The Philosophy of Beauty


Beauty is the idea of what is pleasing or attractive, usually expressed in terms of visual objects. Some examples of beauty include paintings, landscapes, sculptures, and music.

The question of what makes something beautiful is an ongoing topic in philosophy. Some philosophers believe that it is a matter of integrity or perfection, while others argue that it is about harmony or proportion.

Until the eighteenth century, most philosophical accounts of beauty treated it as an objective quality. They located it either in the beautiful object itself or in its qualities, or they regarded it as an aspect of a person’s response to certain things.

Aristotle and Plato were the most prominent representatives of this tradition. Their accounts, such as the ones in the Symposium and the Enneads, connect beauty to a response of love and desire; but they locate it also in the Forms, in what Plato called “the definiteness of an object’s shape” (Symposium, XVII, 5).

Another important aspect of classical aesthetics was the emphasis on ratio. Euclid’s treatise on the ‘golden ratio’, for example, influenced the creation of many beautiful art pieces in the classical world. The statue of Polykleitos known as the ‘Canon,’ for instance, was sculpted to display the symmetriae that had been established in the treatise.

Some other philosophers also focused on beauty as a way to describe the relationships between parts, sometimes using mathematical ratios. The ‘golden section,’ for example, is a ratio that can be calculated by taking the length of a line and dividing it by its width.

Plotinus, for his part, conceives beauty as a matter of what he calls “formedness”: a definite shape characteristic of the kind of thing an object is. This was especially true in his view of art, which he saw as a matter of displaying ‘the definiteness of an object’s form’ (Elements of Art, XI, 57).

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, some philosophers began to see beauty in a more subjective light, as a result of an empiricist turn to understanding the senses. In particular, Locke, in his distinction between primary and secondary qualities, argued that color, for example, could be seen as a ‘phantasm of the mind’ and as a product of perceivers’ individual experiences, rather than a phenomenon rooted in external reality.

A similar approach to beauty was taken by Santayana, who characterized it as ‘objectified pleasure’: the judgment of an object that it is beautiful responds to a particular type of pleasure, but that pleasure is attributed to the object itself, as though the object itself had subjective states.

Kant, however, reformulated this approach as a “subjective universal”: he argues that beauty is a universal phenomenon that cannot be restricted to any specific culture. This was a shift from the ‘objective’ to the’subjective’ account that had been dominant until this time, and which has had a powerful impact on aesthetic thinking.

Throughout the twentieth century, beauty was often recast in terms of social justice: its association with pleasure and with femininity became problematic in the context of discrimination, war and genocide. It was also the subject of a vigorous debate between modernist and postmodernists. The latter were suspicious of its ability to pacify or conceal political realities, while the former sought to dismantle and challenge it.