Selected Writings on Aesthetics

Selected Writings on Aesthetics

Selected Writings on Aesthetics

Selected Writings on Aesthetics


A seminal figure in the philosophy of history, culture, and language, Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) also produced some of the most important and original works in the history of aesthetic theory. A student of Kant, he spent much of his life striving to reconcile the opposing poles of Enlightenment thought represented by his early mentors. His ideas influenced Hegel, Schleiermacher, Nietzsche, Dilthey, J. S. Mill, and Goethe.

This book presents most of Herder's important writings on aesthetics, including the main sections of one of his major untranslated works, Kritische Wälder (Critical Forests). These notes, essays, and treatises, the majority of which appear here in English for the first time, show this idiosyncratic thinker both deeply rooted in the controversies of his day and pointing the way to future developments in aesthetics. Chosen to reflect the extent and diversity of Herder's concerns, the texts cover such topics as the psychology and physiology of aesthetic perception, the classification of the arts, taste, Shakespeare, the classical tradition, and the relationship between art and morality.

Few thinkers have reflected so sensitively and productively on the cultural, historical, anthropological, ethical, and theological dimensions of art and the creative process. With this book, the importance of aesthetics to the evolution and texture of Herder's own thought, as well as his profound contribution to that discipline, comes fully into view.


In notes written in 1765 bemoaning the wretched state of German literature, Johann Gottfried Herder took some comfort from the thought that though his country was devoid of “original geniuses in the realm of the ode, the drama, and the epic,” he was at least living in “the philosophical century.” Those nations lacking poetic inspiration and the political unity necessary for a mature literary tradition ought instead to devote themselves to developing a fuller understanding of the nature of art and the historical and cultural conditions under which it flourishes. Perhaps such a theory would enable writers to discover and mine new seams of poetic creativity. “Not poetry,” he concluded, “but aesthetics should be the field of the Germans.”

In some ways this was already true. Despite—or perhaps because of— the painfully felt absence of a native literary culture, German critics were intensely preoccupied with new theoretical approaches to art and literature, and the mid-eighteenth century saw a number of important developments that helped shape an emergent public sphere in the Germanspeaking world: Johann Christoph Gottsched's attempt to impose a local version of French neoclassicism; the long-running controversy between Gottsched and the Swiss critics Johann Jakob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitinger, who championed English literature and criticism, and, combining Addison with Leibniz, opened poetry to the unlimited worlds of the imagination; the birth of modern art history in Johann Joachim Winckelmann's hugely influential interpretations of Greek sculpture; the critical writings of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn, and Friedrich Nicolai. and perhaps most significant of all, the very term aesthetics was coined in 1735 by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (from the Greek aisthanesthai, “to perceive”) in his dissertation Meditationes philosophicae. Fifteen years later, in the first two volumes of his major work Aesthetica (1750–58), he went further and established aesthetics as an independent sphere of philosophical inquiry, cognate with, but separate from, the truths of logic and morality. By the 1760s this newly minted word had already become common currency, and treatises on the subject

Herder, Sämtliche Werke, ed. Bernhard Suphan (Berlin: Weidmann, 1877–1913), 32:82
(hereafter sws).

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