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British Journal of Aesthetics, Vol. 42, No. 4, October 2002


Steffen W. Gross

Aesthetics is today widely seen as the philosophy of art and/or beauty, limited to artworks and their perception. In this paper, I will argue that today’s aesthetics and the original programme developed by the German Enlightenment thinker Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten in the first half of the eighteenth century have only the name in common. Baumgarten did not primarily develop his aesthetics as a philosophy of art. The making and understanding of artworks had served in his original programme only as an example for the application of his philosophy. What he really attempts to present is an alternative philosophy of knowledge that goes beyond the purely rationalist, empiricist, and sensualist approaches. In short, Baumgarten transcends the old opposition between rationalism and sensualism. His core theme is the improvement (perfectio) of human knowledge and cognition and the ways to reach this goal. The study of Baumgarten’s foundational works on aesthetics should not be undertaken merely out of antiquarian interest. I will argue, instead, that Baumgarten’s importance and contemporary relevance lies in this: that his Aesthetica may serve as a profound contribution to the philosophy of the cultural sciences and humanities. Revisiting Baumgarten’s original idea of aesthetics will lead us to a more inclusive concept of that philosophical discipline.


A LITTLE over 250 years ago, in 1750, the Frankfurt 1 philosophy professor Alex- ander Gottlieb Baumgarten published the first part of his two-volume Aesthetica and founded a newphilosophical discipline—modern aesthetics. Almost every philosophical dictionary tells us that aesthetics owes its name to Baumgarten. Unfortunately, Baumgarten wrote and published all his major works in an often cryptic Latin and so even during his lifetime the discussion of his highly original approach was limited to a relatively small circle of academics. The attention of the wider public soon turned to Baumgarten’s disciple, Georg Friedrich Meier, and particularly to his Anfangsgründe aller schönen Wissenschaften [Principles of All Beautiful Sciences], written in a popular and accessible German. Meier’s concept of

1 Baumgarten taught philosophy from 1740 until his untimely death in 1762 as a full professor (ordinarius) at the Viadrina-University of Frankfurt/Oder. This is the east German Frankfurt, not to be confused with Frankfurt/Main. The University of Frankfurt/Main was founded only after World War One in 1919, while the Viadrina-University Frankfurt/Oder was established in 1506.

© British Society of Aesthetics 2002



aesthetics as a philosophy of art and its production became influential in both the debates of the academic community and ordinary language. Meier frequently maintained that he was following Baumgarten and using the conceptual mean- ings developed by his teacher, so that Meier’s concept of ‘aesthetica’ was taken for Baumgarten’s. Almost nobody studied the original Baumgarten any more, and even today there is no complete modern edition and translation of Baumgarten’s writings, either in German or English. ‘Guardians of the sacred Baumgartian flame are rare these days’, said Francis Sparshott in his Ryle Lectures, published as The Future of Aesthetics in 1998. 2 But why should we spend our time on a book that was unfortunately never completed, on a fragment which is more than 250 years old? Reading Baumgarten is indeed sometimes a torture. Even one of his most sympathetic critics, Herder, who called Baumgarten the ‘real Aristotle of our time’, 3 complained of his ‘barbaric and dreadful language, his Neo-Latin, his scholastic style’. 4 None the less, studying Baumgarten today is well worth doing, despite all the difficulties, and offers us important insights. In this paper, I will argue that Baumgarten did not develop his aesthetics primarily as a philosophy of art. The making and understanding of art had been used in his original programme only as an example (among others) of the application of his philosophy. Poetry apart, Baumgarten himself had no special relation to fine art and the empirical material he included is less than marginal. What he really attempts to provide is an alternative approach to the philosophy of human knowledge, experience, and perception that goes beyond the purely rationalist, empiricist, and sensualist approaches. In short, Baumgarten tran- scends the old opposition between rationalism and sensualism. His core theme is the improvement of human knowledge and cognition and how to reach this goal. To support this thesis, I will concentrate on two of Baumgarten’s most central notions, which are essential for the Aesthetica: his concept of beauty (pulchritudo) and his concept of completion (perfectio). Secondly, I will attempt to explain his image of man, that is, his anthropological conception. Baumgarten considers the human being as a felix aestheticus. His felix aestheticus is by no means merely the artist or the poet: instead he is the whole man, accommodating within himself a great number of sometimes conflicting or contradictory faculties, forces, and poietic powers, a great number of different aims, some of them incommensurable with each other. Man cannot, and—this is the ethical imperative of Baumgarten’s Aesthetica—ought not to, be reduced to either a purely rational or a purely sensual being. Given this unavoidable tension of different faculties, felix aestheticus can be

