PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Conservative Radicalism in Edmund Burke's 'A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful'

A reissued classic of aesthetic theory asks, Can the body be a critic?

A Philosophical Inquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 224 pages
Author: Edmund Burke
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2015-03

Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Sublime and Beautiful, reprinted in the Oxford World's Classics series with a new introduction and notes by Paul Guyer, is one of aesthetic theory's great essays. It's also followed by the world's longest Reddit comment -- sexist, racist, confused, earnest, digestible, internally contradictory. In it's ambition and confidence it has indeed fulfilled those ambitions.

Due, let's say, to his own good sense, Burke published the canonical second edition of A Philosophical Inquiry in 1759, two years after the first. He added the "Introduction on Taste", based around the alluringly misguided claim that "taste" is a fundamental characteristic of humanity. This is the most thorough explication around of the popular undergraduate hipster equivocation (which I have peddled in darker moments) that if two people had the same background, they would have the same taste, i.e. "You only get Emerson, Lake & Palmer if you understand the Russo-Romantic musical traditions to which they respond" (original emphasis).

Living in post-post society, we are beyond deeply beyond (or at least, we'd like to think we are) such skeptical claims like this. More than their universal declarations at a time when "mankind" extended precisely to the drawing-room door, Enlightenment philosophers were quite literally defined by a hard-on for "reason" as a total and controllable faculty. "The cause of a wrong Taste is a defect of judgment," Burke says, pining after a scene of reasoning free from the vagaries of anything like human existence. Of course, he preempts us: "(A)lmost the only pleasure that men have in judging better than others, consists in a sort of conscious pride and superiority, which arises from thinking rightly," which manages to both squash and elevate contemporary contests of artistic evaluation (see: Jonathan Franzen, PC Music, the kitsch-irony/subversion-hegemony nexus).

Burke is no Carl Wilson: his ambivalence runs deep. What's so interesting about the "Introduction on Taste" is that he has no idea. "I despair of ever receiving the same degree of pleasure from the most excellent performances of genius which I felt [in infancy], from pieces which my present judgment regards as trifling and contemptible." And yet, "it is probable that the standard of reasoning and Taste is the same in all human creatures." It's impossible to know what Burke is getting at, but watching him struggle between base pleasure (the pleasure we might find in, say, mass-culture productions) and critical evaluation is acutely painful for anyone who has even considered criticism as a calling. Which is to say, the "Introduction on Taste" is a meta-performance of the work of the critic, and in that is also pathetic.

What follows in the main text is considerably less ambivalent, and enormously less controlled. Burke intended to provide a unified theory of opposed aesthetic modes, the sublime and the beautiful; he ended up with something so much more haptic and sensual, it's a wonder he bothered to quote poetry as evidence. He wrote the five-part main text at 27 or 28, not abnormally young for a British monographer at the time, but despite the essay's influence and well-turned rhetoric, his argumentative inexperience shows.

He would later activate his already-legible conservatism into political commentary, first supporting the American Revolution and then decrying the French Revolution, but as a philosopher he contents himself with structuralist disingenuousness: there is no quality of the sublime nor the beautiful that cannot be broken down into constituent factors, no gradation of pleasure or pain that is unnameable. As I neared the end, the most pleasurable reading experience available was to watch Burke's zany performance of comprehensiveness. Even as he registers lacuna after lacuna, attending to them as he can, his efforts dissolve into an argument without territory.

The insurmountable trouble, the salted earth he's trying to till, is the human body itself. The beautiful and sublime, to Burke, are aesthetic reactions to the particularities of physical sensation. If the sensation is painful, the primary cause is sublime; if the reaction is pleasurable, the primary cause is beautiful. Thus, large things are sublime because, "the eye must traverse the vast space of such bodies with great quickness, and consequently the fine nerves and muscles destined to the motion of that part must be very much strained; and their great sensibility must make them highly affected by this straining."

However, the inverse does not apply to beauty, as small things are perfectly capable of ugliness. He continues with various binaries: smooth/rough, sweet/bitter, soft/hard, and yes, the queasy white/black (for Burke this is more than connotation, it is explicitly racial) and masculine/feminine. (Lest we allow that this is merely the sexism of the 18th century, remember that Mary Wollstonecraft turned right around to call him on this nonsense.)

We might call it materialist, though that seems too affectively limited. Burke attempted to theorize a comprehensively physiological taxonomy of artistic response. His vision of the body as an absolute machine while at the same time a source of transcendent reason and judgment manifests here with legible anxiety, even if in the long view Aristotle troubled over the same question. And anyone who has tapped their foot to a dumb song. Call it physiology. Call it your body. It's out of your control.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.