distinguished the sublime from beauty. Unlike Kant,
he viewed the sublime as being on continuum from weaker to stronger forms of
intensity and arousal. In his 1835 lectures on fine art, Hegel (2019) identified the
sublime in art, above all, in the religious poetry found in the Indian, Persian,
Hebrew, and Christian mystical traditions. The sublime involved a recognition
of one’s finite inadequacy, or insignificance, before a higher supernatural power
or divinity. While Hegel discussed the sublime separately from beauty, in the
end he viewed the sublime as a mode of beauty. We summarize these major
theoretical elaborations of the sublime in Table 1.
The sublime: a working definition. Starting with Longinus (2019), theorists of
the sublime commonly identified several aspects of the experience. Foremost
among these is that the sublime is an intense, charged emotion with high arousal
and containing a mixed (negative-positive) valence. Drawing on the main the-
ories in the philosophical tradition, we thus understand the sublime as a mixed
aesthetic experience of uplift and elevation in response to a powerful or vast
object. Although the valence of the experience is generally mixed, it is overall a
positive one, for participants typically desire the experience to continue.
Drawing from previous theorists, we worked with the view that the sublime
experience: involves a feeling of connectedness to a larger whole or order
(Kant, Schopenhauer); involves a necessary sensory-perceptual aspect (on
which nearly all theorists agree) even if it can also sometimes include reflection
on the self or relation to nature; can be elicited by either art or nature (on which
nearly all theorists agree); involves a sense of freedom or detachment from
everyday affairs (Longinus, Kant, Schopenhauer); and activates and expands
the imagination (Kant). On the other hand, we leave it an open question wheth-
er people feel more significant (or instead less) during the experience, as well as
whether they reflect on themselves consciously and explicitly, as there is consid-
erable theoretical disagreement about both issues, which merit further theoret-
ical clarification and empirical investigation. It was not our aim to provide a
comprehensive definition of the sublime, but rather to measure and then com-
pare various aspects of the experience of the sublime with measures of awe.
4Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
Table 1. Summary of Key Points in Theories of the Sublime.
Author
Does the person
feel insignificant and
have sense of
smaller self?
Does one experi-
ence a feeling of
connectedness, and
belonging?
Is the experience
primarily sensory-
perceptual, or
cognitive?
Is the elicitor typi-
cally art (artifact), or
nature?
Does one reflect on
oneself (consciously,
reflexively) during
the experience?
Is the imagination
activated and
expanded?
Does one have a
sense of freedom
and detachment
from the mundane?
Longinus (1st-
3rd c. CE)
No, the soul
appears to
admire its
nobility
Unclear Can be either Either, but typically
poetry and
rhetoric
Unclear It seems so Yes
Burke Unclear No, separation from
the object of
delightful terror
Primarily sensory-
perceptual
Either nature or art
(especially
poetry)
No It seems so Unclear
Kant No, one feels signif-
icant on account
of reason
Yes, belonging to
the moral world
or order
Can be either Either, but typically
nature
Yes (at least
according to the
standard
interpretation)
Ye s Ye s
Schopenhauer Yes, one feels insig-
nificant / smaller
self (yet oneness
with the world)
Yes, belonging to a
universe or
world, the one
(metaphysically)
Can be either Either nature or art
(music, dramatic
tragedy)
Yes, sometimes, but
it is not
necessary
Unclear Yes
Hegel Yes, one feels insig-
nificant / smaller
self
No, separation from
the infinite (or
supernatural
power)
Can be either Typically art (esp.
religious poetry)
Unclear Unclear Unclear
Table 2. Items on the Sublime and Corresponding Dimension.
Item Dimension of the sublime
To what extent did you feel your thoughts temporarily
stop?
Thoughts stop
To what extent did you feel your imagination stopped? Imagination stop
To what extent did you feel your imagination was engaged
and active?
Imagination engaged
To what extent did you feel that your imagination was
expanded?
Imagination expanding
To what extent did you feel that the pleasure of your
experience came from an expansion of your imagination?
Pleasure from imagination
expanding
To what extent did you feel that the pleasure of your
experience came from an expanded sense of possibilities?
Pleasure from expanded
possibilities
To what extent did ordinary events seem less significant? Ordinary is less significant
To what extent did you feel more important during the
experience?
Feel more important
To what extent did you feel less important during the
experience?
Feel less important
To what extent did you think about your role in the world
during your awe experience?
Role in the world
To what extent do you think this experience will leave a
lasting impact on your life and attitudes?
Lasting impact
To what extent did you feel a sense of belonging during
your awe experience?
Feeling of belonging
To what extent did you feel like you were part of something
‘bigger’
Part of something bigger
Did you think more about yourself or the world outside
yourself during your awe experience
Self or the world
To what extent did you have a feeling of goodness toward
others during your awe experience?
Goodness towards others
During your awe experience, to what extent did you have a
feeling of goodness toward the world?
Goodness to the world
To what extent were you aware that the experience was
one of ‘awe’ as it was happening?
Self-awareness of the
experience
To what extent was the feeling meaningful? Experience was
meaningful
To what extent was the feeling meaningless? Experience was
meaningless
To what extent did you feel removed from the world of
everyday affairs?
Removed from affairs
To what extent did you feel elevated above the world of
everyday affairs?
Elevated above affairs
To what extent did you feel that the pleasure of the expe-
rience came from being elevated above the world of
everyday affairs?
Pleasure of being elevated
above affairs
6Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
Moreover, while not our main topic, a word should be said about the sug-
gestion that the sublime refers to the object while awe refers to the subjective
emotion or experience. One might think that whereas awe refers to a subjective
state, the sublime is an objective property. Instead, we follow Burke, Kant, and
Wordsworth (to name a few among many) in treating the sublime as a mental
state or reaction to a given elicitor. In the work of philosophers such as Burke
(2019) and Kant (2019a), the sublime is understood as a subject’s feeling. Our
approach was already adopted by Keltner and Haidt (2003), who refer to the
sublime as an awe-like aesthetic emotion (p. 299) and thus did not view it as an
objective property. This perspective of the sublime as a subjective emotion or
feeling is also found in a recent study of the sublime (Pelowski et al., 2019).
Thus, there is precedent for our treatment of the sublime as a mental state rather
than as an object of perception.
Psychology of Awe
Awe, etymologically rooted in the Proto-Germanic word for terror or fear, has
given rise to words such as “aweful” or “awful” (full of awe) and “awe-
inspiring.” The word “awe” was occasionally used by prominent writers on
the sublime (e.g. Burke), but, significantly, they did not analyze and discuss
the concept of awe extensively or in detail.
Indeed, much psychological reserach on awe is rooted not in eighteenth-
century authors, but in a seminal paper by Keltner and Haidt (2003). They
posited two appraisal dimensions involved in triggering the emotion of awe.
The first appraisal dimension is the response to vastness (either perceptually
or conceptually). The second is a need to accommodate the vastness into
one’s mental schema. Although Keltner and Haidt briefly discussed Burke on
the sublime, they did not substantially draw from philosophical outlooks on the
sublime. Hur et al. (2020) correctly observe that the source of Keltner and
Haidt’s theorization is clearly “a matter of” the sublime, however. It is indeed
surprising that Keltner and Haidt devoted only a few paragraphs to the centu-
ries of philosophical work on the sublime, and that Keltner and Haidt did not
pursue the notion further (Kone
cni, 2005, p. 30). Still, as noted, they did refer to
the sublime as an “awe-like aesthetic emotion” (p. 299), and they appear to
understand the (Burkean) sublime as a kind of awe.
According to some conceptualizations in psychology, awe contains a fear
component. Gordon et al. (2017) introduce the notion of a threat-based awe,
a negative experience in which fear is a major “component.” This would seem to
bring awe close to the Burkean sublime, since Burke holds that there is an
element of modified (delightful) terror in the sublime.
