A new German translation of the 18th-century book that invented aesthetics highlights its relevance to contemporary practice. Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten —62 is not a household name, although his invention — aesthetics — has become indispensable. The term — and its many variations as noun, adjective and even adverb — gets a lot of work done in a day, and certainly puts in overtime among art historians and critics. One might speak of the aesthetics of Minimalism, or of the s, or of one particular artist. Some bemoan an art work for being too aesthetically pleasing, or not pleasing enough.
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A new German translation of the 18th-century book that invented aesthetics highlights its relevance to contemporary practice. Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten —62 is not a household name, although his invention — aesthetics — has become indispensable. The term — and its many variations as noun, adjective and even adverb — gets a lot of work done in a day, and certainly puts in overtime among art historians and critics. One might speak of the aesthetics of Minimalism, or of the s, or of one particular artist.
Some bemoan an art work for being too aesthetically pleasing, or not pleasing enough. While we seem to understand what these words and phrases mean — despite the different implications of each — what are we really saying when we use them?
Influenced by the philosophers Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Christian Wolff — and an influence, in turn, on Kant — Baumgarten never completed his magnum opus , as he died of tuberculosis before he could do so. But make no mistake: before Baumgarten, aesthetics had little to do with art, judgement, beauty or taste.
To date, the only other complete translations of Aesthetica have been published in Italian, in and At the end of Meditations , he introduces the term as a possible alternative to logic, which he felt was incapable of covering all forms of cognition. Did Baumgarten simply chance upon a forgotten concept? Far from it. He used the traditional mind-body split in philosophy to invent a whole new discipline. From Aristotle onwards, aistheta things perceived or felt by the senses, including intuitions were opposed to — and demoted against — noeta what can be known intellectually through traditional logic.
An example may help to understand his approach — and its novelty. As Pochat notes, a paint colour can be described as a chemical composition; but its effects in a painting — or on a spectator — can also be described, although not with the unchanging precision of the chemistry.
While the second volume of Aesthetica outlines rules for beauty — the distribution of light and shadow, for instance — Baumgarten does not exactly provide definitions of beauty, as Kant critically observed, but rather outlines the ideal conditions in which to perceive it.
While Kant and others did not believe beauty could be objectively defined, and rejected attempts to talk about it in scientific terms, for Baumgarten perceptions were just as real and concrete as arithmetic, although they tended to produce different sums. His science is irregular, but it adheres to the truth of our experiences: art becomes a fully legitimate way of producing knowledge about the world through shared perceptions — not just a pleasurable pastime or an exercise in taste.
According to its inventor, the discipline of aesthetics required its practitioners to communicate their ideas with others while anticipating the future. In the 19th century, his penchant for pleasing the senses would have found favour with the dandy. His ideas even seem to echo the heightened bodily experiences of the Ecstasy-fuelled raves of the last century. Baumgarten was convinced that aesthetics could invent other worlds, not related to imaginary hallucinations, but to real sensations that could be experienced — and turned into knowledge — by everybody.
One can only imagine what his reactions would have been to cinematic special effects or the evolution of art from individual, pristine, untouchable objects to palpably shared experiences. The new Meiner edition of Aesthetica is likely to have a lasting impact on philosophy and art history — and an even wider impact if some editor out there has enough sense to undertake an English translation. Skip to main content. Twitter Facebook Email To Pinterest. The Beautiful Science.
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Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten
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The Beautiful Science
But Baumgarten's denomination of the field was an adult baptism: without the benefit of a name, aesthetics had been part of philosophy since Plato attacked the educational value of many forms of art in the Republic and Aristotle briefly defended them in his fragmentary Poetics. In particular, Aristotle defended the arts from Plato's charge that they are cognitively useless, trading in mere images of particulars rather than universal truths, by arguing that it is precisely the arts, or at least poetry, that deliver universal truths in a readily graspable form, unlike, for example, history, which deals merely with particular facts Aristotle, Poetics , chapter 9, a37—b And if experience of the arts can reveal important moral truths, then it can also be important to the development of morality, the other pole of Plato's doubts. Some variant of this response to Plato was the core of aesthetics through much of subsequent philosophical history, and indeed continued to be central to aesthetics through much of the twentieth century. In the eighteenth century, however, two alternative responses to Plato were introduced. One may be regarded as taking up Aristotle's idea in the Poetics that "katharsis," purification or purgation, of the emotions of fear and pity, is a valuable part of our response to a tragedy; this led to an emphasis on the emotional impact of aesthetic experience that was downplayed in the cognitivist tradition. This line of thought was emphasized by Jean-Baptiste Du Bos in his Critical Reflections on Poetry, Painting, and Music , published in France in and widely known throughout Europe even before it was translated into other languages.
18th Century German Aesthetics
He was a brother to theologian Siegmund Jakob Baumgarten — Baumgarten was born in Berlin as the fifth of seven sons of the pietist pastor of the garrison , Jacob Baumgarten, and of his wife Rosina Elisabeth. Both his parents died early, and he was taught by Martin Georg Christgau where he learned Hebrew and became interested in Latin poetry. While the meanings of words often change as a result of cultural developments, Baumgarten's reappraisal of aesthetics is often seen as a key moment in the development of aesthetic philosophy. With the development of art as a commercial enterprise linked to the rise of a nouveau riche class across Europe, the purchasing of art inevitably led to the question, "what is good art? Baumgarten developed aesthetics to mean the study of good and bad " taste ", thus good and bad art, linking good taste with beauty. By trying to develop an idea of good and bad taste, he also in turn generated philosophical debate around this new meaning of aesthetics.