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Cognitive Aesthetics in Classical German Philosophy

von Andrej Démuth (Autor:in) Michaela Rušinová (Autor:in)
Monographie 172 Seiten
Reihe: Spectrum Slovakia, Band 29


In the book, we shall attempt to focus attention on two basic factors of aesthetics as a philosophical discipline. The first is the presentation of the fundamental historical concepts within the aesthetics of German idealism with some crucial concepts, ideas and constructs highlighted which are characteristic of its leading representatives. The second aim is discussions regarding the structure of sensuality and the sources of feelings of pleasure and its relationship to the higher cognitive functions in aesthetic judgements, the structure and nature of the neuronal correlates of aesthetic experience, the individual and socially conditioned creation of an ideal, but also the influence of various social beliefs on the formation of taste in recent cognitive-aesthetical research.


  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • Contents
  • Aesthetics in Classical German Philosophy (and Current Cognitive Science)
  • Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten and the Birth of Aesthetics as Gnoseologia Inferior in German Thinking
  • The Focal Point of Modern Aesthetics in the Receptive-Reflective Concept of Immanuel Kant
  • An Attempt to Defragment an Individual and the Aesthetic Holism of German Romanticism as a Reaction to Kant’s Rationalism
  • Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling’s Concept of Beauty Viewed through the Philosophy of Identity
  • Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Dynamic Aesthetics in Abstracto et Concreto
  • Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche – the Aesthetics of Will
  • Phenomenology as Aesthetics and Vice Versa
  • The Heritage of German Aesthetic Idealism – Aesthetics as a Science of the Cognition of the Beautiful, Neuroaesthetics
  • References
  • About Authors
  • Series index

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Aesthetics in Classical German Philosophy (and Current Cognitive Science)

Andrej Démuth

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As Joseph Carew and Sean J. McGrath said, “The ‘death’ of German Idealism has been decried innumerable times since its revolutionary inception, whether it be by the 19th-century critique of Western metaphysics, phenomenology, contemporary French philosophy, or analytic philosophy” (Carew, McGrath 2016, 1). Classical German philosophy, or German idealism, represents an important and, from an ideological point of view, a very influential part of the history of philosophy, and its heritage has shaped science and especially the culture of the “Western” way of life more than we often realise.1 Kant’s perception of cognition (Kritik der reinen Vernunft), his idea of deontological and categorical morality, his idea of a free and hospitable cosmopolitism and linear history heading towards an enlightened rationality and the eternal peace have influenced society and the legal norms not only in Europe but also throughout the whole world. In a similar way, we can reflect on the influence and heritage of Hegel’s legacy on the perception of the dialectic of history, society and understanding of the objectification of the spirit, Schelling’s understanding of nature and art and the influence of Fichte on the creation of the concept of the German nation, as well as the modern psychological understanding of the subject, psychoanalyses or, from a different point of view, the cultural and nation-awakening influence of the German Romantics.

However, the term itself, “Classical German Philosophy” or “German Idealism”, represents a very intricate and controversial topic. As we know, from the 17th to 19th centuries “Germany” did not exist (after the Peace of Westphalia was concluded in 1648 there was only a loose grouping of larger or smaller territorial units, which formally belonged under the authority of the Sacrum Romanum Imperium Nationis Germanicae).2 It was rather cities that we can speak of as centres of education and culture (the university in Königsberg – today the Russian city of Kaliningrad, universities and academies of sciences in Berlin, Halle, Jena and Weimar). Although a powerful state unit – Prussia3 – originated later on, in Kant’s times, we ←9 | 10→can only speak of Germany as a unified state entity – an empire – from 1871 onwards. Prussia and “Germany” thus included territories and states which today we do not perceive as German (Poland, Baltic countries, parts of the Lands of the Bohemian Crown, southern Denmark and a part of Belgium). Hence, by the term “German”4 we do not primarily mean belonging to a certain nation but rather as the language in which many authors wrote, although several of the crucial works from this period (e.g. Baumgarten’s Aesthetica and Kant’s early works Meditationum quarundam de igne succincta delineatio (1755) and Principiorum primorum cognitionis metaphysicae nova dilucidatio (1755)) were still written in Latin. It was from the times of Christian Wolff, who, to use Kant’s words, taught German to the Germans through his philosophical dictionaries, that the German language became a philosophical medium that enabled independent creative and precise thinking. And it is the common language, for some specific topics, as well as certain specialities of “German” thinking that characterise what forms the so-called German classical idealism.

