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Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful

Supplemental Research by J. Paxton Hehmeyer
(created 2/21/06; version 1.0)
[Status: Draft]

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Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful (hereafter Enquiry) was published in 1757 and a second revised and expanded edition of it in 1759.

The ideas of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful seem to have their genesis as early as his undergraduate years at Trinity College in Dublin (1747). Though, the first edition of the Enquiry was not published until 1757, in the preface to that edition he claims, “[i]t is four now since this enquiry was finishedâ€? (Preface to the First Edition, 51). A second edition came out in 1759 with significant additions and revisions, including an introduction on taste. By publishing the Enquiry Burke was entering into a discussion on the sublime already well established in the eighteenth-century.

Research Context:
The existing scholarship on Burke’s Enquiry and his other writings is extensive. A further examination of Burke and other individual aesthetic theories may apply to the Transliteracies project in at least three valuable ways. First, aesthetic theories such as Burke’s Enquiry might yield useful models for our own thinking about the relationship between different media. Second, as an historical document, Burke’s Enquiry may be evaluated for its use as evidence of reading and writing practices of the period. Third, in so far as aesthetic theories can be considered to influence the very facts they intend to examine, an historical account of the influences and consequences of Burke’s theories can provide Transliteracies with examples against which to evaluate its own projects and effects. Furthermore, such accounts can help us to determine how and the extent to which, historically, the aesthetics of and concomitant practices or ideas associated with certain reading and writing technologies have been socially and technologically determined.

Technical Analysis:
Ostensibly Burke’s Enquiry is an attempt to clearly and accurately distinguish and define the terms beauty and sublime. Its approach is empirical, grounded in contemporary theories of human physiology and psychology, especially those of John Locke and George Berkeley. However, Enquiry is unusual in its attempt to explain experiences of the beauty and sublime outside of the operations of reason, leading some critics to claim that it walks the line between empiricism and irrationalism (Ferguson, 65). Other than his appeal to contemporary theories and research, Burke primarily offers two kinds of evidence for his ideas: anecdotal and literary. The former type of evidence usually refers to his own experiences or those of his friends, and often ends by asking the reader to examine his or her own thought processes and experiences: “But let anybody examine himself, and see whether he has impressed on his imagination any picturesâ€? (V.iv). The latter kind of evidence provides literary examples of the terms or ideas he is expounding. Presumably, they will produce the effect in the reader that Burke has been explaining. I will leave it up to each reader to determine whether they do or do not; however, should these literary examples not produce the described effects, this fact would not necessarily disprove Burke’s theories. Burke would have recourse to differences in natural sensibility and judgment (Introduction: On Taste), and to his theory of compounded aggregate words, whose effects are largely the product of the context of use (V.ii). One should note that about half of his literary excerpts seem to be misquotations (Ferguson, 68).

Evaluation of Opportunities/Limitations for the Transliteracies Topic:
Burke’s Enquiry and the aesthetic theories it unfolds informed his particular style of politics and political thought (see Wood 1964). The impact of the Enquiry’s theories on Burke’s political speeches, specifically the relationship between Burke’s spoken and written works, seems to be a fruitful line of study for the one way in which oral and written language interacted in the eighteenth-century. Furthermore, in so far as it was an influential description of certain reading practices (responses to literary texts) Burke’s Enquiry could provide a valuable case study in broadening our concepts of eighteenth-century reading practices. In turn, such a study would ask to contemplate how our own aesthetic theories have influenced and will influence the experience of online reading.

Resources for Further Study:
[Under Construction]

  tl, 02.21.06

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