Burke: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757)

Burke writes about the sublime and beautiful. That is his explicit, ostensible theme. But evident within this is an underlying set of concerns related to the nature of human identity – the relationship between body and mind and between logical abstraction and the broader scope of sensate, affective and thinking being. Resisting the Platonic heritage that tends to privilege the sphere of logical ideality, Burke, like Baumgarten, insists upon the sensible human body and its role in determining aspects of consciousness. However, whereas Baumgarten (Aesthetica, 1750) focuses on the issue of thought and cognitively conceived judgement, Burke emphasises more the emotional dimension of human experience, which he links to key drives – the fear of physical pain and death, sexual desire and the longing for social interaction and community. It is these things that feed into our experience of aesthetic phenomena, that lead us to regard things as possibly sublime or beautiful.

Burke aims to demystify aesthetic experience and to resist any conception of the aesthetic that positions it either as a soft premonition of rational consciousness or as its vague after-image. He rejects, for instance, the relevance of the notion of proportion in terms of judging the beautiful, arguing that there is no mathematical rule that determines what we find appealing. Instead of looking towards mathematics, Burke suggests that it is more pertinent to examine our fundamental animal drives and our immediate, primarily interested and non-conceptual relation to the world. These provide a much clearer guide to our experience of the sublime and the beautiful.

Beauty (…) is no creature of our reason, since it strikes us without any reference to use, and even where no use at all can be discerned, since the order and method of nature is generally very different from our measures and proportions, we must conclude that beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies, acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses (p.90)

Nonetheless, Burke acknowledges that the sphere of the aesthetic is not simple, and not simply reducible to animal drives. So, for instance, he argues that it is not sexual desire itself that shapes our experience of the beautiful, but rather something linked to sexual desire, but also notionally distinct from it – love.

I likewise distinguish love, by which I mean that satisfaction which arises to the mind on contemplating anything beautiful, of whatsoever nature it may be, from desire or lust; which is an energy of mind that hurries us on to the possession of certain objects, that do not affect us as they are beautiful, but by means altogether different. (p.73)

Love may be allied to sexual desire and have its basis within it, but it is also distinct in that it represents a form of affectively determined contemplative engagement. It represents and mobilises a play of difference and distance. There is the sense here of something similar to the Hegelian aufhebung (Science of Logic, 1812-1816), in which the matter and otherness of sexual desire is at once annulled and lifted ‘up’ to another state. In this sense, love and the experience of beauty, are positioned as spheres of mediation and differentiation. They represent bridges between material, animal otherness and the human life of the mind. This indicates Burke’s underlying concern to find some effective means of reconciling the mind and the body. Within this context it is worth noting that Kant (1790) places similar emphasis on a work of reconciliation, although conceived slightly differently in terms of a reconciliation between the noumenal and the phenomenal realms.

The clearly Cartesian (Discourse on the Method, 1637) nature of the dilemma and the difficulty of the problem is evident in the following statement by Burke:

I do not ever pretend that I shall ever be able to explain, why certain affections of the body produce such a distinct emotion of mind, and no other; or why the body is at all affected by the mind, or the mind by the body. A little thought will show this to be impossible. But I conceive, if we can discover what affections of the mind produce certain emotions of the body; and what distinct feelings and qualities of body shall produce certain determinate passions in the mind, and no others, I fancy a great deal will be done (…). (p.103)

Very interesting first that Burke refers to a ‘distinct emotion of mind’. His concern is with the uncertain space of the passions. In this sense, he is identifying an area of relative neglect within philosophy. The focus of Western philosophy has tended to be upon rational thought rather than our complex emotional and affective lives. Burke is redressing this partial omission – I say partial because the other of rational thought is always evident within philosophy, whether cast as falsehood, common opinion, or as basely unphilosophical existence. That Burke should position an ‘emotion of mind’ as ‘distinct’ is particularly interesting. Leibniz (‘Letter to Queen Sophie’, 1703) had argued that sensible experience could be obscure or clear, but only rationally perceived knowledge could properly be regarded as ‘distinct’. Leaving aside differences of languages and translation, there is the sense that Burke, via the notion of beauty and sublimity, develops a notion of the emotional life of the mind that is not simply fixed within the sensible, but that exists also at the level of cognition – of thinking, identifying and discriminating. The beautiful and the sublime partake of both sensation and ideas. They represent a strange and uncertain space of exchange.

Burke focuses on the issue of causation – the play of effect back and forth between body and mind. Yet at the same, in a very Cartesian manner, he acknowledges the impossible character of this relationship. Body and mind are absolutely separate. They are made of different stuff and cannot directly influence one another. Hence there is a need for an intervening principle and a realm of mediation. The affective and the aesthetic, in their intimate relationship, are significant precisely because they represent this possibility of passage and communication between body and mind. This is to once again demonstrate that the field of aesthetics has broader philosophical significance. It’s subjects may be beauty, sublimity, the nature of art, etc., but it’s genuine concerns run deeper and are significantly more extensive.

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