2 Francis Sparshott, The Future of Aesthetics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), p. 5.

3 See Johann Gottfried Herder, Fragment über die Ode, in Bernhard Suphan (ed.), Herders Sämmtliche Werke, vol. 32 (Berlin, 1899), p. 83.

4 See Johann Gottfried Herder, Von Baumgartens Denken in seinen Schriften, in Bernhard Suphan (ed.), Herders Sämmtliche Werke, vol. 32 (Berlin, 1899), pp. 178-192, particularly p. 189.



interpreted as the sensible creator and developer of his own world, that is, human culture. Cassirer, one of the very fewleading modern philosophers who worked explicitly on Baumgarten, wrote in his Philosophy of the Enlightenment 5 that Baum- garten’s Aesthetica above all underpins a theory of man. I will argue, furthermore, that Baumgarten’s importance for our times may lie in this: that the Aesthetica is a profound contribution to the philosophy of the cultural sciences and humanities (‘Kulturwissenschaften’ in the meaning of the term in Cassirer). Revisiting Baumgarten’s original aesthetics will lead us to broader perspectives and to a more inclusive concept of that philosophical discipline. Actually to achieve this is, of course, a challenge. The study of the history of ideas, and of the history of enlightenment aesthetics in particular, is not undertaken just for pleasure or out of antiquarian interest. On the contrary, there are at least three important motives at work. The first is to come to terms with and to understand the plurality of views on the human being and his faculties and capacities that was possible in the eighteenth century. I am convinced that Enlightenment thinkers still retain the power to inspire; that some of their insights are more comprehensive and, in certain respects, more ‘modern’ than the achievements of their successors and heirs in later centuries. A second goal is to achieve an understanding of howwe moderns (or post-moderns) have become what we are, based on an analysis of our evolution that includes and considers the restrictions which emerged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The third aim is to judge the worth of various models of human nature and human faculties.


Since Baumgarten’s peculiar and novel approach to philosophy and human knowledge can be understood only against the background of the specific situ- ation of his time, against the background of the intellectual climate of his years as a student and later as a lecturer, it seems both necessary and helpful to start with some brief remarks about Baumgarten’s own development and, in particular, his scientific socialization as a philosopher and aesthetician. 6 Born in Berlin in 1714, the fifth child of a Protestant clergyman of extraordinarily com- prehensive learning, he lost his mother at the age of three and his father at the age of eight. His relatives then sent him to the orphanage in Halle founded by the professor of divinity, Hermann August Francke. This orphanage was part of one

5 Ernst Cassirer devoted the final section of his powerful study The Philosophy of the Enlightenment (Princeton, 1955, ch. VII, §VI, ‘The Foundation of Systematic Aesthetics—Baumgarten’, pp. 338–360 [first published in German in 1932]) to Baumgarten and his aesthetic theory.

6 There are two biographies of Baumgarten written by his contemporaries and disciples Meier and Abbt: Georg Friedrich Meier, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgartens Leben (Halle, 1763), and Thomas Abbt, Leben und Charakter Alexander Gottlieb Baumgartens, in Thomas Abbts vermischte Werke, Vierter Theil welcher vermischte Aufsätze enthält (Berlin and Stettin, 1780), pp. 215–244.


