50 min read

What Is Beauty? And Why Does it Matter?

What Is Beauty? And Why Does it Matter?
Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST / Unsplash

We just said goodbye to 2023 and rang in the new year. In cities all over the world, we marked this occasion with spectacular celebrations.

In Washington DC, a 20-minute drive from where I live (or 60, depending on the traffic), venues around the city organized extravagant ways to mark the occasion in a memorable way. Le Diplomate strove to create an evening of elegance, with a live jazz trio and lavish spreads of canapés and caviar. Morris American Bar pulsated with disco fever, the air alive with four-on-the-floor beats, twinkling disco balls, and the shimmer of sparkly dresses. High above the streets, Ciel Social Club tried to create an ethereal escape from the mundane world far below, with celestial decor and panoramic city views.

I read about these events but wasn't at any of these venues. Our family, nestled at home, was basking in the glow of our TV screen, mesmerized yet again by the fantastical world of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In all these cases, across the globe and in myriad forms, we see humans trying to immerse themselves in beauty to commemorate significant moments. But why do we do this? Why is it that human beings throughout history, across cultures and civilizations, value and pursue beauty?

My podcast guest today, philosopher Michael R. Spicher, argues that it's because beauty is a basic reason for action. Michael is a public philosopher and creator of Aesthetics Research Lab. He writes and speaks about aesthetics in professional and academic contexts. He is a regular contributor to BeautyMatter, a resource for the beauty industry. Michael lectures at both Boston Architectural College and Massachusetts College of Art and Design. He co-edited a volume with Bloomsbury Visual Arts, Digital Fashion: Theory, Practice, Implications. And he is working on another book called Is Your Business Beautiful?

We discuss his journey into the philosophy of aesthetics, how aesthetics differs from the philosophy of art, why Michael prefers a theory of beauty over any single definition, the exploitative and pernicious aspects of beauty, why digital fashion is relevant, and why aesthetics matters for business.

Some key takeaways from our conversation:

  • Aesthetics can serve as a gateway into philosophy and provide a foundation for exploring fundamental questions about human existence.
  • Aesthetics is a basic human good and a fundamental motivation for action, and can contribute in unique ways to human flourishing.
  • Beauty is difficult to define, but we can develop a theory of beauty, in which we identify conditions such as proportion, integrity, radiance, and fittingness.
  • Beauty standards and beauty culture have harmful effects. But we can't do without beauty either.
  • Digital fashion offers new possibilities for self-expression and experimentation, while also addressing issues of sustainability.
  • Aesthetics plays a crucial role in business, from product design to the aesthetics of spaces and interactions.
  • We can and should play an active role in shaping our aesthetic development.

You can watch or listen to our conversation below. Please do take a moment to subscribe and leave a review, since it helps get the word out about our show. An unedited transcript follows.

I'd also like to invite you to check out my new workbook which can help you design a more beautiful work life. Start the new year on the right foot and commit to finding and cultivating more beauty in your work today.

Do You Feel Like Work is Just a Four-Letter Word? Do you often find yourself exhausted at the thought of going to work? Or sitting at your desk thinking there’s got to be more to work than just endless emails and back-to-back meetings? You’re not alone. There’s a widespread crisis

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Interview transcript

Brandon: Michael, thank you for joining us. It's such a pleasure to have you on the show.

Michael: Thanks, Brandon. It's great to be here.

Brandon: Yeah, amazing. I mean, I've been following your work. I really, really enjoy your writing on various platforms. I'm curious as to how you got into philosophy and then into the study of aesthetics, in particular. Tell us a bit about your journey.

Michael: My gateway into aesthetics is through art. I have a background in art. I paint, and I play music. I've always had an affinity for the arts. So that's sort of the longer story to that maybe. But then, how I got into philosophy was actually through aesthetics, which is a strange path. I took this course, and the professor made a comment. First off, I should clarify. The course had nothing to do with aesthetics, or art, or anything. He just happened to throw out this example. He said, of course, beauty couldn't possibly be just in the eye of the beholder. I thought, wait. What? Having a background in art, I had always been taught the opposite. And so I asked him after class, and he explained. I had no real background in aesthetics or philosophy. I had read a little bit of Kierkegaard and some other philosophers, but I really didn't have much of a really strong foundation. And so learning about aesthetics was my introduction to really doing philosophy. It's kind of stuck. That was in about 2002. It has kind of stuck that way for the last 21 years, and my interest in aesthetics keeps growing. And it just keeps expanding in different ways.

This goes beyond what you had originally asked. But because of my connection with art, I always assumed that studying aesthetics — art, artists, art museums, so on — was my main context. About, I don't know, eight or nine years ago, I had two conversations on two different occasions with two different people. They both drew the same conclusion. They said, "Well, maybe architects and designers are your people." Then I thought, well, why stop there? Part of my motivation is this idea that aesthetic experience is a basic human good. I prefer actually saying a basic reason for action. I think the word 'good' gets a little bit confusing for people, especially in philosophy. So if aesthetics is such a pervasive part, an integral part of human existence, then why do we not talk about it in almost every context imaginable?

Brandon: Yeah, it resonates so much for me. That's part of the motivation for the work I'm doing as well. I think I got into aesthetics from a completely different field. It's just the study of protest movements and looking at motivation for why do people protest. This was around probably 2009. The theories around the time, we're talking about negative emotional shock, moral outrage, as being a fundamental emotional driver. This was around the time when emotions were being this kind of the emotional turn in the social sciences. It had gone from being this irrational thing that people had dismissed to being actually something valuable as a fundamental motivation for action.

I was struck by how just the accounts of protests seemed to neglect, a flip side to this moral shock, which is, if there's some outrage at the loss of something, it seems to imply there was something good or something beautiful perhaps that had been taken away or that was under threat. I stumbled upon a lot of interesting work, particularly I think Elaine Scarry's work on beauty and justice. She's a Harvard, I think, philosopher. I'm not sure what her field is, actually. But she wrote this book on beauty and justice. Then I came across some writings by Dr. King and Gandhi and Dorothy Day and so on talking about beauty as a motivator for justice. And so that's what I think has driven my interest here.

When you had started out — I mean, maybe tell us a little bit about your background of the arts. Were you hoping to go on professionally in that field, or did you have to then make a switch into becoming a philosopher? What was that process like for you?

Michael: That's a very long story, so I'll just summarize it by saying that I think a lot of people thought maybe I was going to go to art school. And I had considered that for a while. Then I realized that I really enjoyed talking about some of these things. More than just doing them, I wanted to help motivate other people to do it, to think through some of these things. I know that's sort of ambiguous, but I always knew that I would keep doing — I actually took a 20-year hiatus from painting.

Brandon: Wow.

