Understanding is variously figured in the writings of the eighteenth century: most often as a stand-in for the intelligence of the reasoning mind, but also as an amicable relation (a sympathy, community, or agreement) between persons. We use our faculties of understanding to know the world and to direct our action: this much is agreed upon. The literature of sensibility posits that the emotions and the imagination are a crucial guide in this endeavor. Kant, on the other hand, argues that we are lost without reason and that feeling cannot help us in this predicament, primarily because feelings are idiosyncratic, particular, and fluctuating, while reason is a stable universal, a capacity for which will bring intelligent beings to consensus about what is right, true, or good. A battle ensues between those who regard the rational mind as the ultimate judge of right and virtue, those who would depend on the heart, and those, like Sterne, who sense that one is impossible without the other, that reason and feeling are like two sides of a piece of paper: it is impossible to crumple one without effecting the other.

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography