Edmund Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics

William F. Byrne. Edmund Burke for Our Time: Moral Imagination, Meaning, and Politics (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2011)


Although the term “moral imagination” originated with Edmund Burke, much Burke scholarship fails to mention it. Two notable early and mid-twentieth-century thinkers, Irving Babbitt and Russell Kirk, do pick up on Burke’s concept and consider it very important, but they offer relatively little explication or philosophical development of it.’ Since that time the term has appeared more and more frequently, but has received even less serious attention from those writing on Burke. Ironically, the importance of the imagination, and to some, even of the moral imagination to Burke is often recognized, but in a vague way, and its real significance in his thought is rarely explored. In overlooking the importance of the concept of the moral imagination, Burke scholarship has actually overlooked an entire complex of ethical, epistemological, and social ideas that may in fact represent Burke’s most important contribution to political and philosophical thought.

From his earliest writing Burke displayed a strong interest in how people learn, think, and develop their opinions and views. He emphasized the ways in which people make judgments without the deliberate exercise of conscious rational thought or conceptualization. Before turning his attention to politics, Burke took a strong interest in literature, theater, history, aesthetics, and philosophy, and he saw how thought, morality, and, ultimately, politics are shaped in myriad ways through cultural elements and other aspects of life. Morality has for Burke a large imaginative component. Through the imagination, we build up a sense of the world with the aid of symbols, metaphors, images, and associations of various sorts. The characteristics of the imaginative whole or framework that we build up influence profoundly how we think and act, including how we think and act in the moral sphere. This makes up an important part of what we commonly call character.