What Is Beauty?

Whether we’re discussing a landscape, a piece of art, or the person in front of us at the gym, most of us have some notion of what beauty is. And yet, many philosophers have struggled to articulate what it is exactly that makes something beautiful.

One way to consider beauty is as a kind of pleasure that’s tied to an object’s suitedness for use. The classical idea of beauty focuses on instantiating a certain ratio among its parts, usually expressed mathematically with the golden section. A sculpture, for example, might be held up as a model of harmonious proportion to be replicated by artists. This approach to beauty can lead to some strained ideas of what is beautiful, such as the idea that only those parts that conspire to serve the function of the whole are truly beautiful.

Other philosophers have sought to make beauty a more objective concept. Plato and Aristotle, for instance, both thought that beauty was a quality of perfect harmony or proportion that could be discerned by human observers (though they disagreed over how to achieve this). The idea is that something has aesthetic value if its constituent elements are so arranged as to produce a pleasant experience for the observer. This idea of beauty is closely related to that of the Forms, which are ideas or concepts that have a real presence in the world and can be discerned by a human viewer.

These and other philosophical approaches to beauty have led to an immense literature of theories of what is beautiful and why. Despite this, however, many of these theories seem to be incompatible with one another or at least to differ from each other in subtle ways. For example, Kant’s treatment of beauty as a disinterested pleasure has obvious elements of hedonism, while Plotinus’ neo-Platonism contains notions of unity and ecstasy that are not compatible with hedonism.

Some philosophers have further argued that beauty is not a subjective experience but a cognitive disposition that can be acquired through attentiveness to objects, including works of art. This is a form of beauty that is like the cultivated dispositions for such moral virtues as truth and goodness, which are communicable in some way.

Some philosophers have also characterized beauty as a socially constructed category, whose definitions depend on the prevailing values of a culture or society. For instance, some people think that a person is ugly if they are dressed shabbily or have crooked teeth. Others, however, would argue that a person is beautiful if they embody the qualities of kindness and contentment.