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A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (Oxford World's Classics) [Paperback]

by Edmund Burke, Adam Phillips
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2008 0199537887 978-0199537884 Reissue
An eloquent and sometimes even erotic book, the Philosophical Enquiry was long dismissed as a piece of mere juvenilia. However, Burke's analysis of the relationship between emotion, beauty, and art form is now recognized as not only an important and influential work of aesthetic theory, but also one of the first major works in European literature on the Sublime, a subject that has fascinated thinkers from Kant and Coleridge to the philosophers and critics of today.

About the Series: For over 100 years Oxford World's Classics has made available the broadest spectrum of literature from around the globe. Each affordable volume reflects Oxford's commitment to scholarship, providing the most accurate text plus a wealth of other valuable features, including expert introductions by leading authorities, voluminous notes to clarify the text, up-to-date bibliographies for further study, and much more.

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Editorial Reviews


`It is concisely and efficiently annotated, and its vivid introduction brings out, among other things, the deep interrelations between Burke's views on art and his political outlook, even in this early work.' Claude Rawson, London Review of Books

'must be one of the most useful additions to the Oxford World's Classics series for some time' Robin Jarvis, Bristol Polytechnic

About the Author

Editor Adam Phillips is Principal Child Psychotherapist at Charing Cross Hospital, London.

Product Details

  • Series: Oxford World's Classics
  • Paperback: 173 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; Reissue edition (2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199537887
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199537884
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 5 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #122,095 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
43 of 43 people found the following review helpful
By mp
Edmund Burke's 1757 treatise, "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful," is a clearly written, well-argued, and variously inflected work of philosophy. Coming out of and contending with the traditions of philosophies of passion, understanding, and aesthetics from Aristotle and Longinus to Descartes, Hobbes to Locke, and Shaftesbury to Hume, Burke would seem to be taking on a world of difficulty at the tender age of 28. However, Burke manages to maintain control and exercise great wit in his treatise by confining his "Enquiry" to the ways we interact with the physical world, and how in this interaction, we formulate our aesthetic ideas of sublimity and beauty.
Burke's "Enquiry" is divided into five parts, with an introduction. The introduction is perhaps his most witty segment, as he tries, as Shaftesbury, Addison, and Hume before him, to formulate a standard of Taste, a popular subject of conjecture in the 18th century. Physically, and not without some irony, he chooses to speak of Taste primarily as a feature of eating. In response to his predecessors, though, he does say that since our attitudes toward the world come from our senses, that the majority of people can see (sight being very important) and react; thus all people are capable of some degree of Taste. Education and experience, he must admit, though, do refine Taste. In Part One, Burke examines the individual and social causes which arouse our sense of the sublime and the beautiful, those being the primal feelings of terror/pain and love/pleasure, respectively. Throughout the "Enquiry," Burke insists that these are not opposites strictly speaking - that pain and pleasure are mediated by a neutral state of indifference, which is the natural state of man.
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38 of 41 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thoughtful look at what we can't define...and taste. February 11, 1999
By A Customer
Burke points out the things all around us that we take for granted but which really are absolutely amazing in his discourse on the sublime. A galloping stead, the expanse of a starry night, or a range of towering, snow-capped mountains. Burke points out these awe-some sights which in themselves provoke us to ask of their origins.
This book can be repetitious as Burke attempts to make, especially on taste, his point absolutely clear (I've got one of the later editions - 1772.).
Additionally, some of the lines in the book are near-timeless and are good to have around to reference from.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Burke's Enquiry is a surprising and remarkable little work. If you expect the Burke who fits your stereotype of the conservative Tory politician, that is not what you will find here at all--but rather a clear and insightful discussion of our feelings and emotions of awe and beauty in nature and in art, and especially poetry.

Based on self-observation and reflection, Burke takes a scientific, almost Newtonian approach to the fascinating question of what it is that makes us feel the presence of the sublime and the beautiful.

These are amazing observations for a 28-year-old--remarkable as well because they were written in 1757. Consistent with the 18th Century outlook, he refers to the emotions as "the passions," and it's obvious he's done a good deal of thinking about them.

The sublime, for Burke, is generated by passions connected to self preservation and which "turn on pain and danger. They are simply painful when their causes immediately affect us. They are delightful when we have an idea of pain or danger without being actually in such circumstances. This delight I have not called pleasure because it is different enough from any idea of positive pleasure. Whatever excites this delight, I call sublime."

By beauty, Burke means the quality or qualities in bodies by which they cause love or some passion similar to it. He makes sure to distinguish love from lust or desire. This is quite a different view than the Platonic view of beauty as resonant with eternal forms and ideas.

Burke identifies specific qualities that generate beauty: to be comparatively small, smooth, having parts not angular but melted into one another. He cites the example of a dove as a creature having this beauty.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terribly Sublime March 3, 2009
The other reviewers (all three of them) have done a quite thorough job of explaining Burke's book, so small in length, so great in influence. But their thoroughness, in my view, approaches the belaboured, with a bit too much personal spin applied. How this Enquiry relates to "gender studies" is far beyond my ken! So, here is Burke with as little personal embellishment as is within the confines of human presentation:

Burke is very readable, very empirical and free of metaphysical cobwebs. He is very much concerned to treat of this topic - the first to do so since Longinus - and convey himself to the reader as simply as possible. He makes for good reading:

The Sublime, for Burke is: "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 the source of the SUBLIME;" Part 1 Section VII

And, thus,

"Hence proceeds what Longinus has observed of that glorying and sense of inward greatness, that always fills the passages in poets and orators as are sublime; it is what every man must have felt in himself upon such occasions." Part 1 Section XVII

Burke is no mean poet himself in providing us with descriptions and examples:

"It comes upon us in the gloomy forest, and in the howling wilderness, in the form of the lion, the tiger, the panther, or rhinoceros." Part II Section V

One almost sees William Blake putting pen to paper upon reading this excerpt.

Also, Burke, very percipiently to my mind, adds obscurity to what is necessary in the sublime:

"To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary.
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