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.
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
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.
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
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Dessoir, Max (1889b): Karl Philipp Moritz als Ästhetiker, Berlin: Carl Duncker.
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Dessoir, Max (Hg.) (1906-1937): Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft vol.1-vol.31. (http://www.periodicals.com/stock_g/z/ttl07519.html)
Dessoir, Max (1906b): Schriftenverzeichnis für 1905, in: Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft 1, Nr.1, 153-160.
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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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