I recently gave a small talk on aesthetics in didactic contexts at the Department for Science Education. As part of the research for the talk, I spent some time reading up on the history of aesthetic philosophy and particularly on the contribution of the founder of the discipline, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten. Being interested in new materialisms in philosophy, Baumgarten’s work (which has been almost overlooked in the past 250 years, highlighted by the fact that the first translation of his work into German in its entirety was not published until 2007) strikes a particular resonance with some of the problems that philosophy is grappling with right now – my entire talk actually ended up being about his work.

His aesthetics is interesting in that it has very little to do with either art or beauty (at least in a traditional sense), but is rather an attempt to propose a philosophy of man that integrates her different faculties horizontally rather than vertically. Opposing the Enlightenment model of the rational man composed of higher and lower faculties, Baumgarten argued that sensate cognition (cognitio sensitiva) is characterized by an understanding of the specific and the particular in its embedded complexity. Sensate cognition, he argued, is of vital importance because it works to counter the loss of liveliness and multiplicity inherent in conceptual reduction, something we often overlook in our attempt to dissect everything around us. As he writes:

I believe indeed that it should be completely evident to philosophers that all the specific formal perfection contained in cognition and logical truth had to be bought dearly by a great and significant loss of material perfection. For what else is abstraction than a loss?

To Baumgarten, refining one’s sensate cognition (he saw this as a skill that could be honed much like rational thinking) was a way to develop a necessary sense of boundaries and of the unavoidable complexity of our interactions with the world — a way to counter the loss inherent in conceptual reductionism. Without going too deep into Baumgarten’s philosophy (however interesting it is) I was struck by how much he seemingly intuited of what current neurobiological and psychological research has shown about the nature of the brain. Watch for example this animated talk about the divided brain  by the psychiatrist and writer Iain McGilchrist (you can listen to the talk in its entirety here):

Apart from being great science communication (we tried something similar at the last Culture Night), the similarity between the description of the brain faculties offered by Iain McGilchrist and the horizontal description of the faculties presented by Baumgarten is striking.

Baumgartens understanding of aesthetics as the science of the embedded nature of the particular also ties in well with contemporary philosophical developments such as object-oriented ontology and speculative realism, as well as our attempts here at the Museion to work out new forms of material science communication.

More work will go into developing Baumgarten’s possible contribution to aesthetics in science communication, as four of us are heading to the annual PCST conference in April, which is on the topic of aesthetics. Perhaps we should start arguing for a right-brain turn in science communication?

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