9 (2006), Nr.3/September




Dessoir’s turn 1906: from monograph to journal, from psychological aesthetics to Kunstwissenschaft. 13705 Zeichen.


At the time when Max Dessoir launched the „Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft“ (Dessoir (Hg.) 1906-1937, forced to retreat as editor by the Nazis) it had already become apparent that psychological aesthetics had given way to the theory of art, an enterprise still accompanied by the necessary preliminaries in aesthetics. With an emphasis on the latter the tandem aesthetics/art theory had been the program for the last 150 years. In the meantime the art-theoretical part had been increasingly elaborated by „scientists“ themselves, not so much by philosophers, but those specialists concerned with art in a more direct way –  think of well educated artists and scholars as there are historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, psychologists, sociologists of the arts. Semper and Wilde come to the mind. And Heinrich Wölfflin and Alois Riegl brought to art history new concepts like the linear/plastic distinction and the Kunstwollen. Also Fiedler, Hanslick, Riemann, Th. Meyer, Walzel belong here. The Journal for Aesthetics and General Science of Art testifies to this change. Aesthetics proper is destined to fall apart into „studies in the history of aesthetics“ and the „experimental research in elementary relations <of perception>“ (Dessoir 1947, 39).


With a glance on his publications this change does not seem to have been natural for Dessoir considering his development. Apart from his Ph.D. thesis (Dessoir 1889b) and some less fundamental writings in aesthetics Dessoir was occupied with publishing a series of psychological investigations conducted from his background of medicine (M.D. 1892) –  studies on „Experimentelle Pathopsychologie“ (1891), on the sense of the skin (1892), sexual psychology (1894), or on 18th century concept of „vis vitalis“ (1899). As confessed by Dessoir in the dispute obligatory for acquiring the Ph.D. back then, psychology is the basis for aesthetics, criminology and medical therapeutics (Dessoir 1947, 31f.). Besides, he was one of the founding fathers of psychological disciplines starting with an article on Parapsychologie – the term coined by Dessoir  in a theosophic journal (Dessoir 1889a) and one of the early historiographers of psychology.


Dessoir (1867-1947) might have taken sides for or confronted with psychological aesthetics and its representatives like experimentalists Fechner and Wundt, illusionists von Hartmann, Nietzsche and K. Lange, descriptivists Brentano and Witasek, intuitionists R. Vischer, Lipps and Volkelt or psychopathologist Wallaschek. That did not happen. His book length outline “Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft” published in 1906 as the program of  the Zeitschrift provides a saturated introductory chapter on the modern history of aesthetics, but does not step beyond the state of late 1880es aesthetics restricting the picture to Lotze, Fechner and von Hartmann (Dessoir 1906, 9-59, esp. 53-56). At no point of time Dessoir will have written a fuller length account of the history of aesthetics, leave alone contemporary part.


Dessoir stuck to the history of eighteenth century psychology, a period treated probably because occasioned by his Berlin teacher Wilhelm Dilthey (died 1911) when the Prussian Academy of Sciences announced a prize essay in 1888. The Diltheyan task was to present German psychology from Wolff to Kant in a way „that especially brings to the fore the relationship to contemporary <18th century> aesthetics“ as Dessoir reports (Dessoir 1894, VII). Dilthey who had given Dessoir the topic of his Ph.D. thesis to his comfort (Dessoir 1947, 31) had already delineated a historical framework with seventeenth century’s natural system of rational aesthetics primarily making appear god’s creation on a basis of Leibnizian petites perceptions, eighteenth century’s analysis of the components of aesthetic impressions in Rameau, d’Alembert and especially Henry Home anticipating Fechner and nineteenth century’s historical method the latter to complete the two earlier methods (Dilthey 1892). Despite his strong interest in art theory Dessoir winning the prize did not come to terms with the task he imposed on himself. He neither delivered more than a thirty page chapter on aesthetics’ relationship fairly seperate from the rest of the 439 pages, nor did he focus on the seminal point of Baumgarten’s fundamental equation of aisthesis and the recognition of the beautiful (arts). To Baumgarten devoted is only a footnote in the chapter about the Wolffians and next to nothing in the chapter on aesthetics mentioned. Also Dessoir did not manage to complete his book with volume two containing the history of nineteenth century as he still announced in the second edition of the book in 1902. He shows reluctance to systematically treat the rivaling 19th century schools in psychology a fact also documented in Dessoir’s short history of psychology where German psychology appears to be seperate from English and French psychology, but no school disputes are referred to (Dessoir 1911). Would it have meant to enter a confrontation with (natural) science in opposition to his teacher Dilthey who had tackled psychology methodologically in order to provide the foundations of Geisteswissenschaften by means of a historical hermeneutics? Or would it have entailed to side with what should become known as verstehende or geisteswissenschaftliche psychology, for instance with a particular aesthetics approach like that of Karl Groos? It is stunning that Dessoir neglected Baumgarten, but apparently payed more attention to the general art theory of Berlin based Sulzer (Sulzer 1771/1774). This Kunstwissenschaft avant la lettre was the catchment basin for all what known and written about art and aesthetics in later 18th century. Dessoir must have stumbled upon that collective work during the research of the book. The model doubtlessly was the Diderot-d’Alembert Encyclopédie to which Sulzer contributed his articles „Künste; schöne Künste“ andAesthetik“ in translation for the 1776 volumes of the Supplément à L'Encyclopédie. With leaving the systematic underpinnings of Sulzer’s Allgemeine Theorie and focusing on communicating on contemporary research Dessoir kind of translated Sulzer’s modern impulses to the beginning 20th century. Dessoir may have felt being confirmed by Sulzer who himself already had focused on the arts and diminished treating aesthetic topics to a significant extent. In any case, Sulzer did not take pains in elaborating a mutual foundation of the „aestheses“ and the arts since he preferred to commonsensically see the key to the (beautiful) arts in beautification and in the skilled invocation of the convenient into the useful (Sulzer 1774, 609-625: art. Kunst/schöne Künste) and seemed already remote from psychological discussions of mid 18th century he had contributed to with own publications himself.