Michael: I've only maybe eight years ago or so gotten back into it. I just kind of was motivated more toward thinking through these things. I guess, I think getting involved in philosophy really did make a difference for me, because I really wanted to think more deeply about things. That became my driving force more than creating.

brown concrete statue of man
Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm / Unsplash

Brandon: Okay. You had mentioned aesthetics as a fundamental motivation for action. Could you say more about what you mean there?

Michael: The idea came from me. It came from John Finnis' book Natural Law and Natural Rights from 1980 or '81. In the book, he says there are seven basic human goods. Like I said, I don't really like the word 'good' because I think it just gets too confusing, especially in the context of philosophy. So I prefer a 'basic reason for action,' which is another term that he uses and others in that same thought. He actually claims — I kind of like this. He claims that these goods are self-evident. But they're generic enough or general enough. Not generic. General enough, where there's not just one way to pursue them. Some knowledge is one. Life, which includes health, friendship, play — which I thought was really exciting. I think that's an underdeveloped one — and aesthetic experience. Well, aesthetic experience, he writes six sentences about it. And that's the only mention of aesthetic experience in this book. And so I took the challenge to develop that into a bigger thing. But he says it's self-evident.

And what does that mean? Obviously, it doesn't mean that everyone's going to agree. Not everyone is going to exactly recognize the value, or at least not in the same way. I think he offers two ways of illustrating why this is a fundamental thing. One is, it's sort of simple. Just observe what people do. People spend time, money, and energy to present themselves a certain way. Oftentimes it makes them feel good. I mean, there are other things at work, of course, social pressures and different things. I'm not trying to diminish those. We spend time, money, and energy to decorate our homes, our offices, all these things. We travel all around our countries in the world to see things made by humans and that are natural, that we believe will give us some kind of aesthetic experience. There might be other reasons, too, like history and other things as well. But surely, aesthetic experience is one of the motivators. So that's one way. It's just, observe what people do, and you'll see that they're motivated by this.

Then the other thing is, imagine what it's like without aesthetic properties, without positive aesthetics in your life. We don't have to go far to imagine that. We have places all over this country that have these. They're called prisons. They have former incarcerated person turned poet, Reginald Dwayne Betts, at a talk I saw once. He said there's no beauty in prison. It had nothing to do with aesthetics. He just offered this as a side comment. So anyway, we can imagine what that's like. Personally, before I had any of the vocabulary that I have in any of the knowledge of theories and ideas of aesthetics, I personally walked through the projects in a major U.S. city and realized if I lived here, I could feel the oppressiveness because of the complete lack of any aesthetic considerations. For me, that's what I mean by a basic reason for action. It's such a core. It's necessary for human flourishing. I hadn't really given Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs much thought a long time. It recently came up. I thought that's a huge problem that it's called a hierarchy. It sends the wrong message, I think. Yes, we can technically stay alive with food, water, and shelter. But what kind of a life is that without aesthetics and other meaningful work and play and relationships and things like that? I mean, it's not really much of a life. So, on a very technical level, yes, those things are slightly more important but not really from the kind of life we all would aspire toward.

Brandon: Yeah, you're right. The hierarchy metaphor is a bit misleading. It's almost as though you need to have concentric circles with the self-transcendence at the center. Because that is something that allows people to somehow persist. I mean, like Viktor Frankl would talk about, meaning being so vital even in context in which we're deprived of food and shelter and safety, and so on.

Michael: Actually, since you mentioned Viktor Frankl, one of my favorite stories. People often think of aesthetics as something that you throw on to your life once it's already going well or something. One of my favorite stories that challenges that idea is from Primo Levi. His book, If This Is a Man, he talks about while he was in Auschwitz, he and a fellow prisoner were responsible for walking across the camp to get the daily ration of food for that day. And so, of course, they took the most circuitous route possible. And as they're walking, it becomes apparent. I think the other guy was a little bit younger maybe. It becomes apparent to Primo Levi that this other guy had never read Dante. So it's like fresh audience to recite portions of Dante. He recites it. Then he gets to a point he cannot remember this connecting line. He makes a bold claim. He said, I would have given up my daily food just to remember this. And keep in mind, they're in Auschwitz. They're not getting lots of food. Like if I skip breakfast, it's no big deal. I can have lunch. I'll eat extra during lunch to make up for it. He said, I would have given up the daily food just to remember this line. Then he goes on to explain why. He said, because for a few moments, I forgot who I was and where I was. He's in one of the worst situations imaginable.

And so, to me, I used that to draw the conclusion: that in the worst situation, you can rely on beauty and art and aesthetics to transcend even for a few moments. Life is pretty stressful. It may not ever be as bad as that or as acutely bad as that, but we have lots of terrible things happen to us in life. I think we need to develop a repository of these kinds of experiences for those moments, for those dark times.

Brandon: Wow. Yeah, almost storing these experiences for the times in which they'll be really valuable to us. Some have argued that this is potentially a distraction from the things that matter, the charge of aesthetic experience as a kind of escapism. Maybe even Marxian argument would say, this is another sort of opiate that's sedating us and preventing us from attending to the changes we need to make in the world. How would you respond to those kinds of critiques?

Michael: I would actually respond with a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson. He said, "We fly to beauty as an asylum from the terrors of finite nature." I actually finally found that quote embedded in the middle of his thousand pages of journals. I can see why anything could become that. People have described religion as the opiate of the people. Aesthetics. I think it's a valid point that you could go too far with it. This is where I would say part of the thinking behind the basic goods, even if someone has a slightly different list or way of framing them, none of them should be woefully neglected. I think that's a key component. Maybe at any given moment, we might focus on one a little bit more than the others. A student might focus on knowledge acquisition more than aesthetic experience, or play, or something for a semester, we can imagine. But neglecting any of those is a problem. Completely neglect. Part of the role of the state, according to this theory, Natural Law Theory, is that the state should make it possible for people to pursue all of the goods. And so I think it's a valid criticism insofar as anything could become like that.

It's the same thing with the people in the beauty industry or critics of the beauty industry challenge beauty standards. Yes, beauty standards are used to exploit people sometimes. That's a problem. That's a real problem. But that doesn't mean beauty is a problem. I mean, we clearly have some drive for it. I think trying to tease those things apart is where it becomes a little bit important and saying, yes, there are some of these problems. But we can correct them and still pursue beauty.

Brandon: Yeah, that's a really good point. I think it is a challenge for a lot of people because of those exploitative negative aspects, right? Think of someone like Tressie McMillan Cottom who has written about the ugliness of beauty, and Lena looking at the ways in which beauty standards and ideals of beauty have been imposed, essentially on women in particular and the role of, say, colonialism, of sexism, of racism, and conditioning those standards and then making life unbearable for those who don't fit into those standards. If you're a young African-American woman, you don't see in the magazine someone who looks like you. And if you're overweight or something, you don't see someone like you who is being held up as beautiful. You learn to see yourself as ugly. Those kinds of challenges are fairly difficult, I think, to navigate for a lot of people.

