in Profiles | 01 MAR 08
Featured in
Issue 113

The Beautiful Science

A new German translation of the 18th-century book that invented aesthetics highlights its relevance to contemporary practice

in Profiles | 01 MAR 08

The frontispiece for the first edition of Aesthetica (1750)

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–62) 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. It’s possible to make distinctions between aesthetics and politics, or to argue for an aesthetics of engagement. One might speak of the aesthetics of Minimalism, or of the 1960s, or of one particular artist. Some bemoan an art work for being too aesthetically pleasing, or not pleasing enough. Along with the discerning aesthete, there’s the aesthetician, who may specialize in Aristotle, Immanuel Kant or Jacques Rancière, while America also has the beauty esthetician, who waxes away hair and smoothes out wrinkles. 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?

Answers abound in the new German translation of the two volumes of Baumgarten’s Aesthetica (1750/1758),1 which he wrote in Latin while a professor for ‘world wisdom and the beautiful sciences’ at the University of Frankfurt on the Oder (the river that lies along today’s German/Polish border). 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. According to the introduction by translator Dagmar Mirbach, one of Baumgarten’s final gestures – he requested a hymnbook, only to complain on receiving it that he could no longer read – scandalized some ethical followers, who felt that the deathbed was not the place for grumbling about fading intellectual prowess.

In light of such renown among his contemporaries, it’s a mystery why Baumgarten remains relatively unknown today, although there are some clues. A former student, Georg Friedrich Meier, transformed his mentor’s Latin lecture notes into a bastardized yet more accessible German textbook, which was widely read while Baumgarten’s own work fell into obscurity, consigned to the status of a footnote. Consider his reception by Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz and Götz Pochat, who both wrote ‘histories of aesthetics’ from antiquity onwards, and who both begrudgingly identified Baumgarten as the founder of a discipline that, they maintained, actually predated his birth by some 20 centuries.2 Yet, while Socrates et al. might well have been describing something akin to what we now call aesthetics, it was Baumgarten who first deployed the word – which comes from the Greek aisthesis (perception) – in a highly systematic way that fused perception with psychology, beauty, pleasure and art. Indeed, no one explains why the Greeks didn’t simply use the term aisthesis if that’s what they were talking about all along.

Ultimately, the versatility of aesthetics today might be chalked up to all those begrudging historical commentators, who retroactively applied the term to qualify any theory of reception (from Plato to Père Bouhours to Jacob Burckhardt), a host of practitioners’ writings (Michelangelo, Eugène Delacroix, William Morris, to name but a few) and a cornucopia of practices (making pots, cathedrals, paintings). In short, what we are saying when we link aesthetics to everything, from politics to wrinkles, is that Baumgarten doesn’t matter. But make no mistake: before Baumgarten, aesthetics had little to do with art, judgement, beauty or taste. Kant, while assigning his students to read Baumgarten, called his fellow philosopher an ‘analyst’ who had mistakenly created the discipline of aesthetics to study what every other enlightened philosopher called a theory of taste. Yet the seismic shift of Baumgarten’s invention – and the acceptance of his nomenclature – can be read in the epistemological crack between Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (1781), which begins with the ‘transcendental aesthetic’ covering not art, but the human body’s inborn ability to perceive time and space, and his Critique of Judgement (1790), which peaks with ‘aesthetic judgements of the beautiful’. Kant was wrong about taste, which withered, while aesthetics, far from being an error made by a provincial German ‘analyst’, enjoyed a flourishing future. When was the last time you heard someone arguing for ‘a taste of engagement’?

Yet, despite Baumgarten’s decisive role in German philosophy and beyond, it took over two centuries for a complete version of his key work to be published in his native tongue. Mirbach’s translation – seven years in the making – raised more than a few eyebrows at last autumn’s Frankfurt Book Fair. To date, the only other complete translations of Aesthetica have been published in Italian, in 1992 and 2000.3 Otherwise, one could either drudge through Baumgarten’s Latin – so stodgy that even he saw fit to pen an apology for his unforgiving syntax – or rely on translated excerpts from his works in French or German. However disorienting for the reader, it does make sense to publish extracts from Baumgarten’s writings, since his first mention of aesthetics predates Aesthetica. At the end of Meditations (1735), he introduces the term as a possible alternative to logic, which he felt was incapable of covering all forms of cognition.4 Five years later, he had come up with a definition that it took two books to develop: ‘Aesthetics – theory of liberal arts, inferior gnosology, art of thinking beautifully, art of the analogue to reason – is the science of perception.’5

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).6 While recognizing the hierarchy between the precise knowledge produced by the pure reasoning of logic and the confusing data collected for the mind by the five lowly senses, Baumgarten was determined to raise aistheta to a science with its own rules and truths, which might be comparable to the rules and truths of logic, although not as clear. 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.7 While Baumgarten shared philosophy’s fetishism of reason and its mistrust of the body, he realized that a rich realm of human experience was being ignored because it could not be reduced to formula; his merit lies in his having taken this realm seriously. He moved from exploring the body’s perceptual capacities to art’s peculiar impact on them. Indeed, the pleasing effects of art on the senses and mind constituted the truth of Baumgarten’s science: beauty.

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. (It doesn’t matter what wonderful colours we can make with paint, if we waste our time looking at them in the dark.) 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.

It is helpful to view Baumgarten’s treatise as an attempt to understand a perceptual phenomenon, like double vision or déjà vu, although many continue to interpret his writings as an arcane set of rules for taking perfect photographs. Déjà vu – a kind of organic photograph – exists only through its effects on the body, which everyone can experience, albeit with different images. Elevated to a science, déjà vu would have no corpus – constant objects of study would be replaced by expanding examples – but it might be possible to define favourable conditions for its occurrence and the insights produced by it. Baumgarten’s aesthetics exists in a similar way, but applies to our every waking moment. 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. Artists like Carsten Höller and Olafur Eliasson who reference the pure sciences would agree, but so would artists working with documentary, sculpture, film, performance or even drawing. In other words, Baumgarten’s Aesthetica is apposite for the conceptual–theoretical turn of art in the last century – a turn away from the virtues of perfected artistic techniques – that has impacted upon every medium, from painting to video installation.

According to its inventor, the discipline of aesthetics required its practitioners to communicate their ideas with others while anticipating the future. It’s easy to imagine the impact of Baumgarten’s thinking on other eras. A couple centuries before his birth, neologisms like ‘heterocosmology’ would have earned him a one-way ticket to a flaming stake. 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.
Baumgarten’s writing, however stodgy, has a creativity, persistence and charm that contemporary theorists often overlook. 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. If you can’t wait for it, and can’t read Latin, then brush up on your German (or your Italian) and enjoy the musings of a brilliant, and beautiful, mind.

1 Alexander G. Baumgarten, Ästhetik, Felix Meiner Verlag, Hamburg, 2007
2 Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, Historia Estetyki I, II, III, Ossolineum, Warsaw, 1962–7, and Götz Pochat, Geschichte der Ästhetik und Kunsttheorie, DuMont Buchverlag, Cologne, 1986
3 Aesthetica, Vita e Pensiero, Milan, 1992; Aesthetica, Aesthetica Edizione, Palermo, 2000
4 See Aux sources de l’esthétique, ed. by Jean-François Goubet and Gérard Raulet, Éditions de la maison des sciences de l’homme, Paris, 2005, p 105. This book features not only this key paragraph but also excerpts from Baumgarten’s lecture notes, which are unfortunately not included in the new Meiner Latin-German edition
5 Ästhetik, op. cit., p. 10
6 Aux sources de l’esthétique, op. cit., p. 111
7 Pochat, op. cit., p. 383