Analogously, some researchers claim that the sublime contains a fear com-
ponent (Eskine et al., 2012; Ishizu & Zeki, 2014; Ortlieb et al., 2016). However,
recent studies question or cast some doubt on whether there is a strong fear
Clewis et al. 7
component in the sublime (Hur et al., 2020; Pelowski et al., 2019). Such a view is
closer to theories that, adopting a disinterested or distancing approach, down-
play the fear in the sublime (Kant, Schopenhauer). It seems that the role of fear
in the sublime remains to be investigated, as does whether there may be a threat-
based variety of the sublime alongside the (more widely accepted) positive
variety.
Within the framework introduced by Keltner and Haidt (2003), psychological
studies of awe developed isolated from work on the sublime, until very recently.
Explicit study of awe’s connection to the sublime has been minimal, even if
psychologists have occasionally drawn close connections between awe and the
sublime (e.g., Bethelmy & Corraliza, 2019; Gordon et al., 2017, p. 310, p. 311;
Van Elk et al., 2016, p. 11). According to Bethelmy and Corraliza (2019), the
sublime “resembles” the feeling of awe (though at the same time they maintain
that awe is a component of the sublime). But to date there appears to be very
little empirical study and discussion explicitly devoted to the relationship
between awe and the sublime (compare Pelowski et al., 2019).
Similarities Between the Sublime and Awe
Because of the awe-sublime connections briefly mentioned by Keltner and Haidt
(2003), we expected some relationship between awe and the sublime; however,
because communication between theorists of the sublime and researchers of awe
has been so minimal, we were unsure of how much overlap to expect. In this
section, we note some primary differences and similarities between awe and the
sublime according to contemporary theorists.
While McShane (2018) observes some similarities between awe and the sub-
lime, she claims that the psychological conceptualization of awe lacks some
features that some theorists have attributed to the sublime (p. 474).
Unfortunately, she lists aspects that are disputed among rival theories of the
sublime: fear or terror (Burke), awareness of the powers of reason (Kant), and
“metaphysical presuppositions beyond what is necessary in perception”
(McShane, 2018, p. 474). These controversial features are not essential to the
conceptualization of the sublime. While the sublime and awe may be distinct,
that distinction can be seen to lie elsewhere.
Shapshay (2019) agrees with McShane that awe and the sublime are distinct.
She holds that awe is a response distinct from the sublime because the feeling of
humility in awe (e.g., before a powerful leader) “need not involve actual aes-
thetic attention” (Shapshay, 2019, p. 330), whereas the sublime involves aesthet-
ic attention. Especially if we accept Keltner and Haidt’s (2003)
conceptualization of awe, this is a convincing point, since awe appears to
have aesthetic and non-aesthetic varieties.
Although awe and the sublime may be conceptually distinct, we expected,
based on our overview of the most historically influential and/or conceptually
8Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
robust philosophical theories of the sublime, some overlap between the sublime
and awe––even if our understanding of the sublime developed independently of
our view of awe. We list seven points of similarity.
1. Subjective states. Generally, the sublime and awe can be conceived as subjec-
tive states. In the case of awe, this point seems obvious. It may appear less
evident that the sublime can be a subjective state, but (as noted) it was quite
common in the eighteenth century to view the sublime as a feeling and emo-
tion, a point present even in Keltner and Haidt (2003) and Pelowski et al.
(2019). Accordingly, the term “the sublime” can be applied to the subjective
pole and is not reserved for the stimulus alone.
2. Mixed valence. Both awe and the sublime have been characterized as mixed
valence experiences. That is, they involve a sense of being overwhelmed,
which can present itself as a negative feeling, as well as a sense of positive
uplift (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). Awe and the sublime are pleasant experiences
overall––even if the sublime may perhaps contain a fear component as some
conjecture. Most studies have treated awe as a positive emotion or a generally
positively-valenced emotion (Chirico et al., 2016).
3. Vastness and accommodation. Awe and the sublime involve a perception of
vastness and a need for accommodation. In philosophical theories, the sub-
lime is a response to a great power or extent (vastness). This interaction with
a great power or extent often relates to the negatively-valenced aspect of the
sublime. Still, the person experiencing the sublime recovers from this––some-
times with an altered outlook. Chignell and Halteman (2012) even argue that
the sublime contains an epiphany, a lasting change of perspective, which
seems similar to accommodation as described in the awe literature.
4. Self-loss and connectedness. Awe involves a sense of sense of self-loss as well
as feelings of connectedness or belonging (Piff et al., 2015; Yaden et al., 2017,
2019). According to theorists such as Schopenhauer (2019), these two ele-
ments are found in the sublime, too. A person undergoes a kind of self-loss,
and thereby feels more connected to others or to the universe as a whole.
5. Distancing. Both awe and the sublime seem to involve aspects of spectator-
ship or observation (of great power or vastness), rather than active involve-
ment and practical engagement with the observed object or event (Kant,
2019a; Schopenhauer, 2019). This idea has been expressed in terms of
“psychological distancing mechanisms” and as part of a distancing-
embracing model (Menninghaus et al., 2017). At the same time, the primarily
perceptual-emotional experiences of the sublime and awe may have prosocial
implications or social dimensions. For instance, in Schopenhauer’s (2019)
theory, the sublime is associated with an increased sense of belonging to a
greater whole and a corresponding sympathy with fellow beings and conspe-
cifics. Analogously, research has demonstrated the positive impact of awe on
Clewis et al. 9
wellbeing (Rudd et al., 2012; Yaden et al., 2019), prosociality (Piff et al.,
2015), and creativity (Chirico et al., 2018).
6. Altered time perception. Both awe and the sublime involve a sense that the
perception of time has been altered. In the experience of awe, time appears to
slow down (Rudd et al., 2012; Yaden et al., 2019). Meanwhile, Kant identifies
an alteration of time perception in the sublime (Kant, 2019a). Likewise,
Burke (2019) maintains that all the “motions” of the soul “are suspended”
during the sublime (p. 80).
7. Similar physiological responses. Awe and the sublime have both been concep-
tualized as involving peculiar (and similar) bodily responses or physiological
reactions (Shiota et al., 2011; Oveis et al., 2009; on the sublime, see Burke,
2019; Kant, 2019a, p. 123). Specifically, the psychological literature has
extensively characterized awe’s psychophysiological profile (Chirico,
Cipresso, et al., 2017; Chirico, Yaden, et al., 2017; Oveis et al., 2009;
Shiota et al., 2011, 2017). Yaden et al. (2019) identified the eyes slightly
widening, the jaw slightly dropping, gasping, goosebumps, and chills as phys-
iological changes reportedly associated with awe. Analogously, inspired by
Burke (2019), Ishizu and Zeki (2014) have examined the neural correlates of
the sublime. Researchers have examined the sublime’s behavioral and phys-
iological responses (Hur et al., 2020; Pelowski et al., 2019).
The Present Study
This study examines the link between philosophical conceptualizations of the
sublime and psychological measures of awe. We drew on influential and/or
robust philosophical theories of the sublime to devise a number of questions
related to subjective aspects of experiencing the sublime. We then tested the link
between items tapping into the sublime and existing measures of awe. Our aim
was to determine if and how philosophical conceptualizations of the sublime are
related to contemporary psychological operationalizations of awe. We assumed
high correlations between the items on the sublime and the awe scales, especially
the Awe Experience Scale (AWE-S). We did so because when one looks at the
prominent theories in the literature on the sublime, the sublime is characterized
in a way that is very similar to how psychologists understand awe, but their link
has not yet been tested.
Methods
Participants
Participants (N ¼144) were adults (over 18) (72 females) with a mean
age ¼36.22; S.D. ¼11.65, drawn from the United States. Participants were
recruited through an online invitation to participate in the study on Amazon’s
10 Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
Mechanical Turk (M-Turk). They were rewarded one US dollar for their par-
ticipation. The Institutional Review Board at the University of Pennsylvania
approved this study.