Then, of course, the influence of beauty culture is really pernicious through advertising and through just the ways in which kids in school can be cruel around these matters. So how does one not throw out the baby with the bathwater in those cases? What does one do? Is there an option to not just jettisoning the concept of beauty?

Michael: Yeah, for that, I would actually recommend Nancy Etcoff's book, Survival of the Prettiest. Then the subtitle is The Science of Beauty. I think she offers a really great analysis of this, because the book is focused specifically on human beauty and why we might have these drives. As far as the science goes, the book was written in 1999, so there has definitely been a lot of progress in neuro aesthetics and empirical aesthetics since then.

However, I think her main points are still good. We need to recognize that we do this. We need to recognize in ourselves that I unintentionally might show favoritism to someone I find attractive over someone that I find less attractive. Being aware of it is the first step to overcoming it. But realizing why do I have these drives, and maybe some of the drives aren't — maybe some of our instincts aren't as accurate as they once needed to be. So we can imagine, say, 5,000 years ago, someone with more visible condition like a cleft lip, we might have thought 5,000 years ago, they have some disease that could kill us all. Because we didn't know what it was. We know what it is now. We know that it's not going to kill us. We know that it's an easy — there's actually an easy operation to fix that. We have these instincts and our instincts that come from thousands and thousands, or maybe even years of development, the science has progressed a lot quicker than our instincts. So we have to work on overcoming that. So I do think that's at least part of it. In recognizing that we do these things, yeah, I think that's the basic.

Brandon: Is it that, maybe to reframe Finnis' language, this is maybe a basic human drive that we really can't do without, and we might pretend we can do without? Let's call it this aesthetic drive. To trust people that we find attractive or to be drawn towards beautiful objects. I think of Roger Scruton who argues that beauty is a reason to attend to an object, in the same way that truth is a reason to believe a proposition. You don't need another reason. That is the reason. So yeah, if someone has seen why you're looking at this and you say it's beautiful, you don't have to say why does that justify your attention to it. Maybe then awareness, just so that we're more thoughtful about — is the issue then this is second-order judgment? And we can ask ourselves, but ought I to trust this person because I find them beautiful, or ought I to attend to this? Then you can reflect on it, and then maybe change your direction. I don't know. What do you think? I mean, once you're aware, then what?

Michael: I think it is difficult. Because we have these instincts. You don't want to trust someone that looks a little scary, and then you fall down a dark alley or something. We need to be wise in it. But I think most people aren't aware of how the subconscious affects us and our actions. I do think that's an absolute key component. Even people that study some of these things admit. I know I'm affected by this too, even though I'm aware of it. So it's not like it's, we'll solve it. It's just the fact that we are at least more conscious of it begins to help.

But I think focusing on maybe — I was going to say the right things, but I don't know if that's really the right word or phrase I want to use. But I think learning the distinctions between what beauty is versus how it might play out in a culture. Because what we've discovered — I say we, meaning the empirical aesthetics folks — is that there's actually a larger agreement when it comes to naturally occurring things like faces and sunsets and flowers, where we have very sharp disagreement where beauty might be an eye of the beholder, more specifically in human made things, art and architecture. Because there's a multitude of ways of applying the characteristics of beauty to art and architecture. We just have to apply it differently. And so we tend to favor things that we are familiar with. An example I can give comes from years ago. Someone had gone to India and brought back a CD, those things from many years ago.

woman in black long sleeve shirt sitting on floor
Photo by Klaudia Piaskowska / Unsplash

Brandon: Yes, right. I remember those.

Michael: He brought a CD of the Indian hand drummer, Zakir Hussain. When I first heard it, it was jarring because it was so different from anything I had ever heard. I could have stopped there. I could have said, okay, I guess I just don't like this. But I felt like from his recommendation and from different things, I felt like I need to push through a little bit. I don't know all the science behind it, but there are some people that, to my memory of it, have suggested and maybe further than that, but I'll say suggested that things that we're not familiar with, our brain doesn't know quite how to process it. And so it has to learn that, and then we can make an aesthetic judgment or something. So I think that's what happened. I had to listen to it a little bit, get familiar with. This happens even without going to a completely different country. Someone that listens to classical music that hears punk music for the first time has no clue. It just sounds like noise. They're right. To them, it does sound like noise because they don't know how to process it. Then once they do, then they could maybe pick it apart in other ways. So I think that element comes into play as well.

Brandon: Yeah, I see there's a couple of dimensions to it. One is to be able to have the experience of doing something. There are pieces of music that I admire because I know how to play that instrument or realize how challenging it would be to do that, or a vocal technique could be really — how did they do this? But if someone is not familiar or hasn't had that experience of training or trying to do those things, they don't realize how challenging it is. Sports are kind of similar. I mean, watching somebody like Steph Curry, a three-pointer, might look like that seems simple. But unless you've tried it, you don't realize how complicated it is to do something that looks so effortless. But then, also having a guide, someone who can help you to understand the aesthetic criteria and judgments at play in a field. When I talk to scientists about beautiful equations, I don't know what those equations mean. They looked like just Greek characters there. And so, unless I understand what it means, I can't access it.

Michael: I think the other thing I'd add is that we have this very — we don't necessarily think about it consciously but we have this kind of — there's a distinction between active and passive taste. I think it comes from the literal taste. If you put food in your mouth, you will taste it. There's a difference between that and someone that's a connoisseur that really understands all the different flavors and the way it affects or how to properly — there are certain drinks, wine, and scotch might be two of them or certain foods, that maybe there's a proper way of consuming it that gets all the flavor out of it that someone that doesn't know how to do that isn't going to get.

In the same way, people often say, in my experience, a lot of music people listen to comes from their older siblings or their friends or things. They don't really think much about it when they're younger. Or, they might not, I should say. Some might. Or, their parents sometimes. They didn't go out and seek. I'm going to find the music that is right for me. It's often just passed down. It's very passive in that sense. But I think we need to be much more active and intentional about figuring out what aesthetic things we like. I think that's also a way to counteract the negative sides. We often just take it in. I don't think there's a way to completely remove the passive side. Because accidentally, I might just stumble upon a painting in an art museum and not have expected it. But there's a sense in which being intentional about it helps us shape our own, let's call it an aesthetic destiny for it to make sound very positive.

Brandon: Yeah, I know. At least being more intentional, being more aware, and taking more a sense of agency about the aesthetic portfolios that we cultivate and then articulate is important. Talk about the distinction between aesthetics and beauty. I mean, we've been touching on those terms. But how do you distinguish those? Is beauty a subcategory of the aesthetic? How do you think through that?

