The Philosophy of Beauty


Beauty is a complex topic, and it has been debated by many philosophers over the centuries. Some have considered beauty to be an objective quality in the objects themselves or in the qualities of those objects, while others have placed beauty in a more subjective manner, considering it to be an emotion.

Augustine, in his De Veritate Religione (On Religion), argues that things are beautiful because they give pleasure or delight. This is in contrast to the classical view, which holds that things are beautiful because they are good or useful.

Aristotle, in the Timaeus and the Symposium, argued that there are three requirements for beauty: integrity, due proportion or consonance, and clarity. He said that a work of art must have integrity, for example, because it has to be complete by its own interior logic; if it does not, it is not beautiful.

Thomas Aquinas, in a Christian formulation of Aristotle’s philosophy, also considers the quality of beauty to be linked to the Second Person of the Trinity. A painting of a woman who has only one eye is not beautiful, for example, but a cubist painting of the same woman that depicts her as having three eyes is.

The eighteenth century saw the rise of a number of views that sought to place beauty in a less objective, more subjective sense, as an experience or a mood. These views included Kant’s account of disinterested pleasure and his notion of hedonism, as well as the ecstatic neo-Platonism of Plotinus, which held that beauty is an expression of love or desire.

Some philosophers, such as Hume and Kant, saw that the value of beauty could be lost if it was only considered a subjective state. They noted, for instance, that controversies about particular works of art often arise and that reasons can sometimes be given and convincingly argued for the view of some people that a work is beautiful.

Other philosophers, such as Descartes and Leibniz, saw that the concept of beauty should remain a matter of personal judgment. They argued that the subjective nature of beauty meant that the value of a work of art should not be determined by outside forces or by its critics, who should not be able to determine whether or not it is beautiful.

In a similar vein, neo-Platonists such as the Stoics and the Neo-Shamans argued that beauty is not an objective quality in the object, but rather a response to a specific, individual experience or emotion. This view is usually referred to as the ‘folklore’ or ‘hysteria’ conception of beauty, as opposed to a ‘rational’ or ‘natural’ conception of beauty.

A third, more modern and secular, approach to beauty is that of the modern aesthetic. This conception sees beauty as the result of a process by which an artist gives pleasure to his or her audience.

This conception combines elements of the hedonism and the ecstatic neo-Platonism, and it makes the connection between beauty and pleasure more concrete, by placing the pleasure in the context of the artist’s or maker’s intentions or aspirations. This approach, however, is not without its problems and risks losing sight of the importance of the aesthetic experience for many artists and designers.