The Concept of Beauty in Art and Philosophy


Beauty is a feature of objects and experiences that can provide pleasure, meaning or satisfaction to the eye, ear or intellect. It can also arouse moral or emotional responses such as love and desire. It can be found in natural and artificial objects and in both the human body and works of art. It is generally understood that beauty is a personal and subjective experience but there are many different ways to understand what makes something beautiful.

The most important disagreement about the nature of beauty concerns whether it is objective or subjective. This is not a trivial matter since the answer to this question has profound implications for the philosophy of art and the nature of beauty itself.

Some philosophers have sought to resolve this issue by arguing that beauty is a quality that can be imposed on an object by the perceiver. Others have argued that beauty is a quality that is intrinsic to the object itself. Both views have their strengths and weaknesses.

Many ancient treatments of beauty emphasized the hedonistic pleasures that can be derived from experiencing beauty. Socrates in his Symposium and Plotinus in the Enneads, for example, describe awe and wonderment, longing and desire in response to beauty. Plato’s theory of beauty, however, locates the beauty of particular objects in their participation in the Forms (see his Symposium, 450-454 BCE) rather than in the subjective response to them.

In the nineteenth century, some philosophers attempted to reconcile the two approaches by arguing that beauty is not a property of objects but a quality resulting from the way an object or work of art causes us to respond to it. This theory, which has been influential in art and design, is called phenomenological or perceptual. It has its critics, particularly in the twentieth century when it was supplanted by theories of social justice and other more pressing issues.

More recently there has been a revival of interest in the concept of beauty in both art and philosophy, partly reflecting an awareness that it was ignored or neglected for much of the twentieth century. In addition, recent feminist-oriented reconstruals or reappropriations of the concept of beauty have made it a central issue in contemporary thought. However, some have questioned the need to revive a theory of beauty, arguing that the promotion of an unrealistic ideal of beauty can lead to problems with self-esteem, eating disorders and mental health. It is also possible that the hedonistic pleasures associated with beauty are not always harmless, given that they can be coerced, ill-earned or obtained at a cost to others. Nevertheless, there is a general feeling that beauty needs to be restored as an impulse that can be both liberating and life-enhancing.