Beauty is the term used to describe objects and scenes that have a pleasing aesthetic quality. This term has been the subject of many different philosophical treatments throughout history. These treatments range from ancient conceptions to twentieth-century theories. It is important to understand the various ways that beauty is defined in order to appreciate the nuances of this concept.
In the classical and neo-classical eras, the term was applied to architecture and literature, but it can also be applied to music and dance. Those who define it, however, often place it in the context of unity and harmony. The classical conception of beauty involves the notion that the whole is harmonious and complete.
Another classical definition of beauty consists of the idea of proportion. Euclid identifies beauty as a result of symmetry. For example, a line divided into two unequal parts has a symmetrical appearance. Similarly, same objects can be perceived in a variety of colors at different times of the day.
Aristotle’s and Plato’s accounts of the beautiful disagreed over what exactly it is. Aristotle saw beauty as a matter of proportion, whereas Plato argued that it was a response to love.
Hume, a seventeenth-century philosopher, offered a very different view. His Essays, Moral, Political and Literary (1758) argued against tyrannical notions of taste. He also emphasized that people should acquiesce in their own sentiments. As a result, his definition of beauty was based on an object’s qualities.
In the nineteenth century, the concept of beauty became increasingly politicized. French revolutionaries, for instance, associated beauty with aristocracy. And in the early twentieth century, capitalism began to take an interest in beauty. In this era, people went to extremes to fit into their culture. They were able to associate beauty with richness, aristocracy, and art.
Contemporary artists and writers have explored different aspects of beauty, including gender, race, and body shape. Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers, for instance, are examples of this exploration.
Performance artists have also begun to explore the aesthetic meaning of women’s bodies. Performances such as Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” explore the relationship between a woman’s experiences of beauty and the objects that surround her.
Hedonist conceptions of beauty, on the other hand, tend to link pleasure to beauty. According to these conceptions, beautiful objects are characterized in terms of their loving or pleasing attitudes and functions. Such conceptions of beauty have shaped popular culture, and have become part of the contemporary art world.
A final approach to defining beauty is that of Berkeley. His 1732 definition of beauty required the following conditions: knowledge of its use, intellection, and practical activity.
Some twentieth-century thinkers were unsure how to reconcile the idea of beauty with a time of war and wastelands. However, Theodor Adorno wrote that art has a duty to show ugliness, especially the ugliness of poverty.
The concept of beauty has always been controversial. There is no single definitive definition. While most of the earliest works of philosophy focused on quantifying and describing beauty, the true meaning of the word has become ambiguous.