The Rhetoric of Empiricism Revisited

Adam Potkay
The College of William and Mary

“This work investigates the disappearance of the term ‘imitation’ from aesthetic theory,” Tom Huhn writes at the outset of the formidable, often illuminating, but problematic Imitation and Society: The Persistence of Mimesis in the Aesthetics of Burke, Hogarth, and Kant (Pennsylvania State, 2004). “That imitation is commonly taken to be in full retreat in the eighteenth century can be surmised not only from the title of M. H. Abrams’s well-known work, The Mirror and the Lamp [1953], but so too from that of John Neubauer’s The Emancipation of Music from Language: Departure from Mimesis in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics [1986], Frances Blanshard’s Retreat from Likeness in the Theory of Painting [2d ed., 1949], and, finally, John D. Boyd’s The Function of Mimesis and its Decline [1968]” (15). Against these august if somewhat out-dated authorities, Huhn posits his thesis: “throughout the course of this book I pursue the persistence of mimesis regardless what guise it comes to appearance under, or even [in] its seeming absence. My conviction is that the trope of mimesis remained throughout the eighteenth century the central term around which aesthetic theories of taste and judgment circulated, even as it became increasingly less visible. This book formulates how the concept of mimesis figures in three authors: Edmund Burke, William Hogarth, and Immanuel Kant” (16).

Setting aside Kant for the moment, the proposition that mimesis or representation persists in empiricist aesthetics will come as no surprise to those who recall the various “rhetoric of empiricism” studies of the 1980s and early 1990s. Galvanized by the work of Paul de Man, particularly “The Epistemology of Metaphor” (1978), a constellation of literary critics—including John Richetti, Cathy Caruth, Frances Ferguson, Jules Law, William Walker, David Marshall, and the present reviewer—variously explored the rhetoric, persuasive and tropological, of classical empiricism, chiefly the writings of Locke, Hume, and Burke.[1] Empiricist epistemology lends itself to figural analysis because, first of all, it centrally concerns copies and comparisons, resemblances and judgments. The “copy theory of knowledge,” which bases most if not all our ideas on prior sensations or impressions, is fundamentally mimetic and tropological. Add to this that classical empiricist writing is, by philosophical standards, conspicuously given to argument by analogy and by metaphors, intended or unintended, and one can understand its attraction to critics interested in the intersection of rhetoric and logic, language and visual perception, the literal and the figural. Huhn, although he frames his argument about the persistence of mimesis in explicit relation to mid-twentieth-century works of aesthetic history, is acquainted with the more recent rhetoric-of-empiricism school. However, for the most part this body of relevant criticism—in particular Frances Ferguson’s cogent neo-Kantian criticism of empiricist aesthetics—is merely acknowledged in the endnotes, rather than engaged.

While Huhn’s primary thesis about the persistence of mimesis may seem belated, his secondary argument is more striking and original, even if it is, by the author’s own concluding admission (151–55), imperfectly realized. Huhn wants to argue that all imitation is grounded in, if not fully determined by, social relations. His acknowledged guide in his sociological approach to aesthetics is Theodor Adorno, whose definition of mimesis—“the nonconceptual affinity of the subjectively produced with the unposited other”—Huhn glosses as a theory of art as social production (2–3). Yet the determination of the aesthetic by social relations remains a sketchy proposition in Huhn’s book, one that is periodically averted to rather than properly argued. Each of Huhn’s three main chapters—respectively focused on Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty, and Kant’s Critique of Judgment—has a good deal to say about imitation and much less to say about society. Society enters into Huhn’s aesthetics by way, I think, of an implied syllogism that goes something like this: the body’s pleasures are the mimetic original of aesthetic pleasures; the body’s pleasures must be understood in terms of society; therefore society is the ground of aesthetics. Yet this is only my inference; when it comes to first principles, Huhn’s book trucks more with pregnant epigram (e.g., “all pleasure is social,” [Horkheimer and Adorno, 17]) than with articulated argument, perhaps because, as Burke famously claimed, “a clear idea is . . . another name for a little idea” (quoted 15).

Huhn begins his chapter on Burke by nodding to the web of imitations that make up empiricist thought in general—“judgment stands to sense as sense stands to nature; both relations are instances of mimesis” (20)—but he roots empiricist aesthetics, in particular, to the mimetic link between sensuous and aesthetic pleasure: “the pleasure of the imagination remains pleasure regardless of its locus or origin; imagination’s pleasure occurs by likening itself to the pleasure of the sense. . . . I want to designate as mimesis this return of ours, via the imagination, to sense” (23). For Burke, mimesis returns us to society as well through the mechanism of “sympathy, the social semblance of mimesis” (35). Huhn offers an exposition of social mimesis that takes us from Shaftesbury and Hume through Burke, ending with Burke’s account of ambition: “[t]o seek distinction via excellence is to make oneself an object worthy of sympathy, to make oneself a model for mimesis” (53). In Huhn’s account, Burke posits ambition as an “appropriately ambivalent social response to Hume’s pervasive fellow-feeling,” although in fact Hume himself introduced the concept of sympathy into his philosophy to explain why we seek fame (Treatise of Human NatureII.I.xi, “On the Love of Fame”). Be that as it may, for Huhn those ambitious to be (known as) persons of taste are driven by a social dissatisfaction with the sort of social mimesis that makes us all kindred. What’s unclear to me is how this complex mimetic/anti-mimetic play of ambition relates back to the fundamental aesthetic mimesis of imagination and sense; Huhn concludes his chapter by asserting, abruptly, “the mimetic relation inaugurated by imagination in regard to sense is borrowed from social relations” (63). Huhn begs the question.