Procedure
Participants were asked to remember and then write about a “a particular time,
fairly recently, when you felt intense awe.” This method has been shown to be an
effective way to elicit memories of emotion experiences (Aaker et al., 2008;
Ku
cera & Haviger, 2012; Rudd et al., 2012). Participants responded to items
generated based on the philosophical literature on the sublime. Participants then
responded to a battery of three awe scales: the modified Differential Emotions
Scale (mDES; Fredrickson et al., 2003), the Dispositional Positive Emotion
Scale (DPES; Shiota et al., 2006), and the Awe-Experience Scale (Awe-S;
Yaden et al., 2019). Following data collection, we performed Exploratory
Factor Analysis on the items on the sublime and compared them with the
awe scales.
Participants reported a variety of awe experiences, especially responses to
natural wonders and scenery. But since some philosophical theories have ques-
tioned the ability of art and artifacts to elicit experiences of awe and the sublime,
we here reproduce some reports (slightly adjusted for readability) of experiences
that were triggered by artifacts, artistic performance, or technology.
“A few years ago, for my sixteenth birthday, my father took me to see the Mayan
ruins at Tulum in Mexico. I have always wanted to go there every since I was
young and was very excited to have been finally given the opportunity. After a long
bus ride along the coast of the Yucatan peninsula, we finally arrived. At first, it was
difficult to see anything because of the canopy. We then crossed through a small
doorway in a wall that surrounded the ruins and out of the blue stood a rising
group of pyramids. I was so impressed I just couldn’t stop staring. The fact that
these structures were so old and built without modern tools made it all the more
awe-inspiring. As we walked toward the coast, the pyramids looked simply amaz-
ing among the blue Caribbean water and the rocky cliffs. It was a truly amazing
experience!” ––Subject 78
“Last year, I got tickets to see my favorite artist, Beyonc
e, in concert. I was really
excited because I enjoy her music and performance so much. That night, as the
lights dimmed and her music began, I experienced this wave of awe. Everything
that I thought I would do and say when she appeared on that stage completely
disappeared. It’s like she stole my breath and my train of thought when she came
in. One thing I noticed about the awe that I experienced is that there are certain
times when I can remember everything from what she had on, to the song that she
Clewis et al. 11
sang, to what the other people around me were doing, and then there are other
times when I can only remember the feeling I experienced.” ––Subject 66
“I recently went on a trip to Paris and ended up in Versailles. The gardens were
longer and wider than I had ever seen. They were landscaped beautifully. Each area
was a self-contained garden. Some with water statues, fountains, gardened thea-
ters. It was truly an awe-inspiring sight and visit. The palace itself was also room by
room awe-inspiring including rooms full of mirrors let alone a room of entire
mirrors.” ––Subject 38
Figure 1 displays the various kinds of triggers of the reported awe experiences.
Items on the Sublime
We generated 22 ad hoc items regarding the sublime based on a systematic
review of influential theories of the sublime (see Table 2). We thus looked to
the philosophical tradition as a reservoir of ideas inspiring empirical study
(Hayn-Leichsenring & Chatterjee, 2019). Below, each item is described in
terms of its most prominent appearance in the philosophical literature.
Response scale was settled on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from “not at all”
to “extremely.”
Thoughts stop. Philosophers have conjectured that the sublime experience con-
tains a sense of the slowing of time (Burke, 2019, p. 80; Kant, 2019a). The item:
“To what extent did you feel your thoughts temporarily stop?”
Imagination engaged. Several theorists think that the imagination is engaged in the
experience of the sublime. For instance, Anna Aikin, William Wordsworth,
Moses Mendelssohn, and Kant (Clewis, 2019a) emphasized the role of the imag-
ination in sublime experiences. The item: “To what extent did you feel your
imagination was engaged and active?”
Imagination expanding. Whereas the previous item asks if the imagination was
engaged, this item addresses if the imagination was expanded, which is intended
to capture a more intense involvement. An expanded imagination is a prominent
theme in the history of the sublime and aesthetic responses to landscape (Brady,
2013; Clewis, 2019b; Hepburn, 1996; Kant, 2019a). The item: “To what extent
did you feel that your imagination was expanded?”
Pleasure from imagination expanding. One of the central tasks for theorists of the
sublime is to explain why it is pleasant rather than merely frustrating, upsetting,
or frightening (Clewis, 2019b; Forsey, 2007). The role attributed to the imagi-
nation is prominent throughout the history of the sublime, and an expanded
12 Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
imagination is conjectured by modern and contemporary theorists to be a source
of the pleasure (Brady, 2013; Clewis, 2019b, p. 349; Kant, 2019a). The item: “To
what extent did you feel that the pleasure of your experience came from an
expansion of your imagination?”
Pleasure from expanded possibilities. The imagination has been conceived as the
ability to represent or conceive what is possible rather than actual (Chalmers,
2002; Gendler & Hawthorne, 2002; Kung, 2010; Yablo, 1993). Thus, asking
about expanded possibilities offered a way to explore the imagination, and to
potentially identify it as a source of the pleasure. The item: “To what extent did
you feel that the pleasure of your experience came from an expanded sense of
possibilities?”
Ordinary is less significant. Another likely source of a pleasure in the sublime is the
rising above everyday affairs. When looked at from a distance and the greater
scheme of things, ordinary endeavors seem relatively trivial during sublime
experiences. As Kant put it, “In our aesthetic judgment nature is judged as
sublime not insofar as it arouses fear, but rather because it calls forth our
power ... to regard those things about which we are concerned (goods, health
and life) as trivial” (Kant, 2019a). In the sublime, the removal of this burden is
experienced with satisfaction. The item: “To what extent did ordinary events
seem less significant?”
0.0 5.0 10.0 15.0 20.0 25.0 30.0
Other
Natural Scenery
Epiphany
Childbirth
Great Skill
Building or Monument
Encounter with God
Great Virtue
Grand Theory or Idea
Music
Powerful leader
Percent A
g
reement
Triggers
Triggers of awe
Figure 1. Triggers of Awe. n¼144.
Clewis et al. 13
Feel more/less important. Theorists of the sublime have debated whether the expe-
rience of the sublime involves a feeling of self-importance and self-admiration,
or instead a sense of self-loss and insignificance. John Dennis offers what can be
called an “admiration” theory of the sublime, where the mind has a “conscious
view of its own excellency” (Clewis, 2019a, p. 62). In contrast, Schopenhauer
(2019) emphasizes that the experience of the sublime involves a sense of a dimin-
ished self and self-loss (p. 195). The items: “To what extent did you feel more
important during the experience?” and, “To what extent did you feel less impor-
tant during the experience?”
Role in the world. A similar literature informs this item. Some theories maintain
that the sublime experience must be reflexive and explicitly concern self-directed
attention. Kant (2019a) and Dennis (2019) tend to be read as emphasizing that
in the sublime one is thinking about oneself, rather than oriented toward the
external world. The item: “To what extent did you think about your role in the
world during your awe experience?”
Lasting impact. Most of the philosophical literature tends to think of the sublime
as an affective experience without theorizing its lasting effects (Clewis, 2019b;
Shapshay, 2019). However, Chignell and Halteman (2012) argue that the sub-
lime, after an initial bedazzlement and cognitive outstripping, contains a lasting
change of perspective. Such epiphany is similar to the life changing, transfor-
mative experience described by empirical researchers (Bethelmy & Corraliza,
2019; Chirico & Yaden, 2018). The item: “To what extent do you think this
experience will leave a lasting impact on your life and attitudes?”
Feeling of belonging. One of the sources of the pleasure in the sublime is a sense of
belonging or connectedness. Schopenhauer writes: “we are one with the world
and are therefore not oppressed but exalted by its immensity” (Schopenhauer,
2019, p. 197). For Kant (2019a), a related sense of belonging can come from
finding one’s place in the moral order. The item: “To what extent did you feel a
sense of belonging during your awe experience?”
Part of something bigger. We formulated items referring to feeling a part of some-
thing larger than the self. Whereas the previous item is a feeling of belonging as
such, this is being a part of something greater than oneself. As with the previous
item, the literature from Schopenhauer (2019) informs this item. The item: “To
what extent did you feel like you were part of something ‘bigger’?”
Goodness towards others. This item examines the possibility of a prosocial impact
of the sublime and disposition to feel goodness toward fellow human beings.
The theories of Kant (2019a) and Schopenhauer (2019) indirectly inspired this
item; there is also similar work on the prosocial impact of awe (Piff et al., 2015).
14 Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
The item: “To what extent did you have a feeling of goodness toward others
during your awe experience?”
Goodness to the world. Developing the previous item, we explored whether pro-
social attitudes could be extended to the world in general and not just to fellow
human beings. This item was indirectly inspired by the theories of Kant (2019a)
and Schopenhauer (2019). The item: “During your awe experience, to what
extent did you have a feeling of goodness toward the world?”
Self-awareness of the experience. As noted, the degree and content of self-
awareness during sublime experiences is controversial (Dennis, 2019; Kant,
2019a). These theories led us to ask about self-awareness during the experience.
The item: “To what extent were you aware that the experience was one of ‘awe’
as it was happening?”
Experience was meaningful/meaningless. As noted, the sublime has sometimes been
conceived as involving a lasting change of perspective (Chignell & Halteman,
2012). Therefore, two items developed to measure this dimension are “To what
extent was the feeling meaningful?” and “To what extent was the feeling
meaningless?”
Removed from affairs. Like the item, this item derives from Kant (2019a) and
Schopenhauer (2019). It refers to the pleasure originating from rising above
everyday concerns or affairs. The item: “To what extent did you feel removed
from the world of everyday affairs?”
Elevated above affairs. Like the previous item, this item offered another way to
address rising above ordinary concerns. While, according to Kant (2019a) not
all experiences of elevation are sublime experiences, all experiences of the sub-
lime are also experiences of elevation. The item: “To what extent did you feel
elevated above the world of everyday affairs?”
Pleasure of being elevated above affairs. Although this item is similar to the previous
two items and is informed by a similar literature, it goes beyond it by exploring
whether pleasure is derived from detachment from ordinary concerns. Some
theorists (Dennis, 2019) have described sublime experiences as necessarily con-
taining an identification of the source of the pleasure. The item: “To what extent
did you feel that the pleasure of the experience came from being elevated above
the world of everyday affairs?”
Clewis et al. 15
Instruments
The Modified Differential Emotions Scale. The modified Differential Emotions Scale
(mDES; Fredrickson et al., 2003). This scale includes a series of items asking
participants to indicate the degree to which they experienced a number of dif-
ferent emotions. Fredrickson integrated the original Differential Emotions Scale
(DES) with eight additional discrete positive emotions: amusement, awe, con-
tentment, gratitude, hope, love, pride, and sexual desire, plus an item on sym-
pathy. Each emotion is represented as a group of three related emotions
belonging to the same family, for instance, “awe” is presented along with
“wonder” and “amazement.” Twenty other emotion trios were also adminis-
tered, such as “stressed, nervous, overwhelmed.” Items were administered on a
5-point Likert scale ranging from “Not at All” to “Extremely.”
The score can also be computed into two main sub-scales of Positive and
Negative Emotions. The Positive Emotions sub-scale consists in nine positive
emotions (awe excluded), with Cronbach’s alpha ¼0.79. The Negative Emotions
sub-scale is composed of 7 negative emotions (embarrassment excluded), with
Cronbach’s alpha ¼0.69. Here, to address the research question on the link
between awe and the sublime, we focused on the awe emotion trio.
Instructions were adapted in order to specify that the emotions were intended
to refer to the awe experience that participants wrote about.
The Dispositional Positive Emotion Scale (DPES). This trait scale (Shiota et al., 2006)
measures one’s general tendency to experience various positive emotions includ-
ing awe. The sub-scale on awe was administered, which includes items such as “I
often feel awe.” Items were administered on a 7-point Likert scale ranging from
“Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.” The scale was included as another
validated instrument to assess awe as a trait. It did not relate directly to an awe-
inspiring event; rather, with mDES and Awe-S, it provided a further measure of
the convergence of awe.
The Awe Experience Scale (AWE-S). This 30-item state measure of awe captures a
number of different aspects of the awe experience (Yaden et al., 2019), including:
the perception of vastness (“I experienced something greater than myself”), need
for accommodation (“I struggled to take in all that I was experiencing at once”),
feelings of connectedness (“I felt the sense of being connected to everything”),
sense of self-loss (“I felt that my sense of self was diminished”), alteration of the
sense of time (“I experience the passage of time differently”), and physiological
reactions (“I had chills”). Preliminary studies reported a scale total Cronbach
Alpha of .92 and >.80 for all sub-scales (Yaden et al., 2019).
Ad hoc Items on Awe. We developed three more ad hoc single items to measure
the a) valence, b) intensity, and c) self-transcendent nature of the experience of
16 Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
awe. Self-transcendent experiences are defined as mental states marked by
reduced focus on the self and increased sense of connectedness (Yaden et al.,
2017). These items were:
“Please, report how positive was your experience of awe.” (7-point Likert)
“How intense was your experience of awe?” (5-point Likert)
“Would you consider your experience of awe a kind of ‘self-transcendent
experience’?” (5-point Likert)
We chose a 7-point Likert scale to capture the granularity of awe’s valence,
which is a crucial issue in awe research (see Chirico et al., 2016; Gordon et al.,
2017). Indeed, several participants answered 1 or 7 concerning awe valence,
suggesting that a Likert with more points would better capture the variability
of this experience.
Items on the Sublime. The 22 items were created in order to reflect the various
dimensions of the sublime as it has been formulated by prominent theories in the
philosophical tradition, chosen for being historically influential or conceptually
robust (or both), as noted above.
Results
Data Analysis
First, we carried out Pearson’s correlations between AWE-S total and six fac-
tors, DPES awe sub-scale, the mDES awe item, our three ad hoc awe items, and
our items on the sublime. Next, the focus was on exploring the factor structure
of the developed items on the sublime by carrying out an Exploratory Factor
Analysis (EFA). Finally, we computed final Factors scores and their internal
correlations as well as internal consistency of each scale (Cronbach Alpha).
Lastly, we computed Pearson’s correlations to calculate convergent validity
between Sublime Factor scores, AWE-S total, AWE-S six factors, mDES awe
item, and DPES awe sub-scale.
Awe Scales and Items on the Sublime
In Table 3, we reported Pearson’s correlation coefficients for all items on the
sublime and each awe scale. The awe scales behaved generally as predicted. The
AWE-S showed a moderate level of correlation with the DPES awe sub-scale,
and a moderate level of correlation with the mDES awe item. The AWE-S total
and sub-scale scores as well as the DPES showed adequate reliability. The mod-
erate degree of correlation between these measures agrees with previous com-
parisons (Yaden et al., 2019).
The items on the sublime showed a general pattern of slightly stronger cor-
relations with the AWE-S than with the mDES awe item or the DPES awe
Clewis et al. 17
Table 3. Pearson’s Correlations Between Awe-S Total and Six Factors, DPES Awe Sub-Scale,
and mDES Awe Item.
AWE-S total mDES awe item DPES awe sub-scale
AWE-S total 1 .33** .33**
DPES awe sub-scale .33** 0.06 1
mDES awe item .33** 1 0.06
AWE-S vastness .73** .49** .25**
AWE-S accommodation .72** .18* .27**
AWE-S self-loss .73** .18* 0.04
AWE-S connectedness .66** .18* .41**
AWE-S time .79** .26** .32**
AWE-S physical sensations .64** 0.16 0.16
Note. N ¼144; ** ¼p<.01, * ¼p<.05.
Table 4. Pearson’s Correlations Between Awe-S Total , mDES Awe Item, DPES Awe Sub-
Scale, Three Ad Hoc Awe Items, and Items on the Sublime.
AWE-S
total
mDES
awe item
DPES awe
sub-scale
Valence .09 .52** .05
Intensity .54** .40** .24**
Self-transcendent experience .49** .05 .23**
Sublime role in the world .49** .06 .31**
Sublime feeling belonging .38** .20* .27**
Sublime part of something bigger .51** .28** .38**
Sublime goodness to others .33** .36** .29**
Sublime goodness to world .46** .43** .17*
Sublime self-awareness of the experience .35** .46** .18*
Sublime meaningful experience .46** .41** .22**
Sublime meaningless experience .00 .25** .04
Sublime removed from affairs .39** .18* .12
Sublime elevated above affairs .59** .19* .16*
Sublime pleasure from elevation .52** .24** .27**
Sublime thoughts stop .49** .02 .08
Sublime imagination expands .49** .27** .21*
Sublime pleasure expanded imagination .41** .23** .18*
Sublime pleasure expanded possibilities .35** .20* .32**
Sublime ordinary less significant .55** .11 .06
Self more important .27** .03 .33**
Self less important .43** .07 .04
Sublime lasting impact .43** .28** .21*
Sublime imagination engaged .29** .15 .25**
Sublime imagination expanded .30** .10 .16
Note. N ¼144; ** ¼p<.01, * ¼p<.05.
18 Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
sub-scale (Table 4). The valence item was strongly positively associated with the
mDES awe item but not related to the AWE-S, whereas the self-transcendence
item (marked by reduced focus on the self and increased sense of connectedness)
was strongly associated with the AWE-S but not related to the mDES awe item.
This suggests that the mDES awe item may be interpreted as more of a positive
emotion measure, while the AWE-S might be interpreted as more of a self-
transcendent experience measure. It appears that the items on the sublime are
substantially more related to the AWE-S.
A Focus on Awe-S Dimensions and Items on the Sublime
We examined in detail each of the six Awe-S factors and our items on the
sublime (Table 5). We observed a general pattern of moderate to strong corre-
lations between the items on the sublime and the AWE-S factors, as we had
expected. The connectedness factor demonstrated the highest correlations with
the items on the sublime; this was followed by the altered sense of time and
vastness factors. The highest correlations can be found between the sublime
items and the Awe-S global score, compared to the mDES and DPES awe
sub-scale. This result provided evidence that the more comprehensive measure
of awe showed a higher degree of overlap with the sublime items compared to
the single item of mDES and the dispositional measure of awe (DPES).
Factor Analysis of the Items on the Sublime
Exploratory Factor Analysis. A Parallel analysis (PA; Horn, 1965) and Scree tests
(Cattel, 1966) were conducted to determine the most suitable number of factors
to be extracted. Then, we chose an oblique rotation assuming that factors would
be highly positively correlated. The assumption was not fulfilled, and items did
not load clearly in any factor, so we instead opted for a varimax rotation. Then,
we used Kaiser–Guttman ‘Eigenvalues greater than one’ criterion (Guttman,
1954; Kaiser, 1974) and the Scree test (Cattel, 1966) to estimate the number
of factors to obtain an adequate factor solution (Figure 2).
Parallel analysis (Table 6) also suggested a 4-factor solution and the
Eigenvalue >1 suggested a 4-factor solution that explained 59.239% of the var-
iance. We carried out an EFA with oblimin (Delta ¼0) solution with principal
axis factoring with a 4-factor solution, assuming that factors would be highly
correlated. However, factors were not strongly correlated (correlations among
factors ranged from .002 to .37) and the fourth factor included two double-
loading items, which were removed. This left only one item in the fourth factor,
so this factor was deemed an error factor and dropped. Therefore, we chose the
3-factor solution with a principal axis factoring method and a Varimax rotation
due to the orthogonal structure of the factor inter-correlations. This solution
explained 52.09% variance. However, six items showed the lowest communality
and did not load clearly in either factor. Therefore, we ran again EFA with
Clewis et al. 19
Principal Axis Factoring and Varimax rotation, excluding progressively the six
items. This procedure led to a better solution, explaining 60.853% variance. We
deleted a final item that double loaded in two factors, and we carried out
the analyses again. This procedure led to a better solution, explaining
61.370% variance (see Table 7 for the final factor solution).
Cronbach Alpha for the first factor Belonging (M¼18.41, SD ¼4.7) was .86;
the second factor Raised above Affairs (M ¼15.89, SD ¼4.9) showed an internal
consistency of .82, and Imagination (M ¼13.8, SD ¼3.9) of .81. The general
Cronbach Alpha for the items concerning the sublime was .90. Factors’ scores
were computed as means (see Table 8). Means and SD for each Factor distribution
are reported. The “Belonging” scale ranged from 6 to 30. “Raised above Affairs”
Table 5. Pearson’s Correlations Between Six Awe-S Factors, Three Ad Hoc Awe Items, and
Ad Hoc Items on the Sublime.
AWE-S
vastness
AWE-S
accommodation
AWE-S
self-loss
AWE-S
connectedness
AWE-S
time
AWE-S
physical
sensations
Valence .34** .03 .02 .11 .02 .02
Intensity .44** .38** .30** .35** .44** .42**
Self-transcendent experience .293** .310** .349** .475** .348** .293**
Sublime role in the world .24** .32** .39** .54** .32** .24**
Sublime feeling belonging .14 .18* .06 .64** .27** .32**
Sublime part something bigger .46** .35** .25** .54** .31** .25**
Sublime goodness to others .29** .17* .10 .49** .18* .21*
Sublime goodness to world .41** .20* .27** .56** .30** .24**
Sublime self-awareness
of the experience
.37** .20* .21* .25** .30** .18*
Sublime meaningful experience .50** .28** .23** .36** .39** .24**
Sublime meaningless experience .16 .00 .05 .01 .08 .02
Sublime removed from affairs .36** .27** .32** .22** .38** .11
Sublime elevated from affairs .46** .31** .47** .45** .49** .33**
Sublime pleasure from elevation .39** .24** .40** .51** .38** .31**
Sublime thoughts stop .23** .31** .41** .26** .49** .38**
Sublime imagination expands .41** .34** .22** .38** .45** .32**
Sublime pleasure
expanded imagination
.26** .31** .16* .46** .27** .29**
Sublime pleasure
expanded possibilities
.27** .28** .04 .35** .29** .34**
Sublime ordinary less significant .44** .34** .49** .32** .50** .24**
Self more important .08 .12 .04 .43** .28** .21*
Self less important .27** .36** .49** .18* .30** .18*
Sublime lasting impact .41** .34** .17* .31** .34** .32**
Sublime imagination engaged .18* .30** .13 .23** .25** .12
Sublime imagination expanded .24** .19* .16 .29** .16 .27**
Note. N ¼144; ** ¼p<.01, * ¼p<.05.
20 Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
ranged from 5 to 25. “Imagination” ranged from 4 to 20. Correlations between
Factors of the Sublime and the AWE-S Total, AWE-S Six Factors, mDES Awe
Item, and DPES Awe Sub-Scale were reported in Table 9.
Discussion
We sought to examine the intersections between the sublime and awe using
empirical methods, while building on the philosophical and psychological liter-
ature’s understandings of the two phenomena. We found that most of the items
related to the sublime correlated more strongly with the AWE-S than with the
other measures of awe. This suggests that the psychological literature on awe is
Table 6. Results of the Parallel Analysis.
Factor Eigenvalues Average eigenvalues 95th percentile eigenvalue
1 7.27 1.02 1.17
2 1.63 0.86 0.98
3 1.48 0.75 0.85
4 1.16 0.66 0.75
5 0.57 0.57 0.65
Note. The retained number of factors are in bold.
Figure 2. Scree plot.
Clewis et al. 21
highly relevant to the philosophical literature on the sublime, and that some
operationalizations of awe are more related to the sublime than others.
When the items on the sublime were factor analyzed, three dimensions
emerged, which we label: 1) Belonging, 2) Rising Above, and 3) Imagination.
This empirically-based finding could provide some further insight into the
Table 7. Factor Loadings of the Final 3-Factor Solution.
Items Belonging
Raised
above
affairs Imagination
To what extent did you feel a sense of belonging during
your awe experience?
.67 .08 .29
To what extent did you feel like you were part of
something ‘bigger’?
.57 .30 .38
To what extent did you have a feeling of goodness
toward others during your awe experience?
.89 .01 .18
During your awe experience, to what extent did you
have a feeling of goodness toward the world?
.67 .27 .26
To what extent was the feeling meaningful? .64 .25 .20
To what extent do you think this experience will leave a
lasting impact on your life and attitudes?
