Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb

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Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb (1714-1762): German Philosopher.

A. G. Baumgarten undertook the first systematic philosophy of art. Born in Berlin, Baumgarten was educated in a Pietistic orphanage run by August Hermann Franke. He later earned a degree in philosophy and theology at Halle, where he became a disciple of Christian Wolff. In 1738, Baumgarten began teaching at the university, where he published textbooks on metaphysics (Metaphysica, 1739) and ethics (Ethica Philosophica, 1740); and, in 1740, he took a position at Frankfurt an der Oder, where he taught until his death in 1762.

Baumgarten extended Wolffian rationalism to include what he called “aesthetics,” the systematic study of the faculty of sensible knowledge. While Wolff had only allowed for the cognitive perfection of the senses, Baumgarten envisioned a science of the beautiful regulated by criteria derived from the senses themselves. As expounded in the Meditationes Philosophicae de Nonnullis ad Poema Pertinentibus (1735) and the (unfinished) two-volume Aesthetica (1750, 1758), Baumgarten’s theory of knowledge, or “gnoseology,” claims that the understanding and reason can through logic refine the senses into clear and distinct ideas of perfection, and non-intellectual perception can clearly, but not distinctly, represent such ideas. The artistic depiction of a perfection embodies truth as well, as, for example, in the poetic portrayal of a moral ideal.

Although Baumgarten is not the founder of aesthetic theory, its centrality in his system inaugurated the modern concern with the arts as a properly philosophical subject. His project was extended by Mendelssohn, Moses and Sulzer, Johann Georg, and later influenced the aesthetic philosophies of Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim, Kant, Immanuel, and Hegel, among others.

Further Reading:

Egbert Witte, Logik ohne Dornen: Die Rezeption von A. G. Baumgartens Ästhetik im Spannungsfeld von logischen Begriff und ästhetischer Anschauung, 2000.

Matthew Altman

Central Washington University