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Yrjö Hirn

Born 7 December, 1870, Lappeenranta. Died 23 February, 1952, Helsinki.

Master of Arts 1892 and Licentiate of Philosophy 1896, Imperial Alexander University

Professor of Aesthetics and Contemporary Literature 1910-37, University of Helsinki
Amanuensis 1894-1910, Library of Imperial Alexander University

Member of the Prometheus Society 1905-1914
Finnish delegate to the Paris Peace Conference 1919

White Rose of Finland, 2nd class, 1919
White Rose of Finland, 1st class, 1926
French Legion d’honneur, 1920
French Officier de l’Instruction publique, 1922
French l'ordre national de la Légion d'honneur, 1926
Honorary Doctor of Philosophy, University of Oslo, 1939
Swedish Academy, Gold medal, 1940

Photo: Museovirasto
Written by Riitta-Ilona Hurmerinta
Translated by John Calton

Aesthetician of literature and cultural history

Arguably Yrjö Hirn was, in his day, one of the most famous Finnish men of letters in the world. His scholarly career began in aesthetics, where he introduced the ideas of the sociologist Edvard Westermarck to fellow aestheticians. Hirn made a great many research trips around Europe and established particularly strong contacts within the English universities.

In his seminal work on aesthetics, The Origins of Art. A psychological and sociological inquiry (1900), which drew on those two methods of enquiry, Hirn demonstrated that art was born out of practical, essentially unaesthetic needs. He saw art as relating to the desire to convey emotional states to others and correspondingly a need for the recipient to enjoy a variety of ‘emotionistic experience’.

Yrjö Hirn was appointed Professor of Aesthetics and Contemporary Literature at the Imperial Alexander University in 1910. He earned the reputation of a teacher who delivered carefully-prepared lectures without the aid of notes. In his University teaching he mainly dealt with literature from the nineteenth century and earlier. He steered clear of passing judgment on contemporary literature, art and other forms of cultural expression.  Besides his academic writing he gained some distinction as an essayist. He retired in 1937, after 27 years as professor, but kept up with his scholarly work until his death. During a productive career, Yrjö Hirn became well grounded in environmental aesthetics, theatre and art history as well as carving out the discipline of Karelian studies. As the years passed he concentrated increasingly on literature and cultural history, turning his attention to Johan Ludvig Runeberg’s oeuvre, for example. One such publication was the 1942 essay collection Runeberggestalten (’Runeberg’s forms’), in which he examined Runeberg’s life and offered interpretations of his poetry.

The Finnish Society for Aesthetics grants the Yrjö Hirn prize for especially deserving scholars of aesthetics.



  • Riikonen, Hannu K. (2009) Hirn, Yrjö (1870–1952). National Biography of Finland online. Helsinki: Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura. Accessed 27 January, 2015
  • Österman, Pia (2002) Sivistyksen voima. Filosofeja, historioitsijoita, kulttuuri- ja kielitieteilijöitä – 150 vuotta humanisteja (‘The Power of Education. Scholars of philosophy, history, culture and language–150 years of the humanities’). Helsinki, Yliopistopaino (Helsinki University press)
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