Philosophical Enquiries into the Science of Sensibility: An Introductory Essay

  • Koen Vermeir
  • Michael Funk Deckard
Part of the International Archives of the History of Ideas / Archives internationales d'histoire des idées book series (ARCH, volume 206)


The three sections of this introductory essay broadly correspond to the three sections of this book. The first part, ‘Science and sensibility’, provides a background to the writing of Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry and how it fits into the medical and scientific study of sensibility. The writing of this text in its particular eighteenth-century culture reflects both a reaction to overly mechanistic world-views, on the one hand, and secondly, the necessity of verifying all theories in experience. Burke’s contribution to the scientific core of the culture of sensibility consisted in an emphasis on nerves and feelings as well as physiological causes that could be recognised in the common person’s experience. The second part, ‘Sensibility, morals and manners’, considers the moral implications of this physiological and psychological experience. On the one hand, by examining literary examples of Jane Austen and Samuel Richardson, it is shown that the experience of reading was considered an emotional and character-building enterprise. The result of reading novels could be called ‘sentimental education’. Earlier eighteenth-century writers such as the Third Earl of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson attempted to bring together beauty and the good by defending a theory of ‘moral sensibility’, which would later be elaborated by Hume and Smith. Burke differs from this perspective by defending a distinction between virtue and beauty. On the other hand, Burke’s physiological theory is closely tied to his view of morality. It is the sublime, through its tensions and labours, that more likely leads to virtue, in contrast to the indolence and relaxation of beauty. In the third part, ‘Sensibility and aesthetics’, it is further shown how the notion of taste and the arts developed in the eighteenth century. Behind this development were the ability to arouse emotions by means of words as well as rhetorical gestures and devices. Does everyone universally react in the same way to the same stimuli? The answer to this question is both scientific and aesthetic, requiring experimental methods to prove the probability of how art, music but also food, for instance, affect the human beings’ sensible nature. The introductory essay ends with an analysis of the context in which the discussion about universality versus diversity arises vis à vis the ‘standard of taste’, in particular in the work of Burke and Hume.


Human Nature Eighteenth Century Aesthetic Experience Commercial Society Philosophical Enquiry 
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Copyright information

© Springer Netherlands 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre National de la Recherche ScientifiqueREHSEIS-SPHERE (UMR 7219)Paris, Cedex 13France
  2. 2.Lenoir-Rhyne UniversityHickoryUSA

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