The concept of beauty is a complex and controversial one. Beauty is often a matter of personal taste and preference, but there are some things that seem beautiful to almost everyone. Beauty can be found in many things, including art, music, animals, plants, places and people. In fact, the idea of beauty has inspired numerous philosophers and writers, with many approaches to and theories of it.
A central issue that arises in most of the philosophical literature on beauty is whether it is objective or subjective. This is a debate that continues to rage, as recent developments in neuroscience and psychology have raised questions about what makes an object or a person beautiful.
Some philosophers have argued that beauty is objective, while others have pushed for the recognition of the personal nature of our tastes and experiences. Some of the ancient treatments of beauty have elements of both, such as Plato’s treatment of beauty in terms of the pleasure that it gives us (see Plotinus, Ennead I, 3).
In more recent times, there has been a revival of interest in beauty, with some philosophically oriented critics seeking to revive and extend classical concepts of beauty. There have also been feminist-oriented reconstruals or reappropriations of the concept, for example in the work of Dave Hickey and Irigaray.
The classic conception of beauty argues that a thing is beautiful when its various parts are in harmony with each other. The proportions of the parts, sometimes expressed in mathematical ratios such as the golden section, are what make an object beautiful. This view of beauty is associated with the Italian Renaissance, where it was widely espoused by artists and scholars.
Others have argued that beauty is something that can be discovered through careful observation and study of a thing, for instance, by looking at its structure or how it fits together. The sculptural art of the Baroque period is typically considered to be beautiful on this account, as is much modernist painting.
It is conventional in most of the ancient treatments of beauty to pay tribute to the pleasures that it induces, and some of these are quite ecstatic. The neo-Platonism of Plotinus, for example, focuses on the unity and transcendence of beauty, which he associates with a sense of rapture or ecstasy.
It is also possible to take a more relativist view of beauty, and argue that an object or person is beautiful when it gives rise to some kind of enjoyment in the beholder. This is the position that is largely favored by modernist thinkers, though it has been challenged by some recent developments in social and political philosophy. For example, it is increasingly common to see people with disabilities as models in advertising campaigns, and the focus has shifted away from physical appearance to the strength, wisdom and courage that can be seen in these individuals. This is a trend that will likely continue in the future.