.42 .23 .37
To what extent did you feel removed from the world of
everyday affairs?
.20 .61 .07
To what extent did you feel elevated above the world of
everyday affairs?
.38 .76 .10
To what extent did you feel your thoughts temporarily
stop?
.16 .44 .19
To what extent did ordinary events seem less significant? .12 .74 .15
To what extent did you feel less important during the
experience?
.09 .53 .17
To what extent did you feel that your imagination was
expanded?
.20 .30 .71
To what extent did you feel that the pleasure of your
experience came from an expansion of your
imagination?
.29 .17 .77
To what extent did you feel that the pleasure of your
experience came from an expanded sense of
possibilities?
.31 .11 .60
To what extent did you feel your imagination was
engaged and active?
.17 .11 .61
Note. n ¼144. Extraction Method: Principal Axis Factoring. Rotation Method: Varimax with Kaiser
Normalization. Rotation converged in 5 iterations. Item loadings for each factor are in bold. Loadings less
than .40 are not shown.
22 Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
structure of the sublime. As noted in the explanations of each of the items, these
three empirically-driven dimensions coincide with some of the philosophical
literature on the sublime and main tenets of philosophical theories of the sub-
lime (Clewis, 2019b).
A “Belonging” dimension of the sublime was proposed by Kant (2019a) and
Schopenhauer (2019). This dimension pertains to the main self-transcendent
component of awe, “connectedness,” a feeling of becoming one with something
beyond the self (Yaden et al., 2017).
Elevation above or detachment from the mundane was emphasized by
Longinus (2019), Kant (2019a), and Schopenhauer (2019). The dimension of
“Rising” (or being Raised) above Affairs is close to the “loss of self” component
in the self-transcendence studied by Yaden et al. (2017) and Chirico and Yaden
(2018). It also resonates with the work of Stellar et al. (2015), in which the
disposition to experience awe was associated with lower levels of chronic stress.
Finally, the factor “Imagination” corresponds to the emphasis on expanded
imagination found in many theories of the sublime. The imagination has been
conceived as the mental capacity for thinking about the possible and what is not
present (Kant, 2019a; Kung, 2010). Kant highlights the activation and expan-
sion of the imagination during the sublime. Items making up this last factor,
Table 8. Correlational Matrix of Factors of the Sublime.
Belonging (F1) Raised above affairs (F2) Imagination (F3)
Belonging (F1) 1 .47** .57**
Raised above Affairs (F2) .47** 1 .43**
Imagination (F3) .57** .43** 1
Note. N ¼144; ** ¼p<.01, * ¼p<.05.
Table 9. Correlational Matrix of Factors of the Sublime, With AWE-S Total and AWE-S Six
Factors, mDES Awe Item, and DPES Awe Sub-Scale.
Belonging (F1) Raised above affairs (F2) Imagination (F3)
AWE-S total .53** .66** .48**
DPES awe .34** 0.15 .30**
mDES awe item .42** .16* .26**
AWE-S vastness .44** .51** .35**
AWE-S accommodation .29** .41** .38**
AWE-S self-loss .22** .58** .17*
AWE-S connectedness .64** .44** .44**
AWE-S time .35** .55** .39**
AWE-S physical sensations .31** .31** .34**
Note. N ¼144; ** ¼p<.01, * ¼p<.05.
Clewis et al. 23
“Imagination,” generally referred to thinking about many different possibilities,
both present and future. For this reason, one could also refer to the
“Imagination” item by introducing the phrase “sense of possibility.” The
psychological literature on awe has only hinted at this aspect (e.g., Rudd
et al., 2012).
The AWE-S appears to be a strong approximation of the sublime as concep-
tualized in the philosophical literature. All six factors of the AWE-S can be
found in the sublime as conceived by prominent philosophical theories.
Perceived vastness is discussed by nearly all theories of the sublime, and the
theorists identify vastness as a trigger of sublime experiences. A need for accom-
modation was proposed (using other terms) by Kant (2019a) and Schopenhauer
(2019), who saw the sublime as yielding new perspectives and insights about the
world. Altered time perception was noted by Burke (2019) and Kant (2019a).
Self-diminishment was put forward by Schopenhauer (2019). A sense of connect-
edness was also noted by Schopenhauer. Physical sensations were vividly
described by Burke (2019).
The general pattern of findings suggests that the experience of the sublime
may be accurately described as a “variety of self-transcendent experience”
(Yaden et al., 2017) insofar as it is marked by reduced focus on the self and
an increased sense of connectedness. The AWE-S includes these aspects as
factors––the “self-loss” factor and the “connectedness” factor––which were
highly correlated with our items on the sublime. Furthermore, the high corre-
lation between the AWE-S item asking whether participants would characterize
their experience as “self-transcendent” provides evidence for this supposition.
Our finding is also close to the view of Bethelmy and Corraliza (2019), who call
the sublime a “transcendent emotion.”
Philosophers have observed that there is a puzzle regarding how the experi-
ence of the sublime can be pleasant and satisfying rather than unsettling (Clewis
2019a; Forsey, 2007). Our study suggests a possible clue as to why engaging with
a potentially threatening large or powerful object does not simply upset experi-
encers of the sublime. While at this stage the following conjecture is only spec-
ulative, the pleasure in the sublime could come from the dimensions we
identified: a sense of 1) Belonging (connectedness), 2) Rising above the mun-
dane, and/or the 3) expansion of Imagination (or sense of possibility). These
might be pleasant, respectively, insofar as someone finds his or her place in a
larger scheme; a release from troublesome burdens is itself satisfying; and, final-
ly, the activation of a core mental capacity brings pleasure.
Keltner and Haidt (2003) refer to the sublime as an awe-like aesthetic emo-
tion (p. 299). Kone
cni (2005, 2011) develops this point and suggestively uses the
term “aesthetic awe.” Conceiving of the sublime as a mode of awe is, perhaps, a
compelling way to reconcile and explain some of the differences between awe in
general and the sublime. For if the sublime is only a kind of awe (Arcangeli
et al., 2020), the sublime cannot simply be identified with awe. The
24 Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
differentiation was also shown by our expert-based developed items, since the
sublime items and the awe dimensions did not show high correlations at the
psychometric level. While we have made some headway into exploring the
nature of the awe-sublime relation, their precise relationship deserves more con-
ceptual analysis and empirical study.
Limitations and Future Directions
Despite our rigorous methodology, this study has some limitations. First, this is
a preliminary study, an attempt to test a linear link between two complex phe-
nomena. To this end, we asked participants to describe an experience of “awe,”
which may have biased their responses in certain ways. The terminology in this
conceptual territory is particularly difficult, as researchers must prompt
respondents in some way, which usually involves a choice regarding the termi-
nology used. Here, the prompt specifies “awe,” but future research might
prompt participants in terms of the “sublime,” or otherwise describe a subjective
state, and examine how the results differ, as a cross-check. Moreover, it would
be also useful to investigate if the link between awe and the experience of the
sublime still obtains when participants are prompted with a scientific definition
of awe and the sublime rather than just the single word “awe” or “sublime.”
The operationalization of the sublime we chose offers several advantages.
First, it permits the description of the sublime in relation to a well-established
philosophical literature. Second, it enables investigating the sublime by way of
empirical methods. Third, it simplifies the long-lasting debate on this phenom-
enon by providing preliminary evidence about its link with awe, which had
either been simply conflated with the sublime, or thought to be a component
of the sublime, or was discussed independently of the sublime.
To be sure, like all operationalizations, the present one naturally has certain
limitations. First, we explicitly drew from a specific, non-exhaustive philosoph-
ical literature on the sublime in order to inform our operationalization of the
sublime. Nevertheless, we aimed to be reflective and self-aware in making our
selection. In particular, we included representative authors whose ideas about
the sublime are significant and theoretically robust, or historically influential, or
both. They were selected because their theories addressed the key elements of a
theory of the sublime and were useful in operationalizing the sublime.
