This essay brings together two medieval explorations of sensation— one by St. Thomas Aquinas and one by Geoffrey Chaucer—and situates them within the twentieth-century account of aesthetics offered by Theodor Adorno. This juxtaposition reveals how past and present structures of thought and expression, far from being straightforwardly aligned in a sequence or developmental arc, are asynchronously intertwined. All three writers engage with the relationship between sensation and historical change; all three, in different ways, think about the problem of embodiment and its relation to generalities like “society,” “history,” and “divinity.” Adorno and Aquinas are concerned with abstractions, with describing how categories like “sensation” or “beauty” function within historical or theological structures of understanding. Chaucer, conversely, is immersed in the particular; not only does he create characters who experience sensations, but he also arouses a variety of sensations by means of poetic craft, from line to line, image to image, and sound to sound. As a result, his poetry functions here as a kind of hinge between the Thomistic account of sensory perception and Adorno’s articulation of aesthetic change over time. This hinge opens up a new conversation about sensation, not only about its place in medieval vernacular poetics but also about its relationship to cognition and the social forms by which human understanding, perception, and behavior are regulated.
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Maura Nolan; Medieval Sensation and Modern Aesthetics: Aquinas, Adorno, Chaucer. the minnesota review 1 May 2013; 2013 (80): 145–158. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00265667-2018441
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