What Is Beauty?


Beauty is the appearance of symmetry and proportion in a work of art. It is a quality that appeals to the aesthetic sense and has been the focus of many discussions and controversies in the history of philosophy, especially in the eighteenth century.

The earliest philosophical accounts of beauty, like those of Plato and Plotinus, placed it in an objective context. The former locate it in the innate qualities of objects, while the latter treat it as an effect that results from the manifestation of God’s good and truth.

Kant, who defended a non-objectivist approach to philosophy, rejected this idea of beauty. In fact, he sought to temper it, arguing that it could only be defined in terms of a particular viewer’s attitude. He did this by introducing the concept of “process pleasure” into his discussion.

Process pleasure is a kind of satisfaction that comes from the process itself rather than from achieving an ultimate goal. It is similar to the enjoyment that can result from a well-made cake or from coffee’s taste.

It can also be a matter of enjoyment of a particular object or a combination of objects, as when a music score has a beautiful melody. The composer can be the creator of a musical composition, but he is not its author.

Likewise, a sculpture is an artist’s creation, but it does not have to be the creator of the object on which it stands. It can be a copy or an imitation, or it can be a representation of the real thing.

For Schiller, however, beauty and art perform a different task altogether: they are a means of integrating or rendering compatible the realms of nature and spirit. They can help to free us from the tyranny of our sensuous and rational selves, and they allow us to reach a higher level of awareness than we could achieve without them.

The classical conception of beauty, which dominated aesthetic thought in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, defined beauty as the appearance of harmonious parts that stand in the right proportion to each other, and therefore form a symmetrical whole. It is a conception that became particularly important in the Renaissance, where it found its most explicit expression.

This is a very general view, and one that has been rejected by some modern philosophers, who prefer a more specific conception of beauty as something that relates to particular objects or groups of objects. This conception, though, has its own limitations and raises questions of its ambiguity.

Some modern accounts of beauty, including the classical conception, have a hedonistic or even ecstatic character. They connect beauty to pleasure and a response of love or adoration, but they usually place it in an object that has a unity or perfection.

Other accounts, such as Kant’s, have a more purely practical and utilitarian dimension. They take it as a matter of assessing whether something is useful or not, and in particular, as a question of the degree of utility that an object can bring to its holder.