Sensibility: A receptiveness or susceptibility to emotions and sentiments (rather than logic, reason, and thought). Sensibility is generally associated with delicacy of feeling, empathy with others, and sensitivity to beauty. A whole literature of sensibility, including the sentimental comedy and the sentimental novel, developed and flourished during the eighteenth century, drawing on the thought of philosophers such as Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third earl of Shaftesbury, who asserted the natural benevolence of humankind in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1711), and reacting against two seventeenth-century philosophical currents, Stoic rationalism and Thomas Hobbes’s characterization of humanity in Leviathan (1651) as inherently selfish and self-interested. Today the term sentimentalism is often used to derogate works containing what we would view as an overabundance of sensibility.
Sensibility has a second application in modern critical discourse, one referring to an individual’s sensitivity (both intellectual and emotional) to aesthetics and sensory experience. Thus, one might speak of a writer — or, for that matter, a friend — as having a romantic or poetic sensibility. Poet and critic T. S. Eliot used the phrase dissociation of sensibility in his essay “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921) to refer to authors whose works reveal a divergence of thought and feeling.