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A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful [Paperback]

Edmund Burke
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Dec 13 2008 Oxford World's Classics
An eloquent and sometimes even erotic book, the Philosophical Enquiry was long dismissed as a piece of mere juvenilia. However, Burke's analysis of the relationship between emotion, beauty, and art form is now recognized as not only an important and influential work of aesthetic theory, but also one of the first major works in European literature on the Sublime, a subject that has fascinated thinkers from Kant and Coleridge to the philosophers and critics of today. This is the only available edition of the work.

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Review

`It is concisely and efficiently annotated, and its vivid introduction brings out, among other things, the deep interrelations between Burke's views on art and his political outlook, even in this early work.' Claude Rawson, London Review of Books

'must be one of the most useful additions to the Oxford World's Classics series for some time' Robin Jarvis, Bristol Polytechnic

About the Author

Editor Adam Phillips is Principal Child Psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital, London.

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By mp
Format:Paperback
Edmund Burke's 1757 treatise, "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful," is a clearly written, well-argued, and variously inflected work of philosophy. Coming out of and contending with the traditions of philosophies of passion, understanding, and aesthetics from Aristotle and Longinus to Descartes, Hobbes to Locke, and Shaftesbury to Hume, Burke would seem to be taking on a world of difficulty at the tender age of 28. However, Burke manages to maintain control and exercise great wit in his treatise by confining his "Enquiry" to the ways we interact with the physical world, and how in this interaction, we formulate our aesthetic ideas of sublimity and beauty.
Burke's "Enquiry" is divided into five parts, with an introduction. The introduction is perhaps his most witty segment, as he tries, as Shaftesbury, Addison, and Hume before him, to formulate a standard of Taste, a popular subject of conjecture in the 18th century. Physically, and not without some irony, he chooses to speak of Taste primarily as a feature of eating. In response to his predecessors, though, he does say that since our attitudes toward the world come from our senses, that the majority of people can see (sight being very important) and react; thus all people are capable of some degree of Taste. Education and experience, he must admit, though, do refine Taste. In Part One, Burke examines the individual and social causes which arouse our sense of the sublime and the beautiful, those being the primal feelings of terror/pain and love/pleasure, respectively. Throughout the "Enquiry," Burke insists that these are not opposites strictly speaking - that pain and pleasure are mediated by a neutral state of indifference, which is the natural state of man.
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By A Customer
Format:Paperback
Burke points out the things all around us that we take for granted but which really are absolutely amazing in his discourse on the sublime. A galloping stead, the expanse of a starry night, or a range of towering, snow-capped mountains. Burke points out these awe-some sights which in themselves provoke us to ask of their origins.
This book can be repetitious as Burke attempts to make, especially on taste, his point absolutely clear (I've got one of the later editions - 1772.).
Additionally, some of the lines in the book are near-timeless and are good to have around to reference from.
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Amazon.com: 4.9 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Brilliant Enquiry into the Passions of Love and Fear March 6 2002
By mp - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Edmund Burke's 1757 treatise, "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful," is a clearly written, well-argued, and variously inflected work of philosophy. Coming out of and contending with the traditions of philosophies of passion, understanding, and aesthetics from Aristotle and Longinus to Descartes, Hobbes to Locke, and Shaftesbury to Hume, Burke would seem to be taking on a world of difficulty at the tender age of 28. However, Burke manages to maintain control and exercise great wit in his treatise by confining his "Enquiry" to the ways we interact with the physical world, and how in this interaction, we formulate our aesthetic ideas of sublimity and beauty.
