An Exposition of Edmund Burke’s On Taste

Edmund Burke’s On Taste is a brief philosophical essay on aesthetics that was released in 1757 as a preface to his more notable “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful.” The telos of his essay was to discern whether such principles of taste exist that are so common and fixed so as to allow fruitful reasoning on them (13 Burke). The work is important because, as he so reasons, all conjectures on the matter of the principles of taste would be fruitless if we cannot first establish that there are grounded and common principles among all humans. If this argument does not succeed, the whole matter of his Enquiry into the Sublime and the Beautiful is nullified. Before beginning his endeavor, he takes taste to mean “that faculty or those faculties of the mind, which are affected with, or which form a judgment of, the works of imagination and the elegant arts” (12-3). The purpose of this essay is clarify Burke’s arguments on the matter.

The first task which Burke has is to establish a reasonable commonality amongst those faculties which form such judgments. He divides these faculties which apprehend the external world into three distinctions: the senses, the imagination, and the judgment (13). All faculties which apprehend the external world are ultimately based in the senses, namely of sight, hearing, taste, and so on (16-7). With this in mind, Burke makes two arguments in favor of common and grounded principles of taste, one based upon a common physicality and one based upon a common description of sensations.

We as humans are incredibly similar, physically–the taxonomical classification of us as humans is based upon this physicality. As such, our sense organs (e.g. eyes, ears, etc.) are nearly the same in their structure. Burke posits that, upon this observance, it is absurd to reason that two things which are alike in all physical properties could give rise to different sensations and experiences. Could the ears of two individuals, identical in all respects, in response to the exact same sound produce in one individual a grating sound and in the other a more melodious one? Burke argues that to suppose this is absurd. Similarly, if only the differences between sense organs are minor, so too should their differences in the sensations produced be minor (13). After the establishment of the argument from physicality, Burke moves on to the argument from mutually described sensations.

Burke ventures into the argument from mutually described sensations because it is not enough to suppose a commonality of sensory experiences: the experience of pleasure or pain in response to these shared experiences is required to make fruitful his future inquiry into such principles. Thus, he takes to describing the common gustatory sense of taste and their accompanying experiences. He tackles two ideas: we have a natural sense of pleasure or pain for gustatory tastes and any divergence from this is either a defect or a taste acquired only due to the benefit of the product. With regard to the natural palate, Burke posits that the sensations of certain tastes are all commonly agreed upon: vinegar is sour, honey is sweet, and so one. Furthermore, these sensations confer the same feelings among all, whereby sourness is unpleasant and sweetness is pleasant (14). He furthermore points to the linking of these sensations with matters of speech in our language to support this shared understanding, referencing such phrases as a sour attitude or a sweet disposition–we all understand what is meant by these phrases (14). If an individual were to describe tobacco as sweet, it would be mutually agreed that there is a defect in their sense organs. This furthermore demonstrates the common understanding. Still, instances arise where an individual may come to prefer tobacco despite its inherent pain it causes to the gustatory senses. Why would this occur? Burke suggests that it is only due to the benefit conferred that individuals come to acquire tastes. Tobacco helps to relieve stress, alcohol sedates, and other naturally unpleasant sensations are preferred due to the experiences they create after consumption. After repeated exposure, the senses become accustomed to it and seek whatever the sensation is due to the benefit it provides (14-5). If these naturally unpleasant sensations gave no benefit whatsoever and were judged exclusively on the merit of their taste alone, nobody would prefer them (15). Briefly put, we can conclude that humans experience the same sensations due to the similar in the physical sense organs that produce them and we can conclude that humans find pleasure or pain similarly due to the natural palate which all agree upon.

There are a few additional considerations which Burke gives to the topic of shared sensory experiences. First, he purports that acquired tastes are present in all matters of sense (not just gustatory) (15). Secondary to this, he supposes that on the matter of acquired tastes, the tastes are acquired on a case-by-case basis. That is, an individual at no point in time comes to prefer tobacco for its own sake and only for the benefits it provides. If an individual were presented with a product similar to tobacco, their experience of it would revert back to the natural palate. The similar tobacco product would not inherently taste pleasurable and would only come to be enjoyed based on its benefit. Burke further supposes that this supports the existence of a common palate (16). With these thoughts added, Burke proceeds into his deliberation of the other faculties: imagination and judgment.

Imagination and judgment are ultimately reducible to the more basal sensory experiences (16-7). The imagination is unable to produce anything new for it takes its cue entirely from what is experienced (16-7). One may dream up a lake of fire and have the idea by novel but the concept of lakes and the concept of fire must be present first. For this reason, if all imagined things are reducible to their original senses, then so too are imagined things reducible to the pleasure or pain of their original senses (17). When it comes to imagination and judgment, Burke distinguishes them according to their product. Imagination is the act of drawing resemblances between external objects and finding the properties which are common among them. Judgment, on the other hand, is the act of finding differences between objects. Imagination is a creative force as it takes a collection of sensory experiences and produces some amalgamation of those experiences. Judgment is non-creative, for it takes what is already existent and reduces it to more basal components to distinguish it from other objects (17-9). Burke supposes that imagination is pleasurable because it is creative while judgment is unpleasant because it does not produce anything or provide anything useful for the imagination (18). This is the principal difference between imagination and judgment but both are subject to the sensory properties upon which they’re founded.

There seems to be differences in the judgments of individuals, colloquially called taste. Burke supposes that the principles of taste are the same among all but that knowledge changes our understanding of how well such principles are met. A novice sculptor will look upon many sculptures with delight but his delight will be less and rarer with greater experience. This is because knowledge allows the sculptor to see the defects in sculptures better, thus his judgment is improved upon but the range of his delight and degree is less (19). A similar instance occurs in literature where works of equal plot and mood but vary in the ornateness of its language may be better or lesser enjoyed based upon the familiarity of the language with the reader. A reader unfamiliar with ornate language will find those elegant works to be unenjoyable due to their difficulty but find great joy in simple language. A reader familiar with ornate language will find those elegant works enjoyable but find the simple language of other works to be dull and bland (20). As such, apparent differences in taste are not differences in one’s principles but differences in the knowledge one draws upon when applying such principles.

Other aspects may alter one’s taste and if it’s not judgment, the other factor is sensibility. Where judgment is the knowledge of an external object, sensibility refers to the natural faculties (22). Some people will have low sensibilities, living in a kind of lethargic clouded state that they can hardly be said to be in touch with this external world. Their sensibilities are blunted which makes them unmoved by most sensory experiences. On the opposite end, some have indulged so thoroughly in certain senses that they’ve blunted themselves to the delicacies of senses. It is much like an individual who listens to incredibly loud music such that it deafens them to quieter more nuanced sounds (23). Thus, seeming differences in taste are merely differences in sensibility and knowledge but not of the underlying principles.

There are a few other considerations which Burke gives to taste. First, any defect of judgment comes from having too little knowledge of the object in question, not from any inherent lack of principles by which a thing is judged to be good (23). This furthermore means that an individual’s judgment is improved by the study of the object in question and that those related faculties are not inherently strong or weak (25-6). Finally, though those of strong sensibility and weak judgment have a pure enjoyment of most things due to their ignorance to defects, debates of taste should ultimately be resolved by the person with greater judgment as their knowledge of a thing’s adherence to common principles is more accurate (24, 20-1).

Altogether, Burke’s arguments in this essay attempt to pave the way for his main aesthetic treatise which aims to categorize and methodize the principles of taste he alludes to here. The work is founded on the position that those principles of taste are common among all humans given our similar sense faculties and our common agreement among the pleasures or pains of certain sensory experiences. Imagination, which is a creative tracing of resemblances between external objects, and judgment, which is the critical finding of differences between external objects, is reducible to sensory input and therefore the same principles apply. Any apparent differences in taste arise from acquired inclinations toward some objects based on their benefits (in sense), greater or lesser knowledge of an object (in judgment), or lower or stronger awareness of the external world which is called sensibility (in judgment). Under scrutiny, all apparent differences are reducible to the same principles with the same experiences of pleasure and pain. Thus, reasoning on shared principles of taste among such works of art, literature, music, and so on, are fruitful. This is the underlying set of arguments which upholds his later ideas on the sublime and the beautiful.

Burke, Edmund. On Taste, On the Sublime and Beautiful, Reflections on the French Revolution, A Letter to a Noble Lord. Edited by Charles W. Eliot. Harvard Classics. New York: P. F. Collier & Son Corporation, 1965.


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