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The ability of a penetrating mind to grasp the essentials and to see through things quickly is generally referred to as acumen (outdated: sagacity) or perceptive ; the Duden describes it as an "alert intellect that immediately grasps the essentials". Acumen is often associated with talent , cleverness , reason, and business acumen . It is in contrast to wit and the ability to discover unexpected similarities , as well as profundity , which claims to get to the bottom of things ("to be profound").

The philosophy of the Enlightenment begins at the end of the 17th century to understand acumen as an important epistemological faculty of the mind. At the time, acumen was generally considered to be the mental faculty of discerning the differences between two objects or objects of thought.

Philosophy: wit and sagacity

Conceptism in Spain and Italy

At about the same time, the two works Art of Acuteness ( Baltasar Gracián 1642) and Aristotelian Telescope ( Emanuele Tesauro 1654) created the first theoretical systems of acumen (Latin argutia , Spanish agudeza , Italian argutezza ). In their epoch of the late Baroque or Mannerism, both authors try to give a common basis for the aesthetics and rhetoric in the general human ability to be funny . Gracián often draws on his compatriot Martial (40-104 AD) and Tesauro on the Greek Aristotle (384-322 BC) and on the poetry of Giambattista Marino (1569-1625).

Baroque in Germany

Daniel Georg Morhof (1639–1691) is the most important multiplier for the Tesaurus theses in Germany; his Commentatio de argutiarum disciplina (1693) is strongly influenced by the Aristotelian telescope . Influences of Tesaurus have also been suspected for De argutis inscriptionibus (1678) by Christian Weise . Theories more influenced by Gracián are Ars nova argutiarum (1649) by Jacob Masen and Frauenzimmer- Talkspiele (1641–1649) by Georg Philipp Harsdörffer . In this context, the theory of acumen is used in particular to produce astute or pointed epigrams .

Early Enlightenment: Wolff and Gottsched

Christian Wolff and Johann Christoph Gottsched initially strictly and systematically limit wit and sagacity. Joke, insight and attention are the central faculties that enable clear and distinct knowledge of the world and human actions (see Leibniz ). All three are innate talents, but can be practiced and improved.

Attention ( attentio ) is the ability to perceive details of a thing; Acumen ( acumen ) to separate the characteristics of a thing with quick apprehension (directed attention or reflexion ) and thus to arrive at clear terms. Linked to this is the wit ( ingenium ) as the ability to perceive the similarities of things to one another and to find genera and species, i.e. general terms. Tiefsinnigkeit ( profunditas ) is also the assets, terms composite "into simpler to dissect, and so they more clearly and fully [adequately] to make" (Gottsched 1733, §480).

With the help of these abilities, the knowledge of one's own and others' actions and its improvement can progress, the overriding goal of which is perfection (cf. Wolff 1733, §139). Ultimately, this is how bliss should be achieved.

For Wolff, wit, understanding and the ability to draw conclusions are the foundations of the art of finding ( heuristics ). There is the possibility of logically inferring new knowledge either a) from experience and observation or b) deductively from already known sentences (Wolff 1733, §§294ff). Such a joke is different from the "common joke", which is "only useful for puns" (§309).

In Gottsched's Critical Poetry , the recipe for promoting natural wit and acumen is to teach young people to “draw or tear up” until they “begin to depict real people or to paint areas and landscapes”, at the same time training to become an artist: “ Such exercises unnoticed form poetic spirits ”(Gottsched 1972, p. 45). Art production here basically proceeds according to the mimetic principle, in that acumen has the function of constant comparison between the work and the model. Joke, attention and sagacity are (besides learning and artistry) the most important skills that a poet has to develop, as he should be able to gain knowledge of the "invisible thoughts and inclinations of human minds" as well as be able to control their astute imitation.

Late Enlightenment: Kant

In Immanuel Kant's anthropology in a pragmatic way , the joke is reworded. He is now in opposition to the faculty of judgment . The focus has shifted from cognitive faculties to productive faculties . The power of judgment “is based on remarking the differences among the manifold, partly identical” (thus related to Wolff's definition of acumen); it works deductively . Witz works inductively and determines the “identity of the manifold, partly different” (Kant 1798, p. 201 after the original pag.). Both, however, are due to ingenuity. Kant's concept of joke relates solely to the “flowers” ​​of thought; he states that “the joke is called blooming; and just as nature seems to be more of a game in its flowers, but rather a business in its fruits, so the talent that is found in this is judged to be of lower rank (according to the purposes of reason) than that which [der Judgment] ”(ibid.).

Probably the most essential innovation in Kant is the productive power of jokes: he “pairs (assimilates) heterogeneous ideas which, according to the laws of imagination (of association), often differ widely” and calls it a “faculty of similars”. Kant differentiated comparative ( ingenium comparans ) and rational joke ( ingenium argutans ), which is innate and cannot be learned ; it is - again an innovation - a communicative ability, a “liberality of the senses in the mutual communication of thoughts” (p. 220). The joke "gives the mind material [...] to make its concepts general" (p. 221), thus producing a meaningful variety of ideas, although it can be "shallow"; Nevertheless, Kant also finds a “thorough” joke that “can be a vehicle or shell for reason and its handling for its moral-practical ideas” (p. 222).


  • Gottfried Gabriel: Aesthetic “wit” and logical “ingenuity”. On the relationship between scientific and aesthetic worldview . Erlangen / Jena 1996.
  • Johann Christoph Gottsched : First reasons for the total wisdom of the world . Reproduction of the editions Leipzig 1733 (Theoretical Part) and 1734 (Practical Part), Frankfurt 1965.
  • Johann Christoph Gottsched: Attempt at critical poetry before the Germans. 1730, in: The same: Writings on literature. Published by H. Steinmetz. Reclam, Stuttgart 1972, pp. 12-196.
  • Baltasar Gracián : Arte de Ingenio, Tratado de la Agudeza. Edited by Correa Calderon. Madrid 1981.
  • Immanuel Kant : Anthropology in a pragmatic way. 1798. Edited by R. Brandt (= Philosophical Library. Volume 490). Hamburg 2000.
  • Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz : reflections on knowledge, truth and ideas. 1684, in: The same: Five writings on logic and metaphysics . Translated and edited by H. Herring. Reclam, Stuttgart 1995.
  • Ralph Müller: Theory of the punchline. Paderborn 2003.
  • Jean Paul : Preschool of Aesthetics 1804, ²1813. Edited by W. Henckmann (= Philosophical Library. Volume 425). Hamburg 1990.
  • Emanuele Tesauro : Il Cannocchiale Aristotelico. Published by August Buck . Bad Homburg / Berlin / Zurich 1968.
  • Christian Wolff : Sensible thoughts from people doing and letting go, to promote their happiness . Reproduction of the edition Frankfurt and Leipzig 1733. Edited by HW Arndt (= Collected Works, Department I. Volume 4). Hildesheim 1976.


  • Joseph Joubert , French mysteric (1754–1824), in thoughts, experiments and maxims : " Ingenuity only takes a moment to notice everything, precision years to express everything."
  • Johann Wolfgang Goethe , German scholar, poet, and writer (1749–1832): "Ingenuity is least likely to leave witty men when they are wrong."

Web links

Wiktionary: Acumen  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wikiquote: Acumen  - Quotes

Individual evidence

  1. Duden editorial team : Scharfsinn, der. Ibid: astute. Ibid: Sagacity that. Retrieved December 26, 2018.