The Philosophy of Beauty

From Plato to modern neuro-psychological studies, beauty has a long history of adamant debates and passionate thoughts. There is a sense that there is something about beauty that moves us in a way that other aspects of life do not. It is a feeling that is hard to explain and varies from person to person. People describe it as a sort of awe or delight that is evoked by certain things, whether it is a landscape, work of art or person.

The philosophical discussion of beauty has been dominated by Platonism and neo-Platonism, although Hume and Kant both saw that there was a problem with treating it as nothing more than a subjective state. Moreover, many of these views have elements that seem incompatible with one another. For example, Kant’s treatment of beauty in terms of disinterested pleasure has obvious hedonistic elements while the neo-Platonic account of beauty as the experience of unity with the transcendent has a kind of hedonism about it as well.

Aristotle, on the other hand, ascribes less danger to beauty than his mentor Plato did. He argues that beauty is the result of an ordered arrangement of parts, and that this arrangement must be recognizable to the human eye. He also argues that beauty requires that an object have integrity, perfection and proportion. He also adds that it should be clear and bright.

Other philosophers have emphasized the importance of love in the experience of beauty. Aristotle and Plato both argued that a beautiful object or person calls out to the love in other persons. This is seen in the admonition to “love what is beautiful” and in the works of art such as Dante’s Divine Comedy. The love called out by the beautiful object is often a recognition of the best in that person—the good intentions, strengths, talents and desires that reside there as potentials.

In the eighteenth century, however, some thinkers began to realize that this view of beauty has problems of its own. It is sometimes associated with a certain hedonism and may encourage in some people an obsession with physical attractiveness. It also tends to treat objects as mere vessels for the pleasures of the experiencer, and ignores their intrinsic value.

This is perhaps why the discussion of beauty shifted towards an analysis of its social and political associations in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. It was a topic that grew in popularity, particularly with the rise of the social justice movement and of philosophy oriented towards those issues. Some of this discussion has been in the form of critical theory (e.g., Hickey 1993) and feminist reconstruals of beauty (e.g. Irigaray 1993). The topic continues to be an important area for discussion in philosophy.