The Concept of Beauty

The concept of beauty has always been a subject of vigorous debate. From the ancient Greeks to modern neuro-psychological studies, different aspects of this concept have received a great deal of attention.

Some philosophers treat beauty as an objective quality, such as the classical conception of its arrangement of integral parts according to proportion, harmony, and symmetry. Others, including Augustine and Plotinus, connect it with a response of love and desire (Augustine, 247; Plato, Symposium, and Enneads), and still others place it in the realm of the Forms as more real than particular objects.

Until the eighteenth century, most philosophical accounts of beauty treated it as an objective quality: they located it in the beautiful object itself or in the qualities of that object. But many eighteenth-century philosophers, such as Hume and Kant, saw that if beauty is completely relative to individual experiencers, it ceases to be a paramount value, or even recognizable as a value at all across persons or societies.

This distinction between the objective and subjective has profound implications for how we perceive, evaluate, and assess works of art. It also has a bearing on the way we understand and appreciate the beauty of nature.

Aristotle argued that beauty, like every other principle of being, must be logically ordered and harmonious. He described a beautiful thing as “a whole made up of parts, which are in perfect harmony” (Aristotle, volume 2, 2322 [1450b34]).

The earliest Western conceptions of beauty were based on this notion. The Poetics says, “Beauty is the symmetry of parts to each other, and of the whole to a whole.” The Metaphysics says, “Beauty consists in order, symmetry, and definiteness” (Aristotle, volume 2, 1705 [1078a36]).

Medieval and Renaissance philosophers often wrote about beauty without reference to art, and they took the human face as their principal example. During the 18th century, however, the distinctively modern approach to aesthetics began to take shape.

For example, the 3rd earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson developed theories of taste that were founded on a sense of beauty. Lord Kames (Henry Home) and Archibald Alison also put forward theories of beauty.

These early ideas were shaped by such figures as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Batteux, and Johann Winckelmann. In the 19th century, German philosophers such as Max Scheler, Georg Simmel, and Immanuel Kant developed more sophisticated approaches to this idea.

Some of these ideas, such as the theory that beauty is a product of common sense, were later adopted by such figures as Schopenhauer and Santayana. Nevertheless, they were not widely accepted until the nineteenth century.

The twentieth-century concept of beauty has been more nuanced, and it can be seen in the works of artists such as Picasso, Munch, and Schoenberg. These artists were able to break with traditional standards of beauty and produce works that challenge the viewer’s perceptions.