Frank Grunert, Gideon Stiening (a cura di), Georg Friedrich Meier (1718-1777). Philosophie als “wahre Weltweisheit”, Berlin-Boston, De Gruyter, 2015, pp. 418
While Baumgarten invented aesthetics as a scientific discipline – an old adagio of philosophical historiography says – Meier greatly contributed to the spreading of this science, at least in the German-speaking world, by translating Baumgarten’s prickly Latin into a more comprehensible and readable German. The fame of being a populariser, however, is a double-edged sword: no wonder that Meier was soon accused of watering down Baumgarten’s wine into a tasteless drink (Johann Matthias Gesner, Primae Lineae Isagoges, 17742). His adversaries even went as further as calling him “Baumgarten’s monkey”, due to his seeming reluctance (or worse, inability) to present an aesthetic theory of his own.
Although this bad reputation still survives today, a first symptom of an inversion of tendency already occurred at the beginning of the last century with the work of Ernst Bergmann, who praised Meier’s role for the birth of aesthetics even more than Baumgarten’s (Die Begründung der deutschen Ästhetik durch Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten und Georg Friedrich Meier, 1911). Not until the last decades, though, did a serious interest in Meier’s philosophical work grow in all its breadth and depth. This historiographical delay was partially caught up by an articulated congress, held in Halle in 2013, whose proceedings have just been published under the supervision of Frank Grunert and Gideon Stiening. Already from their title, Georg Friedrich Meier. (1718-1777). Philosophie als “wahre Weltweisheit”, it is possible to grasp one of the pillars of Meier’s thought, that is, the importance of philosophy not merely as a scholarly exercise, but rather as a path towards wisdom. Useless to say, aesthetics played a seminal role in such a change.
In their enticing introduction, Grunert and Stiening highlighted precisely this aspect, pointing to the fact that according to Meier philosophy cannot be reduced to a series of arid syllogisms, but has to be linked to what Husserl would call the Lebenswelt. In its necessary commitment to life and its needs, philosophy has to include an adequate theory and praxis of sensibility, if only because unbridled sensibility gives birth to monsters, that is, to macrocephalic beings absurdly engaged in getting rid of a part of themselves. Only by cultivating his whole soul, therefore, a philosopher can stay true to his name, thus becoming the model for a fully-fledged man, as apparent in the booklet Meier devoted to the theme, the Abbildung eines wahren Weltweisen (1745).
The volume edited by Grunert and Stiening is rich and multifaceted, and tackles several aspects of Meier’s production, like ontology and practical philosophy, which had hardly ever been dealt with before. As far as I am concerned, though, I will limit the scope of this review to the three essays regarding aesthetics.
The first one is authored by Stefanie Buchenau, who sets out to analyse in which sense Meier’s position goes beyond Baumgarten’s doctrine. Far from bolstering the old stereotype of an ungifted paraphraser, able only to restate his master’s dictata in catchier terms, Buchenau quotes Meier’s considerations about the genesis of aesthetics as a collective process, in which Baumgarten certainly played a prominent role, without thereby denying the efforts of other philosophers, poets, critics and rhetoricians. It is in this wider context that Meier’s contribution finds its place. According to Buchenau, Meier’s main merit consists in the way he has innovated the scientific prose. Precisely because philosophy deals with the highest truths, it cannot be expressed through an abstract and sterile style, but should be made “fruitful”, thereby enabling the reader to infer more predicates and characters of a thing than is usually the case. To this aim, sensitive concepts are of the utmost importance, in that they enjoy a greater illustrative and motivational power. In this sense, the marriage of erudition and beauty is more than welcomed and allows Meier to pave the way for the so-called Popularphilosophie which takes hold in the late German Enlightenment.
Also Stiening is interested in better understanding the possible connections between Meier’s aesthetics and other philosophical sciences like metaphysics, logic, anthropology and ethics. His starting point is Meier’s comment on the pervasiveness of sensibility which requires being duly ruled, in order to prevent moral corruption. Aesthetics constitutes the best solution to such a problem, since this science contains the first principles of sensibility whose perfection is beauty. For this reason, aesthetics can be rightly considered as a sort of “metaphysics of all the fine arts and sciences”, a phrase in which Baumgarten’s cognitive definition of metaphysics and Wolff’s attempt to view empirical psychology as a part of metaphysics converge and find a new synthesis. Moreover, aesthetics is also tightly connected with logic, which is nobler than aesthetics as for the kind of representations, but must acknowledge a priority to the latter as far as the systematic origin is concerned. If logic and aesthetics should be developed together, thus complying with our psychological duplicity, aesthetics is more necessary in a sense, both because it performs the delicate task to come to terms with our first concepts, therefore providing the stuff for later logical elaboration, and because his refining effect on sensibility lays the groundwork for sociality, that is, as all too well-known since Thomasius, for humanity itself. The difference between the schöner Geist and the philosopher is therefore more quantitative than qualitative, in that both of them must be first of all human.
In this perspective, Heinz investigates the meaning of taste in Meier’s Abbildung eines Kuntrichters (1745), a work which complements the Abbildung eines wahren Weltweisen, published in the same year. Also in this field, Heinz contends, praxis is the North Star of Meier’s considerations, since taste is essential not only for the enjoyment of beauty, but also for everyday life. In this sense, it becomes apparent that the point at issue here is not the birth of modern art critique as a sophisticated practice for connoisseurs, but the analysis of an activity implying both superior and inferior faculties and concerning “the holistic judgment of the whole man on the whole world”.
As it is evident, these three essays agree in recognising man as the overarching problem of Meier’s thought, a problem that, despite a number of criticisms, successive philosophers will broadly discuss, although not always paying the due tribute to Meier. To be sure, much is still to be done to sketch a satisfying picture of the latter’s multiple philosophical interests, but this challenging volume makes it now possible to outline a tentative map to take a step forward in this direction.
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