Aesthetics 101 – What Is Beauty?


Beauty is an important aspect of aesthetics, the field of philosophy that studies the qualities that make something appealing to the senses. Examples of things that are considered beautiful include landscapes, sunsets, humans and works of art.

There are several different views on what is meant by beauty, but they all share a common thread: They all emphasize the relationship of an object to its parts and the proportions between them. In particular, they all emphasize that an object must be a harmonious whole.

The Classical Conceptualisation of Beauty

During the ancient world, the idea that objects were beautiful because they represented harmonious proportions became a dominant conception of beauty, which was used to describe human bodies and other objects of sculptural and architectural design. For example, in the fifth/fourth century BCE the artist Polykleitos created a sculpture called “The Canon,” which was interpreted as a model for perfect symmetry and proportion. This idea was echoed in the early Renaissance, and it came to be associated with the golden ratio.

The Renaissance and Humanist Concept of Beauty

A fundamentally different account of beauty was proposed in the 17th century by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that there were no universal criteria for what was beautiful and that the experience of beauty depended entirely on the subjective response of the beholder. This view was rejected by Renaissance and Humanist thinkers, who instead regarded beauty as an effect of rational order and harmonious proportions.

The Modern Concept of Beauty

In the twentieth century, many feminists questioned the traditional notion of beauty as a sexualized experience and began to use it as an instrument for social resistance or affirmation of women’s experience in its concrete realities. Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers and Judy Chicago’s “Dinner Party” place settings, for example, sought to reverse the objectifying gaze in ways that affirmed women’s experience of the natural world.

The Modernist Conception of Beauty

Another account of beauty was developed in the modern period by a variety of philosophers, including Kant, Leibniz, and Descartes. These philosophers tended to think of beauty in terms of pleasure, usually as disinterested or hedonistic, although in some cases the term was used in quite ecstatic ways, as in the work of Plotinus.

This view of beauty is very similar to that of the neo-Platonic conception, in which the unity of an object is a central tenet of the philosophical concept. This conception, however, also stresses the fact that an object must call out love or adoration.

The Modernist Concept of Beauty

Many philosophers have criticized modern theories of beauty as based on the mistaken idea that an object can be beautiful just because it is attractive or pleasing to the eye. This view of beauty has been criticized for a number of reasons, including its lack of scientific verifiability and its emphasis on the subjective.