Throughout time, philosophers have been interested in beauty. They have attempted to find its origins, define its antecedents and establish its relationship to human experiences. Some have viewed it as a universal phenomenon, while others have regarded it as a particular phenomenon that is unique to individual people.
Several different approaches to beauty have been developed throughout history, each with its own distinctive philosophical implications. For example, classical aesthetics treated beauty as a matter of symmetry, with each part forming an integral whole that is recognizable to the eye. This approach is often associated with Aristotle, although Plato and Moore also take a similar view of beauty.
Aristotle argued that things which are beautiful must be suited to their use: they must be in true proportions, and they must be adjusted so as to cohere. The ‘golden section’ (a line of symmetry in a sculpture), for example, was conceived of as the key to achieving objectively perfect harmony and beauty.
In this approach, beauty was interpreted as a sort of quality that characterized objects and animals. It was a property that could be used to distinguish them from uglier or more degraded counterparts.
Another concept of beauty is ‘natural beauty,’ which refers to qualities that are not necessarily subject to change over time. These include the color of someone’s skin, their height, their weight and the symmetry of their face.
Ancient hedonists such as Aristippus of Cyrene and Socrates, for example, argued that beauty was essentially a matter of ‘use’; a thing’s beauty was determined by the way it made people feel. This was a fairly direct approach that avoided the philistinism of some other theories, which would have tended to regard everything as good.
Similarly, in the eighteenth century, and particularly in the British Isles, aesthetic concepts were influenced by Locke’s distinction between primary and secondary qualities. This shaped how philosophers treated beauty: Locke ascribed beauty to pleasure as the source of its existence.
However, he also recognized that pleasure was not the only factor in beauty. For Locke, beauty was also a product of the imagination, in a sense that we would not be able to see without a mind.
Santayana’s account of beauty was quite similar to this: it regarded beauty as an ‘objectified pleasure’ or a form of’mental experience’. This would have been a rather nave interpretation of the term, but it still seems a reasonable one.
In fact, the idea that an object is ‘beautiful’ because it has an effect on our emotions and thoughts is very common in contemporary social and psychological theory. Whether we are talking about a woman, a man or a child, there is usually something about them that makes us want to look at them and think about them, as well as touch them.
This kind of approach to beauty is a very interesting development from a traditional view, but it can be hard to reconcile with the modern understanding of ‘beauty’ that was developed by Kant and Hume in the 18th century. It also makes it difficult to understand how a thing can be considered beautiful, if it is not in some way subjective.