The Philosophy of Beauty


The word beauty can conjure up a range of images, depending on the context: a picturesque sunset, an elegantly dressed woman or a striking painting. The idea behind it is positive, and the term is usually contrasted with its negative counterpart, ugliness. Beauty is one of the main topics in aesthetics, the branch of philosophy that studies art and taste.

The central debate in the philosophy of beauty is whether it is objective or subjective. Some philosophers, like the Romantic poet William Blake, argue that it is purely subjective, whereas others like George Santayana and Aristotle think that it has both an objective side and a subjective one.

A recurrent theme in ancient philosophical treatments of beauty is the emphasis on harmony and proportion, often expressed in mathematical ratios such as the golden section. Sculpture was often studied in terms of its ability to instantiate a given proportion, and the Symposium and Plotinus’s treatise on the Enneads are filled with references to the beauty of harmonious symmetry. It is also common to stress the pleasures that beauty can elicit, described in sometimes ecstatic terms: “this spirit which beauty must ever induce is wonderment and delicious trouble, love and longing” (Plotinus, Symposium I).

More recent discussions of beauty have been influenced by scientific research into the way our brains perceive it. The study of neuroaesthetics has revealed that when we admire an object that we find beautiful, a part of the brain associated with emotions is activated. This may explain why, for example, we feel happy when we see a landscape or sunset, or get an adrenaline rush when we watch a sports car race.

Despite the different ways that people perceive beauty, most agree that it can be shared between individuals, even if they see it differently. This is reflected in the old saying that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is also backed up by the fact that many of us have similar tastes in music, art and architecture, and that experts agree on the judgements of great works of art.

In addition, there is evidence that our experiences of beauty can be conditioned by our culture and upbringing. For example, some societies place greater value on certain features of the human body, such as a slim figure or wrinkle-free forehead, while other cultures may focus more on an individual’s character and inner qualities, such as compassion and humility. There are also cultural trends that influence our views of what is beautiful, such as the growing acceptance of people with disabilities being seen as attractive. As a result, advertising campaigns have started to feature models in wheelchairs and those with Down Syndrome. This has helped to change the perception of what is considered beautiful around the world.