Lessons from History: Moses Mendelssohn
Moses Mendelssohn—the philosopher, not the composer—wrote widely about metaphysics, political theory, theology, and aesthetics. Mendelssohn lived from 1729 until 1786, and, despite being infrequently mentioned now, he was an important voice in the Enlightenment. In 1761, he published Philosophical Writings, which contains essays and shorter works.
One of these works was a fictional account called On Sentiments, which consists of a series of letters exchanged between two characters: Theocles and Euphranor. They discuss sentiments, beauty, the sublime, and other related topics. I highlight key ideas from this work below.
Mendelssohn finds the foundation for his ideas about aesthetics from his notion of sentiments, which can be defined as knowledge arrived at through the senses. Aesthetics, in his view, is a kind of knowledge; we often overlook this aspect, thinking that aesthetics is merely about appearances and feelings. We perceive beauty from order, form, harmony, and other concepts of perfection, according to Mendelssohn. But this perception is not simply about the external senses. Mendelssohn explains that beauty arises when “we perceive a large array of an object’s features all at once without being able to separate them distinctly from each other.”
While this idea, for him, carries metaphysical aspects, it helps point to a reason for thinking beauty is not easily explained. If the different aspects of an object’s beauty have to be indistinctly united in our minds, then it’s not surprising that we can’t always pinpoint exactly which feature (or features) comprise an object’s beauty. And it’s important to see that it is the combination or properties, qualities, or features that join together to create beauty.
Trying to anticipate which combination of colors, shapes, and compositions we can employ to guarantee the production of beauty is a daunting task, even with recent scientific research about aesthetics. This complicates any attempt to produce a formula for the creation or appreciation of beauty. Thus, focusing on a particular function (or other aspect) of an object hinders our ability to recognize its beauty. We’re easily distracted from having aesthetic experiences.
Mendelssohn provides an interesting solution for alleviating those distractions. In a word: preparation. He describes his process. He contemplates the object, reflecting about all the sides and parts to grasp them distinctly. Then, he allows the distinct parts to disappear back into the whole. So that the whole alone radiates. “My motto is: choose, feel, reflect, and enjoy.” (Italics in original.) To explain, we can be intentional about which objects we pursue. We can develop intuitions that help guide our experience of objects, which leads to our contemplating them. Finally, we can rest in our enjoyment of these objects.
This simplified explanation helps us see that we can (and should!) become more intentional about how we experience art and other aesthetic objects. Even if Mendelssohn’s approach is not absolute, it helps us form a guideline for how we may think about our aesthetic experiences. They shouldn’t be merely passive.
I’m always an advocate for digging into the history of ideas and philosophy for how we may think about and apply them to our current practices and contexts. Despite being woefully neglected, Mendelssohn provides a rich exploration of many topics about aesthetics, of which I mention a couple ideas above. We probably don’t agree with everything he says, but the history of philosophy is full of intriguing thoughts, exhilarating tangents, and rigorous attempts at conceptual clarity. And I try to help others to discover these ideas.
What I’ve been up to.
We’re in the final round of revisions for our book on digital fashion!
I have been invited onto the advisory board for a 5 year project (pending funding) based in Italy, for which the goal is to research and explore the relationship between beauty and sustainability.
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