Skip to main content Accessibility help

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 (


Hide All

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.



Hide All
Abizadeh, Arash. 2007. “On the Philosophy/Rhetoric Binaries: Or, Is Habermasian Discourse Motivationally Impotent?Philosophy and Social Criticism 33 (4): 445–72.
Achen, Christopher H., and Bartels, Larry M.. 2016. Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Allen, Danielle. 2004. Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Arendt, Hannah. 1992. Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy, eds. Beiner, Ronald. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Ashfield, Andrew, and de Bolla, Peter, eds. 1996. The Sublime: A Reader in British Eighteenth-Century Aesthetic Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Beiner, Ronald. 1983. Political Judgment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bejan, Teresa M. 2017. Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Benhabib, Seyla. 1996a. “Introduction: The Democratic Moment and the Problem of Difference.” In Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 318.
Benhabib, Seyla. 1996b. “Toward a Deliberative Model of Democratic Legitimacy.” In Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 6794.
Bessette, Joseph M. 1994. The Mild Voice of Reason: Deliberative Democracy and American National Government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Blair, Hugh. 2005. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres, eds. Ferreira-Buckley, Linda and Halloran, S. Michael. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Bourke, Richard. 2015. Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Bromwich, David. 2014. The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke: From the Sublime and Beautiful to American Independence. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Bullard, Paddy. 2011. Edmund Burke and the Art of Rhetoric. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Burke, Edmund. 1887a. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas Concerning the Sublime and Beautiful. In The Works of the Right Honorable Edmund Burke. Vol. 1. London: John C. Nimmo, 67262.
Burke, Edmund. 1887b. A Representation to His Majesty. In Works. Vol. 2. 537–76.
Burke, Edmund. 1887c. An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs. In Works. Vol. 4. 57–216.
Burke, Edmund. 1887d. “Letter to a Noble Lord.” In Works. Vol. 5. 171–232.
Burke, Edmund. 1887e. “Speech in General Reply: Ninth Day.” In Works. Vol. 12. 335–400.
Burke, Edmund. 1887f. “Speech in Opening the Impeachment: First Day.” In Works. Vol. 9. 329–95.
Burke, Edmund. 1887g. “Speech on American Taxation.” In Works. Vol. 2. 1–80.
Burke, Edmund. 1887h. “Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies.” In Works. Vol. 2. 99–186.
Burke, Edmund. 1887i. “Speech on Mr. Fox's East India Bill.” In Works. Vol. 2. 431–536.
Burke, Edmund. 1887j. “Speech on the Nabob of Arcot's Private Debts.” In Works. Vol. 3. 1–210.
Burke, Edmund. 1887k. “Speech to the Electors of Bristol.” In Works. Vol. 2. 89–98.
Burke, Edmund. 1887l. Reflections on the Revolution in France. In Works. Vol. 3. 231–563.
Burke, Edmund. 1960. The Correspondence of Edmund Burke. Vol. 2, ed. Sutherland, Lucy S.. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Carroll, Ross. 2014. “Revisiting Burke's Critique of Enthusiasm.” History of Political Thought 35 (2): 317–44.
Chambers, Simone. 1996. Reasonable Democracy: Jürgen Habermas and the Politics of Discourse. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Chambers, Simone. 2009. “Rhetoric and the Public Sphere.” Political Theory 37 (9): 323–50.
Cohen, Joshua. 1997. “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacy.” In Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics, eds, Bohman, James and Rehg, William. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 6792.
Craiutu, Aurelian. 2016. Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
De Bruyn, Frans. 2012. “‘Expressive Uncertainty’: Edmund Burke's Theory of the Sublime and Eighteenth Century Conceptions of Metaphor.” In The Science of Sensibility: Reading Burke's Philosophical Enquiry, eds. Vermeir, Koen and Deckard, Michael Funk. New York: Springer, 265–82.
Doran, Robert. 2015. The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Dowe, William. 1857. Junius, Lord Chatham. New York: Miller, Orton.
Dryzek, John S. 2010. “Rhetoric in Democracy: A Systemic Appreciation.” Political Theory 38 (3): 319–39.
Eco, Umberto. 1994. “Political Language: The Use and Abuse of Rhetoric.” In Apocalypse Postponed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Fearon, James D. 1998. “Deliberation as Discussion.” In Deliberative Democracy, ed. Elster, Jon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 4468.
Frank, Jason. 2014. “‘Delightful Horror’: Edmund Burke and the Aesthetics of Democratic Revolution.” In The Aesthetic Turn in Political Thought, ed. Kompridis, Nikolas. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 328.