Michael: Well, I think dictionary definitions have not done aesthetics a good service. The last time I looked — I haven't looked in a while. But the last time I looked, aesthetics was defined in the dictionary as the study of art and beauty. I think that's a strange definition. I can sort of see why they say it. Even going back to Hegel's massive two-volume lectures in aesthetics, he opens with, I'm calling it lectures of aesthetics. Aesthetics doesn't make any sense for this. He actually says what he's really going to talk about is philosophy of art. Even since Hegel mentions this a couple hundred years ago, philosophers who are normally good at making distinctions somehow still conflate aesthetics and philosophy of art. That's one distinction to make.

Aesthetics, I would say, is the study of the broader categories of what is beauty, what is taste, what is aesthetic experience, what is the sublime, and how do these things play out in our lives, what value do they bring, and those kinds of questions. Whereas philosophy of art I would think is, what is the value nature and purpose of art? And maybe getting into questions of ethical responsibilities of artists and those kinds of questions. What makes one object a work of art, while another object is not a work of art? So that'd be sort of the first distinction.

Then as far as the difference between aesthetics and beauty, beauty, I would put it as a sub-concept under the broader heading of aesthetics. I do think aesthetics and aesthetic experience is the experience of the beautiful and other properties. The only thing I would say about aesthetics is that it also encompasses negative things: ugly, disgust. We don't really use this word, the deformed, which I think is not necessarily about people even though we often have used it that way in the past. But I think it's even about a business that's not functioning well. We might not use the word again. But we might think of it as deformed rather than well-formed. Anyway, that would be the aesthetics.

Then beauty, I think it's difficult to define. We could offer — someone like Anjan Chatterjee might offer a biological definition. There could be a sociological definition or psychological definition and philosophical definition. I would prefer to think of it more as rather than offering a definition, insofar as these terms are different, I would maybe think of it as a theory of beauty rather than a definition. A theory of beauty for me would encompass what kind of conditions do we regularly see in beautiful things, things that we describe as beautiful? I would say those are things going back to proportion, which I think of as the oldest condition of beauty going back to Plato and Aristotle. Thomas Aquinas also added integrity and radiance to his list. Roger Scruton talks about fittingness in his little Beauty book. We have Francis Hutcheson who talks about beauty is uniformity amidst diversity, which I thought that's more of a principle rather than a condition maybe. Aristotle talks about order. All these things together help give us a picture of beauty without putting it in any one of these boxes.

Brandon: This is the most common question I get often when I talk to people about this project. It's like, what do you mean by beauty? How do you define it? Everyone wants to figure out some way to wrap their minds around. I think everyone has instinctively something they associate with beauty. But to nail down what it means, I think, at some level, it's I think simply has to do with the attractiveness of the real. You could even include imagination as part of that as within the scope of what we would consider reality. That's something to do with attractiveness. But Scruton, I think, he argues you can only have platitudes about this. That beauty has to do with the judgment of taste. It has to do with things that please us, that some things can be more beautiful than others. You can create a set of those kinds of statements around it. It seems like it might correct an understanding. You're doing something similar as saying we can say some things about what beautiful things are or what an experience of beauty is, or what an encounter with beauty looks like. But we can't really have just a one-sentence like beauty is x.

Michael: I think for the sake of a particular project, you could have a working definition for the scope of the project and things like that. I think getting any kind of real, rigid — I think the concepts of aesthetics, art, and beauty need to maintain some flexibility. The thing is, we think this is so unique to these. That's why we say, oh, well, these things are completely subjective. It's true of science. There could be some science that we haven't even invented yet that will revolutionize science in 500 years from now or something, or even 100 years from now, or even 50 years from now that we haven't even considered. We call things. Even the fact that we call 'computer science' computer science now. That wasn't a science. I don't know if people think of it as a literal science. I actually genuinely don't know that. But we call it computer science. We call it political science. These things wouldn't have been considered that. I don't know exactly when. But if we go far enough in the past, there are other sciences that we wouldn't have considered —

Science has some flexibility to the term, too. So it's not that art, beauty and aesthetics are completely unique in this. I think that's a mistake we make all the time when we say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and art is just subjective, and aesthetics is just whatever whimsical or something. There's clearly an element of — I think philosopher Crispin Sartwell, his entry Beauty - Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and his recent book Beauty: A Quick Immersion talk about this objectivity versus subjectivity debate in beauty. I think he concludes this as a silly debate at this point. There's clearly something at work with both of these sides. I don't know. That's not his argument, but that's sort of his conclusion. He even goes back to people like Immanuel Kant and David Hume who clearly had a subjective notion of beauty. He shows that even they thought there's something missing if we completely reduce beauty to subjectivity. There's God, the sun, at least some seed or kernel. I think that's where these conditions come into play.

I tell my art students sometimes, like, if I were to tell you to do a painting that uses proportion, I mean, that's so open-ended. You could come up with a million different things of applying proportion. We've seen it in our history to apply proportions. Some take it very literal, like a Catholic Cathedral is very literal in that it's very symmetrical. But there are other things like a Japanese rocker that has a harmony and balance that we might think of as a more metaphorical use of proportion. But it still is there and then very different ways of applying it in similar settings.

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Brandon: You have, on the one hand, maybe a very simplistic objectivist understanding of beauty that I think some people still put forward. That there are beautiful objects, and we can know what they are. There's beautiful architecture that is objectively beautiful. And if you don't understand it or appreciate it, something's wrong with you. Then on the other end, that it's all completely subjective, that it's just at the eye of the beholder.

Is there a kind of middle ground? Is it that there are certain kinds of, say, aesthetic principles, that everything we would consider beautiful typically shares and how those principles are distributed in any particular object of beauty would vary? In some cases, there's much more proportionality. Maybe it fits the golden rule. In other case, maybe it's something like meaningfulness, which is one of those components of Anjan's Aesthetic Triad. Why we find certain things beautiful is because we find them culturally and personally meaningful, regardless of the aesthetic objective properties. I'm curious to know what you think of that.

Michael: I think I would still go back to these conditions of beauty: proportion, radiance, integrity. I think by saying that it's subjective — I think sometimes we misuse these words, objective and subjective. One of the biggest criticisms I've heard from anyone arguing for a more objective notion of beauty is this rhetorical question like, well, who are you to say what beauty is? That's not what the objectivity of beauty means at all. I mean, it doesn't mean someone out there didn't try to also do that. But it means that there's something to be discovered or a goal to strive toward, and that there's something about the objects.

When we talk about proportion and wholeness, integrity and radiance, there's something about the combination of those things with the object. To use philosophical terms, there's something about the uniting of this form with this matter that does something. That's, to me, where the mystery is. Why is it that this does something? I think about this in the context of music. Why is it that one person could play something on guitar that moves me, and a different person plays those same notes and it doesn't have an effect on me? There's something about it. I heard someone once play guitar solo by Jimi Hendrix, and it was technically very good. I mean, the guy was a very accomplished guitar player. It just didn't have the emotional impact that listening to the original Jimi Hendrix does. I think there's something about that. That's where the mystery for me is. I'm okay with the mystery. I think some people are not okay with that. I think the mystery of that, why this combination does something and there's other combination that doesn't.

