Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Contributions of German Philosophers to Modern Aesthetic Theory

Moses Mendelssohn; Immanuel Kant 
The various arts are as old as civilization, but the manner in which we group them and evaluate their importance in our life and culture is a relatively recent development. With their theory of mimesis, the ancient Greeks had established a link between painting and sculpture, poetry and music, but they lacked a system of fine arts in which all the visual arts can be grouped with poetry and music. The development of such a system of fine arts had to wait till the eighteenth century.

In his essay, “The Modern System of Fine Arts: A Study in the History of Aesthetics, Part II,” Paul Oskar Kristeller offers an interesting account of the ideas with which the European philosophers enriched the field of aesthetics during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The process of development of a system of fine arts began in England and France post Renaissance, in the seventeenth century. But towards the middle of eighteenth century the German philosophers started dominating the discussions on art. The term “aesthetics” was coined by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in 1735, but the meaning that he gave to the term is different from how it is understood today. He saw aesthetics as a theory of sensuous knowledge, which is a counterpoint to logic, the theory of intellectual knowledge.

In the interval between Baumgarten and Immanuel Kant, Moses Mendelssohn made valuable contributions. Here’s an excerpt from Kristeller’s essay:
Mendelssohn, who was well acquainted with French and English writings on the subject, demanded in a famous article that the fine arts (painting, sculpture, music, the dance, and architecture) and belles lettres (poetry and eloquence) should be reduced to some common principle better than imitation, and thus was the first among the Germans to formulate a system of the fine arts. Shortly afterwards, in a book review, he criticized Baumgarten and Meier for not having carried out the program of their new science, aesthetics. They wrote as if they had been thinking exclusively in terms of poetry and literature, whereas aesthetic principles should be formulated in such a way as to apply to the visual arts and to music as well. In his annotations to Lessing's Laokoon, published long after his death, Mendelssohn persistently criticizes Lessing for not giving any consideration to music and to the system of the arts as a whole; we have seen how Lessing, in the fragmentary notes for a continuation of the Laokoon, tried to meet this criticism. Mendelssohn also formulated a doctrine of the three faculties of the soul corresponding to the three basic realms of goodness, truth and beauty, thus continuing the work of the Scottish philosophers. He did not work out an explicit theory of aesthetics, but under the impact of French and English authors he indicated the direction in which German aesthetics was to develop from Baumgarten to Kant.
Sulzer established a systematic system and popularized the idea that all the fine arts are connected with each other. Herder did a critique of Lessing's Laokoon and made comparisons between poetry and music. Immanuel Kant made some major contributions to philosophy of aesthetics in his the Critique of Judgement.

Here’s Kristeller’s perspective on Kant’s contribution to aesthetics:
The system of the three Critiques as presented in this last volume is based on a threefold division of the faculties of the mind, which adds the faculty of judgment, aesthetic and teleological, to pure and practical reason. Aesthetics, as the philosophical theory of beauty and the arts, acquires equal standing with the theory of truth (metaphysics or epistemology) and the theory of goodness (ethics). 
In the tradition of systematic philosophy this was an important innovation, for neither Descartes nor Spinoza nor Leibniz nor any of their ancient or medieval predecessors had found a separate or independent place in their system for the theory of the arts and of beauty, though they had expressed occasional opinions on these subjects. If Kant took this decisive step after some hesitation, he was obviously influenced by the example of Baumgarten and by the rich French, English, and German literature on the arts his century had produced, with which he was well acquainted. In his critique of aesthetic judgment, Kant discusses also the concepts of the sublime and of natural beauty, but his major emphasis is on beauty in the arts, and he discusses many concepts and principles common to all the arts. In section 51 he also gives a division of the fine arts: speaking arts (poetry, eloquence) ; plastic arts (sculpture, architecture, painting, and gardening) ; arts of the beautiful play of sentiments (music, and the art of color).
Since the publication of the Critique of Judgement, Kant’s aesthetics has occupied a permanent place among the major philosophical disciplines.

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