Johann Georg Sulzer

Johann Georg Sulzer - Yan Lili
Johann Georg Sulzer

Johann Georg Sulzer, the Swiss aesthetician, was born in Winterthur. After studying in Zürich under J. J. Bodmer, he became a tutor in a private home in Magdeburg in 1743. He then went to Berlin, where he became acquainted with Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis and Leonhard Euler.

In 1747 he was appointed professor of mathematics at the Joachimsthaler Gymnasium and in 1763 he moved to the new Ritterakademie. Illness forced him to resign in 1773, but in 1775 he was appointed director of the philosophical section of the Berlin Academy, to which he had been elected in 1750.

Sulzer’s Allgemeine Theorie der Schönen Künste (General theory of the fine arts) was originally planned as a revision of Jacques Lacombe’s Dictionnaire portatif des beaux-arts (1752), but it developed into an original encyclopedia covering both general aesthetics and the theory and history of each of the arts and of literature.

Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis - Yumi Sugimoto
Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis

The edition of 1796–1798, completed with biographical supplements by Christian Friedrich von Blankenburg, is still the best summa of German Enlightenment aesthetics and theory of art, as well as being an original contribution to aesthetics.

Sulzer’s style, his psychological interests, and his unsystematic method were typical of the “popular philosophers.” Because of his lack of system, and because his ideas are spread through the various articles of his encyclopedia, it is difficult to reduce his views to an organic and systematic whole.

Sulzer’s aesthetics was inspired by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, A. G. Baumgarten, G. F. Meier, Moses Mendelssohn, Joseph Addison, Edwards Young, and others. But the psychological character of Sulzer’s work is even stronger than that of Baumgarten, Meier, or Mendelssohn.

Leonhard Euler - Zhang Xin Yu
Leonhard Euler

He was the first to find the source of beauty in the perceiving subject only, abandoning every residue of French classicism still present in his German predecessors.

Following Leibniz, Sulzer held that the essence and perfection of the soul consists in its activity of representation. The soul is representing sensibly when it is representing a multiplicity of partial representations taken as a whole.

If it is representing every part of a representation as a distinct unit, it is thinking. Sensible representation is more effective than thought, and leads more readily to action. Thus the “lower faculty” of representation of traditional German psychology became more important relative to intellect in Sulzer than in Baumgarten or Meier.

Christian Friedrich von Blankenburg - Bicycle queen
Christian Friedrich von Blankenburg

Aesthetics, for Sulzer as for Baumgarten and Meier, was the theory of sensible representation. It explained how to arouse the soul to greater activity. This activity would make sensible representations more lively, and because the activity of representation was intimately connected with the feeling of pleasure, more pleasurable and beautiful.

By studying the psychological constitution of the soul it would be possible to deduce the general rules of the different arts—the more special rules can neither be deduced nor taught.

The most important rule concerns the harmony of unity and multiplicity in the beautiful object as it arises out of the representative action of the soul. The object must conform to a spontaneous (ungezwungen) order and it must be coherent (zusammenhängend).

Joseph Addison - Soithip Palwongpaisal
Joseph Addison

Sulzer held that beauty is judged by a special feeling—taste—that he sometimes seems to have held to be a function of a faculty different from intellect and the faculty of moral feeling but closely connected with both, particularly with the latter through the moral value of beauty. Taste itself is a transition between thinking and feeling.

Beauty, according to Sulzer, is a product of genius which is the highest stage of the spontaneous representative state of the soul. Genius is a natural force within the soul, and it acts unconsciously in a rational way. It does not, contrary to Baumgarten and Meier, create a new world.

Art is an imitation of nature not because it copies nature, but because the artist of genius imitates nature’s creative process. He creates nothing outside of nature, but something new within the natural world. In general, art is the expression of a psychological state of man; it imitates human nature in that it expresses nature through the representation of an object.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann - Windy day
Johann Joachim Winckelmann

Sulzer, influenced by Johann Joachim Winckelmann, held that some works of art represent an ideal—that is, they express sensibly a general concept not mixed with anything particular.

In the theory of the individual arts Sulzer’s most important contributions were in the aesthetics of music. Music, according to Sulzer, was the expression of passion. Opera, which is a union of all the arts, is the highest form of drama.

Besides influencing musical theoreticians, Sulzer’s aesthetics influenced Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schiller; and although Sulzer was attacked by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1772, his work was the foundation of the aesthetics of the Sturm und Drang.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - Okuda Saki / 奥田咲
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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