Beauty is a concept that has had many different definitions throughout history. It is a combination of qualities that give us pleasure, satisfaction, and meaning. It can be defined by body shape, color, age, gender, race, and even by the culture in which we live.
Most philosophical accounts of beauty focus on the objective quality of a beautiful object. Some of these accounts stress the aesthetic response of the viewer or spectator, while others focus on the importance of the experience itself.
The classical conception of beauty emphasized the harmony of the whole and the relationship of its parts. This conception is embodied in neo-classical sculpture, architecture, and classical literature.
Unlike the classical conception, many modern accounts of beauty emphasize the subjective aspect of the experience of beauty. Some of these accounts take the form of a metaphor. In other words, the experience of beauty connects objects to communities of appreciation.
A hedonist or hedonism conception of beauty is one that links the experience of pleasure to the object that gives that experience. These accounts define beautiful objects in terms of function and value, as well as love and affection. They also identify beauty as an essential element of the good.
Another account of beauty, one that stresses the subjective aspects of the experience, is the ecstatic neo-Platonism of Plotinus. The ecstatic neo-Platonism is distinguished from other accounts of beauty by the fact that it describes the ecstatic state of being that it produces.
For example, Plotinus describes trembling as an experience that calls out to the lover to ecstasize and to experience the bliss of pleasure. He also describes a ‘delicious trouble’ as an experience of delight.
Another, more rational, account of beauty involves a search for the essence of an object and the boiling that essence into formulae. In other words, a philosophical understanding of beauty is the search for the most accurate model of the underlying form of an object.
Other accounts of beauty deal with the political and economic associations of beauty. Such associations have been problematic for centuries, particularly in connection to gender and race. However, they have not received much attention in late twentieth-century social justice movements.
Another reconstrual of beauty is a feminist-oriented account, which focuses on the role of beauty in sexual and other forms of abuse. One example of a feminist reconstrual is a work by art critic Dave Hickey.
Despite the various accounts of beauty, there is little agreement as to what constitutes the “best” or most apt way to understand beauty. In particular, many accounts do not consider the importance of the ‘form’ and’magnification’ that are involved in the experience of beauty.
While controversies over the definition of beauty have arisen over the years, a new understanding of beauty emerged during the 1990s, partly as a result of the work of art critic Dave Hickey. This definition is based on three principles: integrity, proportion, and clarity. Each of these combines to produce an ideal of beauty.