The idea of beauty is rooted in our experience of the natural world and our sense of what is valuable, desirable, or important. The idea is also a vital part of human culture, and a powerful motivator for artists.
Throughout history, philosophy and the arts have developed various theories about beauty. These have reflected the philosophic ideas and interests of the people who developed them.
Greek and Medieval philosophers, for example, believed that the concept of beauty was objective and inherently real. These philosophers, especially Plato, believed that the concept of beauty was grounded in a unified theory of Forms.
In contrast, the eighteenth century philosophers such as Hume and Kant perceived that something important was lost when beauty was treated merely as a subjective state. These philosophers recognized that, if the definition of beauty was subject to interpretation, it would be difficult to establish why certain things are beautiful and why certain other things are not.
This resulted in the emergence of two distinct approaches to the topic: objectivist and subjectivist. The objectivist approach emphasized that the concepts of beauty, like all other aspects of nature, are objective and inherently real.
The objectivist account of beauty was influenced by Fechner’s experiments with the golden ratio and his search for the mathematical relationship between stimuli and their perceptual results. He argued that a beautiful object must have a definite shape characteristic of the kind of thing it is.
Consequently, objects that are beautiful must be made to have proportions that are correct and exact in order for them to have that definite form. For example, a statue must be in perfect proportion to the human body.
Ancient philosophy, including the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle, believed that the concept of beauty was a matter of symmetry, order, and proportion. For example, in Timaeus, Plato recognizes that beauty is a matter of symmetry and proportion.
Aristotle, on the other hand, argued that beauty is a matter of definiteness. For example, in the Symposium, he says that a statue is beautiful if it has the definite shapes of a human figure.
These views of beauty echoed the ideas of the Renaissance artists, who were particularly interested in aesthetics and a unified theory of art. These artists, primarily European in their origins, arose from a tradition of classical art that had roots in Greek and Roman sculpture, music, and architecture.
In the 18th century, the ‘naturalist’ movement in the philosophy of science, which arose out of this Renaissance interest in art, focused on the importance of the material world. It emphasized that the objects in nature were not to be judged as being good or bad, but only as a product of their environment.
Although these ideas were important and influential, they did not give rise to a unified philosophical theory of beauty. For this reason, the great philosophers of the 18th century debated whether beauty should be viewed as a mere subjective sensation or if it had to be accounted for in terms of its qualities as an objective phenomena.