4 min read

What does beauty mean?

What does beauty mean?

Beauty is a notoriously difficult concept to define. I'm not going to pretend to solve this age-old problem here. But I want to at least try to orient us in a helpful direction.

People have been trying for centuries to define beauty and it's not clear we've made much progress. Take, for instance, a couple of examples that Roger Scruton provides in his Beauty: A Very Short Introduction. “The beautiful is that from which nothing can be taken away and to which nothing can be added but for the worse,"  says Leon Battista Alberti. Well, "worse" how exactly, we might ask. Or consider Hutcheson’s notion “that beauty ‘consists in’ unity in variety,” which isn't particularly precise.

Another approach to beauty is to identify properties shared by objects we refer to as beautiful. Aquinas, for instance, noted three such qualities: integritas (a sense of completeness or perfection), consonantia (a sense of proportion or harmony, relative to its natural end), and claritas (a sense of radiance, clarity, or intelligibility, whereby the object communicates its essence). Modern philosophers like Kant, by contrast, considered beauty to be subjective--not about any properties of an object, but more about the fact that I experience a sense of (disinterested) pleasure from it.

It's understandable why Emerson would remark, “I am warned by the ill fate of many philosophers not to attempt a definition of beauty.” Scruton himself thinks we can't do much better than offer a set of platitudes:

(1) Beauty pleases us.
(2)  One thing can be more beautiful than another.
(3) Beauty is always a reason for attending to the thing that possesses it.
(4) Beauty is the subject-matter of a judgment: the judgment of taste.
(5) The judgment of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the subject’s state of mind...
(6) [T]here are no second-hand judgments of beauty [i.e., even if we trust others' judgments, they must still be based on our personal experience.]

Other contemporary scholars adopt a range of approaches in attempting to define beauty: from the least-common-denominator strategy (e.g., defining beauty as simply that which we find pleasing), to discarding the term altogether, to just focusing on more manageable phenomena like physical attractiveness or aesthetic pleasure. Still others try to define beauty as an emotion, defined as “the felt prospect of cognitively representing and achieving processing mastery over a challenging object or experience” which doesn't seem at face value to capture what we mean when we call something beautiful.

These attempts only raise further questions. For instance:

  • Are beauty and pleasure identical? Aren't there forms of pleasure that we would not consider beautiful? Scratching an itch or finding something amusing might be pleasing but not what we would ordinarily refer to as beautiful.
  • Does beauty refer to merely hedonic pleasure (i.e., pleasant sensory experiences, like the pleasure of tasting fine chocolate)? Or can it refer to eudaimonic pleasure (i.e., that comes with a sense of self-transcendence or living out of a sense of higher purpose)? Can the two be linked (e.g., experiencing chocolate as a sign of God's existence)?
  • Is aesthetic pleasure distinct from, say, intellectual pleasure? Some, like Kant, thought that intellectual beauty couldn't exist, and that only art--and not science, for instance--could be beautiful). Given that one of my interests is the role of beauty in science (on which there are several posts forthcoming), these questions are particularly germane, since much of what scientists describe as beautiful has to do with intellectual pleasure or satisfaction.
  • Does defining beauty require some consideration of intensity? For instance, we consider some things merely "pretty" in contrast to more intense experiences that we consider beautiful. But these experiences may not always be entirely pleasing; one way to talk about them is through the concept of "the sublime," which evokes emotions such as fear (e.g., when standing at the edge of a precipice, or watching the Northern Lights dancing across the sky). So can experiences of beauty include unpleasant emotions?
Photo by Benjamin Suter from Pexels
  • How does beauty relate to desire? For some, beauty might refer simply to that which we consider desirable--the experience of beauty might lead us to want to possess the object of desire. Such desire, some argue, isn't intrinsic to any property of the object itself but is borrowed from others who desire the object; desire is mimetic. Whether or not this is the case, such desire doesn't apply to things like mathematical beauty.
  • Does beauty refer to that which we admire? The ancient Greeks had the same word for both beauty and admiration (kalon). When we encounter performances in sports, music, that we call beautiful, we also usually mean they're admirable. Similarly, moral beauty (i.e., of people and actions we consider morally praiseworthy, as exemplars of goodness) is connected to admiration. But such admiration often has elements (e.g., a sense of awe) that are distinct from our judgments of aesthetically pleasing faces (On how this difference plays out in our brains, see here). So how should we relate beauty, admiration, and goodness?

Here I've tried to only consider substantive aspects of a definition of beauty (i.e., what it is); more functional aspects that might also be included in some definitional attempts (i.e., what encountering beauty does to us) will be considered in another post.

The above list of definitions and related questions is not meant to be exhaustive. There's too much territory to cover in a short post. But I just wanted to give you a sense of the scope of the challenge and raise a number of considerations that we can start exploring  on this journey.

Next up, we'll look at beauty in science.

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