of the largest public charities in Europe, created by Francke. It also housed a famous school that prepared orphans and gifted children from poor families for university studies, preferably in theology. From around 1700 until the late 1730s, the University of Halle was the principal centre of German Pietism. Pietism emerged in the late seventeenth century as a reform movement within the Lutheran Church. This new move- ment located the essence of Christianity more in the quality of an individual’s personal sense of his or her relationship to God than in rational assent to the various and often divergent forms of Christian theology. Pietists were hostile to sophisticated theological disputes and tried instead to personalize Christian belief by strengthening inner feelings towards God. Pietism primarily addressed the inner sensibility of man and concentrated on the deepening of sentimentality/ emotionality as the most important faculty, they believed, that humans could have. However, the University of Halle was not only the principal centre of emotionalist Pietism, but a stronghold of rationalist enlightenment too. Christian Wolff, later one of the principal leaders of the German Enlightenment and rationalism, was appointed as a professor in 1706 and taught with great success natural sciences, mathematics, and philosophy, developing a rationalist approach and applying it rigorously. Despite all the tensions between Pietists and rationalist followers of the Enlightenment, there was an intense exchange between them, fruitful for both movements. But around 1718 Halle Pietism became more and more anti-intellectual, doctrinaire, absolutist, and, it must be said, sometimes even autistic in certain respects, and its hostility to all rational approaches to man’s life, his soul, and his beliefs grewrapidly. Wolff ’s writings and lectures now entangled him in serious quarrels with critics led by second-generation Pietist faculty members, particularly Joachim Lange. Primarily the issues had to do with the proper roles of reason, rationality, and faith in human life, and Wolff ’s application of a strict rational method even to the questions of God and religious feelings. Halle’s Pietist faculty of theology claimed to have the last word con- cerning all issues of man’s life, his knowledge, his perceptions, and his relation to God. These were, in brief, the intellectual conditions under which the young Alexander Baumgarten grewup, went to the orphanage school, and later started his studies at the University of Halle. Although the Pietists associated with Lange had successfully removed Wolff in person, his philosophy was by no means dead in Halle, and elsewhere in Prussia, on the contrary, it was proving very attractive, especially to the younger students. Even in the Pietist orphanage, Wolff ’s philosophy was taught secretly; and one of its principal lecturers was Alexander Baumgarten’s elder brother, Sigmund Jacob Baumgarten, later a famous Enlightenment theologian, celebrated by Voltaire as ‘die Krone der deutschen Gelehrten’, the king of German scholars. For Wolff and his disciples the model of



perfect and complete knowledge was mathematics or mechanics. The rigorous application of such models seemed to promise clear, distinct, and self-evident knowledge of maximal certainty by leading to clear and distinct concepts and terms. Mathematics and the natural sciences became the measuring-rod for all other forms of knowledge. Sensual perceptions, aistheta, in contrast, could lead only to ‘dark’ concepts (cognitio confusa) that lack the required lucidity and dis- tinctness and so must fail to reach the status of ‘real’ knowledge. The sensual forces, called facultas inferior, the lower faculties, of human beings were thought of only as a deliverer of sensual data for the ‘higher’ faculties or facultas cognoscitiva superior, that is, rational reasoning, cognitio rationalis resp. intellectualis. In this system, the ‘lower’ faculties were not given a value of their own, they were seen as unable to lead to knowledge from their own resources, but fully dependent on the ‘higher’ faculties, which were thought of as the ‘proper’ human powers. So the rationalist stream in the Enlightenment movement established a clear hierarchy among human faculties and capacities, privileging one-sidedly logical thinking and the capacity to develop distinct concepts and knowledge, and seeing human emotionality primarily as a darkening threat to clear thinking. On the other hand, Pietism concentrated on inner feelings, placed them at the top of the hierarchy, and showed hostility towards logical thinking and abstractions in general. Even as a pupil in the orphanage Alexander Baumgarten had been deeply influenced both by the rationalist stream of the Enlightenment and by Pietism. And he soon developed a deep awareness of the limits of both approaches. Both have their specific advantages, but both have their limitations too: they are unavoidably one-sided. So the traditional dichotomy between rationalism and sensualism must be misconceived: there are no good reasons to assume that one of them, whether cognitio intellectualis or sensual feelings, addresses and expresses the ‘proper’ man in full; neither of them can make a justified claim to offer final solutions to the problems of knowledge and the organization of human cognitive faculties. Cassirer highlighted in particular Baumgarten’s Grenzbewußtsein, his awareness of the limits of every human approach to the real world. Baumgarten’s ‘decisive historical merit’ is, for Cassirer, that he

