Philosophy Hammer
Philosophy, Economics, Politics & Psychology Tested with a Hammer

16: Aesthetics:
What is Beauty?

Summary by: Jeff McLaren

         The concept of Beauty has historically been analyzed around three dichotomies:
         1. The Absolute and the Relative: Metaphysical question: is there one absolute standard on which all particular cases are judged and compared OR are judgments and comparison made relative to many standards or many cases?
         2. The Objective and the Subjective: Epistemological question: How is the standard or standards on which we judge determined: objectively (that is through codified rules that are at least in theory available to anyone) or subjectively (that is through introspective and subjective criteria available only to the person perceiving beauty)?
         3. The Universal and the Individual: Practical question: are the answers to the metaphysical and epistemological questions to be applied universally to all people or only to the individual?
         Additionally, there seem to be three dichotomies in the types of beauty:
         1. Natural and Artificial: for example: landscapes and nudes can be naturally beautiful; cityscapes and fashion models are artificially beautiful.
         2. Sensible and Intelligible: for example: music, art and dance are sensibly beautiful; poetic justice and mathematical proofs are intelligibly beautiful.
         3. Material and Spiritual: for example: Rodin's 'The Thinker' and a Ferrari GTO are materially beautiful; the Incarnation, the Resurrection and virtue in the abstract are considered spiritually beautiful.
         I would describe Plato's theory of beauty as being absolute, objective and universal. When ever we see something that we call beautiful it is because we see, however dimly, the true form of its beauty as it is caught in the material world. The true form exists in another world, the world of Ideas, and it is these Ideas, these true forms that, while interacting with our world, give beauty to anything beautiful on earth. We all identify beauty because it is the same thing that we are all looking at. Differences of opinion are merely the result of mis-education. There is one source of beauty and we can all detect and understand it.
         Thomas Aquinas
         The Beautiful is “that which pleases upon being seen.” (I believe he meant “seen” in the widest possible scope: perceived and conceived) Therefore there is no absolute beauty but there are objective signs of beauty such as proportion and symmetry. Most people mostly find things that are properly proportioned or symmetrical to be beautiful. Other signs of beauty are: integrity, perfection, harmony, brightness and clarity. The exact amount of each may be a relative preference so Aquinas sees beauty as both objective and subjective.
         Immanuel Kant
         The Beautiful is that which “please immediately ... apart from all interest” There is no absolute beauty in the Platonic sense nor are their any qualities or signs of beauty as with Aquinas. When we say that something is beautiful we are making a claim to universally – that all people should find it beautiful. This can only be true because we all have at the very least two categories in common with all people: space and time. The universally of beauty comes from the universally of the hard wiring in our brain. The objectivity comes from the disinterestedness of the judgment – interested judgments are corrupt and may by chance be objective, but if the person has a stake in the aesthetic judgment most likely it is incorrect and not universal. Thus only subjective individual judgments that conform to a universal disinterestedness are beautiful.
         Freud and Darwin
         The Beautiful is what is useful for procreation. Therefore there are no absolutes in beauty; only what is helpful for attracting a mate is considered beautiful. This is a truly subjective experience – if a mistake is made the animal will not successfully procreate. What is successful in one culture or time may or may not be successful in any other culture or at any other time. Therefore the beautiful is also a subjective and a individual experience.
         1. What is your idea of the beautiful?
         2. Is there an absolute standard of what is beautiful or does beauty depend on the person?
         3. Can anyone be convinced of the beauty of something with objective criteria and/or reasoning or is there no accounting for tastes?
         4. Can you apply the answers to questions 2 and 3 to everyone or only to yourself. How do you know?
         5. Is beauty an object of love or desire?
         6. What is the significance of wanting to possess an original work of art?
         7. Is beauty more contemplated in the mind or experienced in the body?
         8. Considering the types of beauty and the various analyses of beauty, is any one particularly harmful to our well-being?
         9. Are there any physical or psychological consequences for us if we put emphasis on category analysis over another?
         10. Is any one perspective more appealing to you as a way to make aesthetic judgements? Why?

© 2008 - 2018, James Jeff McLaren