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Behind Herder's Tympanum: Sound and Physiological Aesthetics, 1800/1900

from Special Section on What Goethe Heard, edited by Mary Helen Dupree

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 May 2018

Tyler Whitney
Affiliation:
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
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Summary

IN EARLY 1769, at the age of twenty-five, Johann Gottfried Herder composed the last of his so-called ‘kritische Wälder’ (critical forests), a series of essays responding to the aesthetic theories of contemporaries such as Christian Adolf Klotz, Friedrich Just Riedel and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Drawing most extensively on Lessing's foundational media-theoretical work, Laokoon oder über die Grenzen der Mahlerey und Poesie (Laokoon, or the Limits of Painting and Poetry, 1766), the series examined the coevolution of the human sensorium and the historical differentiation of the arts. In contrast to his contemporaries, Herder ascribed particular importance to the sense of hearing and dedicated large sections of his critical forests to explaining the uniqueness of aesthetic experiences mediated by the ear. In order to make his case for hearing, Herder looked beyond the fields of philosophy and art history to the recent work in physiology he had encountered during his brief tenure as a medical student at the University of Königsberg.

Nowhere was this attempt to fuse art history with medical science clearer than in his Viertes Kritisches Wäldchen (Fourth Critical Forest) from 1769, which, according to Herder, aimed at making sense of “[die] innere Physik des Geistes” ([the] inner physics of the mind) or “die Physiologie der Menschlichen Seele” (the physiology of the human soul). Specifically, the essay discussed the nature of sound and aesthetic pleasure with numerous references to the anatomical structure of the ear. In support of the essay's central distinction between ‘sound’ (Schall) and ‘tone’ (Ton), Herder drew readers’ attention to the ear's “Tympanum” (102; tympanum), “Trommelfell” (138; tympanic membrane), “Nervenäste” (105; nerve branches), and “Fasern” (108; fibers).

This foregrounding of the ear's corporeality and its incorporation into a theory of musical aesthetics and poetics was consistent with Herder's broader intellectual project, which aimed to rehabilitate auditory experience against the backdrop of Enlightenment ocularcentrism. While his Viertes Kritisches Wäldchen offered a theory of aesthetic pleasure and the sonic sublime grounded in the physiology of auditory perception, his Abhandlung über den Ursprung der Sprache (Essay on the Origin of Language, 1772) elevated the ear to the status of “erste Lehrmeister der Sprache” (the first language teacher), and characterized the process of language acquisition as an acoustic exchange.

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Goethe Yearbook 25
Publications of the Goethe Society of North America
, pp. 11 - 30
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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