On a superficial view we may seem to differ very widely from each other in our reasonings, and no less in our pleasures; but, notwithstanding this difference, which I think to be rather apparent than real, it is probable that the standard both of reason and taste is the same in all human creatures.
[A Philosophical Inquiry In to the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke]
With Edmund Burke there is a shift from an ontological, mimetic and objective approach to literature to an epistemological, pragmatic and subjective approach. Ontology means in Greek ‘the study of being’. Ontology concerns itself with determining the essence of things whether that essence being natural or supernatural. Mimetic theories are those that are concerned with the relationship between the poem and the universe. Mimetic theories are ontological in their approach because they are interested in what the poem is. For them poem is an imitation. Aristotle’s goal to define precisely the proper nature and essence of a well constructed plot makes it an ontological concern.
The Platonic-Aristotelian debate over mimesis is really a debate over the ontological status of a work of art. They both are asking ‘what’s a poem’. According to Aristotle a poem possesses its own substance and integrity’. For, Plato poem is just a shadow. The debate is again over the ontological status of a poem. Although the neo-classical theory is partly pragmatic because it is concerned with the response of the audience, it still works within a philosophical framework that is essentially ontological; the theorists are still trying to figure out what a poem is.
The rules of decorum laid down by Horace, Dryden and Pope are less concerned with audience’ response than with what a poem should. Even Longinus who does define the sublime partly in terms of its effect, is actually concerned with the actual, physical, metaphorical and linguistic qualities of a sublime poem. Neo-classical theorists are interested in audience response but the audience’s response functions as only one criterion of what makes a work of art great. They are still more interested in thethingness of a poem. When contrast ontology with epistemology (study of knowing). Epistemology is concerned not with the thingness of things but with how we know and proceed with that thingness.
Pragmatic theories in their purest form are epistemological because we are interested in how the audience knows, receives and perceives what they are looking at. Epistemological theorists seek to explore not just whether or not a poem pleases. They want more than that. They want to study the mental processes by which that pleasure is perceived and known.
For the true epistemological pragmatist beauty does not so much define a quality that inheres in a given poem or painting. As it describes a certain kind of mental response that are created within the mind of the person who experiences that poem otr painting. Being only interested in the painting is ontological, whereas the interest in the mental response to that painting is epistemological. For an epistemologist beauty does not reside in the painting but beauty is in the very way one percieves that painting. Beauty resides in the mind.
At the core of all epistemology and any theory that is epistemological we have got to make a distinction between subject and object. In Burke and German philosophy a subject is a conscious self that percieves. An object is an unconscious thing that doesnot percieve but is rather percieved. When epistemologists define their response to art as purely subjective what they mean is that the experience of art has nothing to do with the poetic object but exists wholly in the mind of the subject. This philososophicsl use ofb the word ‘subjective’ shouldn’t be confused with its modern use to signify a person’s relativistic belief. Philosophically speaking if we speak of an aesthetic response we mean an epistemological, pragmatic and subjective response. Aestheticians want to set up standards for these subjective responses.
In his work, A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke lays the groud work for understanding how we percieve both art and greater world around us. For Burke the ground work and means of all perception is the senses. Burke can be called an empiricist- knowledge comes through senses or experience. He believes that all of us have equal access to sense perception. The senses are the great originals of all our ideas. Therefore it is possible to arrive at a universal principle of judgement, -eventhough judgement is subjective- because it all happens via the senses and we all have access to the senses. Therefore we can set down universal standards of judgement. Universal-subjective seems to be a paradox but Burke believes that fixed laws are possible in aesthetics, literary criticism and the like.
From universal sense experience to universal principle of taste
According to Burke all people percieves external objects in the same way. We all recognise that sugar issweet and tobacco is bitter. We find more natural pleasure in sweet that in the bitter. Habits can make you prefer tobacco to sugar. But habits can never abolish our knowledge that tobacco is not sweet and sugar is not bitter. The senses are the base. The power of imagination and judgement are based on senses. Senses are at the botttom, radiating out of senses are imagination and judgement. Imagination is also called sensibility.
