On Taste – Edmund Burke

Like yesterday’s Oscar Wilde, here’s favorites from another good bit of vacation reading.* First a bit on imagination, and that there’s nothing new, just what we take in and recombine:

The mind of man possesses a sort of creative power of its own; either in representing at pleasure the images of things in the order and manner in which they were received by the senses, or in combining those images in a new manner, and according to a different order. This power is called Imagination; and to this belongs whatever is called wit, fancy, invention, and the like. But it must be observed, that this power of the imagination is incapable of producing any thing absolutely new; it can only vary the disposition of those ideas which it has received from the senses.

Burke argues that, when comparing, it’s easier and to our benefit to look more for similarities than differences:

The mind of man has naturally a far greater alacrity and satisfaction in tracing resemblances than in searching for differences; because by making resemblances we produce new images, we unite, we create, we enlarge our stock; but in making distinctions we offer no food at all to the imagination; the task itself is more severe and irksome, and what pleasure we derive from it is something of a negative and indirect nature.

Ain’t nothing you can’t learn from. Also reminds me of Seth Roberts’ writing on appreciative thinking and Philip Ball’s suggestion that “Ideas and views that differ from one’s own should not be targets for demolition, but whetstones for sharpening one’s own thoughts.”.

He goes on to talk about our opinions and tastes, how we outgrow them, and how our smugness and satisfaction with our own views is a second-order pleasure at best. This strikes me as something well worth remembering:

Almost the only pleasure that men have in judging better than others, consists in a sort of conscious pride and superiority, which arises from thinking rightly; but then, this is an indirect pleasure, a pleasure which does not immediately result from the object which is under contemplation. 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? I despair of ever receiving the same degree of pleasure from the most excellent performances of genius, which I felt at that age from pieces which my present judgment regards as trifling and contemptible.

We change our opinions over time (hopefully some, at least) by learning more, paying more attention, and thinking about them more. Slow opinions tend to be better. See also stong opinions, weakly held.

Men of the best taste, by consideration, come frequently to change these early and precipitate judgments, which the mind, from its aversion to neutrality and doubt, loves to form on the spot. It is known that the taste (whatever it is) is improved exactly as we improve our judgment, by extending our knowledge, by a steady attention to our object, and by frequent exercise. They who have not taken these methods, if their taste decides quickly, it is always uncertainly; and their quickness is owing to their presumption and rashness, and not to any sudden irradiation, that in a moment dispels all darkness from their minds.

*Yeah, this is what I read at the beach. Instapaper ftw. Just how I roll.
On Taste – Edmund Burke