The Concept of Beauty in Philosophy and Art


Beauty is a quality attributed to whatever gives pleasure to the senses and mind. It is typically associated with properties such as harmony of form or color, proportion, authenticity and originality.

Many philosophers have explored the nature of beauty in a number of ways, sometimes resulting in divergent views. For example, some philosophers treat beauty as an objective quality referring to its relation to the beautiful object itself, while others see it as a subjective experience that calls out certain feelings or states of being such as delight or awe.

The concept of beauty has been a focal point of debate in both philosophy and art. Though classical philosophical accounts of beauty have remained in force since the eighth century, interest in aesthetic theory has grown considerably more recently in both disciplines.

Until the eighteenth century, most accounts of beauty treated it as an objective quality. For instance, Plato and Aristotle regarded beauty as an objective quality that was present in the object itself or in its qualities. Augustine and Plotinus also argued that beauty was an objective quality in this respect.

But in the twentieth century, many thinkers began to doubt whether a concept like beauty could truly be objective or unchanging, particularly as they came to suspect its entanglements with politics and economics, and in particular with concrete dimensions of oppression (see Danto 1992).

For example, Kant and Hume believed that beauty is an exercise of volition that varies according to different people, while Moore and Deleuze believed that beauty is a socially constructed concept that can be reconstituted anew by different groups and individuals.

Another way of thinking about beauty is to consider it as a subjective experience that calls out feelings of love or adoration. For instance, the neo-Platonic account of Plato in the Symposium and Plotinus’s in the Enneads connect beauty to a response of love and desire.

This view of beauty has many of the characteristics of hedonism, but it is not a deconstructive one. In fact, many of the most influential philosophers in the nineteenth century adopted a hedonistic view of beauty.

The classical conception of beauty arose in the fifth/fourth century BCE and found its most explicit expression in the Renaissance: a beautiful object should have definite proportions or relations among its parts, with a harmonious symmetry. For example, the ‘golden section,’ a mathematical ratio determining the proportions of an object’s parts, was seen as a model for beautiful sculpture.

In some ways this conception is similar to the neo-Platonic account that Plato and Aristotle use to describe a beautiful object, but it differs in that it places more emphasis on the object’s qualities rather than on its unity. Moreover, the concept of beauty is not limited to physical appearance: it can include emotional qualities such as joy and peace.

The hedonic conception of beauty, rooted in the seventeenth century, arose as a reaction to the more negative conceptions that saw beauty as a’socially constructed concept’ and a means of subjugating women. In his Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (1758), David Hume offered a gentler and more resistant account of beauty that still retains some of the virtues of hedonism, but in a less tyrannical fashion.