Selected Writings on Aesthetics

By Johann Gottfried Herder; Gregory Moore | Go to book overview

On Image, Poetry, and Fable

MAN IS SUCH A COMPLEX, artificial being that despite every effort he can never achieve a wholly simple state. At the very moment that he sees, he also hears and unconsciously enjoys, through all the organs of his manifold machine, external influences that remain largely obscure sensations but nevertheless secretly cooperate on the sum of his whole condition at all times. He floats in a sea of impressions of objects, in which one wave laps against him softly, another more perceptibly, but where sundry changes in the outside world excite his inner being. In this respect also he is a microcosm, just as Protagoras, in another context, called him the measure of all things.

Of his senses, sight and hearing are the ones that most intimately and clearly bring before his soul objects drawn from the ocean of obscure sensations; and since he possesses the art of retaining and denominating these objects by means of words, a world of human perceptions and ideas, especially those drawn from sight and hearing, has taken shape in his language, a world that reveals traces of its origin even in the most distant derivation. For this reason, even the most refined operations of the soul have been given names native to sight and hearing, as is shown by the terms intuitions and ideas, fancies and images, representations and objects, and a hundred others besides. After the eye, it is the ear and then the sense of touch, especially the feeling hand, that have furnished the soul with the most ideas; taste and smell have contributed fewer, especially in the northern regions of the world.

For all the objections raised against the name aesthetics as the philosophy of the beautiful, we must not allow it to perish now, for already a host of the most excellent observations is associated with this term, especially from the philosophers of our nation. Nor is it an inappropriate appellation, if we take it to mean a philosophy of sensuous feelings, of which the philosophy of the agreeable, of the sensuously perfect and beautiful, is indeed a part but certainly not the basest part. Every sensation, like every object of the same, possesses, its own rules of perfection, which the philosopher must seek out in order to find the point of its utmost efficacy and from it derive the rules of art. To this end, he must of necessity compare the sensations belonging to more than one sense, observe what is original and derivative in each, and above all be alert to how one sense supports, corrects, and enlightens the others. Is there a better name for

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