Beauty is an idea that has permeated Western thinking about the world, particularly in philosophy and art. But beauty is a tricky thing to define. There is a long history of debates over whether it is objective or subjective.
The earliest approaches to beauty, developed in the classical philosophy tradition, treat it as an objectified set of proportions or relations among parts, sometimes expressed in mathematical ratios. For example, the golden ratio was considered a model of harmonious proportion.
Aristotle and Plato held that beauty could be understood in this way. But their approach often resulted in a kind of hedonistic expression of wealth and decadence (see Levey 1985).
In the eighteenth century, philosophers such as Hume and Kant began to think about beauty as something that was not completely relative to individual experiencers but rather, was based on an exercise of the will and influenced by the subject’s social context. By recognizing that beauty is not a definite value or one that can be recognized universally, they sought to make sense of the many controversies that arise about particular works of art and literature.
But as the nineteenth century moved into the twentieth, a different conception of beauty emerged, with new philosophical and artistic interests that centered on feminist theory and critiques of traditional theories of beauty. This led to a renewed interest in beauty that began in the 1990s, both within classically-based aesthetic and philosophical traditions and within feminist-oriented reconstruals or reappropriations of the concept.
This reconstrual of the meaning of beauty began to be made in the context of a broader cultural understanding of human capacity and of emergent values that included a commitment to inalienable rights, as well as the creation of cultures of feeling. In addition, the development of a modern notion of human freedom and of a culture of feeling gave new weight to the resemblance of beauty to certain kinds of morality.
The reconstructed meaning of beauty in this context also reflects a more nuanced appreciation of the value of aesthetics, with its emphasis on the artful application of rules of design and good function (see Aquinas). But, perhaps most importantly, this theory of beauty addresses the problem that plagues other aesthetic theories: how to account for the fact that aesthetic principles are derived from underlying, fundamental, if unobservable, properties of the physical world.
Using the scientific method of observation, Aquinas identified four features of natural objects that he believed to be important in explaining why they were beautiful. These include:
1. The presence of symmetry, as in the human face and the wings on a butterfly; 2. The appearance of beauty, as in the shape and form of the body and its contours; 3. The quality of beauty, as in the harmony of the colors and the arrangement of elements.
The most convincing argument against the hedonistic, mathematical formulation of beauty in the classical philosophy tradition is the evidence that such principles are not universally applied. They are, on the contrary, in many cases imposed upon human beings and their environments, and they can be easily corrupted by other factors, such as greed or power, and by the effects of social conditioning.