Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-M029-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved February 29, 2024, from

4. Lessing and rationalist aesthetics

Lessing’s aesthetics is best understood in the context of the rationalist aesthetic that was being developed at that time in Germany, particularly by Alexander Baumgarten and Georg Friedrich Meier, under the influence of Christian Wolff. Lessing himself implicitly located his own position in the preface to Laocoon. The amateur is in the position of the audience while the philosopher formulates general rules, and the critic applies them – sometimes correctly, sometimes erroneously. Lessing occupied that critical position, and he took from the philosophers – Spinoza, Leibniz, Wolff, Baumgarten, Mendelssohn and others – general aesthetic rules. But in applying those rules, he modified them to an extent of which he himself may not have been aware.

In many respects, Lessing presumes an aesthetic that can be derived more or less explicitly from Leibniz. Its object is beauty, which is understood as the perfection of a whole. Ideal beauty is found in distinct ideas whose clarity comes from their uniformity. Their reflection is found in the corporeal beauty which is a harmony of parts. Moses Mendelssohn defined beauty as the intuitive cognition of perfection. A cognition is intuitive, he wrote, when its object is immediately present to our senses or when we attend to the object rather than the sign for the object (1757: 1, 170). Lessing’s formulation was similar except that Lessing was more concerned with concrete, critical applications to poetry and painting. This led him to distinguish the different possibilities provided by the differences in media. Painting is adapted to material beauty (1766: 104). Poetry, on the other hand, is adapted to a different kind of description: that of the presentation of emotions (1766: 111). Ultimately, painting and poetry have the same object: beauty. Poetry, however, has the advantage of presenting effects and thus of giving an apprehension of beauty itself, while painting can only show material beauty in its outward forms.

All rationalist aesthetics implicitly denigrates both art and nature. Beauty is grasped intuitively, but there are two forms of intuition: the sensory and the rational. Rational intuition is capable of apprehending ideas distinctly without the confusion of images and parts. Thus, it is superior to the confused sensory intuition of perception and the imagination. No rationalist aesthetic completely escapes this limitation on the products of art and nature. However, Alexander Baumgarten argued that sensate intuition was the superior form if one considered its effectiveness in guiding people to beauty, and Lessing followed Baumgarten in this respect. But Baumgarten considered sensate intuition essentially quantitative. He reasoned that since description adds to the completion of an idea, the more descriptive a painting or poetic passage, the more aesthetically perfect it is, and hence the more ‘poetic’ and beautiful. Lessing explicitly rejected this quantitative argument in favour of a distinction based on the effects that can be achieved. Poetry, on Lessing’s view, should not strive for extended descriptions; Homer limits himself to a single trait (1766: 79). Poetry’s ability to focus selectively and thus enhance its effects gives it the advantage over painting.

Thus, while Lessing remains clearly within the rationalist circle if one compares him to such sentimentalists and sense-theorists as Lord Shaftesbury or Francis Hutcheson, he departs in significant ways from the syllogistic and axiomatic descriptiveness of more orthodox rationalist formulations. Art is basically imitation, but for Lessing, imitation is directed towards action and emotion as well as objects. Lessing was thus led to consider both rules and means in a more concrete, inductive way than the axiomatic, deductive procedures of rationalist metaphysics had dictated. Rules are justified not by their logical form but by their effects. Since it is pleasure which is aimed at, one must be prepared to adjust the rules to the observed results. At this point, Lessing is very pragmatic. Empiricist aesthetics in England and France developed along psychological lines; it attempted to predict how certain emotional effects followed from artistic practice and natural beauty. Rationalist aesthetics, on the other hand, began with principles of unity and harmony and attempted to derive their application as a set of rules for the production of art and aesthetic effects. Lessing trusts neither. Emotions are not really subject to rules (1766: 28). On the contrary, rules are judged by their effects. At the same time, Lessing acknowledges the superiority of science to art. The object of science is knowledge; it is not subject to control by anything other than truth. But the object of art is pleasure. Since pleasure is not absolute, it may be judged by other standards and subjected to control (1766: 14).

Citing this article:
Townsend, Dabney. Lessing and rationalist aesthetics. Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M029-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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