Beauty

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1. WHAT IS BEAUTY?

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Beauty is the ascription of a property or characteristic to an animal, idea, object, person or place that provides a perceptual experience of pleasure or satisfaction. Beauty is studied as part of aesthetics, culture, social psychology, philosophy and sociology. An “ideal beauty” is an entity which is admired, or possesses features widely attributed to beauty in a particular culture, for perfection. Ugliness is the opposite of beauty.

The experience of “beauty” often involves an interpretation of some entity as being in balance and harmony with nature, which may lead to feelings of attraction and emotional well-being. Because this can be a subjective experience, it is often said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Often, given the observation that empirical observations of things that are considered beautiful often align among groups in consensus, beauty has been stated to have levels of objectivity and partial subjectivity which are not fully subjective in their aesthetic judgement.

The classical Greek noun that best translates to the English-language words “beauty” or “beautiful” was κάλλος, kallos, and the adjective was καλός, kalos. However, kalos may and is also translated as ″good″ or ″of fine quality″ and thus has a broader meaning than mere physical or material beauty. Similarly, kallos was used differently from the English word beauty in that it first and foremost applied to humans and bears an erotic connotation.

The Koine Greek word for beautiful was ὡραῖος, hōraios, an adjective etymologically coming from the word ὥρα, hōra, meaning “hour”. In Koine Greek, beauty was thus associated with “being of one’s hour”. Thus, a ripe fruit (of its time) was considered beautiful, whereas a young woman trying to appear older or an older woman trying to appear younger would not be considered beautiful. In Attic Greek, hōraios had many meanings, including “youthful” and “ripe old age”.

The earliest Western theory of beauty can be found in the works of early Greek philosophers from the pre-Socratic period, such as Pythagoras. The Pythagorean school saw a strong connection between mathematics and beauty. In particular, they noted that objects proportioned according to the golden ratio seemed more attractive. Ancient Greek architecture is based on this view of symmetry and proportion.

Plato considered beauty to be the Idea (Form) above all other Ideas. Aristotle saw a relationship between the beautiful (to kalon) and virtue, arguing that “Virtue aims at the beautiful.”

Classical philosophy and sculptures of men and women produced according to the Greek philosophers’ tenets of ideal human beauty were rediscovered in Renaissance Europe, leading to a re-adoption of what became known as a “classical ideal”. In terms of female human beauty, a woman whose appearance conforms to these tenets is still called a “classical beauty” or said to possess a “classical beauty”, whilst the foundations laid by Greek and Roman artists have also supplied the standard for male beauty and female beauty in western civilization as seen, for example, in the Winged Victory of Samothrace. During the Gothic era, the classical aesthetical canon of beauty was rejected as sinful. Later, Renaissance and Humanist thinkers rejected this view, and considered beauty to be the product of rational order and harmonious proportions. Renaissance artists and architects (such as Giorgio Vasari in his “Lives of Artists”) criticised the Gothic period as irrational and barbarian. This point of view of Gothic art lasted until Romanticism, in the 19th century.

In the Middle Ages, Catholic philosophers like Thomas Aquinas included beauty among the transcendental attributes of being. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas described the three conditions of beauty as: integritas (Wholeness), consonantia (harmony), claritas (radiance of form)

In the Gothic Architecture of the High and Late Middle Ages, light was considered the most beautiful revelation of God, which was heralded in design. Examples are the stained glass of Gothic Cathedrals including Notre-Dame de Paris and Chartes Cathedral.

The Age of Reason saw a rise in an interest in beauty as a philosophical subject. For example, Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson argued that beauty is “unity in variety and variety in unity”. The Romantic poets, too, became highly concerned with the nature of beauty, with John Keats arguing in Ode on a Grecian Urn that:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

In the Romantic period, Edmund Burke postulated a difference between beauty in its classical meaning and the sublime. The concept of the sublime, as explicated by Burke and Kant, suggested viewing Gothic art and architecture, though not in accordance with the classical standard of beauty, as sublime.

The 20th century saw an increasing rejection of beauty by artists and philosophers alike, culminating in postmodernism’s anti-aesthetics. This is despite beauty being a central concern of one of postmodernism’s main influences, Friedrich Nietzsche, who argued that the Will to Power was the Will to Beauty.

