Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (July 17, 1714 – May 26, 1762) was a German philosopher. He was a follower of Leibniz and Christian Wolff, and gave the term aesthetics its modern meaning. While Baumgarten saw himself as only a modest developer of the Wolffian system, and none of his particular views are particularly noteworthy, he nevertheless played an important role in the progression of German philosophy from Leibniz and Wolff to Kant and the later German Idealists. Baumgarten resisted the idea that our mental life was best described in logical terms, and insisted that certain features of our perception (most clearly manifested in our perceptions of artwork) required a somewhat different philosophical approach.
Baumgarten was born in Berlin in 1714, ten years before Kant and two years before Leibniz's death. He was educated at an orphanage at Halle, which had been founded and run by August Hermann Francke and which was wholeheartedly devoted to the Pietist movement and had become one of its central institutions. His dissertation at Halle, Meditationes philosophicae de nonnullis ad poema pertinentibus, focused on poetry, foreshadowing the philosophical discipline to which his name is most often connected. After spending another two years in Halle teaching (during which he published his Metaphysica, which Kant used as a textbook in his lectures), he took a post as a professor at Frankfurt on the Oder. While there, he continued writing, producing the first edition of what may be his most important work, the Aesthetica in 1750. He died at Frankurt on the Oder in 1762.
During the most productive part of Baumgarten's career, German philosophy was unambiguously dominated by the work of Christian Wolff, whose philosophical starting point had been the systematic work of the arch-rationalist Leibniz. Wolff believed that all truths were based on the principle of non-contradiction (i.e. for any proposition P, it is not the case that both P and not P). This fundamental tenet led Wolff to engage in a vast project of conceptual analysis, attempted to reduce as many things as possible to definitions from which the logical consistency or inconsistency of various notions could be simply demonstrated.
Following Descartes, Wolff saw the ideas encountered in sensation as those whose content was presented in the most obscure way. Refined philosophical notions, on the other hand, made their content obvious, and were thus described as more 'clear and distinct' than those provided by the senses. This meant that the process of philosophy, in a sense, was in opposition to sensation and perception (such a view contrasts sharply with the metaphilosophical views of such empiricists as Locke and Hume).
Baumgarten identified himself as a Wolffian, and much of his work amounts to alternative presentations of Wolff's philosophy. Nevertheless, Baumgarten believed that there was more to be said about the way that ideas appear to us in sensation and perception than that they were simply a confused version of ideas that might be apprehended purely intellectually. Certain pieces of art, he noted, have a way of making their content clear in perception in a way quite unlike the clarity of a mathematician's definition. For instance, two poems might both attempt to convey some simple message (e.g. "be courageous!"), yet one might do so in a much forceful way. A skilled poet has a sense of what stylistic devises are responsible for such force, and so appears to have a grasp on some set of rules, yet these rules appear to be rather unlike rules of logic or conceptual analysis.
Baumgarten described this sort of clarity as 'extensive clarity,' and coined the term 'aesthetics' to describe the philosophical project of delineating those rules that are responsible for giving extensive clarity to sensible objects. Baumgarten's particular formulations of rules were little more than vague gestures, the fundamental idea proved extraordinarily influential (helped in part by having an appropriate term - this itself being a bit of support for Baumgarten's claim!).
The term 'aesthetics' is still used today to describe the philosophy of art. Yet Baumgarten's original meaning for the term was slightly more general, closer to: 'the science of the senses.' This latter sense is the one with which the term was used by Baumgarten's successor, the towering Immanuel Kant. Kant, who used Baumgarten's metaphysics textbook as a teacher for most of his university career, entitled the first substantial portion of his 1781 Critique of Pure Reason as the 'Transcendental Aesthetic.' There, Kant did not attempt to describe the rules behind art (though this was to be one of the main subjects of his 1790 Critique of Judgment), but rather described what he took to be certain aspects of sensation that could not be reduced to intellectual concepts (namely, space and time). Later in the Critique, Kant criticized the Leibnizian system for failing to recognize the autonomy of just those aspects of our mental life. The influence of Baumgarten on this point, which is a central one in the Kantian system, is fairly clear.
Little of Baumgarten's work is translated. One exception is:
All links retrieved January 9, 2013.
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