Is Beauty Subjective?


When you take in a natural scene like a sunset or a flower, your brain doesn’t usually compare it to something else or pass judgement. It simply accepts it as beautiful for what it is. But is beauty a subjective experience or is there an objective standard that can be applied to art, nature and the human body?

The philosophers of the ancient East—Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism—did not develop an abstract theory of beauty. However, they did consider beauty in the context of ethical (Daoism) and cosmological (Confucianism and Buddhism) ideals. Their ideas can help us understand how beauty is reflected in our culture and why we are drawn to certain things as beautiful.

Plato (427-347 BCE) held an objective view of beauty, which he defined as the world of Forms. He believed that the physical world we live in is a shadow of the realm of Forms and that beauty is inherent in those forms. The criteria that he used to judge whether something was beautiful included symmetry, harmony and proportion. His ideas on beauty were later adapted by Aristotle (384-322 BCE).

For some philosophers, the pleasure we feel when viewing a piece of art is not always spontaneous. They argue that it requires a cognitive disposition that is acquired through the study of beauty. Once cultivated, this disposition produces aesthetic pleasure spontaneously in the observer. This is analogous to the way a virtue acquires truth: when it is mastered through the exercise of its practical application, it becomes automatic and produces moral pleasure.

Philosophers have also argued that beauty is inherently subjective because the standard of what we think is beautiful depends on our perspective and cultural norms. For example, some cultures value certain characteristics of the human body, such as a long neck and slender build, more than others. Similarly, some cultures consider certain colors and shapes to be beautiful while others do not.

Aesthetic philosophers, such as Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) shifted the discussion of beauty from an ontological treatment to one focused on human faculties. It was not until the late 18th century that philosophers developed the philosophical discipline of aesthetics, which is now considered an autonomous field in philosophy.

While there are many ways to define beauty, it is important to understand why we make the judgements that we do. For instance, when you look at a painting of Mont Sainte-Victoire and decide which one is more beautiful, how do you determine what makes that mountain landscape beautiful? Is it the colour, shape and symmetry? Is it the fact that it was painted by a famous artist? Was it “Instagram”-worthy?

While some people may consider this to be an unfair or sexist question, the reality is that men and women generally agree on who is attractive, across all cultures. It is also well-established that being conventionally pretty has benefits, from a boost in self-esteem to being more likely to be hired for jobs or to seem trustworthy.