Beauty is a term used to describe the appearance of things that are pleasing or attractive. This can include landscapes, sunsets and people as well as art and design.
Many different definitions of beauty exist, ranging from the classical to the transcendental. Some philosophers argue that beauty can only be defined objectively, while others suggest that it is a subjective experience that depends on individual taste and evokes feelings of pleasure or wonder.
It has been a subject of intense debate in both philosophical and artistic circles for many centuries, with differing views and theories emerging from different traditions and contexts. A few of the more prominent and important approaches are outlined below, which may or may not be incompatible with one another:
The Objective Nature of Beauty
Some of the most famous and influential philosophers have argued that the experience of beauty is objective. This view, based on the work of eighteenth-century thinkers such as Hume and Kant, was inspired by their concerns that the value of beauty could be lost when it is treated as subjective. They saw that when beauty is simply relative to the experiencers, controversies about particular works of art or literature can arise and reasons can be given that prove the beauty of some objects over others.
These philosophers also argued that beauty should be treated as an essential, rather than merely an aesthetic, feature. This is largely because they considered it difficult to understand why something was beautiful without also understanding its function and use.
Other views, such as hedonism and neo-Platonism, take the idea of beauty seriously but still place it in a context that involves a unified experience of pleasure and wonder. For instance, Plotinus argues that beauty must be able to induce a feeling of wonder, of being in the presence of something that has a quality of unreality or indestructibility, and that this sense of beauty is often linked with the sensations of longing, love or adoration (Plotinus 23: Endnead I, 3).
Aquinas defended the idea of the Platonic ideal of beauty as a form of perfect unity and integrity. He noted that beauty “consists in the harmony of proportions and the integrity of a thing’s shape or form” (Summa Theologica I, 39, 8).
Alan Moore argues that beauty is not only about form but that it is also a necessary component of a work’s overall purpose. He cites Patagonia as an example of a company that has successfully built its business on a foundation of purpose-driven design, which in turn has led to deeper engagement with the work at hand and greater trust and well-being.
In contrast, some designers consider their work to be purely aesthetic and do not attach any value or meaning to it in any way. This view has been championed by Alan Powers, a design writer and professor of architecture and cultural history at the University of Greenwich.
This view, which is also reflected in contemporary fashion culture, sees beauty as a form of perfection and symmetry. The most common and most popular way to achieve this is by the practice of sculpting and painting. However, a number of other techniques are used to produce beauty. These include lighting, colouring, and texture.