Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729–81)

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

3. Natural and artificial signs

In distinguishing painting and poetry, Lessing makes use of a more fundamental distinction between natural and artificial signs. This distinction was set out clearly by Mendelssohn, who distinguished natural signs from arbitrary signs. He described natural signs as those that are connected to their objects by properties of the object. Arbitrary signs have no such natural connection and are linked to their objects only by convention (1771: 1, 437). For example, a blush is a natural sign of heightened emotion, and a picture is a natural sign of its object by virtue of its resemblance. But the choice of sounds and letters in language, while it may have natural origins, is essentially arbitrary. Thus painting uses natural signs, while poetry, which depends on language, uses arbitrary signs. Lessing’s dramatic theory explores ways in which arbitrary signs for the imitation of action can be converted to natural signs when they form dramatic wholes. The theory is essentially rationalist; its goal is to account for how the intuition available in art and nature can be adequate to concepts and ideas. But Lessing, by focusing on the effects, turned the theory in the direction of the critical object.

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