In the aftermath of postmodernism’s rejection of beauty, thinkers have returned to beauty as an important value. American analytic philosopher Guy Sircello proposed his New Theory of Beauty as an effort to reaffirm the status of beauty as an important philosophical concept. Elaine Scarry also argues that beauty is related to justice.

Beauty is also studied by psychologists and neuroscientists in the field of experimental aesthetics and neuroesthetics respectively. Psychological theories see beauty as a form of pleasure. Correlational findings support the view that more beautiful objects are also more pleasing. Some studies suggest that higher experienced beauty is associated with activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex. This approach of localizing the processing of beauty in one brain region has received criticism within the field.

The agreeable is a purely sensory judgment — judgments in the form of “This steak is good,” or “This chair is soft.” These are purely subjective judgments, based on inclination alone.

The good is essentially a judgment that something is ethical — the judgment that something conforms with moral law, which, in the Kantian sense, is essentially a claim of modality — a coherence with a fixed and absolute notion of reason. It is in many ways the absolute opposite of the agreeable, in that it is a purely objective judgment — things are either moral or they are not, according to Kant.

The remaining two judgments — the beautiful and the sublime — differ from both the agreeable and the good. They are what Kant refers to as “subjective universal” judgments. This apparently oxymoronic term means that, in practice, the judgments are subjective, and are not tied to any absolute and determinate concept. However, the judgment that something is beautiful or sublime is made with the belief that other people ought to agree with this judgment — even though it is known that many will not. The force of this “ought” comes from a reference to a sensus communis — a community of taste. Hannah Arendt, in her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, suggests the possibility that this sensus communis might be the basis of a political theory.

Kant’s view of the beautiful and the sublime is frequently read as an attempt to resolve one of the problems left following his depiction of moral law in the Critique of Practical Reason — namely that it is impossible to prove that we have free will, and thus impossible to prove that we are bound under moral law. The beautiful and the sublime both seem to refer to some external noumenal order — and thus to the possibility of a noumenal self that possesses free will.

In his Critique of Judgment begins with an account of beauty. The initial issue is: what kind of judgment is it that results in our saying, for example, ‘That is a beautiful sunset’. Kant argues that such aesthetic judgments (or ‘judgments of taste’) must have four key distinguishing features. First, they are disinterested, meaning that we take pleasure in something because we judge it beautiful, rather than judging it beautiful because we find it pleasurable. The latter type of judgment would be more like a judgment of the ‘agreeable’, as when I say ‘I like doughnuts’.

Second and third, such judgments are both universal and necessary. This means roughly that it is an intrinsic part of the activity of such a judgment to expect others to agree with us. Although we may say ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, that is not how we act. Instead, we debate and argue about our aesthetic judgments – and especially about works of art -and we tend to believe that such debates and arguments can actually achieve something. Indeed, for many purposes, ‘beauty’ behaves as if it were a real property of an object, like its weight or chemical composition. But Kant insists that universality and necessity are in fact a product of features of the human mind (Kant calls these features ‘common sense’), and that there is no objective property of a thing that makes it beautiful.

Fourth, through aesthetic judgments, beautiful objects appear to be ‘purposive without purpose’ (sometimes translated as ‘final without end’). An object’s purpose is the concept according to which it was made (the concept of a vegetable soup in the mind of the cook, for example); an object is purposive if it appears to have such a purpose; if, in other words, it appears to have been made or designed. But it is part of the experience of beautiful objects, Kant argues, that they should affect us as if they had a purpose, although no particular purpose can be found.

Having identified the major features of aesthetic judgments, Kant then needs to ask the question of how such judgments are possible, and are such judgments in any way valid (that is, are they really universal and necessary).

