The great English conservative Edmund Burke, in his essay entitled On Taste, discusses the components of taste and what distinguishes good taste from bad taste. He refuses to offer a definition of taste, arguing that much bad philosophy is made through being too quick to define. Instead he merely explains what he means when he uses the word “taste” in his essay: “that faculty or those faculties of the mind, which are affected with, or which form a judgment of, the works of imagination and the elegant arts.” (¶ 4) Being a conservative, his approach is clearly not egalitarian—not all tastes or preferences are created equal. He also argues that there is a universal standard of taste, just as there is a universal standard of reason. Hipsters, conservative or otherwise, can look to Burke’s essay for support in their quest for authenticity and their dislike of popular preferences. They can also look at the principles of good taste discussed to evaluate their own tastes and preferences. While the aesthetic experience is inherently subjective—and one’s judgments regarding art are likely to be as well—standards help shape that subjective experience to what it ought to be.
Burke divides taste into three parts: sense, imagination, and judgment. Sense consists of the actual sensations (Burke says “ideas”) of sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste. He also distinguishes between natural and acquired sense preferences. For example, everyone acknowledges sugar to be sweet and vinegar to be sour, but not vice versa. Burke argues that all men are agreed in this regard and that a man who says otherwise is not wrong, but mad. Burke goes further to argue that such taste preferences—e.g. sweet over sour—are natural. Thus when someone has a pleasant disposition we label it sweet, but label an unpleasant one sour. This holds true even if we acquire a taste for sour foods over sweet. Burke argues that the other senses can be understood with even more certainty—he holds as self-evident that no man would think a goose more beautiful than a swan.
Acquired preferences (Burke says “relishes”) include such things as coffee and tobacco—things that may be bitter or unpleasant at first but can be appreciated for their effects. The same could be said for visual preferences; those unaccustomed to the noises of the forest may be repelled initially, but with increased exposure the symphony of sound might begin to enthrall rather than terrify. With visual preferences this principle: adults are able to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of a man in armor, Astyanax apparently could not. These acquired preferences are not common to all like the natural preferences; some people may not like coffee no matter how often they drink it. In order to know the about a person’s acquired preferences, we must know his “habits, prejudices, or distempers.” (¶ 5)
Imagination consists of wit, fancy, and invention—in short, the creative powers of the mind. According to Burke, imagination adds no new ideas or images to the mind; it merely “varies the disposition of ideas”(¶ 7) within the mind by rearranging or combining the ideas and images gathered through the senses. Thus, that which is naturally pleasing to the imagination will be in as “close an agreement between men as the senses.” (¶ 7) When regarding something external or artificial, the imagination experiences degrees of pleasure or pain created by the imitation’s resemblance (or lack thereof) to the real thing.
The degree to which a particular imitation creates pain or pleasure can vary between men. This is due to varying levels of experience and observation, not the natural faculties of the individuals in question. Burke uses sculpture as an example. To a savage, a rough figure in the outline of a man might be enough to give his imagination pleasure. This stems from the natural pleasure of the imagination—resemblance or correlation. When the man becomes acquainted with better resemblances his imagination will prefer them to lesser resemblances. Such acquaintance requires both exposure to and evaluation of a multiplicity of works; this is what hipsters attempt to achieve. The difference between men regarding what pleases the imagination stems not from a difference in what is admired, but from the improvements in knowledge—of art, of imitation, of the original—that some men possess and others do not. Burke explains this using poetry as an example. Some people like lesser poets (Don Belianis) and hate Virgil; this difference does not stem from the subject matter itself but rather from people’s ability to understand it—if Virgil could be debased into something like Pilgrim’s Progress, those same people would likely appreciate it for the qualities it shares. Again, the difference in the pleasure created in the imagination is not found in the cause or the manner of the pleasure, but in the degree of the pleasure; like with sense, men by shared nature admire the same things.