was not only the outstanding scholastic logician who was a master of all aspects of this discipline, and who developed it to its highest degree of formal perfection, but his real intellectual accomplishment consists in the fact that through his mastery of the subject he became especially conscious of both the intrinsic and the systematic limitations of formal logic. As a result of his consciousness of these limitations, Baumgarten was able to make his original contribution to the history of thought, which lay in the

philosophical foundation of

evolution discloses the immanent weakness of traditional scholastic logic. Baumgarten does not remain a mere ‘artist of reason’; in him that ideal of philosophy is realized which Kant called the ideal of the ‘self-knowledge of reason’. He is a master of analysis; yet his mastery does not lead him to overestimate its value but rather to define

Thus aesthetics evolves from logic, but this


clearly, and to distinguish sharply between, the means and ends of analysis. The highest development of analysis stirs it into productivity again, bringing it to the point where, as if by itself, a new starting-point appears and a new intellectual synthesis opens up. 7

I am convinced that the Aesthetica was born out of the special and stressful circumstances in Halle in the 1720s and 1730s, out of the tensions between Enlightenment rationalism and Pietism that sharpened certain intellectually fertile powers, and made the demand for an alternative theory of knowledge, that is, a more complex theory, more appropriate to ordinary experiences, more and more urgent. No doubt Baumgarten was in search of a third position beyond the traditional division and vertical hierarchization of human faculties, namely the division of man, as such, into a rational or intellectual and a sensual side. Baumgarten’s project in his Aesthetica, first sketched in the final sections of his Master’s thesis of 1735, Meditationes Philosophicae de Nonnullis ad Poema Pertinentibus 8 and further developed in his Metaphysica of 1739 and finally in the Aesthetica of 1750/58, is an attempt to conceive the relation between rational and sensuous powers in a new way: human sensibility and emotionality are neither merely a compensation for rationality nor are they of a ‘lower’ quality. His

aesthetic project asks radical questions. He calls into question the legitimacy of all attempts to erect a hierarchy among human faculties. He calls radically into question the assumption that ‘cognition’ should be only logico-rational, that there should be no additional forms of knowledge of equal legitimacy. And indeed, the life of the unfragmented human spirit does knowother forms. Although Baumgarten continues to operate with the traditional terminology of facultas cognoscitiva inferior resp. superior, which caused and still causes much confusion among interpreters, he seems to be the first Enlightenment thinker who in fact abandoned the old hierarchy in favour of placing its elements on the same level. The important step forward was, then, that there are no ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ powers, but all of them are now thought of as being of the same rank: they differ qualitatively but there is no way to order them hierarchically. The crucial point is that Baumgarten is close to defining the sensuousness of human beings as one of the authentic functions of the human spirit, acknowledging the ‘original, formative power’ of sensuousness and expressing this in the first and still more complex definition of Aesthetica that we find in his Metaphysica of 1739. Here Baumgarten stresses the authentically creative, formative powers of sensitive cognition inseparably connected to the cognitive power: ‘Scientia sensitive cog-

noscendi & proponendi est AESTHETICA,

.’ 9 Cassirer makes this relation still

7 Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, pp. 338–339.

8 Karl Aschenbrenner and William B. Holter edited an English translation of this first published work of Baumgarten. See Reflection on Poetry (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1954).

