Aesthetics and Beauty

In many ways, beauty is one of the most universal human values. This is true across a broad spectrum of cultural traditions, as well as among individual people who are part of different communities or social classes.

While defining what makes something beautiful is a difficult task, there are some basic principles that can help. For example, beauty can be thought of as a quality that gives pleasure to the senses. In particular, it is often associated with properties such as harmony of form or color, proportion, authenticity and originality.

Aesthetics is the study of how we perceive beauty in the world around us. This discipline originated in the eighteenth century and focused on the human sensibilities, especially the perception of aesthetic value in art.

Observers tend to view the experience of beauty as a mental process, rather than as an objective fact in the real world. Nevertheless, the classical conception of aesthetics emphasized the objective nature of beauty, in that it was the reflection of divine qualities.

According to the Greek philosopher Plato, the only way to see beauty is with the “eye of the mind.” He believed that beauty was a divine attribute and that it could be perceived by human beings. However, he also believed that the human mind was not inherently capable of perceiving it.

Another problem with the classical conception of beauty is that it tended to reduce beauty to its physical attributes. For example, symmetry was a prominent aspect of the concept of beauty in ancient Greece.

The Greek philosopher Plotinus, in contrast, argued that symmetry is not the essence of beauty but only an important part of it. He also argued that an object’s beauty is not reducible to its physical features, but rather is a matter of what we might term ‘formedness’: having the definite shape characteristic of the kind of thing it is.

While this is a common objection to the classical conception of beauty, it was also a central part of the theory of the neo-Platonic movement, which sought to develop a more idealistic account of beauty. Specifically, neo-Platonism aimed to create an understanding of beauty that was more in keeping with the idealism that prevailed in classical culture and that reflected the moral ideals that shaped that culture.

Modern philosophy largely abandoned this view, shifting the focus of the study of aesthetics away from ontology and into the realm of human sensibility. This shift emphasized the human capacity to perceive beauty and disassociated it from other ontological components such as truth, goodness, love and being.

Moreover, the twentieth century saw the emergence of political and economic associations of beauty with power, which led some philosophers to abandon the concept altogether. As Arthur Danto explains in his book The Abuse of Beauty, the twentieth century witnessed a “declining interest in beauty as a value and a goal of art.”