Burke's "Enquiry" is divided into five parts, with an introduction. The introduction is perhaps his most witty segment, as he tries, as Shaftesbury, Addison, and Hume before him, to formulate a standard of Taste, a popular subject of conjecture in the 18th century. Physically, and not without some irony, he chooses to speak of Taste primarily as a feature of eating. In response to his predecessors, though, he does say that since our attitudes toward the world come from our senses, that the majority of people can see (sight being very important) and react; thus all people are capable of some degree of Taste. Education and experience, he must admit, though, do refine Taste. In Part One, Burke examines the individual and social causes which arouse our sense of the sublime and the beautiful, those being the primal feelings of terror/pain and love/pleasure, respectively. Throughout the "Enquiry," Burke insists that these are not opposites strictly speaking - that pain and pleasure are mediated by a neutral state of indifference, which is the natural state of man. (Compare that idea to Hobbes and Locke!)
Parts Two, Three, and Four find Burke explaining his notion of the passions in relation to his basis of the physical world. Grandeur, potential threat, darkness, and ignorance for Burke excite our nerves and produce the sublime, a feeling of terror which is simultaneously delightful as long as it does not cause immediate pain. These he finds both in the physical world and in tragedies of literature and history. Smallness, softness, clarity, and weakness delimit the beautiful, which produces affection and sympathy. The contrasts and interventions that Burke makes throughout the "Enquiry" on these bases are variously inflected with issues of anxiety over gender roles, race, and power. Burke's politics give the work a joyful and troubling complexity to the literary minded.
Part Five, then, is a look at the effect that words, language, and poetry can have in influencing our affect in regards to the sublime and the beautiful. In it, he gathers together statements he sprinkles throughout the treatise on the nature of poetry - that its emphasis on representation of emotion, rather than imitation of objects, gives it a power that is perhaps unequalled even by nature. In Burke's "Enquiry," one can see a nascent fascination with landscape, mystery, and sensation that would find its flowering in the Gothic and Romantic movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His insistent break with earlier philosphers who combined aesthetics and morality is a serious challenge to moral philosophy with regard to art and Taste. His physical descriptions of emotional response prefigures Freud's psychological ponderings in "Three Essays on Sexuality" and "Beyond the Pleasure Principle," as well as linguistic theory. In all, a fascinating and complicated work for being as short as it is.
This review is dedicated to the memory of Vernon Lau. Unfortunately, Burke did not deal in the "Enquiry" with the pain or terror of immediate personal loss. One can only wonder if Burke's obsession with philosophical distance between people and fear wasn't motivated by a loss of his own.
38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thoughtful look at what we can't define...and taste. Feb. 11 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Burke points out the things all around us that we take for granted but which really are absolutely amazing in his discourse on the sublime. A galloping stead, the expanse of a starry night, or a range of towering, snow-capped mountains. Burke points out these awe-some sights which in themselves provoke us to ask of their origins.
This book can be repetitious as Burke attempts to make, especially on taste, his point absolutely clear (I've got one of the later editions - 1772.).
Additionally, some of the lines in the book are near-timeless and are good to have around to reference from.
22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Our ideas of the sublime and beautiful: Where do they originate? Dec 9 2006
By Martin H. Dickinson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Burke's Enquiry is a surprising and remarkable little work. If you expect the Burke who fits your stereotype of the conservative Tory politician, that is not what you will find here at all--but rather a clear and insightful discussion of our feelings and emotions of awe and beauty in nature and in art, and especially poetry.