But this is going back to Immanuel Kant, who said there is no formula that we can come up with that can guarantee the creation of beauty. This is why he punts to the genius as the artist. Because somehow, the genius figures out maybe even by accident. They are habit. Figures out how to combine these things together to create beauty. Someone that just doesn't have that level of genius doesn't. I'm not necessarily espousing that view. But I think that makes sense that some people can manipulate paint on a canvas in a way that others just can't. There's an instinct to the way someone uses brushstrokes, and someone else just doesn't have that. I don't know what to call it.

Kant and others in the modern philosophy period — he's not the only one — they called them genius. There's something about it, whether its nature or nurture, whether it's just practice over time. Because clearly, someone who's a painter, their first time to touch a paintbrush probably didn't have that same level. But through habit, through experience, and through maybe some instinct that they just happen to have. That's where I think there is, like I said, there's an element of mystery to it. I actually not only accept that, but I like that. I think beauty, and aesthetics, and art have a kind of mystery to them that I think is necessary for their existence, in a sense. A certain amount. But obviously, it was too mysterious. It doesn't mean we can't say anything about it either.

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Brandon: Yeah, that's right. I mean, I think it's not totally elusive. So we can say there are these certain features in these properties that both of these, say, both of those renditions of Jimi Hendrix's original and the rendition share in common. But there are some other aspects that might be different. And so it seems like you're saying that beauty is a kind of emergent property. That you have these ingredients. Then out of that, it becomes this sort of almost a higher order experience. Is it something like that?

Michael: Yeah, I'm still debating what that means. There are philosophers that say that aesthetic properties emerge from non-aesthetic properties. The fact that a canvas is square is a non-aesthetic property. That's just the way it is. But the fact that you paint it on the square canvas is what makes the beauty emerge from it. There are people that say that. I don't know if I would come down strictly. At the moment, I'm okay if that's how someone were to interpret about you. But I'm not sure if I would strictly claim that. But I think it's a decent explanation of it.

Brandon: There are people who argue that we need to attend to aesthetic experience broadly, and beauty is too narrow a focus. I'm curious to know what you think of that, that we need to really—

Michael: Yeah, I think I tend to agree. I think we focus on beauty. I think the reason we focus on beauty is, to borrow from Arthur Dantos' book The Abuse of Beauty — the whole book exists to show historically why beauty was removed from art but that maybe we went too far and almost not only removed it as being necessary but went the other way and said we don't even welcome into art anymore. That sort of happened historically. He said the reason why beauty is so important is because it's not just a property. It's a value. I think he's right about that. But we have other aesthetic properties — the dainty, the dumpy, the graceful, the elegant. These are things that you could keep adding on and on. And so I do think we have these things. And we maybe sometimes call them beautiful, even though maybe they're more specific than that.

But I think aesthetics is gradation. I think that's something we often miss in our discussions. Because we talk about revenues exemplary experiences, which I get it. They're paradigmatic so they're easier to talk about, talking about a painting versus a coffee cup or something. But I think we have these smaller level things throughout our daily lives. It could be a coffee cup. It could be a dishware, or it could be a particular brush, or an elegant lamp, or something like that that we have in our home. I think without these things, our daily lives would be diminished in some respect. There are some personal things. Someone may just not care about coffee cups. For them, a coffee cup is purely functional but something else. I would venture to say there are very few exceptions of people that don't have something like this in their life.

Brandon: Yeah, I think that's it's really crucial. I think both the simple hedonic pleasures we might derive from seeing a pretty swatch of color, or a flower, or even the sun hitting the plant on our windowsill in a certain way, those are things that we don't even pay close attention to. But they do contribute in some way to our flourishing. And so living a life without those things would be — it's almost like the opposite of death by a thousand paper cuts or whatever. There's a positive aspect of being bombarded by the small, tiny, almost barely perceptible experience of beauty that I think contribute to life being bearable, contribute to energizing us in ways that I don't think we're often paying attention to.

Of course, the deeply meaningful aspects, the experience of the sublime, the experience of awe and transcendence are also important. I think often we tend to focus just on those and say beauty is about — it's almost like I hear people talk about beauty in a zero-one sense. The objects are either beautiful or not. Therefore, we should listen to Palestrina, and don't listen to these modern people or whatever. Because there's no beauty in this form of music, one might argue, which I think is completely misled.

Michael: I actually find that more and more disagreements I have with people about a particular object or something is more about the degree. Someone may not like a particular musician. But they usually won't say, "Oh, they can't sing at all." That doesn't happen ever. But I just mean, usually, I can tell they can sing but I just can't get into their music. Or, I can tell they can play this instrument, but I can't really get into their final product or something.

Brandon: You could recognize that there are — my wife does not like Jacob Collier, who is, I think, one of most brilliant musicians alive. His Grammys are evidence of it. But she's a trained opera singer, and she can't stand his vocal texture. And so coming from her expertise and experience, she's like this is not the standards really. But she can appreciate. There are these other aesthetic properties. So you can say, this object is beautiful. This piece of music is beautiful, or in the sense that I appreciate that it has these aesthetic properties. Those are properties that one ought to judge objectively beautiful. It's just that when they come together for me, they're missing something, right?

Michael: Yeah, like I said, most of the disagreements I've witnessed or have been a part of have been more to the degree rather than something as beautiful and something as ugly.

Brandon: Talk about the Aesthetics Research Lab. What do you do there?

Michael: Based on what I said earlier, the idea that aesthetics permeates our lives. When I began to realize that my focus is not just on art and not just on — actually, when it came to philosophy, the questions about art, I find less interesting for me personally. I'm glad people are out there doing it. I just find them less interesting. I'm more interested in the aesthetic side, the questions of beauty. And so I started thinking, if this is so pervasive and so important for our lives, we need to be talking about this everywhere.

I created this website, Aesthetics Research Lab, in 2016 to basically be a resource to bring together people or ideas that pockets of aesthetics in all sorts of random places. I say random. Maybe unexpected is a better way of saying it. And some expected as well. In the context of business, for example, you might expect to find aesthetics and marketing or product design, which that's actually a surprise that it's not as much in practice from people who have worked in practice that have told me, as you might think. But you might expect to find it there.

There's an author in academic, Steven Detroit or de Groot, if I'm saying his last name correctly. He wrote a book on organizational aesthetics. I would have never thought to find someone at the time. Now it makes sense now that I've seen it come up in different places. I've found people writing about aesthetics as part of the solution for climate change, prison reform. I keep finding people talking about aesthetics in all these — law, politics, all these places that I wouldn't have thought of 20 years ago. Because I would have just connected it with art and nature. A lot from philosophy and from science, those are the big places that people connect aesthetics. It's our nature. They're good examples, especially art is a little bit controlled in the sense that the painting doesn't change. So you can constantly talk about this one painting or these groups of paintings or something, especially ones that are from the past.

