perjantai 6. helmikuuta 2015

Edmund Burke: A vindication of natural society (1756) and A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful (1757)

Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) is probably best known for his work against French Revolution, but before that he also published these two interesting writings. First of these is, at least according to the editorial introduction, a satirical pastiche aimed against Lord Bolingbroke, leading deist of the time. Bolingbroke had argued that original Christianity had been defiled through centuries of convention by all sorts of mystical rituals, which were disastrous to believers and against reason, thus calling for a return to this supposed natural belief. Burke makes an analogical move and argues that by same token civilized societies are artificial and therefore a return to natural state is in order.

Vindication might be satirical, but Burke's argument can be taken quite seriously. The existence of polities and states has meant almost a constant continuation of territorial skirmishes, often leading to total warfare. If Hobbes had thought that commonwealths were founded as an antidote to constant battle, the medicine proved to be even more poisonous, Burke points out.

Even in times of peace, a commonwealth is not a pleasant place to live, Burke continues. If the power lies in the hand of a single individual, freedom of everyone else is subdued under a tyrannical power. The case is not mush better, if the power is given to a small group of aristocrats, because that just means there are more tyrants to subdue everyone. Even democracies are far from pleasant, because the people or rabble can be even more intolerant in its decisions than all tyrants together – besides, rabble usually just follows some demagogue and thus produced just a new tyranny.

These arguments are interesting, because they sound quite similar to what one might expect from, on the one hand, anarchist, on the other hand, libertarian thinkers – states are a form of oppression that artificially divide the world into hostile areas. Of course, one could be more of a Hobbesian and ask whether living in societies has some positive consequences, which would weigh more than the supposed loss of freedom. Another question is whether the supposed natural or original state of humans is not just another artificial construction, which just reflects the mores of our own times.

Second work I shall study is Burke's book on philosophical aesthetics. It was a success at least on the continent, and such German philosophers as Moses Mendehlsson and Immanuel Kant were inspired by his work. Burke's basic attempt in the book is to explain the difference between two aesthetic notions, sublime and beautiful. Of the two, beauty seems a more familiar concept, so I am going to begin with it, although Burke prefers the opposite order.

A common idea of beauty has been that it has something to do with harmony and is thus mathematical in nature, because harmony is defined by numerical proportions. Burke has a bit of fun with the idea, noting that our sense of beauty is immediate and not dependent on taking exact measurements of e.g. limbs of an animal. A related theory of beautiful has connected beauty with fitness or utility, which is often decidable by mathematical proportions (for instance, an animal with limbs quite out of proportion cannot live). But Burke will have none of this. True, we do find quite unhealthy specimens grotesque, but we do also meet often healthy animals and people that we do not think beautiful.

Instead, Burke characterizes beauty through the notion of love, which beautiful things make us feel. Here, love appears to be used not in any Platonic, but in quite sensuous sense. Indeed, when we hear Burke describing smoothness as one type of beauty and read him describing the lure of a beautiful roundness of female breasts, it becomes rather obvious that Burke's love is more like sexual or at least sensual titillation. Quite noteworthy is then that Burke's description of beautiful seem to come from the perspective of a heterosexual male: beautiful thing must be small and weak,just like beautiful women are supposed to be. We might then say that Burke's notion of beauty is quite conservative, but at least open about its bias.

What is remarkable is that Burke allows a variety of different aesthetic notions: in addition to beautiful, we also have sublime. Of course, the notion of sublime is not Burke's own invention, but goes back to Longinus and his work on the topic. Sublime, Burke notes, is not a species of beautiful, but more like it's opposite. While beauty is connected with love, sublimity is connected with fear – it is pleasure caused by great proportions and immeasurable quantities that overwhelm us. While fear itself is not a pleasant feeling, sublime objects can awaken a sort of second order feeling, in which we reflect on our primal sense of fear and discomfort and find pleasure, when we understand and win our fear.

The notion of sublime is interesting, because it widens the realm of aesthetic notions – thing doesn't have to be traditionally pretty to be aesthetically interesting. Indeed, we could raise the question, whether the two notions truly are all the the aesthetic feelings we are capable of. If our sense of beautiful is caused by sensual titillation and our sense of sublime is caused by fearsome awe, could objects and events causing feelings like nausea or boredom cause also similarly aesthetic emotions as happens in case of sublime objects

Burke has still plenty of interest to say about e.g. the aesthetic effect of words (Burke notes that, unlike many modern thinkers had thought, words need not constantly produce images or representations of things they mean, but they can directly cause feelings, for instance, because of constant use – if virtue has been spoken of in suitably solemn occasions, the mere word will rouse that same solemn feeling again). Still, I am going to leave Burke's aesthetic theories here and move on to another philosopher.