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Journal of the History of Philosophy 44.4 (2006) 577-597

Kant and Herder on Baumgarten's Aesthetica

While philosophers since antiquity have offered reflections and theories on subjects such as the beautiful, the sublime, art, and its appreciation, "aesthetics" as a discipline in its own right dates back only to the second half of the eighteenth-century. We owe to Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762) the introduction of 'aesthetics' into philosophical discourse. At the moment of its inception, however, this discipline had little to do with art and was not primarily concerned with the beautiful. It was instead a theory of the cognitive value of human sensibility—a doctrine of "sensible cognition." A general historical and systematic question presents itself at this point: How shall human sensibility be conceived in order for aesthetics as a theory of sensibility to gain an independence of its own in philosophical discourse? And accordingly: How shall the human being be conceived in order for our aesthetic experience to claim a philosophical value of its own?

In this essay, I elaborate the results of the hypothesis that I submit in response to these questions. 1 My claim is that the mind/body dualism dominating the rationalist tradition of modern philosophy is the principal obstacle preventing aesthetics from becoming an independent science of human sensibility. 2 In the rationalist tradition within which Baumgarten's work is placed, truth concerns the higher cognitive faculty. Besides logic, the investigation of this faculty occupies the discipline of psychology traditionally divided into rational and empirical psychology. While rational psychology abstracts from sensibility in dealing with a disembodied metaphysical soul and its properties, empirical psychology is still viewed as a branch of metaphysics bound to the reduction of all faculties to the theoretical one. Such a view prevents the important results of empirical research from connecting to fields such as history, anthropology, and moral philosophy in a way that can positively defy the charge of materialism and the attacks of skepticism. [End Page 577] In other words, since empirical psychology is still metaphysica specialis, its results do not qualify it to the status of an independent empirical science.

Kant and Herder are the crucial protagonists of the transformation of aesthetics after Baumgarten. In their intellectual itinerary, both philosophers dedicate important reflections and critical considerations to the new idea of "aesthetics" first introduced by Baumgarten. They both take up his heritage and work in the direction of overcoming its rationalistic presuppositions. For both philosophers, the confrontation with Baumgarten's theory of "sensible cognition" prompts a new understanding of the role that "sensibility" plays in constituting philosophical discourse and, in connection with this issue, a new understanding of what can be properly called a "philosophical" aesthetics. The critical reflection on Baumgarten's doctrine leads both Kant and Herder to a new view of the relation between logic, epistemology, psychology, and anthropology. It is precisely the different set of relations that Kant and Herder respectively establish among these disciplines that determines the different role that they attribute to aesthetics in their philosophy.

In what follows, I offer a confrontation between Kant's and Herder's views of aesthetics that is mediated by their respective critiques of Baumgarten. The aim of this confrontation is not historical but systematic. The issue at stake is the positioning of aesthetics between epistemology, on the one hand, and psychology and anthropology, on the other. I am interested in the way in which Kant and Herder propose different models for integrating "sensibility" into the philosophical discourse by establishing ontological and epistemological conditions which radically break with the rationalist paradigm of mind/body dualism. I want to suggest that Kant's and Herder's starting point and first objective is the same, although the realization of the program differs significantly. Their general aim is to attribute to human sensibility a new central place in philosophy, thereby steering the philosophical focus from the metaphysics of a "disembodied soul" to the inquiry into an "embodied mind." With Kant and Herder, rational psychology yields...


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