What Is Beauty?


When people talk about beauty, they often mean a combination of qualities (e.g., symmetry, color, form) that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially sight. But what exactly is beautiful? Some philosophers have answered this question in surprisingly different ways. For example, Santayana emphasized pleasure; he thought that a beautiful object or experience is one that gives the person who experiences it certain feelings of pleasure. But this largely ignores the fact that different people feel pleasure from a variety of things. For example, a woman may find a piece of music to be beautiful because it makes her happy, while another man may think that the same piece is not very pleasing. Even a simple thing such as the weather can produce beauty in different people in different ways. For example, a sunny day might make you happy while a cloudy day might make you sad.

Other philosophers have sought to give an objective definition of beauty. Plotinus defined it as an idea that a thing has of what it is like to be itself in its own nature. For him, this is the Divine Idea manifested in creation. In contrast, Kant centered beauty around human good and well-being, but struggled to explain how that could give us a sense of purpose in the world.

Many modern philosophers, particularly in the 20th century, tended to view beauty as a mere product of social and cultural norms. This has left beauty open to various forms of criticism and destruction. For example, a work of art might be considered to be beautiful because it fits with the Rococo style of European aristocracy; but in reality such paintings often hid the exploitation and oppression that accompanied such wealth and decadence.

The philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy has pointed out that some philosophers have attempted to avoid this sort of political entanglements by enriching the concept of beauty by including the idea that it satisfies a need. This approach avoids hedonism but can still be seen as a type of utilitarianism, since it is not just an empty pleasure but also something that connects people in communities.

In addition to these ideas, a lot of people define beauty as the physical characteristics of a person or object. This might include a person’s face shape, skin tone, eye color, or hair color. It might also be based on the person’s body size, gender, or bone structure, or it might be influenced by their clothing or by how much weight they are allowed to lose. It might also be based on the fashion trends of the moment or by what the media tells them to want. For instance, big lips and a thigh gap might be in right now, while skinny jeans might not be. This sort of culturally influenced definition can create a lot of tensions. The recent Safer Beauty Bill Package reflects some of these tensions by attempting to require cosmetic companies to disclose their ingredients, with special attention to the toxic chemicals that are most likely to harm women of color and salon workers.