9 Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Metaphysica [1739] (7th edn, Halle, 1779), §533, p. 187.



more explicit in his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, probably inspired by his readings of Baumgarten’s Aesthetica:

Every authentic function of the human spirit has this decisive characteristic in common with cognition: it does not merely copy but rather embodies an original, formative power. It does not express passively the mere fact that something is present but contains an independent energy of the human spirit through which the simple presence of the phenomenon assumes a definite ‘meaning’, a particular ideational content. This is as true of art as it is of cognition; it as true of myth as of religion. 10

And indeed, to develop his concept of aesthetica, Baumgarten referred explicitly to Aristotle’s notion of aisthesis, that is, sensuous perception, and Aristotle had seen aistheta as closely related to spiritual powers, to nous. I do not hesitate to award to aisthesis the character and status of an ‘authentic function of the human spirit’ in Cassirer’s sense. Seen from the point of viewof theory of knowledge, Baumgarten’s Aesthetica focuses on a realm that has usually been discredited, particularly in ordinary language: the sphere of confused and indistinct perception. Normally ‘confusion’ evokes negative associations, but not so in Baumgarten. He takes the positive viewthat there is an important realm of human experience which cannot (and ought not to) be grasped by means of logical thinking, since the cognitio intel- lectualis aims at generality and builds abstract concepts of an intense, that is, the greatest possible clarity from a logical point of view. But aesthetics is the sphere where rational cognition cannot play a role: on the contrary, it would have damaging effects. Why? Sensuous experiences cannot be resolved into distinct elements that can be analysed separately. A split would destroy them. Abstraction always means losses and impoverishments or, as Baumgarten puts it, in the form of a question: ‘Quid enim est abstractio, si iactura non est?’ 11 To designate this independent province of sensuous cognition, Baumgarten introduces the term sensitivus. In fact, this term had already been used by Wolff in a different manner:

in his Psychologia empirica of 1732 Wolff speaks of an ‘appetitus sensitivus12 in relation to the representations we get through the so-called ‘lower’ faculties. Baumgarten’s introduction of the cognitio sensitiva now relates this term explicitly to a kind of knowledge that is sui generis. The goal of the cognitio sensitiva is the grasp of the special, the particular, in the diversity and complexity of its relations and connections. Abundance, magnitude, richness of being, and live- liness should be preserved in their respective specificity, and we must avoid conceptual reduction and concentration. The most important means to reach this

10 Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, vol. 1: Language (NewHaven: Yale U.P., 1955), p. 78.

11 Baumgarten, Aesthetica (Halle, 1750), §560, p. 363.

12 Christian Wolff, Psychologia empirica (Frankfurt, 1732), §580, p. 440.


goal are aisthesis, sensitive perception, and the cultivation of the inner powers of representation. The central subject-matter of Baumgarten’s Aesthetica is, then, the confused representations which possess what he calls ‘extensive clarity’ (repres- entatio confusa, extensive clarior). 13 ‘Confused’ means here of course not a mental defect but a specific property of this class of representations: it is impossible to divide them into smaller entities or components, they must be dealt with as the complex assemblages that they are. And exactly this is the task of the cognitio sensitiva which Baumgarten defines as follows: ‘COGNITIO SENSITIVA est a potiori desumpta denominatione complexus repraesentationum infra distinctionem subsistentium’ [‘sensitive knowledge is complex representation below the threshold where the analytical separation of discrete elements of that repres- entation becomes possible’]. 14 Baumgarten’s Aesthetica is then a philosophy of a specific manner of grasping reality, grounded in essentially sensuous, sensitive experience and representation. This is exactly the task Baumgarten’s Aesthetica is intended to fulfil: the development and perfection of the capacity for sensitive cognition as such. Or, as Baumgarten puts it himself: ‘Aestheticis finis est perfectio cognitionis sensitivae, qua talis. Haec autem est pulcritido’ [‘The aim of aesthetics as a discipline is the development and improvement of the sensitive knowledge’]. 15 We should reflect on the last part of the first sentence: qua talis means ‘as such’, and with this Baumgarten wishes to make clear, firstly, that the cognitio sensitiva is a (relatively) independent phenomenon and subject of philosophical interest, and secondly that the cognitio sensitiva produces knowledge and concepts different in quality from logical knowledge and concepts. Moreover, in making every effort to meet the goal of perfect sensitive cognition, we experience what he calls beauty, pulchritudo.


