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

  • ROB GOODMAN (a1)

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 eighteenth-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.

Corresponding author
Rob Goodman is a Ph.D. candidate, Department of Political Science, Columbia University, 420 W. 118th St., 710 International Affairs Building, Mail Code 3320, New York, NY 10027 (
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The author would like to thank Ashraf Ahmed, Christopher Berry, Philip Hamburger, Turkuler Isiksel, David Johnston, Carl Knight, Jennifer London, Alison McQueen, Melissa Schwartzberg, Nadia Urbinati, and several anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on this article.The author would also like to thank attendees of the 2017 American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, and of the 2016 Princeton University Graduate Conference in Political Theory, Midwest Political Science Association Annual Conference, and Braga Colloquium in the History of Moral and Political Philosophy.

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