The use of the adjective “classical” is likewise questionable and many authors do not even use it. The variety, breadth, but especially the influence which “German” philosophy exercised on European philosophy and culture from 1781 until 1840 (this the standard delimitation of this period)5 and on the shaping of the “spirit of Germanhood” can only possibly be compared to the golden period of the classical ancient philosophy (Socrates, Plato, Aristotle).6 And this is not only because of the chronological, ideological and personal closeness of its main representatives (Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel),7 but especially due to the richness of the topics and movements which originated in that period, often as an immediate reaction to the thoughts and critique of opposing points of view.8 The thought movement which, besides others, is represented by Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Gottlob Ernst Schulze, Karl Leonhard Reinhold (populariser of Kant in Jena), Friedrich Schleiermacher, Salomon Maimon, August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel, Dorothea and Caroline Schlegel, Novalis (Friedrich von ←10 | 11→Hardenberg), Ludwig Tieck, Clemens Brentano, Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Johann Christian Friedrich Hölderlin and others cannot be wholly and sufficiently rendered through the philosophy of the mentioned quartet of its leading thinkers. If that happens, there is inevitably a considerable distortion of its image.

Under the term “classical” we usually have in mind the philosophy of the “classics” (Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, etc.) who worked in the classical period and led a lively dialogue with the Romantics, but also that the majority of the post-Kant thinkers attempted, in their metaphysics, to return to a point before the critical period of Kant – that is traditional metaphysical thinking. That means not only the immediate successors of the “Classical” period – the Hegelian school, neo-Kantists, but also Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and German phenomenologists. In an effort to provide the most comprehensive explanation possible, it is good to also remark on how they dealt with the philosophy of German classical idealism. In our study we shall, as a consequence, step beyond the historical framework of German idealism as delimited by Hegel’s death and we shall also focus on the legacy left behind by this school of thought.

Finally, a few words on the understanding of the concept of “idealism”. In the Anglo-Saxon world, idealism is usually linked with the names of George Berkeley and John Stuart Mill as an expression of a certain epistemic scepticism regarding the possibility of the cognisance of something beyond the scope of our perceptions (ideas) and especially on questioning materialism. It seems that in German philosophy this notion draws rather on the tradition of Platonism.9 The concept of idealism in German thinking acquired various forms, from Kant’s transcendental, through Fichte’s subjective, Schelling’s objective, to the absolute from Hegel. What links them all is the conviction that the world as we comprehend it is given to us exclusively in our imagination, in the form of its appearance and ideas. Thus they do not aim to question some metaphysical and material existence of the world per se, but rather to point out that the world is given to our consciousness and for our consciousness; that it is structured by the form of our thinking. Therefore almost all those thinkers who have followed after Kant have attempted to reveal that which may be found more deeply beyond the world as an image (for Schopenhauer, who considered himself a transcendental idealist, it was the will, for Hegel the absolute spirit, for Schelling, Nature initially unconscious but intelligent ...). There is no doubt ←11 | 12→that Nietzsche builds on the foundations of the Kantian legacy, which he disarranges and reconstructs again, just as without Kant we cannot understand Husserl’s and Heidegger’s methodological call “back to the things themselves!” and the return to the revelation of the original phenomenality of things; that is how they appear to us in our consciousness and for our consciousness. The idealism of their philosophy comes from the faith in the reality of appearance, in the reality of our perception and in the fundamentally consciousness-contaminated secularity of the world which we try to get to know.

In this book, we shall therefore attempt to focus on an analysis of the main ideas and ideological legacy of the representatives of classical German philosophy or German idealism in the field which characterises this stage in the history of philosophy – aesthetics.

This is because aesthetics as a philosophical discipline originated within German idealism. Its name was traditionally derived from the work of Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten Aesthetica, the first volume of which appeared as early as 1750 and, on the insistence of the publisher, was supplemented by a second in 1758 (Guyer 2014a). The history of reflections about beauty as an independent area of philosophical thinking is undoubtedly somewhat older and besides the very beginning ascribed to the Pythagoreans, Plato (Symposium) or Aristotle (Poetica) and their several successors in the medieval period (Boethius (De institutione musica), Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica), ...)10; its modern roots may be found in the French philosophers (Abbé Jean-Baptiste Du Bos: Réflexzeions critiques sur la poésie et sur la peinture – 1719) and also in the history of the British School of Taste (the Earl of Shaftesbury: Characteristics – 1711, Joseph Addison: Spectator Essays on The Pleasures of the Imagination – 1712, Francis Hutcheson: An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue – 1725, Edmund Burke: A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful – 1757, David Hume: Of the Standard of Taste – 1757). The true beginnings of aesthetics as an independent philosophical discipline, however, may only be identified as late as the German-language environment of the mid-18th century.

The Leibniz-Wolffian tradition together with Gottsched’s considerations of truth and imagination (Johann Christoph Gottsched: Schriften zur Literatur – 1729, Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst für die Deutschen – 1730 and the works of his critics: Jacob Bodmer, Johann Jacob Breitinger: Die Discourse der Mahlern – 1721, Breitinger: Critische Dichtkunst – 1740) made ←12 | 13→Baumgarten consider beauty as an analogy of rational cognition. In his work Aesthetica (1750/2007), beauty is situated in aesthesis (Gr. aesthesis = the sensory) and aesthetics is thus understood as a “science about sensory cognition”. “Aesthetics (the theory of the liberal arts, the logic of the lower capacities of cognition [gnoseologia inferior], the art of thinking beautifully, the art of the analogon rationis) is the science of sensible cognition” (Aesthetica, §1).

As Paul Guyer demonstrates, “Baumgarten’s Meditations on Poetry conclude with his famous introduction of the term ‘aesthetics’: ‘The Greek philosophers and the Church fathers have always carefully distinguished between the aistheta and the noeta’, that is, between objects of sense and objects of thought, and while the latter, that is, ‘what can be cognized through the higher faculty’ of mind, are ‘the object of logic, the aistheta are the subject of the episteme aisthetike or AESTHETICS’, the science of perception” (Meditationes, §CXVI, 86 after Guyer 2014a). Aesthetics thus became an independent science of sensuality, with a specific subject for research, with a methodology and a terminological inventory.

Baumgarten’s action would not have been successful had it not found its adherents. Among them was his pupil – Georg Friedrich Meier, who simultaneously with Baumgarten wrote his Anfangsgründe aller schönen Künste und Wissenschaften (1750) and especially later (1757), Versuch einer allgemeinen Auslegungskunst. In the work Theoretische Lehre der Gemüthsbewegungen, Meier borrowed Baumgarten’s understanding of aesthetics as the science of sensory cognition, but he supplemented it with the dimension of emotionality. “This science concerns itself with everything that can be assigned in more detail to sensible cognition and to its presentation. Now since the passions have a strong influence on sensible cognition and its presentation, aesthetics for its part can rightly demand a theory of the emotions” (Meier, Theoretische Lehre der Gemüthsbewegungen, §7, 7 after Guyer 2014a). Marcus Herz, Kant’s former student, in 1776 published an essay Versuch über die Ursachen der Verschiedenheit des Geschmacks and another follower of Kant’s – Karl Heinrich Heydenreich – published an extensive work System der Ästhetik in 1790.11 The definitive establishment of aesthetics as an independent philosophical discipline, however, came as late as Kant’s Kritik der Urteilskraft (1790).12 Kant, separating aesthetics ←13 | 14→from logic and cognition on one hand and from the practical and moral considerations on the other – thus determining the three very fundamental disciplines of European philosophy – rendered in his aesthetic work the matter of beauty and aesthetic judgement in such a way that almost all the more important “German” philosophers of the post-Kant period felt bound to express their opinion thereof. Almost every one of them (possibly with the exception of Fichte) wrote his own aesthetics or a philosophy of art, and for many of them it was particularly the issue of beauty and its relevant evaluation that became the cardinal issue for their philosophical reflections.


ISBN (Hardcover)
2019 (Oktober)
Psychology Neuroaesthetics German Idealism Kant Romanticism Phenomenology Cognition
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien. 2019. 172 S.

Biographische Angaben

Andrej Démuth (Autor:in) Michaela Rušinová (Autor:in)

Andrej Démuth is a Professor of philosophy at the Comenius University in Bratislava. He studied philosophy and psychology, and is the author of many books and articles on cognition and the relationship between reflected and non reflected knowledge. Michaela Rušinová studied philosophy at Trnava University. Her research interests cover the history of German philosophy, epistemology as well as aesthetics from cognitive-scientifical point of view.


Titel: Cognitive Aesthetics in Classical German Philosophy