The Deliberative Sublime

The Deliberative Sublime: Edmund Burke on Disruptive Speech and Imaginative Judgment

by Rob Goodman, Columbia University

Is there a case to be made for the value, amidst relatively settled institutions, of unsettling speech—speech characterized by excess, impropriety, and even the uncanny? Much of contemporary deliberative theory would answer in the negative. This article, however, proposes that we can derive a defense of the deliberative value of immoderate speech from an unlikely source: Edmund Burke’s theory and practice of the rhetorical sublime. Burke’s account of the sublime was developed in response to an 18th-century discourse of civility that anticipated the anti-rhetorical strand of contemporary deliberative theory. By reconstructing Burke’s response, we can recover a forceful defense of rhetoric in the present. For Burke, the disruptive practice of sublime speech can provoke circumstantial judgment, overcoming deliberators’ aversions to judging. Drawing on Burke’s rhetorical practice alongside his aesthetic and linguistic theory, this article upholds a central role in deliberation for rhetoric, even in its unruly and excessive aspects.

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American Political Science ReviewVolume 112Issue 2, May 2018