Based on self-observation and reflection, Burke takes a scientific, almost Newtonian approach to the fascinating question of what it is that makes us feel the presence of the sublime and the beautiful.

These are amazing observations for a 28-year-old--remarkable as well because they were written in 1757. Consistent with the 18th Century outlook, he refers to the emotions as "the passions," and it's obvious he's done a good deal of thinking about them.

The sublime, for Burke, is generated by passions connected to self preservation and which "turn on pain and danger. They are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us. They are delightful when we have an idea of pain or danger without being actually in such circumstances. This delight I have not called pleasure because it is different enough from any idea of positive pleasure. Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime."

By beauty, Burke means the quality or qualities in bodies by which they cause love or some passion similar to it. He makes sure to distinguish love from lust or desire. This is quite a different view than the Platonic view of beauty as resonant with eternal forms and ideas.

Burke identifies specific qualities that generate beauty: to be comparatively small, smooth, having parts not angular but melted into one another. He cites the example of a dove as a creature having this beauty.

There is a big difference between admiration and love. The sublime, which is the cause of the former, always dwells on great objects and terror; the latter on small ones and pleasing.

Burke's Enquiry refers almost exclusively to the physical and emotional properties, and he provides many examples of shapes and forms which do or do not evoke the sublime and beautiful--so that we can be clear about what he is talking about. This work is concrete--not at all abstract as one might expect of a philosophical work.

Will today's readers find Burke's work interesting? It's a good bet that many will. The idea of the sublime seems a bit dated, yet it is still with us in great natural scenery, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, etc. And something very much in evidence, for example in the popular photography of Ansel Adams. The concept of beauty in today's popular culture has become so watered down (there's now a beauty "industry," complete with beauty "products") that it should do the contemporary reader good to consider Burke's idea of what true beauty is. There's good reason to hope the idea of beauty in art and poetry may make a comeback--and not be viewed as elitist or aristocratic snobbery.

Oxford's good little edition contains the Introduction on Taste, which Burke added after 1757, and a good chronology and textual notes.

Remember taste? That is something people used to strive to possess. In the tastelessness of this postmodern world, a little consideration of taste would do us all some good.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terribly Sublime March 3 2009
By Daniel Myers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The other reviewers (all three of them) have done a quite thorough job of explaining Burke's book, so small in length, so great in influence. But their thoroughness, in my view, approaches the belaboured, with a bit too much personal spin applied. How this Enquiry relates to "gender studies" is far beyond my ken! So, here is Burke with as little personal embellishment as is within the confines of human presentation:

Burke is very readable, very empirical and free of metaphysical cobwebs. He is very much concerned to treat of this topic - the first to do so since Longinus - and convey himself to the reader as simply as possible. He makes for good reading:

The Sublime, for Burke is: "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is the source of the SUBLIME;" Part 1 Section VII

And, thus,

"Hence proceeds what Longinus has observed of that glorying and sense of inward greatness, that always fills the passages in poets and orators as are sublime; it is what every man must have felt in himself upon such occasions." Part 1 Section XVII

Burke is no mean poet himself in providing us with descriptions and examples:

"It comes upon us in the gloomy forest, and in the howling wilderness, in the form of the lion, the tiger, the panther, or rhinoceros." Part II Section V

One almost sees William Blake putting pen to paper upon reading this excerpt.

Also, Burke, very percipiently to my mind, adds obscurity to what is necessary in the sublime:

"To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary." Part II Section III

"In reality, a great clearness helps but little towards affecting the passions, as it is in some sort an enemy to all enthusiasms whatsoever." Part II Section III

This insight had never occurred to me quite so boldly. But on contemplating different phenomena which invoke this feeling in me, I find Burke to be spot on!

Burke's aim here - as one can infer from the title - is to differentiate the sublime from the beautiful, and he does so handily:

"I have observed before that whatever is qualified to cause terror, is a foundation capable of producing the sublime...I observed too, that whatever produces pleasure, positive and original pleasure, is fit to have beauty engrafted on it." Part IV Section III

Burke's ideas were certainly, as is obvious, forerunners of those of the Romantic poets to follow in the next century---or, most of them---Keats doesn't quite fit in here. Also, the book had a tremendous impact upon educated, aristocratic youth of Burke's own day. My own plug here is Jonathan Raban's masterful work, Passage to Juneau, in which Raban follows the path of Captain Vancouver (from which the place name in Canada) and transcribes some of the ship's log which is full of accounts of the aristocratic swells who booked passage, anxious to behold what Burke described, along the northwest coast of North America. What they discovered, without giving too much away, was how terrible indeed the sublime can be!
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Good thoughts Aug. 9 2009
By Nick - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
A very interesting enquiry. Each section is virtually a paragraph, so it is easy to find parts of the argument. The book is of a good (material) quality; the paper is nice, the printing is flawless.

If you're interested in the sublime, this book will be a good addition to your library. The author covers a lot of ground in a rather concise manner, which I found enjoyable.

I presume some of the medical knowledge he exposes in his volume is rather out-dated, but never so much as to sound ridiculous.

The punctuation is slightly different from what we would use today, meaning that you'll find commas where we wouldn't place any today, but is not any the less readable for so much.

Other than that, excellent read.
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