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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.3 (2002) 379-393

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Burke's Sympathy for Taste

Tom Huhn

"A clear idea is therefore another name for a little idea."

--Edmund Burke 1

This work begins as an investigation rather than with concrete proof. The investigation is in pursuit of the apparent disappearance of the term imitation. The occlusion of imitation begins--at least so it appears to me--sometime around the beginning of the eighteenth century, although it takes nearly a century for the substantive import of the word to be evacuated. 2 I'm interested in understanding what happened to imitation and mimesis. My conviction is that the trope of mimesis remained throughout the eighteenth century the central term around which aesthetic theories of taste and judgment circulated, even though it became increasingly less visible. The present essay formulates how the concept of mimesis figures in Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful and focuses specifically on how mimesis relates to the social foundations of taste and judgment. My presumption is that one key problem for eighteenth-century writers on aesthetics--as well as morals--was the character and location of the category "society": its origin, effects, influences, and proper regulation. The social (or society) is taken to be pervasive yet elusive in its appearance. As Keith Baker writes of society: "Few words can have been more generously invoked in the course of the eighteenth century; none seem now [End Page 379] more difficult for the historian to pin down. Yet, by the same token, none was more central to the philosophy of the Enlightenment." 3 I'll argue that the young Burke finds in the phenomenon of our ideas of beauty and the sublime an especially apt place to configure the pervasive, elusive appearance of society. 4 My thesis is the following: Burke construes the possibility not only of the social coming to appearance but more importantly of the social constituting itself according to an underlying dynamic of mimesis. I will therefore attempt to show what I take to be the ubiquity of mimesis in Burke's formulations of beauty and taste, as well as its social character.

Introducing Taste

"Only in society is the beautiful of empirical interest." (Kant)

"All pleasure is social." (Horkheimer and Adorno)

I examine Burke's Enquiry in order to consider how the term sympathy comes to displace and thereby extend what mimesis previously had achieved as mere imitation. My hope is that from a reconstruction of what I take to be Burke's characterization of the thoroughly social nature of mimesis--as well as with what I will show to be the social, mimetic nature of ambition--we will then be in a position to imagine how mimesis extends throughout the realms of beauty and the sublime to what might be called the dialectic of taste, perhaps the most important of the "dialectics of the Enlightenment."

I hope to remain within the spirit, if not the letter, of Burke's own understanding of our mental activities and hence perhaps of what he took to set the boundaries of his Enquiry: "The mind of man has naturally a far greater alacrity and satisfaction in tracing resemblances 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" (Enquiry, 18). I hope to trace--which is to say with Burke: to make--a resemblance between imitation and society, in short, to draw together the principle of likeness in imitation and that of kinship in society. Note that Burke conflates "tracing" and "making" in the passage above. A more modern reader expects Burke to distinguish the two, as if "tracing" could only be a kind of reproduction and "making" distinct from it by being more like one of the terms he employs as an elaboration of making: creating. Burke confounds the modern reader by rendering tracing and making equivalent, at least in regard to resemblance. Note that it is...


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