Garsten, Bryan. 2006. Saving Persuasion: A Defense of Rhetoric and Judgment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Garsten, Bryan. 2011. “The Rhetoric Revival in Political Theory.” Annual Review of Political Science 14: 159–80.
Gastil, John. 2008. Political Communication and Deliberation. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Gutmann, Amy, and Thompson, Dennis. 1996. Democracy and Disagreement. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Habermas, Jürgen. 2001. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hamilton, Alexander. 1987. “Federalist No. 70.” In The Federalist Papers, ed. Kramnick, Isaac. New York: Penguin, 402–8.
Hampsher-Monk, Iain. 1988. “Rhetoric and Opinion in the Politics of Edmund Burke.” History of Political Thought 9 (3): 455–84.
Hume, David. 1985a. “Of Eloquence.” In Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Miller, Eugene F.. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 97110.
Hume, David. 1985b. “Of the Standard of Taste.” In Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, ed. Miller, Eugene F.. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 226–52.
Jetñil-Kijiner, Kathy. 2014. “A Poem to My Daughter.” Accessed July 6, 2017.
Kapust, Daniel, and Schwarze, Michelle A.. 2016. “The Rhetoric of Sincerity: Cicero and Smith on Propriety and Political Context.” American Political Science Review 110 (1): 100–11.
Landemore, Hélène. 2013. “On Minimal Deliberation, Partisan Activism, and Teaching People how to Disagree.” Critical Review 25 (3): 210–25.
Landwehr, Claudia. 2015. “Democratic Meta-Deliberation: Towards Reflective Institutional Design.” Political Studies 63 (S1): 3854.
Leach, Jim. 2010. “Civility in a Fractured Society.” Accessed July 6, 2017.
Lock, F. P. 1998. Edmund Burke. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon.
Madison, James. 1987. “Federalist No. 58.” In The Federalist Papers, ed. Kramnick, Isaac. New York: Penguin, 347–51.
Manin, Bernard. 1987. “On Legitimacy and Political Deliberation.” Political Theory 15 (3): 338–68.
Mansbridge, Jane, Bohman, James, Chambers, Simone, Christiano, Thomas, Fung, Archon, Parkinson, John, Thompson, Dennis F., and Warren, Mark E.. 2012. “A Systemic Approach to Deliberative Democracy.” In Deliberative Systems: Deliberative Democracy at the Large Scale, eds. John Parkinson and Mansbridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 126.
Obama, Barack. 2011. “Obama's Remarks in Tucson.” Accessed July 6, 2017.
Pocock, J. G. A. 1985. “The Varieties of Whiggism from Exclusion to Reform.” In Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Pocock. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 215310.
Potkay, Adam S. 1994. The Fate of Eloquence in the Age of Hume. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Prior, James. 1878. Life of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke. London: Bell & Sons.
Rawls, John. 2005. Political Liberalism: Expanded Edition. New York: Columbia University Press.
Reid, Christopher. 2012. “Burke as Rhetorician and Orator.” In The Cambridge Companion to Edmund Burke, eds. Dwan, David and Insole, Christopher. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 4152.
Remer, Gary. 1999. “Political Oratory and Conversation: Cicero Versus Deliberative Democracy.” Political Theory 27 (1): 3964.
Remer, Gary. 2000. “Two Models of Deliberation: Oratory and Conversation in Ratifying the Constitution.” Journal of Political Philosophy 8 (1): 6890.
Roberts-Miller, Patricia. 2005. “Democracy, Demagoguery, and Critical Rhetoric.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 8 (3): 459–76.
Ryan, Cressida. 2012. “Burke's Classical Heritage: Playing Games with Longinus.” In The Science of Sensibility: Reading Burke's Philosophical Enquiry, eds. Vermeir, Koen and Deckard, Michael Funk. New York: Springer, 225–46.
Sainsbury, John. 2006. John Wilkes: The Lives of a Libertine. Burlington, VT: Ashgate.
Smith, Adam. 1985. Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres, ed. Bryce, J.C.. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics.
Spragens, Thomas A. 1990. Reason and Democracy. Durham: Duke University Press.
Strachan, J. Cherie, and Wolf, Michael R.. 2012. “Introduction to Political Civility.” PS: Political Science and Politics 45 (3): 401– 4.
Sunstein, Cass. 2002. “The Law of Group Polarization.” Journal of Political Philosophy 10 (2): 175–95.
Supporting the Designation of a National Day of Civility. 2017. H.Res.400. 115th Congress.
Trenchard, John. 1995. “Of Eloquence, Considered Politically.” In Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato's Letters. Vol. 2, ed. Hamowy, Ronald. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 727–33.
Yack, Bernard. 2006. “Rhetoric and Public Reasoning: An Aristotelian Understanding of Political Deliberation.” Political Theory 34 (4): 417–38.
Young, Iris Marion. 2000. Inclusion and Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

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

  • ROB GOODMAN (a1)


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.