In connection with the above quotation from paragraph 14 of Baumgarten’s Aesthetica I should add some more remarks on Baumgarten’s concepts of beauty (pulchritudo) and completion (perfectio). The concept of beauty has had a remarkable career in aesthetics since the eighteenth century. But Baumgarten introduced and used this concept in his Aesthetica in a very special manner, rather different from the psychologized versions of mainstream aesthetics and ordinary language. In Baumgarten, beauty still has nothing to do with the feeling of beauty: when, for example, we look at a piece of art, beauty is not essentially connected with any feeling of pleasure and delight. In Baumgarten, beauty is

13 Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Meditationes Philosophicae de Nonnullis ad Poema Pertinentibus (Halle, 1735), §§16–18.

14 Baumgarten, Aesthetica, §17, p. 7 (my translation).

15 Ibid., §14, p. 6 (my translation).



mainly an intellectual category closely related to his theory of cognition and knowledge. As Baumgarten shows in his paragraph 14, the perfection of sensitive cognition is a precondition for beauty. In Baumgarten, perfectio is not a discrete state but rather an activity, an activity that is everlasting. Human beings are thought of as being unable to reach finally the state of perfection: they are always on the way towards it. So Baumgarten formulated perfectio as the perennial task of completing one’s own capabilities, powers, and knowledge. This gives his aesthetics an extraordinary dynamic. Pulchritudo aims at, through perfectio, the whole, the confused whole [Ganzheit], that is, the whole with all its connections and relations. The perennial task of perfectio is furthermore to cultivate one’s aware- ness of the ‘other side’: Baumgarten knows that every cognitive activity of man, either logico-rational or sensitive, must be an abstracting activity, depending on and preconditioned by the circumstances of one’s own situation—and that implies the task, or, better, the duty, not to take the part for the whole. This duty is expressed by probably one of the most essential parts of Baum- garten’s definition 16 of Aesthetica: his notion of ars pulchre cogitandi, 17 the art of beautiful thinking. Beautiful thinking is a way of thinking that is very much aware of and sensitive to its object, and not to the object alone but to all the relations of that object. Of course, this thinking will always be incomplete, since man cannot grasp the whole from his limited position. But this view opens a theoretical space for a plurality of possible answers, each of them limited in their claims, and that means there is no final, decisive answer. This is indeed an interesting and still important approach that could have altered the method of mainstream Enlightenment rationalism, which Isaiah Berlin describes as the one-sided ‘pursuit of the ideal’. According to Berlin, almost all versions of rationalism are ultimately derived from the so-called ‘Platonic ideal’, consisting of three component beliefs:

in the first place that, as in the sciences, all genuine questions must have one true answer and one only, all the rest being necessarily errors; in the second place, that there must be a dependable path towards the discovery of these truths; in the third place, that the true answers, when found, must necessarily be compatible with one another and form a single whole, for one truth cannot be incompatible with another— that we knew a priori. 18

Indeed, this rationalism still has its strongholds in both the sciences and the

16 The definition, given in §1 of the Aesthetica is in full: ‘Aesthetica (theoria liberalium artium, gnoseologia inferior, ars pulchre cogitandi, ars analogi rationis) est scientia cognitionis sensitivae’ (Baumgarten, Aesthetica, §1, p. 1).

17 See Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, Metaphysica, §533, Aesthetica, §1, respectively.

18 Isaiah Berlin, The Pursuit of the Ideal, in Henry Hardy (ed.), The Crooked Timber of Humanity (Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1990, pp. 5–6).


humanities, and a confrontation with aesthetics, in its capacity as a theory of cognition and knowledge, could help to make clear that orthodox rationalism is a dead end.


‘The problem of the beautiful thus leads not only to the foundation of systematic

.’ 19 I

will finish this paper with a few remarks on Cassirer’s claim that there is the foundation of a newphilosophical anthropology to be found in Baumgarten’s Aesthetica and, moreover, on why his image of man could be important for us today. Baumgarten never intended to write abstract theory separated from so-called ‘real’ life. In spirit, though not in language and style, his philosophical aesthetics is related to the concrete human being. His image of man is both an application of and a precondition for the systematic theory of cognition and knowledge developed in the Aesthetica. Moreover, this image of man suggests a permanent duty for philosophy. Howdoes this come about? Baumgarten demands clearly that philosophy must be more humanistic, that is, it should find its objects in the sphere of ordinary life and not merely in logic. This demand finds its expression in Baumgarten’s newideal of humanity, particularly in his image of the philosopher as a man among men—‘philosophus

