The Philosophy of Beauty


Beauty is a concept whose status as objective or subjective has been one of the longest-lasting debates in philosophy. It is also a concept that has a long history of being entangled in social, political and religious issues. Its popularity and relevance has ebbed and flowed throughout history, but in the last few decades it has become an increasingly important topic in philosophical discussion.

For the most part, philosophers have tended to treat beauty as objective. The notion is that certain objects and experiences produce pleasure in the human mind, and that these sensations have their source in the intrinsic qualities of beautiful things. Moreover, these pleasures are not simply idiosyncratic to each individual, but can be shared with others. Such accounts have been strongly influenced by classical and neo-classical art, in which beauty is expressed through proportion, harmony, and symmetry.

Philosophers such as Hume and Kant argued, however, that something important was lost when beauty was treated merely as a subjective state. They noted that if a thing could be regarded as beautiful only in the eyes of a particular subject, it would cease to be a matter of universal importance and would not even remain a value at all across persons or societies.

Some philosophers have attempted to address this problem by treating beauty as a cognitive disposition rather than a feeling. In this view, a person can recognize beauty by cultivating a cognitive disposition; the cultivation of such a disposition is similar to that required for the cultivation of moral virtues. Ideally, this recognition of beauty would result in aesthetic pleasure spontaneously in the subjects whose cognitive dispositions have been cultivated.

Another way to look at beauty is to consider it as a function of usefulness. The ancient Greeks and medieval Europeans considered a work of art or craft to be beautiful if it served its purpose in an effective and satisfying manner. This treatment of beauty avoids philistinism by enriching the idea of “usefulness,” so that a good or service may be beautiful in addition to being functional.

It is possible, furthermore, to incorporate both of these approaches into a single theory of beauty. This approach, popularized by the philosopher George Santayana, defines beauty as a certain sort of pleasure, and then explains how this pleasure can be attributed to an object or experience.

As the concept of beauty becomes more and more entangled in social, political and religious controversies, its traditional interpretations are called into question. The purity and transcendence associated with the classical conception of beauty seem to fade in the light of the exploitation of women and nature by modern technology. The gendered readings that align the beautiful with feminine virtues and the sublime with masculine ones seem to lose appeal in the face of feminist and anti-racist criticisms of dominant body norms. The anthropocentrism of the classic readings seems unfounded when we realize that the beauty of the world around us is as much the product of evolutionary adaptations to environmental pressures as it is of cultural or religious inclinations.