At the same time, we had to exclude several authors. Accordingly, future
studies could provide other operational definitions of the sublime drawing from
other philosophers and test them empirically as we did, to obtain a more com-
prehensive picture of this phenomenon.
Moreover, in this study we relied on the theoretical underpinnings of awe and
of the sublime and did not directly ask our participants to provide their defini-
tion of the two constructs. In other words, we drew from scientific and philo-
sophical literature rather than from the mundane, ordinary understandings of
Clewis et al. 25
awe and the sublime. In addition, our operationalization does not account for
how responses might vary across different global cultures.
The study used a relatively small sample recruited by means of m-Turk plat-
form, which might not be broadly generalizable. Nevertheless, studies have
shown that M-Turk samples are generally representative (Buhrmester, 2011).
In any case, future studies might examine samples gathered in other ways. One
compelling possibility would be to sample individuals with theoretical expertise
regarding the sublime, such as professional philosophers and aestheticians, in
order to examine how intuitions differ between philosophers and non-
philosophers, or between “experts” and non-experts. Similar methods have
been employed in other areas of philosophy (e.g., Nahmias et al., 2005).
Future studies should be conducted to replicate these findings and to confirm
the factor structure of the exploratory factor analysis conducted on the items on
the sublime. The items on the sublime were drawn from key theories in the
philosophical literature, and primacy was given to the content validity rather
than the psychometric properties. We chose not to use Bonferroni (or other)
corrections. More validation work is required before these items can be recom-
mended for broader use.
Future conceptual analysis and empirical research can illuminate the inter-
sections between awe and the sublime. Some of the questions raised by philos-
ophers lend themselves to empirical research; in turn, such empirical
investigations could be fruitfully guided by engaging with the philosophical
literature. For instance, the following topics merit further exploration. 1)
How effectively the experience of the sublime can be elicited by artworks or
artifacts rather than by landscape and natural scenery (Pelowski et al., 2019). 2)
The extent to which the experiences of the sublime and related emotions appear
to be cross-cultural (Razavi et al., 2016; Zickfeld et al., 2019). 3) The extent to
which the experience is reflexive and explicitly self-directed even as it is an
experience of self-loss, two notions that seem to be often confused in the psy-
chological literature (e.g., Sundararajan, 2002).
Conclusion
This study tested the link between several awe measures and items on the sub-
lime inspired by prominent theories in the philosophical literature. We can con-
clude with two broad points. First, the sublime and awe are strongly correlated.
Specifically, the sublime shows high correlation to awe as measured by the
AWE-S. Second, this paper builds a bridge between the psychology of awe
and the philosophy of the sublime, allowing access to a literature of which
specialists from one of the fields may be unaware. Psychologists interested in
awe could profitably learn from the philosophical literature on the sublime as
well as from our items on the sublime. The benefit also flows in the other
26 Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
direction. Bearing in mind how close awe is to the sublime, philosophers can
learn from the empirical awe literature in their analyses of the sublime.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publi-
cation of this article.
ORCID iD
Robert R. Clewis https://orcid.org/0000-0003-1591-3139
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Author Biographies
Robert R. Clewis is a professor of Philosophy at Gwynedd Mercy University
(Pennsylvania, USA) and in 2019/20 was a visiting scholar at the Max Planck
Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany. He is the author of
30 Empirical Studies of the Arts 0(0)
The Kantian Sublime and the Revelation of Freedom (2009) as well as the editor
of Reading Kant’s Lectures (2015) and The Sublime Reader (2019).
David B. Yaden, PhD, is a post-doctoral research fellow at Johns Hopkins
University School of Medicine working in The Center for Psychedelic and
Consciousness Research. His research focus is on the psychology, neuroscience,
and pharmacology of self-transcendent and transformative experiences, explor-
ing how these experiences can result in long-term changes to well-being and
identity. He is the editor of Being Called (Praeger) as well as Rituals and
Practices in World Religions (Springer) and is co-authoring a book currently
called The Varieties of Spiritual Experiences: A Twenty-First Century Update
(Oxford University Press).
Alice Chirico, PhD, is a chartered psychologist, postdoc research fellow, and
lecturer at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart of Milan. Her research
concerns complex experiences, including the psychological sublime, combined
with art and new technologies for promoting wellbeing. She has been awarded
several international prizes for new applications in the field of mental health,
and she is currently involved in an Italian national grant to promote science
learning motivation using the sublime. Author of the first Italian book on the
psychological sublime, she is working on the sublime’s clinical applications for
affective disorders.
Clewis et al. 31
... Personal accounts of awe felt during experiences with religion, spirituality, nature, and art are often centered on two themes: the feeling of being diminished in the presence of something greater than the self and the motivation to be good to others (e.g., Bonner & Friedman, 2011;Clewis et al., 2022;James, 1922James, /1985Piff et al., 2015;Preston & Shin, 2016). ...
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Recently, interest in the unique pathways linking discrete positive emotions to specific health outcomes has gained increasing attention, but the role of awe is yet to be elucidated. Awe is a complex and transformative emotion that can restructure individuals' mental frames so deeply that it could be considered a therapeutic asset for major mental health major issues, including depression. Despite sparse evidence showing a potential connection between depression and awe, this link has not been combined into a proposal resulting in specific intervention guidelines. The aim of this perspective was three-fold: (i) to provide a new unifying model of awe's functioning—the Matryoshka model; (ii) to show systematic and explicit connections between this emotion and depression; and (iii) to suggest specific guidelines of intervention utilizing the potential therapeutic role of awe for mental health, specifically for depression. This theoretical endeavor in its entirety has been framed within the health domain.
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Empirical research has explored the potential of the emotion of awe to shape creativity, while theoretical work has sought to understand the link between this emotion and transformation in terms of imagining new possible worlds. This branch of study relies on the transformative potential of virtual reality (VR) to examine and invite cognitive and emotional components of transformative experiences (TEs) within the interdisciplinary model of Transformative Experience Design (TED) and the Appraisal-Tendency Framework (ATF). TED suggests using the epistemic and emotional affordances of interactive technologies, such as VR, to invite TEs. The ATF can provide insight into the nature of these affordances and their relationship. This line of research draws on empirical evidence of the awe-creativity link to broaden the discourse and consider the potential impact of this emotion on core beliefs about the world. The combination of VR with these theoretical and design-oriented approaches may enable a new generation of potentially transformative experiences that remind people that they can aspire to more and inspire them to work toward imagining and creating a new possible world.
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Research shows the experience of awe is associated with a variety of benefits ranging from increased well-being and prosocial behavior to enhanced cognition. The adaptive purpose of awe, however, is elusive. In this article, we aim to show that the current framework used to conceptualize awe points towards higher-order cognition as the key adaptive function. This goes against past evolutionary positions that posit social benefits or unidimensional behavioral adaptations. In the second half of the article, we highlight a distinct cognitive advantage of awe. The literature connecting awe and cognition is surveyed and used to develop a view that situates awe as a critical component in the cognitive success of the human species.
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Experiences of awe can carry the potential for life-transforming experiences and foster awareness of nature as a lifelong value. How these experiences emerge was investigated empirically in a pristine natural environment and analyzed informed by a bottom-up perspective with an interdisciplinary understanding of environmental aesthetics and positive psychology. A group of Arctic nature guide students (n = 34) was followed on an 8-day advanced glacier course with additional learning topics related to the Arctic landscape and history, wildlife, and how to protect a wilderness camp from polar bear attacks. After this experience, students were invited to participate in the research project and were asked to reflect on their experiences immediately after their return to civilization. Two narratives each from 27 participants were collected, which provided 54 quotations for interpretation. Reflexive thematic analysis (RTA) surfaced three main themes: context, human response to encounters with nature, and transformation. The study of awe brings the tension between spirituality and well-being closer. The findings add empirical knowledge to the understanding of the contexts for these highly affective and complex feelings. The findings also add refined knowledge about the relationship between awe and the sublime. In transformation for human well-being, the role of self-knowledge or self-transcendence surfaced by wilderness experiences should not be underestimated.
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The considerable connection between religiosity/spirituality and positivity in life in general has been widely demonstrated. However, preliminary evidence has shown that when also a cognitive component is included, the direction of this relationship seems to emerge more clearly. Specifically, the differential pathways linking specific positive self-transcendent (ST) experiences and religiosity/spirituality is still an open issue. In this study, we explored the cognitive pathways linking general ST to spirituality and religiosity, via basic beliefs. The results obtained were partially in line with the existing literature. Notably, being a believer or not did not affect the emotional side but only the cognitive one.
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Awe seems to be a complex emotion or emotional construct characterized by a mix of positive (contentment, happiness), and negative affective components (fear and a sense of being smaller, humbler or insignificant). It is striking that the elicitors of awe correspond closely to what philosophical aesthetics, and especially Burke and Kant, have called “the sublime.” As a matter of fact, awe is almost absent from the philosophical agenda, while there are very few studies on the experience of the sublime as such in the psychological literature. The aim of this paper is to throw light on the complex relationship between awe (as understood by psychologists) and the experience of the sublime (as discussed by philosophers). We distinguish seven ways of conceiving this relationship and highlight those that seem more promising to us. Once we have a clearer picture of how awe and the experience of the sublime are related, we can use it to enhance collaboration between these domains. We would be able to use empirical results about awe in a philosophical analysis of the experience of the sublime, which in turn can help us to design novel experimental hypotheses about the contexts in which we experience awe.
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Sublime encounters provide a compelling example of the peaks of our shared emotional and cognitive experiences. For centuries, these have been a target for philosophy and, more recently, for psychology, with its renewed focus on profound or aesthetic events. The sublime has been theoretically connected to multiple contexts, from interactions with overpowering nature, to beauty, music, even interpersonal engagements, and to multiple emotions—danger, awe, pleasure, fear—often with diametrically opposing arguments for what constitutes these events. However, despite this prolonged discussion, there is still a scarcity of actual systematic research. It is neither known if sublime encounters are actually common, nor how they are described by individuals, or if reports match theoretical arguments—are there one or more, or no, distinct sublime types? We address these questions by matching historical discussions to 402 participants’ (Western adults’) reports of whether they have ever experienced the sublime and, if so, how these are described in terms of cognitive/emotional and contextual factors. Roughly half reported having had at least one sublime experience, with accounts involving a range of contexts essentially covering the full spectrum of past theoretical arguments. At the same time, when we considered the cognitive/affective descriptions, using network science and latent class analysis of reported feelings, 90.8% fit one model, with involved communities (or interrelated clusters) of positive emotions, discrepancy, self-awareness, transformation/insight, and, notably, not including negative emotions/fear. We conclude with a discussion of how this might be used as a basis for considering sublime theory and shaping future research.
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The wilderness is one of the most widely recognized sources of transcendent emotion. Various recent studies have demonstrated nature’s power to induce intense emotions. The study at hand will generate conceptual and operational definitions of sublime emotion toward nature. Taking into consideration the recent research on feelings of awe, an instrument is devised to measure sublime emotion toward nature. The proposed scale’s reliability and validity is tested in a sample of 280 participants from the general population of Madrid. Results show that sublime emotion was defined by two conceptual components: awe, and inspiring energy, both obtained using the computer program FACTOR. After reliability and validity analysis, the Sublime Emotion toward Nature (SEN) scale included 18 items, distributed into awe (6 items, α = 0.881) and inspiring energy (12 items, α = 0.933). Awe was defined by feelings of fear, threat, vulnerability, fragility, and respect for nature, which is perceived as vast, powerful, and mysterious. Inspiring energy was defined by feelings of vitality, joy, energy, oneness, freedom, eternity, and harmony with the universe. The SEN is an adequate instrument to measure transcendent emotions provoked by direct wilderness exposure or memory thereof.
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Feeling like crying is a common response to music. Recent work suggests two forms of aesthetic crying: an awe-inspired, positive kind, and a distressed, sad kind. Besides their emotional tone, what differentiates these experiences? The present research examined the context and subjective musical content of aesthetic crying. A sample of 961 adults described the emotional tone, musical features, and social and environmental contexts of a feeling-like-crying experience. Awe experiences more often involved religious or classical music that was complex and beautiful, and people were often with others and hearing the music live. Sad experiences more often involved popular genres (e.g., Pop, Soul/R&B, Country) that were cold and unpleasant, and people often noted that the music reminded them of someone or that they already felt like crying before listening to the music. The distinctions between these two kinds of experiences suggest that current theories of aesthetic crying could be fruitfully expanded.
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This article focuses on the conceptual relationship between awe and the experience of the sublime. I argue that the experience of the sublime is best conceived as a species of awe, namely, as aesthetic awe. I support this conclusion by considering the prominent conceptual relations between awe and the experience of the sublime, showing that all of the options except the proposed one suffer from serious shortcomings. In maintaining that the experience of the sublime is best conceived as aesthetic awe, I draw from historical theories of the sublime as well as recent work in empirical psychology.
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This collection of texts on the Sublime provides the historical context for the foundation and discussion of one of the most important aesthetic debates of the Enlightenment. The significance of the Sublime in the eighteenth century ranged across a number of fields - literary criticism, empirical psychology, political economy, connoisseurship, landscape design and aesthetics, painting and the fine arts, and moral philosophy - and has continued to animate aesthetic and theoretical debates to this day. However, the unavailability of many of the crucial texts of the founding tradition has resulted in a conception of the Sublime often limited to the definitions of its most famous theorist Edmund Burke. Andrew Ashfield and Peter de Bolla's anthology, which includes an introduction and notes to each entry, offers students and scholars ready access to a much deeper and more complex tradition of writings on the Sublime, many of them never before printed in modern editions.
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Few classic philosophers are as popular as Immanuel Kant. Kant’s ideas seem to be used ubiquitously in contemporary aesthetics discussions. Here, we critically review the way his ideas are being applied in empirical research. We focus on the four moments presented in the Critique of the Power of Judgment (first published in 1790) and show that Kant’s precise (and sometimes counter-intuitive) use of language paired with his complex transcendental framework make interpretation of his work difficult. In some cases, colliding terminological systems easily lead to misinterpretations of his ideas. Further complicating matters, Kant developed a coherent and static description of judgments on the beautiful, while modern empiricists conduct experiments to construct a dynamic explanation of aesthetic experiences. These two approaches are difficult to reconcile. We outline points of tension and also areas where his ideas relate to and might motivate productive research questions.
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Awe has been proposed by environmentalists as a crucial—perhaps even foundational—aspect of our moral orientation toward the natural world. This article considers recent psychological evidence about the effects that awe has on those who experience it and explores worries about the role of awe as a potential tool of manipulation, a way of circumventing deliberative processes, and a force that undermines democratic and egalitarian social relations. It concludes that while awe can inspire environmentalist attitudes and commitments, there are also legitimate concerns about using it as the basis for environmentalism.
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The sublime is an enduring concept in Western aesthetic discourse and is often portrayed such as in Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful of 1759 as a delightful horror, a kind of enjoyment based on negative emotions. In the current article, the relationship between sublimity and fear was explored using behavioral and physiological measures. In 2 studies (total N ≈ 120), photographs of nature were selected (Study 1: 192 photographs and Study 2: 72 photographs), rated on sublimity, beauty, fear, happiness, and arousal, before being assessed against facial muscle movement (fEMG) and skin conductance (SCR). In line with philosophical theories, ratings of sublimity showed positive associations with subjective fear ratings in both studies. Looking at fEMG data (Study 2), sublimity was in fact associated with a decrease of corrugator supercilli (frowning) reactions, indicating reduced emotional negativity. Furthermore, sublimity did not change activation levels of the zygomaticus major (smiling/positive emotional valence), nor did it influence movements of the medial frontalis (inner brow raise/fear). Increased ratings of fear increased corrugator supercilii and medial frontalis activations, and decreased zygomaticus major activation, replicating past findings. SCR activation was not predicted by any variable. The discrepancy between behavioral and physiological results likely results from a combination of false appraisal and distancing mechanisms, and thus encourages the reconsideration of generalizations made over the sublime in its relation to fear.