I created it because there was no — several of the people I've talked with, they felt alone in where they were coming from: people in business consulting, people in product design. They didn't have a place to really talk about these things in their own industries, because they felt like they were alone in thinking this is important. And so it exists to be a place where these things can come together, at least on a webpage. I'm trying to start organizing more things around it better. But for right now, it's been great.

Brandon: Is your audience mainly the business community? Who are you primarily engaging?

Michael: There are definitely academics that I think have been involved in appreciating what I'm trying to accomplish. There are people in the beauty industry, fashion, business — it bridges a broad work — and architecture, I think, are the four main groups of industries that I've found what I'm doing resonates with them. Even in fashion and architecture might surprise. The beauty industry might surprise people. But a lot of people don't talk about the more substantial notions and academic notions of beauty in those industries.

Architecture might be the exception as it's on the rise. A lot of people are connecting with a lot of the science behind it. Not all, but some are starting to connect with the aesthetics. The neuro esthetics and empirical aesthetics of the built environment are becoming more prevalent in discussions now. But it's not as much as discussed in the beauty industry or in fashion from my limited experience.

Brandon: Yeah, which is, for a lot of people the default where you say beauty. You do Google search on beauty, and it's either fashion or maybe cosmetics. That's typically the kind of thing that goes to it. It's either one of those things. Maybe some people might associate it with art.

Michael: And I should clarify too. It's also from my perspective as a philosopher. Philosophers, if you look at any of the companion to aesthetics by philosophers, almost none of them have anything to do with the beauty industry or fashion. Their version of applied aesthetics is painting, architecture, literature, music, and those kinds of things. Fashion almost never comes up. But last year, actually, two philosophers wrote books on fashion. So it's changing a little bit.

Brandon: Well, talk about your book on digital fashion. How did you get into that? What do you do in your book? What is your book about?

Michael: This June, I have a co-edited volume with Doris Domoszlai-Lantner, who's a fashion historian, and Sara Emilia Bernat, who's a sociologist, and then me as the philosopher. The three of us had a conversation about maybe we should write something together. We sort of thought maybe writing an article, and then we all thought something came up with this idea. No one has written an academic book, well, I'll say this, on digital fashion. It's fairly new. The pandemic helped push it to the next level of it. It would have taken longer, I think, for it to develop. The pandemic pushed it there. Because everyone was online a lot more than they were previously, and online in particular ways like Zoom where companies like DressX have come up with ways where you could wear digital fashion on a Zoom call. So it doesn't matter what you're wearing physically, or you're wearing something else. Even just something simple like digital earrings or something, they can view it, or glasses or something.

So we thought, let's do this. And so we have people. But rather than write the whole thing, we wanted to edit it because there are certain areas of technology and things that weren't our area of expertise. And so we want to try and show our weaknesses of that. We wanted to get the people to actually know about this stuff, to contribute to that. We have people from all around the world: in the US, with me in Boston, and people in New York, London, Nigeria, and South Africa and places. We have people from different countries writing on different aspects of it.

The subtitle is Theory, Practice and Implications. We wanted to talk about some of the theories. My chapter is in the theory section on philosophy. There's a chapter actually on neuro esthetics. There's a chapter on fashion history leading up to the development of digital fashion. In the practice section, there are some practitioners. One from the perspective of education, why we need to teach a digital fashion or fashion in a particular way? So digital fashion comes from the video game world. I kind of joke that as soon as Ms. Pac-Man had a bow, to differentiate her from Pac-Man, digital fashion was kind of born. Even in video games like fighting video games where you could switch outfits of your character, even before they were on the internet or connect to the internet, for no real strategic purpose, it's just for variety’s sake and preferences. Then we talked about a lot of people think digital fashion is a way to help — not to completely solve but help alleviate issues of equity in fashion, in the greater fashion community, and sustainability issues, and decoloniality and different things like that. So the third section talks about those kinds of implications.

For me, personally, my interest in it comes actually from a Supreme Court case in the Netherlands. Two philosophers wrote about it. Briefly, what happened was, two older teenage boys physically threatened a younger boy until he logged into the video game Runescape and dropped two items. Then one of the older boys logged into the same game and picked those up. The Supreme Court of the Netherlands ruled that a robbery had taken place, which is interesting. I want to say that was around 2013-ish or so when the ruling came down. I think the actual event was earlier. That, to me, was interesting. Because philosophers talk about the nature of reality all the time. To me, this adds a whole dimension of what the nature of reality consists of. So I kind of wonder. For me, digital fashion which exists, there's different — I won't get into all this here. But one of the main uses of digital fashion is that it exists only digitally. There are other uses that go beyond the scope of this kind of conversation. But for the garments that only exist digitally, that you wear in digital worlds, or if the Metaverse ever comes to fruition and the future of the Internet is actually 3D as some people believe — not Facebook's Meta, like the actual Metaverse that people believe is going to happen — any 3D digital realm, you're going to want to wear something. That's sort of what people would think.

Brandon: Yeah, exactly.

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Michael: What does it do? Well, digital fashion, unlike physical fashion, can't protect you from the rain, the cold, or the other elements. So even if you go out in the rain and you just need some coat, you can just grab some ugly coat you don't even care about. Well, it has a function. Well, digital fashion doesn't have those functions. You could imagine someone in a digital environment doing an oil change wearing a tuxedo. Because who cares? I don't know why you would do an oil change in a tux in a digital environment. But the point is, you could do that. It doesn't matter. So you don't have to worry about those kinds of issues. So how do you really want to express yourself? I think what digital fashion highlights is that we are aesthetic beings. We want to express ourselves aesthetically. And I also connect this with meaning and telling a particular narrative by wearing certain digital garments over others. For me, that's where it plays out.

Insofar as digital fashion or whether there is going to be a Metaverse or not, they're tools. I think digital fashion offers us a way to figure out ways of expressing ourselves. There's actually an article on beauty on Meta recently, not by me, that showed how people, Gen Z in particular, has used digital garments and digital beauty ideas to actually shape their physical existence in a good way. I mean, there's a negative component to it, too. But this particular article focused on some of the positive ways that helps people. I think that's where it does help. We can try things. Just in terms of clothing, we're limited by physical, financial space, like spaces and financial limitations. There's only so many clothes we can buy even if we had all the money. I guess we had all the money. We could build a whole house dedicated to clothes. That's not limitation. But we are limited. Whereas digitally, we're not as limited. I mean, they still cost money. But we can experiment with things that we could then bring into the physical world.

