Three Views on Beauty
Beauty is often defined as a subjective aspect of objects which makes these objects pleasant to see. These objects may include humans, landscapes, sunsets and beautiful works of art. Beauty, along with beauty and art, is often the basis of aesthetics, one of the most important branches of art history. The word ‘art’ itself originally referred only to created works of architecture and design but has since then been used to refer to anything perceived to be beautiful.
Philosophy describes the study of beauty according to a number of different theories. According to some philosophers (notably Leo Tolstoy), beauty is a subjective experience that can be understood and appreciated by all people. According to others such as Immanuel Kant, the concept of beauty is completely independent of any human concepts of beauty, and must therefore be natural and independent of personal likes and dislikes.
For the purposes of this article we will concentrate on the former of these definitions. For many philosophers the concept of beauty is natural and independent of personal likes and dislikes. We will therefore concentrate on natural aesthetic experiences. In this way the term “natural aesthetics” will be more appropriate than the narrower term “esthetic philosophy” for our discussion.
There are three approaches to the question of beauty, three approaches that make different assumptions about the nature of aesthetic concepts. The first of these three approaches is that beauty exists in the mind of a person independent of his physical being. The second approach is that beauty is a relation between things in reality, a property of those things that make them beautiful. The third and most philosophically-inclined of these approaches is that beauty is a universal attribute that could be measured and compared across time and space.
The first of these three perspectives is closely related to Parmenides’ philosophy of plurality. His view is that there is a multitude of things existing at the same time, and that each thing is equally beautiful as much as other things that it does not destroy the perfection of the whole. However, Parmenides thought that beauty is nothing but a subjective quality that cannot be fully integrated into an object, and so he rejected the unity of beauty as a real and objective quality. According to him beauty is something that we find in things for which there is no composition, in terms of a set of fixed attributes that could be fully integrated into a natural object, and in terms of which we can say nothing is beautiful.
The second perspective, the second of which is sometimes called the “view of aesthetic qualities as a function of consciousness” is connected with Descartes’ philosophy of perception. Descartes believes that there are two senses in our body, namely sight and touch, and that beauty is a function of our judging capacity, especially of the touch sense. According to Descartes, we judge a thing’s attractiveness by looking at it, and by hearing a thing and smelling it; and we judge its goodness or badness by feeling it. Thus, for Descartes, the only way to see the beauty is to pass through the motions of everyday life and perceive it through the human senses.