Gottsched, Johann Christoph (1700–1766)

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Philosopher, literary critic, and theoretician, Johann Christoph Gottsched was Christian Wolff's disciple and one of the architects of the German Aufklärung. Particularly conscious of Germany's cultural shortcomings, compared to France and England, Gottsched worked vigorously to reform German theater and poetry. Taking the ancients (Aristotle, Horace) as models, but also the French "Grand Siècle" (Racine, Molière, Boileau) and some few national examples (such as Martin Opitz), he wrote his Versuch einer Critischen Dichtkunst (1729, but often reedited until 1751) as a normative poetic theory destined to help form the taste of German writers and public alike. Gottsched's project, however, did not reduce itself to this pedagogical goal: His poetics was meant to ground the rules of poetic taste on systematic philosophical foundations inherited for the most part from Gottfried Leibniz and Christian von Wolff. He saw it as imperative for both the philosopher and the serious poet that they know not merely the rules inherited from antiquity and French classicism, but that they also understand the reason underlying these rules. For Gottsched, criticism was a philosophical task, a part of Wolffian rationalism. In this sense, the Critische Dichtkunst prefigured the new aesthetical science set forth by Baumgarten a few years later.

Gottsched's theoretical positions are utterly rationalist. In keeping with Wolff and Leibniz, he conceives beauty as the clear yet conceptually indistinct representation of a perfection in an objectwhether this object is natural, technical, or the result of poetic imagination. Being the perception of a perfection, the apprehension of beauty is accompanied by pleasure. Gottsched therefore rejects the subjective account of beauty: Aesthetic pleasure reduces itself to the perception of a perfection, the components of which could be made explicit. In other words, this perception could lead to rational knowledge and could thus be reduced to knowable rules. Every category of beauty, and every type of poetic or artistic beauty, rests on specific rules (those of architecture, of music, of painting, of tragedy, of epic) that nonetheless share some common fundamentals, namely, the notions of order, proportion, correlation between the parts and the whole, and the appropriateness of the rules to the specific function of the object.

The rules of poetry and liberal arts are therefore neither subjective nor variable; they are brought out by the best specialists of each domain and confirmed by experience and reflection. In this context, aesthetic taste depends on understanding as it judges the sensation of a beautiful thing. Good taste (that is, correct taste) consists, according to Gottsched, of "judging adequately, from a simple sensation, of the beauty of a thing for which we lack clear and distinct knowledge." This knowledge is "indistinct" because the person for whom this thing is pleasing is incapable of explaining the causes of the pleasure. Here, Gottsched's rationalism almost forces him into a contradiction: If taste is an indistinct judgment, does its improvementwhich is the avowed goal of Gottsched's normative poeticslead to the development and enrichment of aesthetic sensibility or does it rather perfect judgment and, hence, dissolve taste into knowledge? Only with Baumgarten's Aesthetica, and its notion of sensible knowledge, will this problem, inherent to any aesthetic rationalism, find a credible answer.

In his analysis of the "poet's character," Gottsched applies the Wolffian theory of the mind's faculties to Boileau's classic conception of poetic production. For Gottsched, the "divine gift" traditionally attributed to the poet comes down to having a natural disposition for poetic imitation. Among the faculties the poet must have, wit (ingenium, Witz ), or the capacity to easily perceive similarities between things, is the most important. But the mind must also be supported by a strong power of imagination, which Gottsched understands as the power to reproduce concepts we have already had on the occasion of present sensations and on the basis of the principle of resemblance, and perspicacity, which consists in perceiving nuances and differences within things.

Merely having these faculties, however, is insufficient: They must be the object of education. Moreover, imagination, perspicacity, and wit are not the poet's or the artist's only requisite talents; art (all the disciplines pertaining to the practice of a particular art), erudition (mythology, history, geography) and a profound knowledge of human psychology are also necessary to the artist's character. He must also develop his judgment (Beurteilungskraft ), which serves reason as an instrument to control an overheated imagination; judgment keeps wit within the limits of verisimilitude and the natural. Finally, the poet's character rests on an honest and virtuous disposition of the mind that depicts morally wrong actions as ugly and revolting. On this issue, Gottsched's aesthetics concurs with one of the central tenets of the Aufklärung, which holds, drawing from a conception leading back to Horace, that poetry's mission is to please while providing moral instruction.

Even if imitation is the essence of poetry, the fable constitutes its "soul." There are three degrees of poetic imitation: the vivid portrayal of natural things, the imitation of characters, sentiments, and human passions, and the plot or "fable" (Fabel ). Referring to Leibnizian metaphysics, Gottsched describes the fable as the tale of an event, rich in moral truth, that did not really happen but that could have taken place in some possible world. Poetic fiction is the "history of another world" that must nonetheless be submitted to the principle of verisimilitude, which Gottsched defines as concordance with the general order of nature. Ensues a tension between two principles, that of the fabulous (which satisfies the taste for novelty, strangeness, and remarkableness, but risks lapsing into the unconceivable and extravagant) and of verisimilitude, on which rests poetry's credibility and its capacity to serve a morally edifying function.

Attempting to give more importance to the freedom of creative imagination, Swiss critics Johann Jakob Bodmer (Critische Abhandlung von dem Wunderbaren in der Poesie, 1740) and Johann Jakob Breitinger (Critische Dichtkunst, 1740) distanced themselves from Gottsched on this issue. Mobilizing Milton's Paradise Lost and Pseudo-Longinus' treatise on the sublime as guides for their reflection, they aimed to encourage the fabulous in poetry and to grant a certain autonomy to the "truth of imagination" vis-à-vis the "truth of understanding."

See also Aesthetics, History of; Aristotle; Baumgarten, Alexander Gottlieb; Boileau, Nicolas; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Longinus (Pseudo); Milton, John; Wolff, Christian.


works by johann christoph gottsched

Versuch einer critischen Dichtkuns. Darmstadt: WBG, 1962.

"Versuch einer critischen Dichtkunst." In Ausgewählte Werke. Vol. 6. Edited by Von J. Birke and B. Birke, New York and Berlin: De Gruyter, 1973.

works about johann christoph gottsched

Birke, Joachim. Christian Wolffs Metaphysik und die Zeitgenössische Literatur- und Musiktheorie. Berlin: Gottsched, Scheibe, Mizler., 1966.

Dahlstrom, Daniel O. "Die Aufklärung der Poesie: J. C. Gottsched, 17001766: Critische Dichtkunst, 1729." Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft 31 (1) (1986): 139168.

Freier, Hans, and Kritische Poetik. Legitimation und Kritik der Poesie in Gottscheds Dichtkunst. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1973.

Daniel Dumouchel (2005)

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Gottsched, Johann Christoph (1700–1766)

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