Virtual try-ons are a way to do that. A lot of companies are beginning to offer this. I just saw that. I believe Balmain — I think it's that company — has now done a good virtual try-on program where you can actually have a digital version of yourself, which they believe will cut down on returns, if you can actually see yourself wearing this. So if I look at a model wearing something, maybe I get lucky the model happens to have some — he seems about my height or something like that. I get lucky, and it has my skin tone and stuff. But that's not always the case. Well, I see a shirt, and it looks good on that person. But it might not actually fit me the right way. But if I can actually have my dimensions. I don't think the technology is going to be perfect right away.

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Brandon: There's certainly an improvement. Tone of the particular outfit or the color tone there doesn't actually match what it looks like when I get it, right? You're looking at this and you're like, that's not what it looked like on the screen. There are ways for you to actually have a picture or a video where you can say, oh, this actually matches.

Michael: Yeah, I think Warby Parker was one of the first to do this with glasses.

Brandon: Right. Exactly.

Michael: It cuts down on returns which cuts down on gas. A lot of returns, contrary to what people might believe, a lot of returns are put in landfill instead of back on the shelves to be resold. And so we may have the innocent return where I really thought the shirt was going to work, but it doesn't. It doesn't fit me right or so on. But then we have the less innocent return, for lack of better phrasing, where someone wanted a really expensive shirt or something else because they wanted to post it on Instagram, and then they return it. So they had no intention of keeping it. Some of these companies are saying, well, if all you want — I know this goes beyond the scope of aesthetics. But it does relate because it does have to do appearances. But if all you want is something to exist digitally, like a shirt for an Instagram post, you can do that digitally now. The imprint on the environment is like one millionth or something fraction of the physical garment.

Brandon: I'm curious. With all of this, that's just going back to critiques of things like the beauty industry and the concept of something like beauty sickness, which psychologists talk about, Renee Engeln talks about this in terms of just how much many people, young women in particular. But I think you could extend it. The issue is, they spend a lot of energy on this. Then the argument would be, why not just get people to care less about their appearance? Why not just figure out some way to educate away the aesthetic and where this becomes irrelevant? Then they don't have to worry about it.

Michael: I would just say good luck. But I think the drive is too deep for us. And it really does make us feel better about ourselves. People that get up and get dressed and put some effort into their appearance, they feel better than people that don't. I mean, I know it's a broad statement. I think there are some that genuinely don't care. I just find it hard to believe that there are people that really truly absolutely don't care at all about any of the aesthetics. I think there are degrees. I think we become too obsessed, but I don't know how we could completely get rid of it. But I do think companies need to be careful.

Of course, I teach on history of aesthetics. We have a section on beauty politics, which the name comes from The Routledge Companion to Beauty Politics. We talk about issues like colorism, blackfishing, and other issues like that that aren't as talked about in this context that I've seen, at least from philosophers. Colorism is a pretty strange one for me, because there's no way to advertise your product without making it sound like lighter skin is just better. How else would you advertise that? And so I think that's a problem. I think that's a different kind of problem. But there might be someone that is self-conscious about a particular skin. I'm even hesitant to use the word blemish, but I'll use it apprehensively, where a skin lightening cream might actually serve a practical function.

I actually think one of the ways is through media. When we have movies that frequently have the white man as the hero, that has to have an effect on culture. I just don't believe that it doesn't. I think it has to have some kind of an effect. I think it's a responsibility of artists, especially filmmakers. Because that's a big medium to start changing that narrative. I think that's part of why we have it as we keep replicating the same narrative.

Brandon: You've got a book that's coming out, that you're writing, Is Your Business Beautiful. Could you say a little bit about what that's about?

Michael: Yeah, I started talking to a lot of people in business for some reason. I mean, it was initially not necessarily intentional. It was intentional insofar as I wanted to broaden the scope with the Aesthetics Research Lab. I just kept finding more and more people in business and writings that seem to be the kind of thing that no one talks about. Then public philosopher, Tom Morris, had a book a while ago called If Aristotle Ran General Motors. He and I had a conversation about it. In the book, he highlights four transcendentals of Aristotle: beauty, truth, goodness, and unity. He made a side comment to me once that a lot of the comments he received about the book focused on the section on beauty. No one really has written — there's definitely some books about aesthetics in business. But no one has really written especially from the perspective of philosophy.

This is going to be a short book. I don't know. I haven't really worked out these details yet. But I would actually even imagine it fitting the size of, like this very short introductions to something. It'd be that kind of size book. The reason why is because I think there's a practical reason. I wanted it to serve a different purpose. I don't want it to be this exhaustive academic treatise. I want it to just be more of an inspirational book for people to reorient their perspective of business and beauty, and aesthetics more broadly.

When you go to an art museum, you're expected to engage with the artwork there. That's why you're going. When you go to a business or your office, even if they have artwork on the wall, I wonder how many times people just walk past it and never even looked at it even if it's good. It may not be very good, and that might be one reason not to look at it. But even if it's very good, I wonder how often people look at it? Or maybe they look at it the first time they walk into their office, and they just get focused on their work. Then they never look at it again. I thought, well, this is a way. Why not during some meeting that you're having, why not bring one of these paintings? Obviously, it has to be something that's easy to transport. Why not bring one of these paintings into your meeting? Or, if you have work that maybe isn't easily moved, why not make it a requirement of this meeting to come with having looked at some of these works, and see how it inspires you to think about a particular problem, or issue, or concern that we have at this company.

What I've done with this book is, I've divided it into what I think to be the three broadest categories of business: product, place, and people. People wonder what philosophers do. We often talk about the broadest questions. Not necessarily the better question, just broader. And so this was me asking, how would aesthetics fit with each of these three categories? With product, product design is actually important. With product, it also includes service. Product design, service design. Think about the first impression that people have on your product.

There's a Harvard business professor named Gerald Zalman who claims that 95% of our retail purchases are based on the subconscious. The subconscious is where — it's the first impact of aesthetics. I think he also talks about emotions. But aesthetics is connected to our emotion, to some degree. I can speak from very personal experience. I was in the market years ago for a brand-new leather bag. We're just looking on the internet just to get some ideas of what color, what feature, maybe what company might make the most sense. We turned the page, and my wife literally gasped out loud. And it was the one I got.

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Brandon: Wow.

Michael: So there is a sense in which this kind of connection. Now obviously, there are certain products like toothpicks that we probably don't have an emotional connection with that. But we may have where we buy those things. We may have an emotional connection with whether we go to Whole Foods, or some other grocery store, or a convenience store to get them. We may have some kind of — I mean, we don't think of it as an emotional connection because we don't think of it as an emotional experience. When we think of emotions, we often think of these extreme I'm weeping. I'm not weeping walking into Target or something. But it doesn't mean that there isn't a emotional connection I have with it. Maybe something like I go to a store often enough and know the cashier. I may don't even necessarily know the person's name, but I know their face. They're kind, or the person that helps me in a store, we remember these things. It's the same thing that gets us to not go to a store, a bad emotional connection where someone was rude to us. Again, we don't think of it as an emotional connection per se. But it undermines what they were trying to accomplish. A store that has the right vibe of what we're looking for, what we identify with. That goes into place.

