Beauty is one of the most important aspects of human existence, a concept that carries great meaning and significance. It is a concept that has been used as a means of social control, and it is also a term that is often ascribed to people who have a special sense of attractiveness.
Aesthetics (n) is the philosophical study of beauty and aesthetic values, including the expressions of beauty in artistic creations. This discipline emerged in the seventeenth century when the German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten coined the term “aesthetics,” which literally means a study of human sensibility.
Ancient Philosophers on Beauty
In the ancient world, it was widely accepted that beauty is an objective quality that can be seen without the involvement of the perceiving mind. The Greeks, especially Plato and Aristotle, were in favor of this idea. In fact, they held that beauty could be conceived as a kind of symmetry, or an objective proportionality, or as an inexorable mathematical law that unfolds through various forms of orderly nature.
These views have been criticized for being too simple and unsystematic, but they do represent the most common ways that philosophers have addressed the issue of what beauty is. These approaches have differed in their emphasis on pleasure, and the way they treat the source of beauty.
Plotinus, a Neo-Platonist from the fifth/fourth century BCE, was arguably the first to describe beauty as an effect of pleasure: “There is no other pleasure than the one that comes from the ecstasy of beauty” (Plotinus 23, [Ennead I, 3]). Aristotle, too, described beauty as a sort of hedonism: the beauty that we experience as hedonistic must be characterized by “the adoration of the soul,” and must induce a sensation of delight and pleasure in the observer.
The eighteenth-century thinkers Hume and Kant, however, saw that a system that regarded beauty entirely as a subjective state would fail to make it an important value. They believed that in controversies, when different people disputed about whether something was beautiful, there could be convincing reasons to give for the opinions they held.
Some of these reasons can be formulated in terms of rationality and consistency, and they can help us understand the reason why we hold certain views about what beauty is. They also help us understand why we might conceive of things as being beautiful in a way that makes them seem attractive, even though we have no particular feelings about them.
Other ideas about what beauty is are much less concrete and more abstract. Some of these ideas are based on philosophy or theology. Others are based on scientific and mathematical ideas.
For example, some philosophers have argued that something is beautiful if it is suited to use or useful in some way. Others have argued that a thing is beautiful when it is beautiful in its own right.
It may be a difficult task to decide which of these theories best captures the essence of beauty. The debates surrounding the subject are often messy and contested, and it is possible to be confused by the nuances of these arguments. But it is worth considering them carefully and thinking through the implications.