In 1759, when Edmund Burke published the second edition of A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, he added a preface “On Taste.” He aimed to show that aesthetic judgments are not entirely arbitrary and subjective. It is precisely because all humans have similar sensory experiences of the world that we can come up with sophisticated theories about why certain things are beautiful or sublime.
Burke’s optimism is immediately apparent: “[I]t is probable that the standard both of reason and taste is the same in all human creatures.” What differentiates people is the degree to which we are trained to recognize this standard. As we’ll see, knowledge and education improve one’s taste, though often at the expense of being able to fully enjoy art that we have come to view as lacking in taste.
Burke provides the following definition of taste: “I mean by the word Taste, no more than that faculty or those faculties of the mind, which are affected with, or which form a judgment of, the works of imagination and the elegant arts.”
Burke seems to suggest that taste is a separate faculty of the mind (in addition to reason or the imagination), but in actual fact, Burke will go on to show that taste is more the effect of the workings of the senses, the imagination, and the judgment (reason).
Burke is an empiricist in the tradition of John Locke. For Burke, all our ideas and passions originate in sense experience. Our taste is therefore dependent on the following faculties:
Burke describes their interaction later in the essay:
“On the whole it appears to me, that what is called taste, in its most general acceptation, is not a simple idea, but is partly made up of a perception of the primary pleasures of sense, of the secondary pleasures of the imagination, and of the conclusions of the reasoning faculty, concerning the various relations of these, and concerning the human passions, manners, and actions.”
Let’s look at these three faculties in more detail.
First, Burke points out that we all have the same senses, and even though through custom we might become used to different foods and substances, nevertheless no one could reasonably declare that vinegar is sweet or that sugar is sour.
The same is true for aesthetic judgments, which are largely instinctual. As Burke writes, “I believe no man thinks a goose to be more beautiful than a swan.”
Of course, over time our sense experience might become distorted. People come to enjoy opium or tobacco even though initially they found the taste disagreeable. Often we can get used to something if we see a benefit. That is how products like opium “have passed from the apothecary’s shop to our tables.” However, when we ignore such changes due to habit, the natural tastes are common to everyone.
Next, our taste is influenced by our imagination, which for Burke is limited by the information it receives from the senses.
The products of the imagination please us in the way that they imitate and resemble objects in reality. The imagination creates new images by finding similarities and correspondences between things. For example, we might compare our beloved to a rose. Burke agrees with John Locke that the imagination is more concerned with finding resemblances, whereas the judgment is more about finding differences.
As an aside, this difference allows Burke to be rather condescending about uncivilized peoples. The “most ignorant and barbaric nations” have often displayed a rich imagination (their art uses many “similitudes, comparisons, metaphors, and allegories”), but their writings show little intellectual rigour in analyzing reality based on difference. In other words, some people have a rich imagination, but lack understanding or philosophy. It seems that for Burke the imagination and judgment are often at odds.
The imagination is greatly affected by two things: knowledge and sensibility (feeling).
First of all, we can have knowledge about both art (e.g., an understanding of the artist’s techniques, forms, genres, etc.) and nature (what reality is like).
To illustrate how knowledge affects our taste, Burke describes how a shoemaker, an anatomist, and a Turkish emperor might find mistakes in various paintings. The shoemaker notes that a shoe is painted incorrectly. The anatomist points out that a muscle is not represented properly. The emperor, who has ordered many an execution, observes that the decapitated head of John the Baptist does not show the skin shrinking from the bloody neck! An increase in knowledge thus helps to tell whether the objects of the imagination accurately resemble and imitate reality.
Nevertheless, Burke seems a bit undecided about the importance of such knowledge. He adds that despite our different levels of expertise, each person can have the following aesthetic experiences:
Clearly, these three reactions have much more to do with feeling or sensibility. As so often for Burke, it seems that our different experiences are often at odds with each other. Just as Burke contrasted the imagination and judgment of barbaric nations, so now he does little to explain how our knowledge and feeling relate to each other, or which is more important.
Thus, for Burke the imagination creates resemblances to reality and we find them tasteful or not based on our knowledge and our sensibility. If we lack taste it is because we don’t know much or because our natural feelings are dulled.
Our judgment is concerned not only with art, but also with manners and proper behaviour. Burke doesn’t quite say that ethics is simply a matter of taste, but he does suggest that our social interactions can be described in such terms. The faculty of judgment therefore encompasses a great variety of reasoned judgments about what is beautiful and virtuous.
Whereas our sensibility (our feeling through the senses/imagination) might be either strong or lacking, our judgment is either right or wrong. When the judgment makes a mistake in taste it is generally due to “ignorance, inattention, prejudice, rashness, levity, obstinacy, in short, all those passions, and all those vices, which pervert the judgment in other matters.”
To improve our taste, we must educate ourselves (perhaps by reading John Locke!) so that we can know the limits of our understanding.
Unfortunately, an increase in knowledge often has a negative impact on our enjoyment of a work of art. An unsophisticated person might find great pleasure in a crummy painting, whereas a snooty critic would turn away in disgust. It seems that knowledge and sensibility stand in an inverse relationship to each other. A person with poor judgment may have a stronger emotional reaction to a work of art. They may not know why it is great or beautiful, but they have a strong sensibility.
While Burke discusses the importance of knowledge in relation to both the imagination and the judgment, he associates knowledge especially with the latter. Burke notes that the judgment often gets in the way of our imagination, as our reason will object to things and destroy “the scenes of its [the imagination’s] enchantment.” Our judgments have much more to do with knowledge than feeling. In fact, when we do experience pleasure in understanding, it is often because we are feeling proud of our discernment.
Burke is confident that the taste can be trained by “extending our knowledge, by a steady attention to our object, and by frequent exercise.” Nevertheless, his arguments raise as many questions as answers. As you reflect on his perspective, here are some tensions that Burke struggles to resolve:
Burke, Edmund. “On Taste.” The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke, 12 volumes, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15043/15043-h/15043-h.htm