homo est inter homines’. 20 According to Baumgarten, the proper felix aestheticus must not concentrate on the development of particular talents and capabilities. The fulfilment of the duty of philosophy requires that no field of knowledge lie fallowand no gift of the mind go unnourished. The philosophical mind must not think itself above the gifts of intuition and imagination; it must be fully endowed with these gifts and it must balance them with the gifts of judgement and interference. The two faces of Baumgarten’s aesthetics—theory of knowledge and philosophical anthropology—mirror each other. To think beautifully, that is, to grasp the object in a way that acknowledges its embeddedness in the various relations that constitute its specific character, unavoidably presupposes a person in a continual process of developing all his powers and senses, and exploring them in all possible directions. This, the foundation stone of Baumgarten’s anthropological conception, must appear quite unorthodox in times like ours, where educational strategies aim to make young people fit for the labour market, that is, to develop only those abilities which promise a ‘return on investment’ in terms of monetary income: all other faculties and senses are devalued and implicitly suppressed. But human beings cannot live by breadwinning alone and it is highly problematic to fragment

aesthetics but to the foundation of a new“philosophical anthropology”

19 Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment, p. 353.

20 Baumgarten, Aesthetica, §6.



human capacities into ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ parts, and to develop them in an unbalanced way. This is the important message of the anthropological side of Baumgarten’s aesthetics.


Let me drawa brief conclusion and, for that purpose, address once more, directly, the introductory question why we have reason today to spend time on Baumgarten and his sometimes obscure writings. A main source of inspiration may lie in Baumgarten’s discovery of sensitive perception both as the essential foundation of man’s experience of and access to reality and as an independent principle for the shaping and reshaping of realities. Sensitive knowledge, cognitio sensitiva, is an ars in the best and broadest sense of that term in the ancient world. It is not merely passive reception and mimesis but always an active doing and expressing, an active bringing out of its own objects of knowledge and cognition. Analysis and understanding of the complex spiritual-cultural and symbolic human worlds require an appropriate methodology, appropriate to the special constitution and conditions of the objects within these worlds, particularly concepts that are able to express adequately and to mirror the special, the particular, the single individual, that is, concepts that are able to bring it about that the objects reappear within us; a methodology of individualizing concept- formation beside, not below, the abstracting concept-formation of the ‘hard’ sciences. This requires a sharp sensibility on the part of the human being in his difficult double position as the creator of culture as well as the discoverer of created cultural achievements, a sensibility that is able to recognize both roles as expressions of the same poietic capabilities of man. On the other hand, important members of the family of human sciences, for example sociology and, in particular, my own discipline, economics, have lost the sense that, for them as sciences of the sense-bestowing activities of man, questions of meaning, inter- pretation, and sense should be core themes. Instead they are unduly preoccupied by the highly abstract and formalistic thinking of the so-called ‘hard’ sciences and a corresponding concept of rationality that leaves almost no space for questions of the understanding of expression, sense, and meaning. This makes us forget that sense is essentially achieved by sensibility. Baumgarten expanded the scope of knowledge dramatically and in exciting ways. He regards asthetics as a legitimate sui generis source of knowledge—and presents this form of knowledge as more practically effective ultimately than all a priori rational concepts. Progress within the human sciences, that is, the anthropological sciences, depends on nothing so much as the deepening of insight into the conditions of knowledge and cognition. Given Baumgarten’s unremitting emphasis on the productive importance of every form of knowledge and cognition, and on the dangers of granting overarching authority to abstract mathematical knowledge, we have every reason for coming to terms with his work and with his approach.


In our own times we too experience—and suffer from—the dominating power of the quantitative and mathematico-logical principles of thought. 21

Steffen W. Gross, Wolfson College, Oxford OX2 6UD, UK. Email: stephen.gross@

21 I am indebted to my colleague Dr Henry Hardy of Wolfson College, Oxford, for useful comments on the first draft of this paper.