What is sensibility?

I’ve never until now been clear on the meaning of “sensibility.” I’ve read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, but I finished the book without understanding exactly what “sensibility” meant. I’ve sometimes confused it with sensitivity, but that’s wrong. Now I know what it means, taught by Bertrand Russell.

Russell in one pithy sentence in History of Western Philosophy pins down sensibility in an image that will stay with me: “The man of sensibility would be moved to tears by the sight of a single destitute peasant family, but would be cold to well-thought-out schemes for ameliorating the lot of peasants as a class.” The man of sense, I assume, would be moved, although less than the man of sensibility, by the light of the family but would apply his energies to a scheme to make things better.

(I think here of the reaction of people to pictures of a migrant child drowned in the Mediterranean and a child covered in dust after an explosion in Syria. The emotion pours forth, but not the commitment and energy to solve the problems that led to the harm to the children.)

Before his definition with an image Russell explains that our English word comes from the French la sensibilité, “which means a proneness to emotion, and more particularly to the emotion of sympathy. To be thoroughly satisfactory, the emotion must be direct and violent and quite uninformed by thought.”

Jean Jacques Rousseau was a man of sensibility, and Russell, who values thinking, analysis, and rationality, was keen on neither Rousseau nor sensibility.


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