A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful: With an Introductory Discourse Concerning Taste

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Harper, 1844 - Aesthetics - 219 pages

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The fact that this passage from Burke's Enquiry itself creates a series of distinction rather than a series of resemblances, while simultaneously expressing a preference for the latter, reveals a writer in two minds even about the value of being in two minds: "When two distinct objects are unlike each other, it is only what we expect; things are in their common way; and therefore they make no impression on the imagination: but when two distinct objects have a resemblance, we are struck, we attend to them, and we are pleased. The mind of man has naturally a far greater alacrity and satisfaction in tracing resemblance than in searching for differences; because by making resemblances we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock; but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination; the task itself is more severe and irksome, and what pleasure we derive from it is something of a negative and indirect nature.” (Enquiry, 27).
According to Burke the social constitutes itself according to an underlying dynamic of mimesis: Society was constructed through the production and reproduction of resemblances. For Burke, tracing and making resemblances is the natural operation of our mental activity and the basis for the emergence of society. Tracing and making resemblances are triggered by “sympathy,” which is, according to Burke, our first and most extensive link, or passion, toward others. He defines sympathy as "a sort of substitution, by which we are put into the place of another man, and affected in many respects as he is affected" (Enquiry, 44). His theory of mimesis drew together mental activity of sympathy, the cognitive principle of likeness in imitation and the social dynamic of kinship in society.
Although this characterization of the dynamic of sympathy according to the flexibility of associations may well put us in mind of the predominant epistemological theory among eighteenth-century British philosophers--the so-called associationist theory of mind-- Burke has a more radical theory of association. His associationism originates within our overwhelmingly social passion of sympathy; what we associate with first and foremost is one another. Mental associations are a subspecies of social ones. And as we are about to learn in regard to imitation, it is our "natural constitution" not only to be drawn toward what others feel, but so too to draw ourselves toward what they do, to repeat their actions--via imitation--as a means of enhancing the affinity we already feel, whereby sympathy encourages us to find occasions when we might feel our affinities still more strongly. Imitation is, in other words, an elaboration of sympathy imitation is a natural, social, and constitutive part of what we are.
For Burke, therefore, the pleasure of imitation is the pleasure of society, specifically, the pleasure we take in feeling a kinship and closeness to others. Beauty, for Burke, is the name we accord the pleasure that we take in certain resemblances. If we understand artwork to be the product of imitation (the so-called imitative arts): poetry, fiction, sculpture, architecture, painting, music, etc – then the provocative nature of Burke’s theory is apparent. For it now amounts to the following: the pleasure we take in artworks is but a species of the pleasure we take in society. Artworks then, by extension, provide an opportunity to feel social, or one might say: to feel the social, where social means sympathy. Imitation is, rather, an elaboration of the mimetic nature of sympathy.

Review: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful

User Review  - Jed - Goodreads

Not something I'd read for fun, but I think I'm smarter for having finished it. It is a solid philosophical inquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful, as you may have been able ... Read full review

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Page 80 - In thoughts from the visions of the night, when deep sleep falleth on men, Fear came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones to shake. Then a spirit passed before my face; the hair of my flesh stood up: It stood still, but I could not discern the form thereof: an image was before mine eyes, there was silence, and I heard a voice...
Page 155 - And ever against eating cares, Lap me in soft Lydian airs, Married to immortal verse, Such as the meeting soul may pierce, In notes, with many a winding bout Of linked sweetness long drawn out, With wanton heed and giddy cunning, The melting voice through mazes running, Untwisting all the chains that tie The hidden soul of harmony; That Orpheus...
Page 100 - Mercury, And vaulted with such ease into his seat As if an angel dropp'd down from the clouds, To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus, And witch the world with noble horsemanship.
Page 78 - Looks through the horizontal misty air Shorn of his beams; or from behind the moon, In dim eclipse, disastrous twilight sheds On half the nations, and with fear of change Perplexes monarchs.
Page 141 - ... beauty is, for the greater part, some quality in bodies acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses.
Page 51 - 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 a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.
Page 75 - The other shape, If shape it might be call'd, that shape had none Distinguishable in member, joint, or limb, Or substance might be call'd that shadow seem'd, For each seem'd either ; black it stood as night, Fierce as ten furies, terrible as hell, And shook a dreadful dart ; what seem'd his head The likeness of a kingly crown had on.
Page 58 - I am convinced that we have a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others...
Page 72 - THE passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment : and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror.
Page 51 - ... to say, whatever is in any sort terrible or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling. I say the strongest emotion, because I am satisfied the ideas of pain are much more powerful than those which enter on the part of pleasure.

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