Edmund Burke – “An Introduction on Taste,” in A Philosophic Enquiry (1759)

Page numbers refer to Oxford World’s Classics (2008)

The 1759 edition included an introductory section on the concept of Taste. Burke believes that we can derive a universal standard of taste by carefully observing the passions and the way external actions affect our bodies (the corporeal-erotic aspect of Burke is palpable). In the Preface to the second edition, he expresses hope that an analysis of taste will recur on the “severer sciences” and consequently inflect them with its graces, etc (6). Just curious because for Burke, taste becomes a very loss and usable term, accomplishing much of what Kant hoped it would, but by less complicated means.

TASTE: For Burke, taste is the faculty of mind that forms judgments about the works of imagination. Curiously, imagination will also be the thing that is affected, and he wants to bring together the imagination with reason. He begins by positing that everyone agrees about basic physical tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, etc. And then moves to say that everyone agrees about their metaphorical applications (sweet and sour dispositions, bitter remark, etc.). In the biological sphere, someone claiming that honey is sour is considered wrong, but somehow “vitiated” or “mad” (14). The move to the metaphoric (a part from being the weak link in Burke’s argument) signals the move to the Imagination, for which he claims a congruence with the senses. In the imagination, our sensations get converted into representations. Yes, HUME is important here. And for this reason, Burke’s examples focus in differences in degree…how to judge a smoother or rougher table, while the relative beauty of these characteristics goes unquestioned.  Nevertheless, his tripartite definition of taste–immediate sensual pleasure, secondary representative pleasure of imagination, and the conclusions of reasoning faculty–point towards the sequences of both Kant and Schiller. The difference is that Kant will rigorously distinguish between the sensual and rational aspects of the human. For Burke, there is simply a process of degree. In Kant, there is chasm that needs to be bridged. Burke does offer his own curious categories: lack of sensibility leads to dull taste while lack of judgment leads to bad taste. Thus taste is not a faculty of judgment, but rather something which judgment, associated with reason, regulates (mark the difference with Kant). In fact, judgment can even impede taste, or what Burke sometime calls “the imagination.” But, paradoxically, the cultivation of taste can also recur on judgment, improving it.  The point here is that taste, in Burke, is not a separate faculty, but merely a mode or inflection of reason, understanding, or the imagination. Obviously Burke is less rigorous than Kant, but for this reason, he gets some good work done.





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