Selected Writings on Aestheticsby Johann Gottfried Herder
A seminal figure in the philosophy of history, culture, and language, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) also produced some of the most important and original works in the history of aesthetic theory. A student of Kant, he spent much of his life striving to reconcile the opposing poles of Enlightenment thought represented by his early mentors. His ideas influenced
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A seminal figure in the philosophy of history, culture, and language, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) also produced some of the most important and original works in the history of aesthetic theory. A student of Kant, he spent much of his life striving to reconcile the opposing poles of Enlightenment thought represented by his early mentors. His ideas influenced Hegel, Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, Dilthey, J. S. Mill, and Goethe.
This book presents most of Herder's important writings on aesthetics, including the main sections of one of his major untranslated works, Kritische Wälder (Critical Forests). These notes, essays, and treatises, the majority of which appear here in English for the first time, show this idiosyncratic thinker both deeply rooted in the controversies of his day and pointing the way to future developments in aesthetics. Chosen to reflect the extent and diversity of Herder's concerns, the texts cover such topics as the psychology and physiology of aesthetic perception, the classification of the arts, taste, Shakespeare, the classical tradition, and the relationship between art and morality.
Few thinkers have reflected so sensitively and productively on the cultural, historical, anthropological, ethical, and theological dimensions of art and the creative process. With this book, the importance of aesthetics to the evolution and texture of Herder's own thought, as well as his profound contribution to that discipline, comes fully into view.
To read [Herder] in this superb compilation is to encounter a vivid presence, one whose fingertips still seem fresh from the touch of truth.
"These excellent translations make some of Herder's most original and important contributions to aesthetics available to English readers for the first time."Choice
"To read [Herder] in this superb compilation is to encounter a vivid presence, one whose fingertips still seem fresh from the touch of truth."Eric Ormsby New York Sun
"I would strongly recommend scholars and librarians to acquire this important volume. It will be particularly useful in courses on eighteenth-century aesthetics for students without a command of German. Its readers will have the opportunity to discover an aesthetic thinker of the stature and originality of Lessing and Diderot."K. F. Hilliard, Modern Language Association
K. F. Hilliard
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Selected Writings on Aesthetics
By Johann Gottfried Herder
Princeton University PressCopyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
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IntroductionIN NOTES WRITTEN in 1765 bemoaning the wretched state of German literature, Johann Gottfried Herder took some comfort from the thought that though his country was devoid of "original geniuses in the realm of the ode, the drama, and the epic," he was at least living in "the philosophical century." Those nations lacking poetic inspiration and the political unity necessary for a mature literary tradition ought instead to devote themselves to developing a fuller understanding of the nature of art and the historical and cultural conditions under which it flourishes. Perhaps such a theory would enable writers to discover and mine new seams of poetic creativity. "Not poetry," he concluded, "but aesthetics should be the field of the Germans."
In some ways this was already true. Despite-or perhaps because of-the painfully felt absence of a native literary culture, German critics were intensely preoccupied with new theoretical approaches to art and literature, and the mid-eighteenth century saw a number of important developments that helped shape an emergent public sphere in the German-speaking world: Johann Christoph Gottsched's attempt to impose a local version of French neoclassicism; the long-running controversy betweenGottsched and the Swiss critics Johann Jakob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitinger, who championed English literature and criticism, and, combining Addison with Leibniz, opened poetry to the unlimited worlds of the imagination; the birth of modern art history in Johann Joachim Winckelmann's hugely influential interpretations of Greek sculpture; the critical writings of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn, and Friedrich Nicolai. And perhaps most significant of all, the very term aesthetics was coined in 1735 by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (from the Greek aisthanesthai, "to perceive") in his dissertation Meditationes philosophicae. Fifteen years later, in the first two volumes of his major work Aesthetica (1750-58), he went further and established aesthetics as an independent sphere of philosophical inquiry, cognate with, but separate from, the truths of logic and morality. By the 1760s this newly minted word had already become common currency, and treatises on the subject were growing so numerous that by 1804 Jean Paul Richter could observe: "There is nothing more abundant in our time than aestheticians."
Herder was certain that although this new discipline could be decisive for the development of German literary politics in the mid-eighteenth century, and for all that he hailed Baumgarten as a new Aristotle, Baumgarten's premature death in 1762 had left his philosophical project incomplete. "O Aesthetics!" Herder exclaims with characteristic exuberance in the Critical Forests, his most comprehensive contribution to the subject, "in which cavern of the Muses is sleeping the young man of my philosophical nation destined to raise you to perfection!" Then in his early twenties and an ambitious though obscure clergyman in Riga awakening to the novelty of his own insights, Herder was beginning to think he might be that slumbering youth. Yet those hopes were never realized. Not only were some of his most important and original writings in this area not published during his lifetime, they were in any case soon overshadowed by Kant's Critique of Judgment (1790), that work which more than any other shaped the development of modern philosophical aesthetics and took it in a direction never envisaged by either Baumgarten or Herder. In later life, Herder would expend a great deal of energy in his Metacritique and Kalligone vainly seeking to refute Kant's ideas, but his early work, which shows him assimilating a great deal of contemporary thought and synthesizing it into new constellations, sheds important light on aesthetics at a crucial stage in its evolution. The writings included in this volume, although by no means exhaustive, have been chosen to reflect the extent and diversity of his writings on art and aesthetics, covering as they do such contemporary debates as the nature of aesthetics itself, the debate over classification of the arts, genius, taste and the classical tradition, the relationship between art and morality, and the fable.
Sense and Sensibility
Herder never accepted the critical turn in Kant's philosophy. The Kant he had come to know in 1762, when as a precocious eighteen-year-old he arrived from the East Prussian provinces to study at the University of Königsberg, had yet to begin his Critique of Pure Reason. From Kant he learned to esteem philosophical rigor and the analytic method as the only genuine path to truth. If Kant was the very embodiment of the Enlightenment intellectual, then Johann Georg Hamann, another formative influence during Herder's time at Königsberg, represented the other extreme. Hamann, a deeply religious thinker who inveighed against the excesses of the eighteenth-century cult of reason, taught that the true source of knowledge was not logic and abstraction but faith and the experiences of the senses, for the outward splendor of the world, nature, and history was a living manifestation of the divine.
Herder spent most of the rest of his life striving to reconcile the opposing poles of Enlightenment thought represented by his early mentors. "A man who desires to be solely head," he once wrote, "is just as much a monster as one who desires to be only heart; the whole, healthy man is both. And that he is both, with each in its place, the heart not in the head and the head not in the heart, is precisely what makes him a human being." Though many Aufklärer were prepared to accept the dissociation of the intellect and emotions as the price of progress, Herder most certainly was not. He strove to bridge the growing gap between the affective and rational sides of our nature, keep in check the enlightened despotism of Reason, and unleash the full potential of the human spirit. For this reason-and not only because he saw in Baumgarten's new science a means of regenerating German literature-during the 1760s and 1770s, the period from which the majority of the writings included in this volume are drawn, aesthetics played a particularly significant role in his thinking. For art activates the totality of the organism; it is produced by the cooperation of our sensuous, imaginative, and intellectual faculties, by our interaction with the world around us, and so an analysis of art will inevitably shed light on the complexities of human nature and experience. Aesthetics, Herder realized, signaled the foundation of a new philosophical anthropology.
Herder was one of the few contemporaries who seemed to grasp the revolutionary implications of Baumgarten's enterprise. For aesthetics according to Baumgarten's understanding is not just a philosophy of art but also-indeed, primarily-the "science of sensuous cognition." This was a bold and decisive break with tradition, because since Plato Western thought had been characterized by a profound suspicion and denigration of the senses-especially marked in the rationalist metaphysics of Christian Wolff, which had come to dominate academic philosophy in Germany. Wolff assimilated philosophy to mathematics: the only reliable basis of knowledge was neither empirical evidence nor actual experience, but the calculable and abstract certainty of deductive proof. Establishing an explicit hierarchy among the powers of the human mind, he insisted that only the ideas present to the higher faculties of cognition-reason and the understanding-belonged to the proper domain of philosophy, for they were clear and distinct; that is, they could be analyzed, abstracted, and defined. The impressions that the senses delivered into the mind, however, were either obscure (below the threshold of full consciousness) or "confused"-that is, too concrete, fragmentary, and fleeting to be distinguishable from other objects, and hence an obstacle in the pursuit of stable, abstract truth. Although Baumgarten retained Wolff's distinction between the higher and lower faculties of cognition, for the first time he demanded that the means whereby we acquire and express sensory knowledge be subjected to systematic study. Just as logic is concerned with the operations of reason and the understanding, so a new discipline of aesthetics ought to be concerned with what we apprehend through the senses. Whereas logic arrives at clear and distinct concepts through a process of simplification and abstraction, and hence delivers an impoverished and partial perspective on the world, aesthetics exercises our capacity to grasp reality in all its concrete individuality and complexity. It celebrates the confusion of sensory knowledge, its particularity, vibrancy, and plenitude, precisely those qualities which are necessarily lost in translation from the specific to the general but embodied in exemplary fashion by works of art. Poetry, for example, which for Baumgarten was the paradigmatic form of artistic expression, does not pretend to discover universal laws or principles but lucidly represents individual things, persons, or situations, and the greater the vividness, richness, and inner diversity, the greater the value of the poem. So if logic is the means by which rational cognition is improved and human beings ascend to truth, then aesthetics aims at the perfection of sensuous knowledge; in other words, the creation or discernment of beauty. In short, Baumgarten insisted that sensuous cognition was not unreliable and inferior but possessed an intrinsic value and, in addition to the synthetic operations of pure reason, could constitute an object of serious philosophical inquiry. In fact, he argued, the logician who neglects the senses is a philosopher manqué, an incompletely developed individual unfavorably contrasted with the felix aestheticus, who is neither a purely rational nor a sensual being but accommodates within himself the full spectrum of human powers.