The same with Dessoir 120 years later. Before having become fully manifest and programmatical with the Zeitschrift, Dessoir’s turn against psychologism became inevitably apparent around 1900. But e few years before, to start with a position of his own – explicitly called psychological aesthetics – he set out to locate the origin of psychology in religious and moral representations something that would later lead to a theology of the soul, in the research within nature become fully scientific today with modern psychology and in the practical and artistic knowledge of man as particularly entertained by the artist. Of the latter activity – neither applied, nor individual, nor descriptive psychology – he explicitly talks of the “psychognostic” art of the soul that grasps the individual character that had been neglected so much, even ignored by German idealist conceptions of soul/Geist (Dessoir 1897). Further on, especially a poetic conception of the soul was held capable of recognizing the artistic way of the knowledge of the soul when art makes experiences enjoyable by means of subjectivization, transformation and synthesis of artistic behaviour (Dessoir 1898, Dessoir 1900, Dessoir 1904). The question however remained how to conceptualize methodologically and theoretically that idea of an art of the soul. In other words, how can science relate to that rather specific activity or faculty? Dessoir offers two ways. Apart from artistic didactics – an enjoyable artistic rendering of scientific results – the only other viable way to consciously connect science and art seemed to be an aesthetics of which Dessoir proposes a demonstration by means of an example of aesthetic impression. But what that epistemologically means is not offered in any way by Dessoir. Dessoir could not find a method of psychological aesthetics that was on the philosophical and scientific level of his time and at the same time corresponded to the particular psychognostic creativity of art (Dessoir 1899). Psyche as art or art as psyche remained finally unavailable to (which?) concepts of a psychological aesthetics.


Moreover the increasing doubts on the methodologically foundational stability of a concept of the aesthetic at the time had Dessoir finally abandon a philosophico-psychological conception of art altogether. That was embedded in discussions around 1900. With increasing theoretical and methodical confidence the Kunstwissenschaften began to reject the claims of aesthetics to be philosophy of art. Dessoir and with him Richard Hamann and Emil Utitz responded with a less determined conception of a general science of art or arts apart from aesthetics. The program outlined was an epistemological examination of the sciences of the arts, especially about the contingent origins and functions of the arts, as Dessoir emphasized against a top down aesthetics. Whereas aesthetics was more than art, art from now on is not part of the aesthetic as is art more than an aesthetic object (Barck/Heininger/Kliche 2000, 378f.).


In September 1904 Dessoir traveled to the St. Louis’s world’s fair, invited by Hugo Münsterberg who, in order to fraternize Europe and the USA, had organized the fair’s International Congress of Arts and Science with the aim of orderly demonstrating the unity of cultures including sciences and arts (Dessoir 1947, 84). There Dessoir gave a paper now deeply questioning the identity of the aesthetic and art. Of an overall aesthetic life based on everyday bodily feelings he only acknowledged historized aesthetic concepts arranged and rooted in an actual historical constellation (Dessoir 1905; compare Barck/Heininger/Kliche 2000, 390f.). But – against the opinion of art as a matter of taste and of history coming with the liberation of art (Dessoir 1947, 39) – that does not touch the “great fact of art with all its relations” to which the Kunstwissenschaft but no more aesthetics is able to correspond (Dessoir 1905, 932). Moreover the systematic endeavour as aesthetics claimed to be for some 150 years lost the credibility, when the “System and method mean for us to be free of one system and one method.” (933)


Hence the general science of art that Dessoir aspires to is installed more organisationally than methodologically (Dessoir 1906a, Dessoir (Hg.) 1906-1937). Apart from the fundamentals of the aesthetic object based on the qualities of the object that object seemed to be rooted in an intuitive necessity as bound to relations like harmony, proportion, meter and rhythm. To these foundational reasonings – much later contributing to an ontology of art –  may be added subjectivist theories like that of Kant, the illusionists or Lipps (Herrmann 1929, 36); and what is left is a schema without deduction or reasoning, so Lipps at the time. Read the table of contents of Dessoir’s book and the classification of the list of writings of 1905 (Dessoir 1906a, Dessoir 1906b): 1 aesthetics – generalia and the history of aesthetics, (objectivist and subjectivist) principles and categories (the beautiful, the sublime and the tragic, the ugly and the comic), nature and art (a topic not contained in Dessoir 1906a), aesthetic object and aesthetic impression; 2 general and systematic science of the art (Kunstwissenschaft): artistic production, (infant and cultural) origins (of systematics) of art, sound and mimic arts, word art, space art, pictorial art, spiritual as well as (ethical) and social functions of art; <3> new journals.


