Philosophy 161 - 8.5.1 Beauty

A central concept in aesthetics is beauty. What is beauty? Is beauty an objective or subjective value? Even if you take beauty to be a subjective judgment, there are different ways to approach thinking about it. Are judgments of beauty completely “in the eye of the beholder,” as the popular phrase indicates, or are there criteria or patterns that determine individuals’ responses? Is beauty arbitrary, or can we discover some framework for explaining our experiences of it?

Objective Concepts of Beauty

For ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, beauty is a quality of an object. These thinkers asserted that there was objective criteria for explaining what is beautiful. Plato believed that beauty is a quality of an object and that there is one true “form” or essence of the beautiful that explains why individual things are beautiful. The beautiful itself has to do with harmony, proportion, and balance.

This concept of the beautiful makes sense if you look at ancient Greek art. The ancient Greeks used mathematical ratios to determine the perfect proportions for their temples and sculptures. The Greek sculptor Polykleitos (5th century BCE) developed mathematical rules for sculpting the human form so that the proportions of the body would be beautiful and lifelike.

A statue of a nude figure in a museum.
Figure 8.7 Michaelangelo was heavily inspired by Greek and Roman mythology, and Michaelangelo’s David displays the mathematical ratios and proportions that were an integral part of the Greek understanding of beauty. This sculpture exhibits the contrapposto stance: one foot forward and the opposite arm raised as if about to shift its weight. The contrapposto position expresses balance and harmonious movement. (credit: “Florence1988” by David Wright/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

In Plato’s philosophy, moreover, beauty is not simply a sensory or emotional response to things of this world; it is transcendent and immaterial and involves one’s soul and mind. The experience of beauty is ecstatic in the sense that it lifts one beyond this world. In the Phaedrus, Plato describes the soul sprouting and growing wings when it beholds something beautiful. As the wings grow, the soul is able to ascend to new heights.

Subjective Concepts of Beauty

In contrast to Plato and Aristotle, Enlightenment philosophers argued that beauty is a subjective judgment, meaning it is a statement about what a person feels rather a quality of an object. For Hume, judgments of beauty are statements of taste. In Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” (1757), he points out that we witness great variety in taste, even among people who share similar cultural and educational backgrounds. He also notes the way that debates about taste frequently descend into condescension and defensiveness. Taste is very personal, and people feel passionately about their judgments of taste. Yet Hume still asserts that people can educate, develop, and refine their taste, which can then give their judgments more weight. For Hume, critics with refined taste ultimately decide what is good or bad art.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax