The Power of Words

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  • Edmund Burke on Language


At the end of his essay on the sublime and the beautiful, Burke reflects on the power of words. Since Burke has followed Locke in basing our mental life in sense experience, language presents a challenge. How can insubstantial words create such powerful emotions in us? Is it because they remind us of the real world that they describe? Does a line of poetry conjure up a specific image in our mind? Let’s find out.

Types of Words

Burke argues that there are three types of words:

  1. Aggregate words. These are simple ideas such as horse, man, tree. They are aggregate because each one is really a constellation of many other ideas. For example, a tree includes branches, a trunk, the colour green, etc.
  2. Simple abstract words. These words stand for attributes of the aggregate words. Examples include red, blue, and round.
  3. Compound abstract words. These words are an arbitrary union of two or more basic ideas. Examples include virtue, honour, and magistrate.

With the third category we are starting to move further away from reality. Words like honour do not refer to a specific object (the referent).

Burke’s categories are a variation on the ideas of John Locke, who argues that words represent

  1. Simple Ideas (Burke’s simple abstract words)
  2. Mixed modes (part of Burke’s compound abstract words)
  3. Complex Substances (Burke’s aggregate words)

Ultimately, Burke is not a linguist, but, like Locke, he is interested in the degree to which words refer back to real things.


Burke also borrows from Locke to suggest that we often learn the meanings of abstract words before we have experienced what they refer to. A parent or teacher might explain that adultery is bad or that drugs are taboo–all before children have even had a chance to try them.

Because the instructor seems pleased or displeased with certain things, the child assumes that this relation between the word and pleasure/pain is natural. Later, the child may become confused when it turns out that things that are pleasant are called evil and things painful or unpleasant are viewed as good.

This is not surprising because, as mentioned, the abstract words for virtues have no referent in the real world, and tend to be defined by custom and usage. There is no object called valiant, but society teaches what behaviour fits this description. Burke concludes:

“These words, by having no application, ought to be unoperative; but when words commonly sacred to great occasions are used, we are affected by them even without the occasions.”

In this way, Burke is able to return us to an empiricist account of language: over time we become so trained to associate certain meanings with specific words that we falsely believe this connection to be natural. Even with aggregate words like horse or tree we don’t normally form a mental image: the word will automatically call up a meaning/feeling.

There is of course a danger to this view. It’s not much further to Nietzsche, who doubted that abstract concepts like good and evil have any real meaning at all.


Burke argues that language can affect us strongly even when we do not form a mental picture:

“Indeed, so little does poetry depend for its effect on the power of raising sensible images, that I am convinced it would lose a very considerable part of its energy, if this were the necessary result of all description.”

Burke provides an example of a description of Helen’s beauty (from Pope’s translation of Homer) that is sublime even though it lacks any precise detail of what she looked like. Burke adds that if the image was everything, then painting would be more affecting than poetry, but this is not necessarily the case.

Burke is thus far removed from T. S. Eliot, who would later lament the “dissociation of sensibility” that had divorced poetic description from reality. Eliot complained that poets no longer smelled actual roses; they only used them as stock images.

Burke concludes that poetry is not strictly about imitation (mimesis). Drama is quite imitative, but poetry is more descriptive, and it merely uses words to substitute for reality.

Nevertheless, words still influence the passions in several way:

  1. Through sympathy.
  2. By representing things that are unlikely to have occurred exactly so in the real world. Indeed, language allows us also to represent what is metaphysical (God, the angels, etc.) and not easily accessible to the senses.
  3. By allowing for combinations and unions of different ideas.

Words are therefore quite poor at representing the material world, and yet they can evoke great passions. In Burke’s words,

“If the affection be well conveyed, it will work its effect without any clear idea, often without any idea at all of the thing which has originally given rise to it.”