Then people, our interactions with people are huge. Suppose you had the most amazing hospital or the most amazing business. You walk into the front desk, and the person is just like, "Yeah, what do you want?" But also, what surprised me about some of the research I've done on this is, I haven't delved into this quite enough yet. But there are some people that said it's not just about being friendly and pleasant. That's part of it, the aesthetics of the people of a place, and the employees and so on. It also has to do with the way we communicate.

Have you ever been on an email exchange with the person or something and you're like, I have no idea what they're asking of me? And so you do a follow-up email. Let's say, you ask to two follow-up questions. You're thinking, okay, if they answer these questions, I think I'll get what they're trying to say. Then they answer the first one but not the second one. The point is, had they written a more elegant email in the first place, we might never have had to have this 20-exchange thing to finally get to the heart of what it was they were asking us. It doesn't mean that it won't alleviate all confusion. But this was an interesting one to me. It came from an article on aesthetics and healthcare, which is one of the main areas I focus my attention on in terms of spaces. Some of the normal stuff I expected about the space but had this idea of elegant communication. And how the way a doctor presents information to a patient is important. It's not just the friendliness. It's not just the sensitivity to the maybe gravity of the topic or something, but it's also just the way that you presented helps patient. The problem here is that it really requires getting to know the patient a little bit better maybe.

Brandon: Exactly, yeah. That's fantastic. In the work I've been doing too, I suppose there's not a ton of different options there. I have similar to these three P's that you talk about. Two others. One is purpose, which is there's beauty and why you do what you do. Then the other one is the process, how you work. I think a lot of communication is part of it. But just around the struggles a lot of people have with work, with business and so on, the issue of burnout, it often has to do with process. It often has to do with, gosh, I just can't do. It's just so stressful. I can't do what I need to do in order to accomplish these goals. Because all these other mediocracy gets in the way or the red tape gets in the way, et cetera. So there's ways in which the organizational structures get into the way there. But yeah, I think we're really dealing with very similar things, that the experience of business has to do with a lot of these dimensions. And for what it means for work or business to be perceived as beautiful, I think it play ties to all these dimensions.

Michael: When you're talking about process, I actually think I have those two ideas in the book. I just didn't separate them out. When I think of process too, we often get so caught up in the final product when it comes to work, and that there's a kind of performative beauty in the work that we often ignore. We think about it in terms of people like doing dance. We might think about it. We may not call it this, but we might think about it with athletes when they just are on one night. We might think about it with musicians or actors. But we don't think about it with work. I think there is a kind of elegance sometimes, an aesthetic component or a performative beauty to someone's work that we just don't talk enough about. Sometimes making even something like very businessy, making a spreadsheet, sometimes you can just make one. But sometimes you can make one elegantly. It's not just that the final product is elegant. It's that the process of thinking through it had an actual aesthetic component that gets overlooked I think way too easily, even by the person doing it.

Brandon: Right, yeah. So things like flow, those kinds of experiences, your emotional state, maybe not as a consumer of an object but in producing it. The experience of the ideal, or not the ideal but the stereotype of the tortured artist who's producing this beautiful piece of work going through insane amounts of anguish. One might try to figure out how do we intervene in that process and make the experience of working itself be more liberating, more beautiful. There's part of it as a component of knowing how to work, knowing how to work skillfully, maybe learning mastery, and that there's a maturity component there. But part of it is also, I think, policies and structures, which the onus is there on the organization to create the conditions for people to thrive.

Michael: A lot of what I've read talked about culture of an organization being top-down. That is telling the story of your company is important, but also letting the employees tell their versions of the story of the company. That was an interesting component to all of this that ties all three things into me at the end. It's the story structure and storytelling. The story some of the authors I've read on this said that the story itself isn't just to convey information about the company. Though it does that, it also has to — the story has to be good. The story itself has to have an aesthetic component, which I thought was very often overlooked. I think a lot of people focus on what's going to grab people's attention. There are different ways of grabbing people's attention. Sometimes, a commercial might shock you in a sense or surprise you in some way. That conveys something. But I think the core component of your story needs to be aesthetically pleasing in a certain or particular way.

Brandon: Yeah, there's an aesthetic to story structure for sure. That's amazing. Michael, thank you so much for taking the time. It has been just lovely hearing about all of your work. Are there any other aspects of beauty and aesthetics that you'd like to touch on before we end just to help us understand what beauty is and why it matters? Was there anything left to address that we haven't discussed?

Michael: I'm not sure if there's anything new, but I guess I would just reiterate that it is a core drive. We need to overcome the problem areas that have been created by people exploiting and imposing beauty standards. But it's partly by knowing that this is happening and not just letting it happen, which I think — so my challenge to anyone listening would be: be in charge of your own aesthetic development. Don't just accept the passive. What you like right now may not be the things you would really like. Our aesthetic character changes. What we liked 20 years ago, we may not even like anymore.

Knowing that, how do you want to shape your aesthetic future? I think that's a key idea, not just for yourself but for others as well. And how can you begin to recognize, creating a habit of recognizing the aesthetics in your daily life? What would life be like if some daily object like a coffee cup was just unappealing? Maybe you have an appealing coffee cup, but whatever object you have. I mean, think about ways. Don't just accept that things are the way they are. It's too easy to do that. It takes some work for certain things, and money sometimes for big overhauls of your home or something. Obviously, you can't always do that. But you can rearrange things. You can create the aesthetic environment that is most appealing to you. I think it's worth the effort to do that. So I would say that would be my last challenge. Don't accept. Be an active participant in your own aesthetic destiny.

Brandon: Awesome. Thanks, Michael. Where can we direct people to your work?

Michael: Aestheticsresearch.com is my website. I have a Substack called Aesthetics Research Lab, which keeps growing. I'm about to embark on — one of the things I bring to the table that we haven't really talked specifically about is the history of aesthetics. I think it's important to see that there's a long-standing tradition of some of these ideas and different ways of thinking about them which help shape our own current thinking. And so I'm about to do it on the Substack. I'm about to start next year at some point. I haven't set up an actual date yet, because I don't want to commit to something and then I have to delay it. So I'd rather set the date once I have a better sense.

I have a history of aesthetics project on that that will go through the history, not necessarily in chronological order, and bring it into today. Why does it matter today? Why does it matter? How can we apply Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas? How can we apply what they said about beauty to now? Why does it matter? Because I don't want to just think about those things. Because I think that's another problem with aesthetics. It's people think it's very abstract. I actually think it's very practical. In some ways, I might even go so far as to say it's the most practical branch of philosophy, but I don't know if I want to say that. I'm sure that's just my bias coming out. But I think it can be very practical even in light of some of the abstract concepts here and there.

Brandon: Fantastic. Michael, thank you. It's been such a pleasure.

Michael: Thank you, Brandon.

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