A.G. Baumgarten, The Man Who ‘Invented’ Aesthetics
On the 26th of May 1762, German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten was born in Frankfurt (Oder), Brandenburg. He famously introduced the current definition of the philosophical discipline of aesthetics in his Halle master’s thesis when he was only twenty-one years of age. He called this epistêmê aisthetikê, or the science of what is sensed and imagined (Baumgarten, Meditationes, §CXVI, pp. 86–7). The philosopher merely appropriated the word aesthetics, which had always meant sensation in ancient Greek, adding to its significance the meaning of “taste” or “sense” of beauty, the usage currently employed in modern times.
Nowadays, aesthetics is universally perceived as the branch of philosophy that deals with art, defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “taste, or of the perception of the beautiful”. The discipline in its modern form is primarily concerned with issues surrounding the creation, interpretation, and ultimate appreciation of works of art, and so it involves how the experience of such material is mediated through the individual sensitivity of the beholder, and the way the experience of it is shaped through presentation by cultural conventions such as the exhibition and review. In his Metaphysics, § 451, Baumgarten defined taste, in its wider meaning, as the ability to judge according to the senses, instead of according to the intellect, based on feelings of pleasure or displeasure. Baumgarten wanted to pin down the basis of a science of aesthetics by attempting a deduction of the rules or principles of artistic or natural beauty from individual “taste.”
Due to its very subjective nature, aesthetics has been a controversial discipline ever since these first definitions were formulated. Here Peter Fenves quotes Baumgarten and his incipient struggles in finding a definition for such an exhaustive concept: “In 1750, when Alexander Baumgarten, (…) published the first volume of his massive, incomplete, and rarely read treatise entitled Aesthetica, he anticipated the tone that much of the controversy would adopt: “The following objections can be raised against our science: 1) it is so widely conceived that it cannot be exhausted in a single book, a single lecture course”-and a fortiori a single issue of a scholarly journal. After conceding the point, Baumgarten immediately responds: “But something is better than nothing [Sed praestat aliquid nihilo].” as the “science of sensory cognition [scientia cognitionis sensitivae]”, aesthetics, for Baumgarten, can guarantee its coherence and unity by defining the goal of sensory cognition as such. Its name is beauty: “The goal of aesthetics [aesthetices finis] is the perfection of sensory cognition, which is what is meant by ‘beauty”. Aesthetics is defined-and guaranteed to be a finite enterprise-by virtue of the immanent aim of its internal object. Philosophical science, as rational cognition, grasps the forms and principles by which sensory cognition comes to perfection.” (Peter Fenves, An Introduction to “Aesthetics and the Disciplines”, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 35, No. 3, Aesthetics and the Disciplines, Spring, 2002).
Whilst Baumgarten is credited with being the first to use the word “aesthetics”, defining ultimate beauty as gathered through our human senses as perfection, it was Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment of 1790 over half a century later that cemented the modern usage of the term. With Kant, beauty became a subjective relation, not a property. Kant held that our feelings about beauty differ greatly from those about pleasure or moral virtue, as they are disinterested. They come naturally, without searching or reasoning. Humans feel the need to acquire pleasurable objects, and to promote moral goodness, but beauty has no use for us except that it exists and we appreciate it. Human judgements of taste and our aesthetic response is universal and unmotivated by any underlying interests. The resulting aesthetic pleasure comes naturally from a combination of imaginative input and intuitive perception of an object. In more recent media theory, Walter Benjamin and Marshall McLuhan continued the research of aesthetic perception arguing that it also changes according to social circumstance. Whilst the gallery or museum was the only space where viewers could traditionally have an aesthetic experience, this has changed tremendously in modern times: the reproductive nature of photography, television, social media have altered the functions of the artworks reproduced and consequently, the way in which we perceive them. Baumgarten’s first use of the word ‘aesthetics’ as a definition of beauty seen as sensory perfection may seem naive in retrospect, but it provides the vital foundation to an entire history of musing about the appreciation of art.