Beauty is a concept that has been recognized throughout history in diverse cultural traditions. Yet, the definitions of beauty vary widely from one culture to another. A dung-basket, for example, might be considered beautiful by some people while others might consider it ugly. The reason for this is that the concept of beauty is not only subjective but also intersubjective.
The classical conception of beauty sees the beautiful as an object that contains both objective and subjective aspects. The object’s objective side is based on instantiating definite proportions or relations among its parts, often expressed in mathematical ratios such as the ‘golden section.’ The beautiful is a harmonious whole that consists of well-matched and proportional parts that combine to form an integrated, coherent unit. The sculptural beauty of the Parthenon by Polykleitos or the painting and sculpture of the Renaissance era are examples of this aesthetic ideal.
On the other hand, the subjective side of beauty is based on the emotional response of the beholder. A person’s response may be evoked by the symmetry of a face, a melody or the harmony of a room. Hence, the saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Philosophers have been divided on how to deal with these two sides of the concept of beauty. Some, such as Socrates and Aristippus of Cyrene have taken a utilitarian approach. For them, the most beautiful is that which is suited to its use. Thus, a dung-basket might be considered beautiful if it is used to collect gold or other treasures.
Other philosophers have been hedonists and have associated beauty with pleasure. They have identified the pleasure that a person feels when she encounters something beautiful as the primary source of its beauty. Various philosophers, including the empiricists of the eighteenth century, have adopted this view.
More recently, the political entanglements of beauty have called into question some of these traditional theories. For example, the hedonistic view of beauty might seem tainted when it comes to the enjoyment of a beautiful painting or piece of music that was produced under conditions of oppression.
What is clear from these different views is that the concept of beauty continues to be a central concern in philosophy. It has been discussed in all the major philosophical traditions. However, most philosophers agree that beauty is a complex concept with both objective and subjective dimensions. For this reason it is difficult to find a precise definition of beauty. However, there are a number of principles that have been developed to guide our appreciation of beauty. These include the golden ratio, symmetry, proportion and harmony. These principles can be useful in the design of products and buildings, for example. They can help designers to create objects and spaces that are both aesthetically pleasing and functional. These are important considerations in an age when sustainable design is becoming increasingly important and the impact of our designs on the planet is being recognised.