Chapter Two, on Hogarth, is the most fresh and fluid part of Imitation and Society, splendid first of all for including Hogarth alongside Burke and Kant as a serious theorist of aesthetics (no one of the rhetoric-of-empiricism school had done so). Hogarth’s premier scholar, Ronald Paulson, blurbs the book: “Huhn analyses Hogarth’s discourse in his Analysis of Beauty as if it were a philosophical discourse. This is an extremely useful thing to do—and it has not even remotely been done [before].” Huhn summarizes his cogent analysis of Hogarth’s treatise:

Hogarth postulates a nature in ceaseless motion; in order for any aspect of it to become visible, vision—or “eye” as he puts it—must itself be made mobile. In short, nature becomes visible only when sense mimetically approximates its most distinctive feature [i.e., movement]. . . . Vision is natural to the extent that it is capable of following nature’s motions, and yet it remains distinct from nature insofar as the eye requires a goad or spur to trace the motion of nature, or even to tease the motion out of nature. According to Hogarth, drawing and painting emerge in order to put the somehow fallen eye back into the motion of nature. . . . Motion may even be for Hogarth that which propels mimesis. That is, motion’s implied ceaselessness—recall the serpentine line—itself contains the implications of continuity not only from nature to the senses but also from one faculty to another. Motion is a means of traversing a gap between two things as well as a means, for Hogarth, for undermining a metaphysics of substance and substituting it with a doctrine of active life and its active mimetic reproduction. (10–11)

Mimesis figures prominently in Huhn’s fine analysis of Hogarth—but what, we may ask, of society? Huhn draws in society at the end of Chapter Two through remarks on Hogarth’s second explanatory print for The Analysis of Beauty, a depiction of a country dance: “the passive movements of looking become the active movements of drawing that are still more activated, and socialized, in dancing” (100). Huhn here suggests, in contradistinction to his chapter on Burke, that society is the telos rather than the origin of the aesthetic imagination.

Huhn’s third and last chapter, on Kant, consists of arguing, against successively summoned Kantians (John Zammito, Henry Allison, Eva Schaper, et al.), that “for Kant pleasure is the sine qua non of aesthetic judgment” (104). Huhn’s implied audience here consists of “us . . . Kantians” (127). For those outside of this circle, the merits of Huhn’s case are hard to judge. In earlier chapters, particularly the chapter on Burke, Huhn displays a lack of real engagement with the scholarly literature; here, by contrast, he obscures his argument in an extensive, perhaps excessive engagement with a specialized literature. Three things about this chapter stand out: first, for Kant (as opposed to Burke and Hogarth) aesthetic pleasure is “unlike pleasure in general” (148). Second, “the pleasure we take in the beautiful is,” in Kant’s phrase, “a pleasure of mere reflection” (quoted 115): it is this self-reflexive nature of aesthetic judgment that allows Huhn to claim that mimesis is crucial to the Kantian project. Third and finally, Huhn does not here address the relation of imitation to society.

Presumably as a response to this disappearance of “society” from his book, Huhn concludes, candidly: “[b]y titling the book Imitation and Society I had hoped that in following the intricate movements of mimesis through Burke, Hogarth, and Kant ‘society’ would somehow emerge as the true object and origin of taste and aesthetic judgment. Yet now that I’ve emptied the barrel—though not without relish—no key appears” (151). Despite his inability to give a coherent sociological account of the aesthetic (undoubtedly an ambitious aim), Huhn nonetheless challenges us to think through the theoretical connections between representation, pleasure, and “society”—at least the particular society that produced Hogarth’s dance and Burke’s person of taste. Huhn suggests that the rhetoric of empiricism has not yet been fully mined, at least not in its social context. I particularly recommend to this journal’s readership Huhn’s important chapter on Hogarth’s empiricist aesthetics.



[1] See, for example, Paul de Man, “The Epistemology of Metaphor,” Critical Inquiry 5 (Autumn 1978): 13–30; John Richetti, Philosophical Writing: Locke, Berkeley, Hume (Cambridge Mass., 1983); Cathy Caruth, Empirical Truths and Critical Fictions: Locke, Wordsworth, Kant, Freud (Baltimore, 1991); Frances Ferguson, Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuation (New York, 1992) includes chapters on Burke and Kant; Jules David Law, The Rhetoric of Empiricism: Language and Perception from Locke to I. A. Richards (Ithaca, 1993) includes a chapter on Burke; Adam Potkay, The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume (Ithaca, 1994), esp. 181–88; William Walker, Locke, Literary Criticism, and Philosophy (Cambridge, 1994); David Marshall, “Arguing by Analogy: Hume’s Standard of Taste,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 28 (1995): 323–43.