The concept of beauty is a fundamental part of western culture. It is a central part of classical art and literature, as well as music and architecture. It is also a central part of the modern philosophy of aesthetics.
Traditionally, a beautiful thing consists of an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, in proportion, harmony, symmetry and similar notions. This conception of beauty is embodied in Western classical and neo-classical art, as well as in music and literature (see Aquinas).
As Aristotle says: “Beauty, then, is the order of things” and “The parts of a thing, if they have not been made to accord with each other, are ugly.”
But even though Aristotle’s views are generally taken to be the normative formulations of the idea of beauty, the concept itself remains highly subject to controversy. Many philosophers have viewed beauty in different ways.
Kant, for example, regarded beauty as a form of disinterested pleasure. He viewed beauty as the result of a particular type of rationality, in which pleasure is a function of a certain level of intellection and practical activity.
This kind of thinking is called hedonism and can be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman thought, as well as early modern European philosophy. In the seventeenth century, however, the concept of beauty became subject to a moral and political critique. The French revolutionaries of 1789, for example, associated beauty with the wealth and decadence of the aristocracy, and the art that followed it in the eighteenth century often seemed to be designed for furnishing and decorating rather than for the contemplation and enjoyment of nature and humankind.
The twentieth century, on the other hand, saw a decline in the prominence of beauty as a goal of art. The hedonistic associations of beauty with wealth and power, as well as the politics that underpinned this relationship, led to an erosion of its status as the central aim of artistic endeavor.
While this view still has important ecstatic facets, its hedonist roots mean that it does not necessarily capture the true experience of beauty as a unified state. It may, however, be a valuable starting point for discussing the question of beauty in its broadest sense.
Some twentieth-century philosophers rejected this kind of hedonism, and instead held that beauty is an objective state of mind, the result of a particular type of thinking. These philosophers did not accept that the meaning of beauty could be simply subjective; they believed that, if beauty were treated as a mere expression of pleasure or sentiment, then it would lose its status as a value.
Another philosopher, John Stuart Mill, argued that the only meaningful term in the sense of a claim about the content of something was that which had a concrete meaning. In his essay “What is Man?”, he asserted that beauty is “the most essential quality of the object which gives pleasure to us.”
Some philosophers have viewed the experience of beauty as more than just a feeling of pleasure; they have also argued that the experience of beauty is a social one, in which an individual’s response to a work of art or literature depends on the community of its appreciation. Aristotle, for example, formulated the idea of a work of art as “the harmonious synthesis of its parts.” And Hume and Kant argued that in controversies over works of art, reasons can sometimes be given and will occasionally be found convincing.