Sulzer, Johann Georg

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Sulzer, Johann Georg (1720-1779): Swiss philosopher and aesthetician.

Born in Winterthur, Sulzer studied theology in Zurich before moving to Berlin in the 1740s. Following his appointment as Professor of Mathematics at the Joachimsthal Gymnasium in 1747, he was in 1750 elected to the philosophy department of the Berlin Academy and became its Director for a short time before his death. Sulzer finished his career in the Berlin Ritterakademie, to which he was appointed in 1763. Principally focusing on aesthetics, Sulzer’s philosophical works date from his early Berlin years and exhibit no clear system or easy reduction to central beliefs. Nevertheless, the eclecticism of his chief work, the Encyclopedia of Fine Arts (1771-74), proved useful for and influential on Kant, Immanuel and Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von, for example, as well as important for music aesthetics and compositional theory. Notably borrowing from British empiricism and French and German classicism, the Encyclopedia expanded the science of sensation begun in Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb's Aesthetica (1750) but with a distinct emphasis on psychology rather than rational thought. Sulzer dislocated taste from pure intellect and moved it towards sentiment. This had strong implications for a burning question of the time, the aesthetic status of instrumental music. While Sulzer espoused opera as the chief dramatic musical art and his assertions regarding the arts never amounted to a complete rejection of their supposed moral and representational functions, his view of the symphony, the grandest instrumental art, moves toward the sublime role later given to it by the Romantics.

Further Reading:

Bellamy Hosler, Changing Aesthetic Views of Instrumental Music in 18th-Century Germany, 1981.

Kevin O’Regan