Dessoir’s detour to the general science of art turned out to be productive beyond his thirty years of editing the Zeitschrift. The permanent collecting activity was continued when the Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft was interrupted –to continue only in 1951 as year book – and resumed with the founding of the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in 1942, the Revue d’esthétique in 1948, and the Rivista estetica in 1956. Besides Dessoir was as ambitious to found the Kongress für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft, a congress that was and is organized up to our days when the next will take place in Turkey. We may take notice of the fact that the institutional activities of aesthetics dating from and since around 1900 are due to Dessoir’s final decision that followed his years of a difficult search for a new form of aesthetics. But what would aesthetics be without its institutions?


Barck, Karlheinz/Heininger, Jörg/Kliche, Dieter (2000): Ästhetik/ästhetisch, in: Ästhetische Grundbegriffe, vol.1: Stuttgart/Weimar: J. B. Metzler, 308-400.


Dessoir, Max (1889a): Die Parapsychologie, in: Sphinx. Organ der Theosophischen Vereinigung und der Deutschen Theosophischen Gesellschaft 4.


Dessoir, Max (1889b): Karl Philipp Moritz als Ästhetiker, Berlin: Carl Duncker.


Dessoir, Max (1894): Geschichte der neueren deutschen Psychologie, 1. Band: Von Leibniz bis Kant, Berlin: Carl Duncker.


Dessoir, Max (1897): Beiträge zur Aesthetik. I. Seelenkunst und Psychognosis, in: Archiv für Philosophie. Zweite Abteilung: Archiv für systematische Philosophie (Neu Folge der Philosophischen Monatshefte) III, 374-388.


Dessoir, Max (1898): Beiträge zur Aesthetik. II. Vom Gegensatz zwischen Wissenschaft und Kunst, in: Archiv für Philosophie. Zweite Abteilung: Archiv für systematische Philosophie (Neu Folge der Philosophischen Monatshefte) IV, 78-96.


Dessoir, Max (1899): Beiträge zur Aesthetik. III. Zum Zusammenhang zwischen Wissenschaft und Kunst. a) Bewusste Verbindung: Die Aesthetik, in: Archiv für Philosophie. Zweite Abteilung: Archiv für systematische Philosophie (Neu Folge der Philosophischen Monatshefte) V, 69-89.


Dessoir, Max (1900): Beiträge zur Aesthetik. IV. Die Seelenkenntnis des Dichters, in: Archiv für Philosophie. Zweite Abteilung: Archiv für systematische Philosophie (Neu Folge der Philosophischen Monatshefte) VI, 470-501.


Dessoir, Max (1904): Anschauung und Beschreibung. Ein Beitrag zur Aesthetik, in: Archiv für Philosophie. Zweite Abteilung: Archiv für systematische Philosophie (Neu Folge der Philosophischen Monatshefte) X, 20-65.


Dessoir, Max (1905): Die Grundfragen der gegenwärtigen Ästhetik, in: Die neue Rundschau. Freie Bühne für den Entwicklungskampf der Zeit Jg. 15, 931-943.


Dessoir, Max (1906a): Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft in den Grundzügen dargestellt, Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke.


Dessoir, Max (Hg.) (1906-1937): Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft vol.1-vol.31. (


Dessoir, Max (1906b): Schriftenverzeichnis für 1905, in: Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft 1, Nr.1, 153-160.


Dessoir, Max (1911): Abriß einer Geschichte der Psychologie, = Die Psychologie in Einzeldarstellungen IV, Heidelberg: Carl Winter’s Universitätsbuchhandlung.


Dessoir, Max (1947): Buch der Erinnerung, 2. Aufl., Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke.


Dilthey, Wilhelm (1892): Die drei Epochen der modernen Ästhetik und ihre heutige Aufgabe, in: Deutsche Rundschau XVIII, August, 267-303.


Herrmann, Christian (1929): Max Dessoir. Mensch und Werk, Stuttgart: Ferdinand Enke.


Sulzer, Johann G. (1771/1774): Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste in einzeln, nach alphabetischer Ordnung der Kunstwörter auf einander folgenden Artikeln abgehandelt, 2 Bde., Erster Theil, von A bis J. Zweiter Theil, von K bis Z, Leipzig: M. G. Weidemanns Erben und Reich. (2. Aufl. 5 Bde., Leipzig 1792-1799, 3254 doppelspaltige Seiten; reprinted at Hildesheim: Georg Olms 1970)



Peter Mahr © 2006



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