He was born at Juditten near Königsberg, the son of a Lutheran clergyman. He studied philosophy and history at the University of Königsberg, but immediately on taking the degree of Magister in 1723, he fled to Leipzig in order to avoid being drafted into the Prussian army. In Leipzig he enjoyed the protection of JB Mencke, who, under the name of "Philander von der Linde," was a well-known poet and president of the Deutschübende poetische Gesellschaft in Leipzig. Of this society Gottsched was elected "Senior" in 1726, and in the next year reorganized it under the title of the Deutsche Gesellschaft. In 1730 he was appointed extraordinary professor of poetry, and, in 1734, ordinary professor of logic and metaphysics in the university. He died at Leipzig.
Gottsched's chief work was his Versuch einer kritischen Dichtkunst für die Deutschen (1730), the first systematic treatise in German on the art of poetry from the standpoint of Boileau. His Ausführliche Redekunst (1728) and his Grundlegung einer deutschen Sprachkunst (1748) were of importance for the development of German style and the purification of the language. He wrote several plays, of which Der sterbende Cato (1732), an adaptation of Joseph Addison's tragedy and a French play on the same theme, was long popular on the stage. In his Deutsche Schaubühne (6 volumes, 1740-1745), which contained mainly translations from the French, he provided the German stage with a classical repertory, and his bibliography of the German drama, Nötiger Vorrat zur Geschichte der deutschen dramatischen Dichtkunst (1757-1765), is still valuable. He was also the editor of several journals devoted to literary criticism.
As a critic, Gottsched insisted on German literature being subordinated to the laws of French classicism; he enunciated rules by which the playwright must be bound, and abolished bombast and buffoonery from the serious stage. While such reforms obviously afforded a healthy corrective to the extravagance and want of taste which were rampant in the German literature of the time, Gottsched went too far. In 1740 he came into conflict with the Swiss writers Johann Jakob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitinger (1701-1776), who, under the influence of Addison and contemporary Italian critics, demanded that the poetic imagination should not be hampered by artificial rules; they pointed to the great English poets, and especially to Milton. Gottsched, although not blind to the beauties of the English writers, clung the more tenaciously to his principle that poetry must be the product of rules, and, in the fierce controversy which for a time raged between Leipzig and Zürich, he was inevitably defeated. His influence speedily declined, and before his death his name became proverbial for pedantic folly.
Gottsched died in Leipzig at the age of 66.
His wife, Luise Kulmus was also a prominent author.