UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Nachahmung und Illusion in der Asthetik Moses Mendelssohns Haimberger, Johann Franz


Mendelssohn did not write a systematic work explaining fully his theory of aesthetic illusion, although that theory can be derived from his total work. This thesis aims to provide a full account of Mendelssohn's concept of 'aesthetic illusion' by gathering his views from his various writings, and defends this theory against those critics who have attempted to articulate Mendelssohn's concept of illusion without taking into account the entire scope of his work. In the first two chapters, the development of 'the concept of art as an imitation of nature is traced from the beginning of the eighteenth century to 1755, when Mendelssohn began to advance the view that art creates pleasure because it is a perfect imitation of nature. The third chapter outlines the ideas concerning illusion as they were discussed in the aesthetic theories of the same period. Mendelssohn was the first to put forward a theory of illusion. He referred to illusion in the arts as 'aesthetic illusion’, and defined it as the most perfect imitation of nature. In analysing the effect of illusion on the viewer of art, Mendelssohn divided the means by which the human soul receives impressions from the world into the higher and lower branches of the cognitive faculty, reason and the senses, and assigned the perception of art to the senses. According to Mendelssohn, the illusion created by art arouses, through the senses, conscious and unconscious emotions which in turn activate reason. Reason — realising that what the senses have experienced is an illusion, but far from being taken in by that illusion itself — enjoys the perfect imitation as a manifestation of the genius of the artist. At this point, the message which the artist conveyed by means of his art is interpreted and judged by reason. This two-fold effect of art — directly on the senses, and indirectly on the reason -- Mendelssohn called 'aesthetic illusion’. Mendelssohn's recognition of the importance of the interpretation and judgement of a work of art by the reason indicates that he did not see art simply as an end in itself, but as a means of improving man ethically. For Mendelssohn, the impact of art on the higher and lower branches of man's cognitive faculty develops man's ethical sensibility as he learns from experience, even though in the case of art the experience is merely illusionary. The fourth chapter surveys the various arts as Mendelssohn judged their ability to create illusion. For him, only the major art forms —literature and painting — can truly create an illusion, as they come closest to a perfect imitation of nature and can therefore more readily activate reason. The subsidary arts, such as music and architecture, are valuable in that they increase and strengthen the effect of the major art forms. The fifth chapter discusses the aesthetic ideas Mendelssohn expressed in Morgenstunden, his last work and philosophical testament. Art, with its ability to create an aesthetic illusion, is seen as a world in itself, with its own truth and its own standard of judgement. Between the perceptive faculty and appetetive faculty, Mendelssohn established for the realm of the arts the faculty of approbation. Immersed in this world, and undisturbed by reason and by desires, man can with restful satisfaction form his own opinion about ethical values. Thus it is that, through the creation of such a world, aesthetic illusion enables art to educate man.

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