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ENG 6018
Criticism and Theory I

Class 15: Burke - Conclusions

Reading Assignment:

Burke (NATC 536-551)
Also read the introduction to Kant (NATC 499-504)
Report: Ann Sofia; Response: Angela Tartaglia

Class Objectives:

  • Course Evaluations
  • Analyze Burke's Introduction "On Taste," and excerpts;
  • Review some of the principles of Kant's aesthetic;
  • Review history of criticism and theory in light of "Crisis in the Humanities";
  • Discuss report by Ann Sofia and response by Angela Tartaglia.

We conclude our study of the history of literary criticism from ancients to late eighteenth century with a discussion of Burke and a bit of Kant. Unlike Hume, both of these writers believe a universal standard of taste is possible. Interestingly, the discourse shifts from the object under consideration to the methods and conditions for apprehending beauty. Consider how this shift shapes a theory of art that is considerably more modern than previous paradigms.

Notes and Discussion Questions:


After much equivocating, Burke offers a definition of taste (540). What is it and why does he takes such pains to be precise?

How does Burke handle Humean skepticism (541)?

Burke claims, because "the imagination is only the representaive of the senses, it can only be pleased or displeased with the images from the same principle on which the sense is pleased or displeased with the realites" (543). How might you understand this in a theory of creativity?

Burke reprises Locke's distinction between wit and judgement, and like Hume he emphasizes the importance of comparison in judgment. Why is this so prominent a thought at this time?

How does Burke's explanation for the varieties of taste in humankind differ from Hume's?

While the difference in taste is related to knowledge, the universal pleasure that a pleasing object brings is natural. "So far as Taste is natural, it is nearly common to all" (546). Evaluate this idea as a universal standard of taste. What is nature?

Burke claims that passions are universal across humanity and across time, but manners and customs are not. How do you distinguish one from another?

Summarize Burke's complex theory of taste (547) and compare this to the requisites for good taste established by Hume. Ultimately how different are the conclusions reached by these different approaches?

Burke separates sensibility from judgment: "the judgment is for the greater part employed in throwing stumbling blocks in the way of the imagination, in dissipating the senes of its enchantment, and in tying us down to the disagreeable yoke of our reason" (548). Is this conflict inevitable? Is it also true that as you gain in judgment you lose pleasure associated with sensibility?

While judgment may be based on universal principles, not everyone exercises the same reason. "The excellence and force of a composition must always be imperfectly estimated from its effects on the minds of any, except we know the temper and character of those minds" (548). Why might this idea pose difficulty in a new era of print circulation? What does this have to do with the rise in criticism as a profession in the mid- eighteenth century?

Burke is unusual for his time is seeing the sublime and the beautiful as antithetical. Briefly describe the qualities of each.


Kant's concepts of aesthetic apprehension reflect Hume's ideas on taste. What connections did you note from the introduction? How might his categories of the good, the agreeable, and the beautiful help to stabilize the subjectivity at the base of Hume's skepticism?

Discuss the idea of disinterested criticism. From what does the concept derive? How important is it to the 'prevailing orthodoxy' of aesthetics following Kant?

Concluding thoughts

I invite you to reread the Perloff essay from the first week of class and consider her ideas in light of having read many of the ancient and early writers she discusses. Of the four paradigms for analyzing poetry (poetry as rhetoric, poetry as philosophy, poetry as art and poetry as cultural productions) which ones are most persuasive and why?

What role do the early critics / theorists play in Perloff's assessment of the current crisis in the humanities? What have *you* learned from them?

She closes with the idea that "it is ... the contemporary fear of the pleasures of representation and recognition -- the pleasures of the fictive, the what might happen -- and its subordination to the what happened -- the historical / cultural -- that has trivialized the status of literary study in the contemporary academy and shrunk the corresponding departments. Indeed, the neo-Puritan notion that literature and the other arts must be somehow 'useful,' and only useful, that the Ciceronian triad -- docere, movere, delectare -- should renounce its third element ('delight') and even the original meaning of its second element, so that to move means only to move readers to some kind of specific action, has produced a climate in which it has become increasingly difficult to justify the study of English or Comparative Literature at all" (18).

Evaluate these claims in terms of your understanding of the current critical issues for the humanities.

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