The philosophy of Edmund Burke

IN the year 1756 Burke published his earliest serious work, the full title of which is A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. This essay very curiously anticipates a modern interpretation of the emotions which had been much developed in Germany and in America during recent years under the name of physiological psychology; by this system physical states are regarded as the causes of pleasurable and painful states of the mind. Burke's style and his thought alike, though undistinguished when this essay was written, became the most superb examples of majesty and beauty.


HOWEVER widely we may seem to differ from one another in our reasonings and in our pleasures, it is probable that the standard both of reason and taste is the same in all human creatures; for if that were not so, it would be impossible that the ordinary correspondence of life should be maintained.

It is generally acknowledged that with regard to truth and falsehood there are tests and standards which are allowed on all sides; and it is possible that the logic of taste, if I may use the expression, might, if sufficiently studied, afford us analogous standards with regard to the beautiful and the desirable. It would be absurd to lay down rules for caprice, and to set up as a legislator of whims and fancies, as we should be doing if there were no fixed principles of taste.

The term 'taste' is figurative and not very accurate, and is therefore liable to uncertainty and confusion; but I have no great opinion of a definition, which is the celebrated remedy for this disorder. By the word 'taste' I mean those faculties of mind which are affected with, or form a judgment of, the works of imagination and the elegant arts. And my point is to find whether there are any principles of taste so common to all, so grounded and certain, as to supply the means of reasoning satisfactorily about them.

Our natural powers, which have to do with external objects, are the senses, the imagination and the judgement.

As for the senses, since their organs are nearly the same in all men, we must suppose that the manner of perceiving external objects is in all men the same, or very nearly the same. What appears light to one eye, appears light to another; what is sweet to one palate is sweet to another; and so on. Otherwise we should be abandoned to a scepticism which would make every sort of reasoning on every subject vain and frivolous.

Further, it must be allowed that every object excites identical pleasures and pains in all mankind. Thus, all concur in calling sweetness pleasant and bitterness unpleasant, except where the palate is vitiated by habit or by malady. Light is to all more pleasing than darkness, and summer more agreeable than winter.

Beside the senses, we possess imagination, to which belong wit, fancy, invention and the like; this faculty, though it cannot produce anything absolutely new, varies the disposition of the ideas received from the senses. It is the chief province of pleasure and pain, as it is the region of our fears, hopes and of all our passions. It is addicted to resemblances, and thus develops similitudes, metaphors and analogies, which appeal immediately to all men. The judgement, on the other hand, is concerned rather with differences; and what we call a difference of taste proceeds chiefly from a difference in respect of critical knowledge. Since imagination depends on the senses, there must be just as close an agreement in the imaginations as in the senses of men; and in so far as taste belongs to the imagination, its principle is the same in all.

But a real disagreement in matters of taste arises in the province of the judgment. Many works of imagination are not confined to the representation of sensible objects, nor to affecting the passions, but extend also to the manners, characters, actions and designs of men, and to their virtues and vices, and thus come within the province of judgement, which is improved by attention and by the habit of reasoning.

Horace sends us to the schools of philosophy and to the world for our instruction in these matters. Therefore, what is called taste is not a simple idea, but is made up partly of a perception of the primary pleasures of sense, partly of the secondary pleasures of the imagination, and partly of the conclusions of the reasoning faculty. Lack of sensibility leads to want of taste; weakness in judgement constitutes wrong, or bad taste.

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