According to Burke imagination or sensibility takes the raw material offered it by sense perception and then recombines that material in a new way. Although the imagination can be quite inventive it cannot produce anything new. It can only vary what is given it by the senses. So whatever affects our imagination powerfully, whatever brings us pleasure or pain must have similar effect on all men. Though it is a huge assumption it is central to Bruke and the epistemological aesthetic project. If so we all should take pleasure and pain in the same things. Therefore though we perceive things separately somehow we all perceive them the same.
Both imagination and judgment are based on senses. Imagination is linked primarily to immediate perceptions and has about it an almost child like quality. Imagination is direct, intuitive and child like. Judgment is a higher critical faculty that is closely linked to reason. Judgment is gained through an increasing understanding brought about by a long close study of the object of sensation. Still the judgment rest in the senses and therefore judgment also share common nature. Based on judgment and imagination there is ‘taste’ or ‘aesthetic taste’. Since taste is based on imagination and judgment which are based on the senses taste too must be common to all men. But there are exceptions according to Burke. If our imagination or judgment is bad or deficient it will affect our taste. For Burke there are some people whose natures are blunt and cold. These people are deficient in imagination or sensibility. Sometimes these people have weakened their imaginative facilities through hedonism or avarice. If our imagination is blunted we will end up suffering from a lack of taste. That is to be distinguished from people that are deficient in judgment. If one is deficient in judgment one will have bad taste. Lack of taste or no taste is the result of deficiency in imagination.
Taste according to Burke differs from person to person not in kind but in degree. The principles of taste operate the same in all men, but the end result may not be the same. Some men due to a keener sensibility (imagination) or greater knowledge and discernment have a fuller or more refined sense of taste. Burke is at the same time democratic and highly elitist.
Imagination tends toward synthesis whereas judgment tends toward analysis. Imagination brings things together; it discovers and even creates unity in the midst of differences. Judgment is more analytical. It discerns subtle distinction in what appears to be uniform. Although burke asserts that sensibility is essential to taste Burke finally gives preferences to judgment as the true foundation of taste.
The sublime and the beautiful
Burke defines the sublime and the beautiful in totally epistemological terms. For Burke beautiful and sublimity are not qualities of the object rather they are faculties of perception that can be categorised. The sublime and the beautiful is something that happens in the observer, not in the painting or the poem. Burke defines sublime as that which inspires in us feeling of terror (1992, p340). Sublimity is defined by the impact that has on us by the way we percieve it subjectively and epistemologically. Dark, gloomy and massive objects invoking us an overwhelming feeling of power and infinity. Terror produces within us a mental, emotional response that Burke calls astonishment. The sublime has this effect on us. In that moment everything is suspended and our mind is totally filled by an object or thought. For Burke, the sublime is not only experienced through our eye and our ear it is also experienced through the senses of taste, smell and touch. There are such things as sublime sounds or sublime taste. We can percieve the sublime through all the fiv of our senses.
Indeed such sublimity is a mental experience, it manifests itself in our body by causing our hands to clench and our musceles to construct. To be sublime there cannot be actual terror; if we were really in danger that is not the sublime but that is just terror. On the other hand the beautiful is that which inspires in us sentiments of tenderness and affection. So whereas the sublime is more masculine and is closely allied to pain the beautiful is more feminineand is linked to pleasure and love. Beauty like sublimity can be percieved by all the senses.
The cause of a wrong taste is a defect of judgment. And this may arise from a natural weakness of understanding; (in whatever the strength of that faculty may consist), or, which is much more commonly the case, it may arise from a want of a proper and well-directed exercise, which a:lone can make it strong and ready. Besides, that ignorance, inattention, prejudice, rashness, levity, obstinacy, in short, all those passions, and all those vices, which pervert the judgment in other matters, prejudice it no less in this its more refined and elegant province. These causes produce different opinions upon everything which is an object of the understanding, without inducing us to suppose that there are no settled principles of reason.
[A Philosophical Inquiry In to the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Edmund Burke]