Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81)

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

5. Lessing’s critical practice and aesthetic principles

In a number of ways, then, Lessing, as a critic who employs the philosophical ‘rules’ of his rationalist contemporaries, complicated and modified those rules and practices in ways that enhanced their critical application. In the process, he sometimes exhibited contradictory impulses. His definition of art included both his aesthetic tendencies. In the course of discussing ancient artefacts, Lessing wrote: ‘I should prefer that only those be called works of art in which the artist had occasion to show himself as such and in which beauty was his first and ultimate aim’ (1766: 55). The goal of art is beauty, and beauty can be understood in terms of harmony and perfection. But the other specific difference cited is that the artist had occasion to show himself, and that expressionist aesthetic is potentially at odds with the imitation implied in the reference to beauty. Lessing did not believe that imitation is pleasurable in itself. But he did hold that it produces pleasure as a result of the mental activity it stimulates. If feelings and emotions are the proper objects of imitation, Lessing was looking in a place far removed from his rationalist sources. Given his own distinction between critic and philosopher, Lessing is a critical rationalist for whom the role of the critic is central.

His aesthetic remains critically grounded, but it also universalizes:

The purpose of art is to save us this abstraction in the realms of the beautiful, and to render the fixing of our attention easy to us. All in nature that we might wish to abstract in our thoughts from an object or a combination of various objects, be it in time or in place, art really abstracts for us, and accords us this object or this combination of various objects as purely and tersely as the sensations they are to provoke allow.

(1767–8: 226)

Art is neither pure sensate representation nor absolute truth. The former is too chaotic, too confused. The latter is beyond our finite limits. Lessing’s use of the theory of natural and arbitrary signs, his combination of imitation and expression, of rules and genius, of feeling and absolute form may not always be consistent, but it has as its object a middle ground which produces a critical aesthetic of considerable practical power.

Citing this article:
Townsend, Dabney. Lessing’s critical practice and aesthetic principles. Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-M029-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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