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The Sublimity of Taste in Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

By Blackwell, Mark | Philological Quarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

The Sublimity of Taste in Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful


Blackwell, Mark, Philological Quarterly


[T]he judgment may be compared to a clock or watch, where the most ordinary machine is sufficient to tell the hours; but the most elaborate alone can point out the minutes and seconds, and distinguish the smallest differences of time.

--David Hume, "Of the Delicacy of Taste and Passion"

Every nation is a motley assemblage of different characters ...

--Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society

It is in the domain of aesthetics ... that the tension between individual and collective, subjective and objective, is at its highest.

--Luc Ferry, Homo Aestheticus: The Invention of Taste in the Democratic Age

The subject of this essay is what David Hume calls "the delicacy of taste," and its focal point is Edmund Burke's "Introduction on Taste," first published in the 1759 second edition of the work Robert Jones has dubbed "by far the most ambitious examination of taste in the eighteenth century," A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, (1) Burke's "Introduction on Taste" establishes two criteria of taste, one involving untutored sensation and another dependent upon a capacity for judgment derived from experience, and he suggests them to be mutually incompatible rather than mutually reinforcing. (2) Burke demonstrates that we lose a capacity to feel strongly as we gain an ability to judge nicely, and his account of the way that our satisfaction in our critical competence---our delicacy of taste--compensates us for the erosion of pleasures that once came easily shows that his own work on the sublime--and on the relationship between social and self-preservative passions--influenced his ideas about taste. In this sense, the "Introduction on Taste" is, as Burke's editor James Boulton suggests, "an organic part" of the Enquiry, though not, as Boulton contends, simply because both are "prize example[s] of Newtonian experimental methods applied to aesthetics. " (3) Rather, the dynamics of the negative pleasure that Burke terms delight structure both his treatment of the sublime and his account of taste, especially his discussion of the relationship between natural and acquired taste (which might also be designated the sense of taste and the faculty of taste). (4) Furthermore, what I am calling the sublimity of taste in the Enquiry complicates Burke's latent agenda in the "Introduction on Taste"--articulating a standard of taste that guarantees "the ordinary correspondence of life" (11), thereby serving as the basis of social and political harmony. (5) According to Terry Eagleton, "[t]he ultimate binding force of the bourgeois social order, in contrast to the coercive apparatus of absolutism, will be habits, pieties, sentiments and affections," with the result that "power in such an order has become aestheticized." (6) Eagleton suggests that the aesthetic commonality represented by the standard of taste is the linchpin of social and political coherence in a post-absolutist Britain (20). Paradoxically, though, the very recognition of such aesthetic commonality is for Burke a mark of one's aesthetic discrimination, of one's superior faculty of taste, and thus establishes one's distinction from the "ordinary" community which that aesthetic commonality is intended to underwrite. Burke's "Introduction on Taste" thus reveals taste, in the form of aesthetic discrimination, to be not the "binding force of the bourgeois social order," but a means of exercising power and a force for social differentiation.

The "Introduction on Taste" therefore bespeaks Burke's profound ambivalence about the ideology of aesthetics. He seems committed to a standard of taste as an index of cultural and political commonality, as a means of binding the "morley assemblage of different characters" that, according to Adam Ferguson, comprises a nation. (7) Yet Burke recognizes that, even as the exercise of taste derives from a shared physiology and invites wide participation, it also affords one opportunities to distinguish oneself from the undiscriminating herd.

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