It is useful to see the aesthetics here, as with Kant’s epistemology and to a certain extent his ethics also, as being a leap over the terms of the debate between British (and largely empiricist) philosophy of art and beauty (Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume and Burke) and Continental rationalist aesthetics (especially Baumgarten, who invented the modern use of the term aesthetics’ in the mid-18th century). The key ideas of the former group were (i) the idea of a definite human nature, such that studies of beauty could, within limits, be universal in scope; (ii) the assertion that beautiful objects and our responses to them were essentially involved in sense or feeling, and were not cognitive; (iii) that any ‘natural’ responses to beauty were generally overlaid by individual and communal experiences, habits and customs. The main disagreement with rationalist thought on the matter was in the second of these ideas. Baumgarten, following Leibniz, argued that all sense perception was merely ‘confused’ cognition, or cognition by way of sensible images. Thus, although beauty certainly appears to our senses, this by no means demonstrates that beauty is non-cognitive! Beauty, for Baumgarten, has more to do with rational ideas such as harmony, rather than with the physiological.

Thus, Kant begins to analyze the experience of beauty, in order to ask as precisely as possible the question ‘how are judgments about beauty possible’. Kant’s initial focus is on judgments about beauty in nature, as when we call a flower, a sunset, or an animal ‘beautiful’. What, at bottom, does such a judgment mean, and how does it take place as a mental act? In order to begin to answer these questions, Kant needs to clarify the basic features of such judgments. On Kant’s analysis, aesthetic judgments are still more strange even than ordinary reflective judgments, and must have a number of peculiar features which at first sight look like nothing other than paradoxes. We will now describe those features using Kant’s conceptual language.

Taking up roughly the first fifth of the Critique of Judgment, Kant discusses four particular unique features of aesthetic judgments on the beautiful (he subsequently deals with the sublime). These he calls ‘moments’, and they are structured in often obscure ways according to the main divisions of Kant’s table of categories (See article on Kant’s Metaphysics).

The First Moment. Aesthetic judgments are disinterested. There are two types of interest: by way of sensations in the agreeable, and by way of concepts in the good. Only aesthetic judgment is free or pure of any such interests. Interest is defined as a link to real desire and action, and thus also to a determining connection to the real existence of the object. In the aesthetic judgment per se, the real existence of the beautiful object is quite irrelevant. Certainly, I may wish to own the beautiful painting, or at least a copy of it, because I derive pleasure from it – but that pleasure, and thus that desire, is distinct from and parasitic upon the aesthetic judgment (see sect;9). The judgment results in pleasure, rather than pleasure resulting in judgment. Kant accordingly and famously claims that the aesthetic judgment must concern itself only with form (shape, arrangement, rhythm, etc.) in the object presented, not sensible content (color, tone, etc.), since the latter has a deep connection to the agreeable, and thus to interest. Kant is thus the founder of all formalism in aesthetics in modern philosophy. This claim of the disinterestedness of all aesthetic judgments is perhaps the most often attacked by subsequent philosophy, especially as it is extended to include fine art as well as nature. To pick three examples, Kant’s argument is rejected by those (Nietzsche, Freud) for whom all art must always be understood as related to will; by those for whom all art (as a cultural production) must be political in some sense (Marxism); by those for whom all art is a question of affective response expressionists).

The Second Moment. Aesthetic judgments behave universally, that is, involve an expectation or claim on the agreement of others – just ‘as if’ beauty were a real property of the object judged. If I judge a certain landscape to be beautiful then, although I may be perfectly aware that all kinds of other factors might enter in to make particular people in fact disagree with me, never-the-less I at least implicitly demand universality in the name of taste. The way that my aesthetic judgments ‘behave’ is key evidence here: that is, I tend to see disagreement as involving error somewhere, rather than agreement as involving mere coincidence. This universality is distinguished first from the mere subjectivity of judgments such as ‘I like honey’ (because that is not at all universal, nor do we expect it to be); and second from the strict objectivity of judgments such as ‘honey contains sugar and is sweet’, because the aesthetic judgment must, somehow, be universal ‘apart from a concept’ (sect;9). Being reflective judgments, aesthetic judgments of taste have no adequate concept (at least to begin with), and therefore can only behave as if they were objective. Kant is quite aware that he is flying in the face of contemporary (then and now!) truisms such as ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Such a belief, he argues, first of all can not account for our experience of beauty itself, insofar as the tendency is always to see ‘beauty’ as if it were somehow in the object or the immediate experience of the object. Second, Kant argues that such a relativist view can not account for the social ‘behavior’ of our claims about what we find beautiful. In order to explore the implications of ‘apart from a concept’, Kant introduces the idea of the ‘free play’ of the cognitive faculties (here: understanding and imagination), and the related idea of communicability. In the case of the judgment of the beautiful, these faculties no longer simply work together (as they do in ordinary sensible cognition) but rather each ‘furthers’ or ‘quickens’ the other in a kind of self-contained and self-perpetuating cascade of thought and feeling. We will return to these notions below.

