Burke and the Imaginative Grasp of Reality.

Author:Holston, Ryan

Edmund Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics, by William F. Byrne. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011. 246 pp. $40 cloth.

Although this important contribution to Burke scholarship at first appears to limit itself to examining an unexplored area of the Whig statesman's social and political thought, it achieves a depth of philosophical insight that will be of considerable value to scholars across a wide range of subjects. The author's aim is to use Burke's concept of the "moral imagination" as an entree into his thinking that, if properly understood, will help to resolve some of the apparent inconsistencies that have confounded or misled his interpreters and brought about an astonishing diversity of conclusions over his philosophical positions. Byrne is adept in his concise yet thorough survey of these interpretations of Burke, which have read him variously as natural lawyer, utilitarian, historicist, pragmatist, and romantic. The problem Byrne identifies is an unwillingness to jettison old categories of thought that inappropriately pigeonhole Burke's novel epistemological approach. By confining Burke to a conceptualization of moral judgment which establishes strict dichotomies between reason and emotion, universality and particularity, objectivity and subjectivity, his interpreters have failed adequately to grasp his insight into how sound moral decision-making actually operates.

To show how Burke circumvents these reifications, Byrne relies principally (though not exclusively) on careful examinations of his aesthetics, on the one hand, and his latent moral-philosophical outlook, on the other. Byrne's phenomenology of aesthetic experience traces the intellectual development in Burke of insight into our intuitive or interpretive capacity, an exposition centered in large part on his A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful but which covers the wide range of his adult writings. Though nominally influenced by the British empiricists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Byrne explains, Burke in fact resists the atomistic inclinations that tended to characterize this philosophical tradition. In Burke's aesthetics, we are instead provided with a view of human experience that, conversely, sees us as intuitively conceiving wholes of meaning from among our particular sense impressions, a process which is primary in understanding, insofar as our consciousness is thus always equipped with an interpretive lens that it uses to make sense of, or process, all input that it receives from the outside world. Significantly, Byrne says, Burke sees these frameworks of meaning with which we process our experience as capable...

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