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Why Looking at Objects Matters

An Argument from the Aesthetic Philosophy of Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten

Adam Bencard

Within museum studies, there has been a recent interest in engaging with objects and their material effects as something other than vehicles for human cultural meaning. This article contributes to this interest by offering a philosophical argument for the value of close sensory engagement with physical things, an argument found in the works of the eighteenth-century German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762), who is famous for fathering the modern philosophical discourse on aesthetics. Baumgarten outlines what he terms sensate thinking, defined as an analogue to rational thinking, and insists that this form of thinking can be analyzed and sharpened according to its own rules. I discuss how Baumgarten’s aesthetics might be useful for how the curator approaches objects in exhibitions and for understanding how visitors’ sensory engagement with the objects can be important beyond the deciphering of historical narratives and conceptual meanings.