The Philosophy of Beauty

The beauty of an oil painting or a sunset can evoke a range of feelings and perceptions. However, it is hard to identify what the common denominator is that links these experiences. Is it symmetry, colour or bone structure? Or perhaps it is something less tangible like confidence, happiness or dignity. According to the results of recent surveys, these qualities are rated more highly in men and women than physical attributes such as strength or facial appearance. The same holds true when comparing what people consider beautiful in art, music or their own bodies.

The philosophical interest in beauty began in the earliest recorded times. It was a matter of concern because a good life involved some kind of enjoyment and the question of what constitutes beauty was of fundamental importance. In the early years of philosophy, philosophers tried to understand beauty in terms of an objective standard that could be recognized in a wide range of experiences.

One approach to beauty was based on a combination of an idealist conception of the world and an esthetic philosophy that sought out harmony between parts or a general law, such as the golden ratio. This tended to be associated with neo-Platonism and the idealism of Socrates, although Diogenes Laertius took a more hedonistic line in emphasizing pleasure as the basic factor in beauty.

Another approach to beauty was an empiricism that treated it as something that depended on subjective responses of the perceiving subject. This was the position of Hume and Kant. This view explains why it was difficult to make firm judgments about the beauty of certain works of art or of particular individuals. It also explains why the judgements of a number of observers can sometimes coincide.

These views were reinforced in the eighteenth century by Kant and Hegel, who saw beauty as a special sort of subjective state that is shared in a common way by all human beings. This explains why the concept of beauty became so controversial in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

By the late twentieth century, there was renewed philosophical interest in something like a classical philosophy of beauty, including some feminist-oriented reconstruals or reappropriations of the concept. However, many contemporary writers have a skepticism about whether the concept can be salvaged from its tumultuous association with power and the idealism that was once its dominant meaning.

It is important to remember that beauty is a cultural and personal construct, not a natural phenomenon. In addition, most scientific research on beauty is based on the opinions of cis-gendered, heterosexual men and women. These factors have to be taken into consideration when evaluating the results of these studies. Nevertheless, there are some common features of what people find beautiful in nature and in their own bodies. Symmetry, clear skin, good posture and proportion are just a few of the characteristics that have been identified as being attractive in all cultures and across genders and sexualities.