The Philosophy of Beauty


Beauty is an important, often controversial concept that has occupied philosophers and artists for ages. In the Western philosophical tradition, beauty is an objective quality that can be viewed and appreciated.

The classical conception of beauty is that it consists in the arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportions, harmony, and similar notions (see below). This idea is reflected in the architecture, sculpture, music, and literature that has characterized the Western artistic world since the beginning of time.

Many people associate beauty with pleasure. This has been the case in both the Middle Ages and the modern era, with some eminent philosophers such as Augustine and Aquinas holding that beauty is an effect of pleasure. Others, however, such as Plato and Plotinus, believed that beauty was an objective quality.

Aristotle’s dictum that a thing must have “good qualities” is a powerful reaffirmation of this notion: a good thing is beautiful. The philosopher Aquinas holds that ‘good qualities’ include integrity, symmetry, and order, as well as clarity, all of which are required for beauty.

The contemporary philosophical conception of beauty reflects these views, arguing that aesthetic pleasure involves the response of the aesthetic faculty, and that a thing is beautiful when it gives pleasure. Aristotle’s account of beauty as a relation between the good qualities and the object embodied in the good quality is often taken as a model for this approach, as are Santayana’s claims that beauty is an objective sense of pleasure (see below).

It is possible to see the relationship between pleasure and beauty in an entirely different way, as in the work of Emmanuel Levinas. He argues that we experience beauty in the same way as we feel pleasure, and that it is through the ‘arousal of pleasure’ that we see and appreciate things that are beautiful. This view was supported by the empiricists, such as Locke, who held that beauty consists in a set of qualities that depend on subjective perception and are located in the perceiving mind rather than in the external world.

Other philosophers, such as Hume and Kant, argued that beauty is an entirely subjective pleasure. While this claim is undoubtedly true, it is also a mistake. It would be unwise to equate beauty with other subjective pleasures, such as laughter or enjoyment, since the pleasure of laughing or enjoying can easily veer into the realm of indifference or boredom.

While we might think that the human brain’s capacity for judging beauty is limited to facial features, researchers have found that the eyes, smiles, and other traits of a person can make them more or less attractive. In a 2007 study, for example, participants first rated pictures of women as attractive or not. They then saw the same images again but with information about the person’s personality. When they learned that the woman had positive personality characteristics, such as a sense of humor or kindness, she was judged as more attractive.