Burke distinguishes between imagination and judgment. This distinction primarily rests on their separate focus: imagination focuses on resemblance and correlation, judgment on defects and differences. They are both, however, involved in the act of comparing. Burke writes,
But notwithstanding this want of a common measure for settling many disputes relative to the senses, and their representation to the imagination, we find that the principles are the same in all and that there is no disagreement until we come to examine into the pre-eminence or difference of things, which brings us within the province of the judgment. (¶ 12)
Our common humanity leads to a sharing of two of the three aspects of taste. These two, sense and imagination can be shaped by experience and learning, but remain close to their natural manifestations. The third, judgment, does not. Judgment, then, becomes the determining factor between good and bad taste, and depends on sense and imagination for its content. Judgment is learned through the habits of reasoning and attention; most simply then, taste is refined reason. Works of the imagination enter the province of reason by representing the manners, characters, actions, designs, relations, virtues, and vices of men.
Judgment is also different from sensibility. According to Burke, defects in sentiment lead to a want of taste, while defects or weaknesses in judgment lead to wrong or bad tastes. These defects or weaknesses in judgment can result either from a natural weakness of understanding or a lack of proper and well-directed exercise of the reasoning and judging functions. Sensibility, or a bent toward pleasures of the imagination rather than merely sensory pleasures, is essential to judgment and good taste; it is a necessary but not sufficient quality.
Experience and habituation in reasoning and judging are key to developing good taste. Burke writes,
In the morning of our days, when the senses are unworn and tender, when the whole man is awake in every part, and the gloss of novelty fresh upon all the objects that surround us, how lively at that time are our sensations, but how false and inaccurate the judgments we form of things . . . Every trivial cause of pleasure is apt to affect the man of too sanguine a complexion: his appetite is too keen to suffer his taste to be delicate; . . . One of this character can never be a refined judge . . . (¶ 16; also see The Wall Street Journal)
Good taste implies judgment and discrimination. Certain things are better than other things and are to be pursued at the expense of the others; some things have no value and ought not to be pursued at all. According to Burke, this ability to discriminate appropriately is not a natural characteristic of man, but is rather gained through experience and habituation in the context of culture and society. If he is correct, then a democratic measurement is hardly the best standard of taste; regarding taste, heads ought to be weighed, not counted. Burke’s theory also suggests that those things which are most popular, whether art, music, or literature, are likely to be those things which share in the common appeal of sense and imagination. This implies nothing, however, of their true worth; their true worth comes by judging them by their defects. This judgment occurs when the imitation is compared with reality, or the work with the rules established for its development. Rather than looking for resemblances, the province of judgment is to see defects and differences and decide whether they are appropriate to the project as a whole. Such an endeavor requires the appropriate subjugation of the senses and imagination to reason, an experience both of reality and its imitations, and a habituation in practicing judgment.
In last month’s issue of The Hipster Conservative, Paul Odradek reminded us of the importance of making these judgments. A conservative hipster with good taste will not reject music, literature, or anything merely because it is popular, but will also recognize that popularity need say nothing about the goodness of a thing. Indeed, the necessity of practice and habituation in the formation of good taste means that the crowd is likely more often wrong than right. As Odradek points out, we are much more inclined to the error of accepting an object as good because of majority approval than to the error of automatically labeling such an object bad.
Such a position entails taking into consideration the natural hierarchies found within the world and ranking the objects presented accordingly. In music, for example, some lyrics able express the human condition while others appeal to the fancy and imagination (see above) of toddlers. Some music set around the former lyrics is either much better suited to the latter or much more reflective of an earthquake in a kitchen store than music. Such music is not to be preferred over excellent music, the message of which accurately addresses human existence’s glories and challenges. It may be that music with an accurate lyrical message but faulty musical setting is to be preferred over music with lyrics that reflect a toddler’s imagination combined with a sublime musical setting. Whatever the case, hierarchies exist; good taste assists the person in determining those hierarchies; people ought to exercise good taste and not merely accept whatever is popular.