Baumgarten's writings were among the many works on poetics and aesthetics that Herder studied intensively during the mid-1760s. From the outset Herder's notes and fragmentary sketches, including a lengthy paragraph-by-paragraph discussion of the first twenty-five sections of the Aesthetica, show him moving ambivalently between praise and criticism, teasing out the full implications of Baumgarten's ideas and seeking to move beyond them. One of the most polished pieces from this time is the Monument to Baumgarten, among the earliest works included here. In it, Herder recognized Baumgarten's achievement in opening the lower faculties to philosophical scrutiny and, in doing so, shifting the focus of study from the work of art to the psychological processes underpinning the aesthetic experience. That meant that he had put to an end once and for all both the belief that poetry consisted in rhyme or melody and the Aristotelian notion that the primary purpose of poetry was the imitation of nature. As "perfectly sensuous discourse," poetry was a form of expression that stirred the soul with a multitude of vivid and interconnected images. Hence, by studying poetry and discovering the rules of beauty, we learn more about ourselves as human beings than we do about the objective world, about the mysterious alchemy by which dark, unconscious feelings are transmuted into images of perception. If, as Baumgarten claimed, the fundamental principle governing art is not mimesis but the pursuit of sensuous perfection, then it amounts to nothing less than obeying the oracular injunction "Know thyself!"
Nevertheless, Herder viewed Baumgarten as no more than a thinker of the "second rank" who never wholly freed himself from the accepted practices and assumptions of institutional philosophy. As "Wolffian poesy," Baumgarten's aesthetics is still too heavily reliant on a priori deduction and speculation; though it is concerned first and foremost with sensory cognition, paradoxically it remains couched in the arid language and framework of rationalist metaphysics. If aesthetics is, as the derivation of the word suggests, truly the study of feeling, then it must follow Winckelmann's lead, embrace Greek sensuality, and be Hellenized. The aesthetician must not build castles in the air but descend to the level of concrete sensation, to the "ground of the soul," where the most obscure ideas reside, and only then begin to erect general principles. He must replace the nominal definitions of logic with a mode of thinking that enables us to uncover the network of experience that informs our most primitive concepts and to locate the origin of those concepts in the activity of particular senses. He must, finally, be alive not only to human sensibility but also to the manner in which its expressive resources are modified by the environment, history, and culture. These ideas Herder would attempt to put into practice in the Critical Forests.
Critical Forests: the First Grove
Whereas Baumgarten wrote-already somewhat anachronistically-in a terse Latin, using the technical vocabulary of scholastic philosophy, and in short, syllogistic paragraphs, Herder, who thought it "a weakness of human nature that we wish always to construct a system," perfected a style that is essayistic, exclamatory, and digressive; he wrote quickly, sometimes clumsily, but always avoiding the appearance of a conventional scholarly work. Not for nothing did he call his first major work Fragments; the title of his second, Critical Forests, is no less apt. A "sylva" is a collection of occasional poems or miscellanies, "composed, as it were, at a Start; in a kind of Rapture or Transport," and arranged haphazardly rather than according to some overall plan. Though Herder presumably derived his title from either Martin Opitz or Christian Gryphius, both of whom produced Poetical Forests (in 1625 and 1698 respectively), the model for his practice as a critic is partly inspired by the very work to which the First Grove is devoted: Lessing's influential essay Laocoön (1766), which Lessing himself described as a collection of "unordered notes."
Both Laocoön and the First Grove are chiefly concerned with an issue that exercised a great many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century writers on art: the relation between painting and poetry, and in particular the long-established tendency to equate the poetic and visual arts. This is epitomized in the indiscriminate appeal to Horace's well-worn phrase "ut pictura poesis" (as is poetry so is painting), which was taken to mean, by Addison and later by Bodmer and Breitinger, that the aim of poetry was to excite vivid images in the mind of the reader. Graphic description was therefore the basis of poetry, and accordingly the Swiss critics were lavish in their praise of descriptive poets such as Barthold Heinrich Brockes, Albrecht von Haller, and Ewald Christian von Kleist.
Lessing bridled at this widespread talk of "poetic pictures" and the "descriptive mania" which seized modern versifiers. Though he was by no means the first to distinguish clearly between the separate domains of each art-important influences on his work include James Harris, Denis Diderot, and Moses Mendelssohn-Laocoön stands out for the deductive brilliance by which he arrives at the separate rules governing each art form and the unusual severity with which he draws the proper boundaries of poetry and painting. Lessing's point of departure is Winckelmann's celebrated description in Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works of the statue of the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons, who is depicted wrestling with serpents sent by the gods to punish his disobedience. The Laocoön group embodies for Winckelmann the "noble simplicity and tranquil grandeur" of the Greek soul, which finds expression in the priest's supposed calm and self-restraint in the face of mortal danger.
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Gregory Moore is Lecturer in German at the University of St. Andrews. He is the author of Nietzsche, Biology and Metaphor, and is coeditor of Nietzsche and Science.
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