Dates: 1714-1762

Nationality: German

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten was born in Berlin as the fifth of seven sons of the pietist pastor of the garrison, Jacob Baumgarten and his wife Rosina Elisabeth. Both his parents died early and he was taught by Martin Georg Christgau where he learned Yiddish and became interested in Latin Poetry. Whilst words may change their meaning through cultural developments anyway, Baumgarten’s reappraisal of aesthetics is often seen as the key moment in the development of aesthetic philosophy. Previously the word had merely meant ‘sensibility’ or ‘responsiveness to stimulation of the senses’ in its use by ancient writers. 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 lead 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. Without it, there would be no basis for aesthetic debate as there would be no objective criterion, basis for comparison, or reason from which one could develop an objective argument. Baumgarten appropriated the word aesthetics, which had always meant sensation, to mean taste or “sense” of beauty. In so doing, he gave the word a different significance, thereby inventing its modern usage. The word had been used differently since the time of the ancient Greeks to mean the ability to receive stimulation from one or more of the five bodily senses. In his Metaphysic, § 451, Baumgarten defined taste, in its wider meaning, as the ability to judge according to the senses, instead of according to the intellect. Such a judgment of taste is based on feelings of pleasure or displeasure. A science of aesthetics would be, for Baumgarten, a deduction of the rules or principles of artistic or natural beauty from individual “taste.” Baumgarten may have been motivated to respond to Pierre Bonhours’ opinion, published in a pamphlet in the late 1600s, that Germans were incapable of appreciating art and beauty.

Wikipedia contributors. “Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 8 Mar. 2010. Web. 12 Mar. 2010. <en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Special:Cite&page=Alexander_Gottlieb_Baumgarten&id=348439703>

He is remembered for the invention of philosophical aesthetics (he introduced the term ‘aesthetics’), based initially on Cartesian principles. His writings also include works in logic, metaphysics, ethics and political philosophy. With the development of a philosophical aesthetics in the Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertinentibus (Reflections on Poetry; 1735) and the incomplete Aesthetica (1750–58), Baumgarten revolutionized both the dominant early Enlightenment philosophy of Christian Wolff (1679–1754) and the philosophy of art. In contrast to Joachim Christoph Gottsched’s reduction of the judgement and creation of works of art to the Wolffian notion of reason, Baumgarten extended the bounds of reason to include the experience of art. He did so by identifying beauty with sensible perfection, defining this as an aesthetic perfection that differs from the rational perfection of logic but is no less valid.

The fragmentary state of the Aesthetica has led to considerable confusion over the precise nature and intent of Baumgarten’s aesthetics. Some idea of the scope of the project can be gained, however, from the early Reflections. Here Baumgarten organised his material according to the rhetorical distinction between the ‘invention’, ‘disposition’ and ‘elocution’ of the elements of a discourse. The ‘invention’ of an aesthetic discourse involves the discovery of ‘perfect sensate representations’, which are, in Cartesian terms, clear (i.e. immediately recognizable), if lacking the distinctness (i.e. not yet judged to be particular) of logical representations. The ‘disposition’ of these representations considers the ways in which they may be ordered in an aesthetic discourse, while their ‘elocution’ involves the technical means through which they are presented in a discourse. Although Baumgarten concentrated on poetry in the Reflections, it is clear that his notion of an aesthetic discourse can be extended to other arts. This is one of the objects of the Aesthetica, although Baumgarten did not live to complete more than part of the section on the invention of a discourse. There are, however, intimations of this extension in the Reflections, as in his discussion of the Ut pictura poesis proposition. Poetry is like painting at the level of invention—in so far as both seek to maximize the perfection of sensate representations—but the two arts differ in their modes of disposition and elocution.

Caygill, Howard. “Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb.” Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online. 12 Mar. 2010 <www.oxfordartonline.com/subscriber/article/grove/art/T006978>

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