Views on Beauty
The nature of beauty as an area of human experience is an enduring and controversial subject in Western philosophy. The early Greek philosophers considered the word beauty as a general term for an experience that is pleasurable, along with other values such as goodness, truth, and justice. It was considered among the Hellenistic and medieval philosophers, and was central to 18th and 19th-century Enlightenment thought, as in treatments by thinkers such as Hume and Kant. It continues to be debated in contemporary philosophy and the arts, and its discussion has broadened in scope to include everyday aspects of life.
Early philosophers regarded beauty as objective and as something that existed external to the beholder. To Plato, beauty belongs in the realm of ‘Forms’. These are nonphysical ideals, abstract concepts that exist independent of minds. Beauty was a concept which could be thought of but was located in the external world. Aristotle says in his Poetics that “to be beautiful, a living creature, and every whole made up of parts, must … present a certain order in its arrangement of parts” . Beauty was intrinsic in the object and would exhibit idealised proportions or a shape suited to its function.
These ideas continued more or less up to the 18th century when British philosophers, working within an empiricist framework, argued that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. The empirical view says that we arrive at an experience of beauty based on a sensation within us. It rejects Plato’s nonphysical ideals and abstract concepts that exist outside the mind. It argues that when we respond to a beautiful object that exhibits harmony and proportion, the sensation of beauty is an experience within the mind. It is not a property of the object itself as in Aristotle’s philosophy.
As is a subjective experience it explains such variations that people have in their experience of beauty. We do not each have the same feeling when we admit to finding the same object beautiful.
Hume acknowledged this when he said that taste, which in his day was the appreciation of beauty, is fundamentally subjective, that every judgment of beauty is based on personal experience, and that such judgments vary from person to person.
Writing towards the end of 19th century, Santayana said ‘beauty is a value, that is, it is not a perception of a matter of fact or of a relation: it is an emotion, an affection of our volitional and appreciative nature’ . The judgment of something that is beautiful is a response to a certain pleasure in oneself.
A subjectivist line is also taken by Kant who stated that the judgement of taste was not a judgement of cognition but one whose “ground can be no other than subjective”. A sensation in a viewer can signify an element in the external object, for example, colour, but a feeling of pleasure or pain does not signify anything in the object. It is only a feeling or affect within the person that is the result of seeing the object. We say something is beautiful when we take pleasure in its representation in one’s experience.
Kant takes this idea of subjectivity further to say that we are indifferent to the existence of the object, and calls this ‘disinterestedness’. One must be free of any motives for a judgement of beauty, for example, that it might fulfil a human need. If it does, then that judgement is not a valid one of beauty. We are not responding to beauty per se, but to our ‘interested’ view of it. It can only be a judgement of beauty if we are disinterested in the object.
He compares this to a judgement of virtue which brings with it a need for some action to be taken. However, a judgement of beauty is merely contemplative. There is no desire to perform any action. There is no duty with regard to beautiful things. A judgement of beauty must be made independently of the normal range of human wishes and desires as these are examples of our interests. To Kant the idea of beauty, or in our modern world, aesthetics, must be separated from ideas of the ‘good’ or the ‘agreeable’.
His model of common sense - a basic ability to perceive and judge things that is shared by nearly everyone, without the need for debate - is the reason why other people can agree on whether a work is beautiful and share the similar subjective aesthetic judgement.
Hume, too, was aware of the social aspects of judgements of beauty when he wrote there are descriptions of it to do with collective or communal aspects. Reasons for the beauty of certain works or objects reach a consensus over time as they are found convincing by others. He gives the example of art critics who, over the years, have established that certain works have a beauty that they agree on.
Thus, judgements of taste are not purely private; they display an orientation to collective sentiments or a trend or fashion. There is a public consensus to it. We feel that others share the same feeling. This has implications for later social philosophers. It sets the ground for judgements of beauty as the result of collective sentiments in, for example, fashion discussions.
This mechanism of collective judgement is built on by first Simmel, and then Blumer, in their attempt to understand how different groups can agree on various ideas of beauty. For Simmel, the maintenance of class distinction was the reason why the elite class adopted fashion, and agreed on its aesthetics, so as to conspicuously display their difference from lower classes.
Blumer rejected this elite-to-lower class model of fashion and developed a more complex model. He argues that fashion in modern societies is articulated and differentiated across a range of social areas. He characterises fashion as one of ‘collective selection’, a social process for arrival at collective taste. In a social-aesthetic marketplace, different groups pick and choose from emerging styles according to their own values .
Bourdieu adds to this and finds that judgements of taste are in fact based on the criteria of interest: pleasure through the senses, utility or a moral position. He rejects Kantian theory in “its insistence that judgements of taste, far from being ‘disinterested’, are implicated in the very processes by which dominant groups obtain their power and influence”.
More recently, Woodward and Emmison have found that many instances of every day judgements of taste are not only understood as aesthetics, but are also matters of moral, ethical and communal sensibility. They consider the logics which inform everyday understandings of good and bad taste, and show that how people judge aesthetics is strongly linked to a range of thoroughly ‘interested’ social conventions and considerations, which plainly contravene Kant’s model . These are ‘interested’ schemes and repertoires that people use to distinguish between what is aesthetically ‘good’ or ‘bad’.