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  • Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry:Towards a Corporeal Epistemology and Politics
  • Garrett Jeter (bio)

While Edmund Burke employed some of his political cogitations in observing and commenting on the motions and currents of the American and French Revolutions, at home he himself was effecting a revolution of his own in the areas of philosophy, particularly phenomenology and epistemology, in the examination of sense-experience. His A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful treats two metaphysical subjects that were traditionally considered as denizens purely of the intellect or spirit and, through a decentering or destabilization of accepted conventional conceptual and perceptual frameworks, rests them either chiefly in the body or at the least occupying a shared liminal space between mind and body. In so doing, Burke creates a “corporeal epistemology” or “corporeal philosophy,” positioning the source of a person’s knowledge of beauty and sublimity in the body either primarily or at minimum as a phenomenological colleague with the intellect. Enquiry’s redefining the origins of our knowledge and experience concerning these subjects leads to a politics of corporeality as well as mind, contravening the principles of rationalism and humanism prevalent in the Enlightenment.

Although written in a heavily classical flavor, Enquiry represents a semi-revolt against classical principles, specifically Platonism. Burke reaches back to the Platonic concept of beauty and the quasi-Platonic idea of sublimity and, instead of treating them as Eternal Forms or Ideals, locates the primary origin of our knowledge, our epistemological experience, of them within the body and the emotions or passions. Aristotelian in structure and language, Enquiry seems to privilege the realism and pragmatism of Aristotle over the ethereal metaphysicality of Plato. In adopting Aristotelianism in writing style and intellectual approach, Burke rejects and overthrows the historical influence of Platonic thought over European perception of beauty and sublimity, namely, the traditional belief that each inhabits the rarefied atmosphere only of the cerebral. Burke creates a corporealized Platonism that positions these two abstract concepts within concrete physical spaces, a “psychocorporealization” that relocates the purely intangible within the human body or the liminality between mind and body. For Burke, the mind is no longer the exclusive landlord of the abstract or metaphysical. [End Page 239]

Burke privileges sense-experience—the corporeal space—over the intellect as the dominant source of a human being’s phenomenological/epistemological experience and understanding. The senses are “the great originals of all our ideas”—Burke’s assertion that concepts and abstraction derive their principal potency from the body not the mind (74). Furthermore, the mind does not have direct experience with reality, accepting the mediating guidance of physicality and sensuality. Mind must interact with, even surrender, some power and control over experience to materiality in order to function. In fact, Burke treats the mind and its significance to experience reductively in an empirical, positivist systematization of human epistemology with a three-step process: Taste is “made up of a perception of the primary pleasures of sense, of the secondary pleasures of the imagination, and of the conclusions of the reasoning faculty” (72). Burke’s word choices position body and ideation squarely in the first—and more influential—two mediative steps toward experiential understanding, locating the ratiocinative powers as a tertiary influence that must depend on two unrational components of the human creature and, only at process end, must in a reductive fashion “conclude.”

Even the imagination is subservient to sensuality in creating experience. Burke refers to this component as the “representative” of the senses (69, 73); ideation has become the substitute for the senses within the space of the intellect, reflecting the substance and figurative presence of the senses within the brain. The imagination “can only be pleased or displeased with the images from the same principle on which the sense is pleased or displeased with the realities” (69). Burke has partially corporealized the imagination, physicalizing mental visuality. In a transposition, Burke has located the operations of the imagination somewhat outside of the mind and within the senses, a psychocorporealization, and permitted the sensorium to establish a presence within the mind by using the imagination as its “representative.” Enquiry diminishes imagination’s and reason’s significances in human phenomenological experience vis-à-vis...


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pp. 239-245
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