The Third Moment. The third introduces the problem of purpose and purposiveness (also translated ‘end’ and ‘finality’). An object’s purpose is the concept according to which it was manufactured; purposiveness, then, is the property of at least appearing to have been manufactured or designed. Kant claims that the beautiful has to be understood as purposive, but without any definite purpose. A ‘definite purpose’ would be either the set of external purposes (what the thing was meant to do or accomplish), or the internal purpose (what the thing was simply meant to be like). In the former case, the success of the process of making is judged according to utility; in the latter, according to perfection. Kant argues that beauty is equivalent neither to utility nor perfection, but is still purposive. Beauty in nature, then, will appear as purposive with respect to our faculty of judgment, but its beauty will have no ascertainable purpose – that is, it is not purposive with respect to determinate cognition. Indeed, this is why beauty is pleasurable since, Kant argues, pleasure is defined as a feeling that arises on the achievement of a purpose, or at least the recognition of a purposiveness (Introduction, VI).

The purposiveness of art is more complicated. Although such works may have had purposes behind their production (the artist wished to express a certain mood, or communicate a certain idea), nevertheless, these can not be sufficient for the object to be beautiful. As judges of art, any such knowledge we do have about these real purposes can inform the judgment as background, but must be abstracted from to form the aesthetic judgment properly. It is not just that the purpose for the beauty of the beautiful happens to be unknown, but that it cannot be known. Still, we are left with the problem of understanding how a thing can be purposive, without having a definite purpose.

The Fourth Moment. Here, Kant is attempting to show that aesthetic judgments must pass the test of being ‘necessary’, which effectively means, ‘according to principle’. Everyone must assent to my judgment, because it follows from this principle. But this necessity is of a peculiar sort: it is ‘exemplary’ and ‘conditioned’. By exemplary, Kant means that the judgment does not either follow or produce a determining concept of beauty, but exhausts itself in being exemplary precisely of an aesthetic judgment. With the notion of condition, Kant reaches the core of the matter. He is asking: what is it that the necessity of the judgment is grounded upon; that is, what does it say about those who judge?

Kant calls the ground ‘common sense’, by which he means the a priori principle of our taste, that is of our feeling for the beautiful. (Note: by ‘common sense’ is not meant being intelligent about everyday things, as in: ‘For a busy restaurant, it’s just common sense to reserve a table in advance.’) In theoretical cognition of nature, the universal communicability of a representation, its objectivity, and its basis in a priori principles are all related. Similarly, Kant wants to claim that the universal communicability, the exemplary necessity and the basis in an a priori principle are all different ways of understanding the same subjective condition of possibility of aesthetic judgment that he calls common sense. (As we shall see, on the side of the beautiful object, this subjective principle corresponds to the principle of the purposiveness of nature.) Thus Kant can even claim that all four Moments of the Beautiful are summed up in the idea of ‘common sense’ (CJ sect.22). Kant also suggests that common sense in turn depends upon or is perhaps identical with the same faculties as ordinary cognition, that is, those features of humans which (as Kant showed in the Critique of Pure Reason) make possible natural, determinative experience. Here, however, the faculties are merely in a harmony rather than forming determinate cognition.

2. WHAT IS THE ESSENTIAL DIALECTIC OF BEAUTY?

The Essential Dialectic of Beauty is:

{Necessity-Universality ⇆ Universality-Necessity ⇅ Necessity-Necessity} ↻ Universality-Universality

3. WHAT IS THE COMPLETE DIALECTIC OF BEAUTY?

The Complete Dialectic of Beauty is:

{Universality ⇆ Necessity ⇅ Interest} ↻ Purpose

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4. WHAT IS THE EQUIVALENCY DIALECTIC OF BEAUTY?

The Equivalency Dialectic of Beauty is:

{Unity ⇆ True ⇅ Good ↻ Beauty

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