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Johann Gottfried Herder: Selected Writings on Aesthetics.

Johann Gottfried Herder

Selected Writings on Aesthetics.

Trans. and ed. Gregory Moore. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 2006.

Pp. 468.

US$65.00 (cloth ISBN-13: 978-0-691-11595-5).

This collection of some of Herder's writings on aesthetics is a very stimulating and elegantly produced volume. The texts included by the editor are all new in English, with the exception of the short essay on Shakespeare. What we find is predominantly a young man's work--almost three-quarters of the material presented was written before Herder got much beyond his twenty-fifth birthday. This focus on the earlier writings accords with the view that these tend to be his best work. This may indeed be so, but I was also impressed with the later pieces included in this volume, these being tauter than the earlier ones and no less rewarding. The concentration on the younger Herder means that we miss out on his response to Kant's Critique of Judgment, the Kalligone of 1800. This is, Moore says, 'interesting, misguided and unfortunately very long' (ix), but then why not give us some excerpts?

The main reason would seem to be Moore's commitment to providing entire pieces. From one point of view this is of course laudable, but some readers will, I suspect, wish that Moore had been more selective (as other translators of Herder have been, for example Michael Forster, Marcia Bunge, and F. M. Barnard). This is especially the case with the two Critical Forests included in the volume, the First and Fourth 'Groves', each about 120 pages long. Herder calls these writings 'forests' precisely in order to convey their rather haphazard and rambling character. This quality is exacerbated for the modern reader who is not intimately familiar with Lessing, Winckelmann, Horace, Homer and others, and thus has to keep flipping back to the Editor's Notes to make sense of what Herder is going on about. Herder's sylvan metaphor provoked occasional muttering on the part of this reader about not being able to see the wood for the trees.

Herder's writing style is, as Moore says, 'essayistic, exclamatory and digressive' (6). Some translators manage to iron out quite a lot of the idiosyncrasy of Herder's writing, for example by cutting down on the number of exclamation marks, failing to italicize all his emphases and ignoring Herder's habit of also using quotation marks to emphasize statements of his own. Moore on the other hand does a good job of reproducing Herder's animated style, which as well as being more accurate makes the texts easier and more enjoyable to read.

There are in all nine texts in this collection. The first two, 'Is the Beauty of the Body a Herald of the Beauty of the Soul?' (1766) and 'A Monument to Baumgarten' (1767), are short and help to set the scene for what follows. We then come to the heart of the volume, the first and fourth 'Groves' from Critical Forests (written in 1769). The 'First Grove' is a very detailed response to Lessing's Laocoon and, as Moore suggests, it 'is best read with a translation of that work to hand' (387). Herder follows Lessing in wanting to articulate the distinctive principles of painting and poetry, but finds Lessing's approach too narrow in scope and often erroneous. Herder instead develops a more comprehensive typology of the arts based on the Aristotelian distinction between work (ergon) and energy (energeia); a work is an artistic product whose parts coexist in space and time, whereas an energy is an artistic product which operates in and through time. The 'Fourth Grove' continues the consideration of the different arts by relating them to the different senses. This enables Herder both to distinguish properly painting and sculpture--previously, following Lessing, he had taken them together--and to develop his fascinating ideas about the tactile character of the experience of sculpture, subsequently elaborated in his 1778 essay on sculpture, which has recently appeared in an excellent English edition, edited and translated by Jason Gaiger (not Geiger, as stated on p. ix).

The remaining five pieces are all much shorter and more specific in focus. In 'Shakespeare' (1773), Herder defends the bard against his classicist critics. The historicism Herder is noted for is displayed in 'The Causes of Sunken Taste among the Different Peoples in Whom It Once Blossomed' (1775). The next text, 'On the Influence of the Belles Lettres on the Higher Sciences' (1781), is an interesting precursor to Schiller's great work on aesthetic education. In 'Does Painting or Music Have a Greater Effect?' (1785), Herder returns to the issue of the respective merits and qualities of different arts. The characterizations here of painting in terms of clarity and serenity and of music as an ocean of emotion in which one sinks and drowns are reminiscent of Nietzsche's dualism in The Birth of Tragedy. The final piece is 'On Image, Poetry and Fable' (1787). This deftly takes the reader from some striking claims about the constructive, indeed creative, character of ordinary perceptual experience through to a treatment of disputed questions about the genre of fable.

Herder insists on both the diversity of art forms and aesthetic experiences and the centrality of art and aesthetic experience to human life. His parallel emphases on the cognitive complexity of aesthetic experience and the aesthetic quality of everyday cognition are very striking. His aesthetic writings are engaging and provide a fascinating contrast to, indeed critique of, the much more famous work of his one-time teacher, Kant. Gregory Moore and Princeton University Press are to be congratulated on providing more of them to the English reader in such an attractive fashion.

Meade McCloughan

University College London
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Author:McCloughan, Meade
Publication:Philosophy in Review
Date:Aug 1, 2007
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