The Nature and Significance of Beauty


Beauty is a quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses, and that arouses interest or admiration. It can be a physical quality, like a person’s attractive appearance, or it can be an idea or concept that inspires respect and admiration.

The nature and significance of beauty is debated widely. Among the most vociferous disputes are those over whether beauty is objective or subjective, and what this means for art.

Most Western philosophers and artists have rejected the view that beauty is a neutral, objective or unbiased thing. Kant, for instance, believed that beauty cannot be a universal or immutable standard, but rather depends on the perceptual experiences of a particular person. The Renaissance and Humanist thinkers, on the other hand, saw the beauty of objects as products of rational order and harmonious proportions. This conception of beauty was based on a conception of beauty as the perfect unity of the parts and thus of the whole object, as the golden ratio had been expounded in ancient Greece.

Despite this widespread rejection of the notion that beauty is objective, a number of philosophers and artists have gone in the opposite direction. These are often called the ‘game changers’: people who take traditional standards of beauty and find a way to challenge them. They might be looking for new and different ways to define beauty, or they may be trying to prove a point.

Some philosophers have tried to define beauty as the peculiar aesthetic pleasure triggered by certain attributes outside the observer’s experience of an object. These can be external, but they are also internal to the subject, and they might be triggered by the subject’s experience of its’suitability’ for use or enjoyment.

Others have argued that beauty is defined almost entirely as the peculiar aesthetic pleasure or ethical effect of a given object on a particular subject’s experience. This would be a much more specific definition of beauty than that of the’suitability’ model, but it is not a completely satisfactory one, since it still leaves open the question of what attributes outside of the subject’s experience might provoke an appreciation of an object as beautiful.

Transcendental theories of beauty argue that beauty is an expression of the unseen qualities of truth and goodness, or a synthesis of these. They are usually formulated in terms of a ‘triad of transcendentals’, and the triad might be understood as “truth” or ‘goodness’ (the ‘being’ or ‘existence’ of things) and ‘beauty’ (the’shining’ or ‘glory’ of those things).

Theological approaches to beauty vary widely, but they all focus on God’s revelation in Scripture, and on the notion that it is possible to identify beauty with his very being and relations. These approaches are not as simple or straightforward as those of the’suitability’ models, however: they involve some degree of reflection upon God’s character and nature, on his relationships with his creation, and on his self-revelation in human history.

As a result, these theological approaches to beauty tend to be very distinct from the philosophy-aesthetic models. The latter tended to trivialize and discredit beauty as an ideal goal for the arts. They were also often inimical to the values of the ‘hedonistic’ society that developed around them, and were associated with wealth, power, and the exploitation of natural resources.