Beauty has been a central theme in intellectual debates and passionate thoughts for centuries. Different aspects of it have been regarded as important, from intellectual to pure physical.
The classical conception of beauty holds that it consists in an arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony, symmetry and similar notions. It is this conception that is embodied in classical and neo-classical architecture, sculpture, literature and music wherever it appears.
One consequence of this conception is that beauty is a property of a thing, not just of the person who judges it or of any other people who see it. A thing may be considered beautiful even if the judge does not regard it as such: for example, a dung-basket is beautiful if it gives pleasure to people who see it.
In addition to this, the classical conception of beauty holds that it requires a certain level of intellection and practical activity on the part of the person who makes use of it: to be considered beautiful, an object must be suited to some function or process that will be rewarded.
Some philosophers, especially those who have a subjectivist bias, believe that beauty is an objective quality. For example, George Santayana wrote, “A thing is beautiful if it gives pleasure to a person.” This idea has been used by eighteenth-century philosophers such as Hume and Kant.
Another line of thought, however, holds that beauty is an emotion. For example, a woman who has just had her child might say, “It is beautiful that I just gave birth,” in a way that suggests that she is more emotionally connected with the event than she otherwise would be.
Still others, such as Plato and Aristotle, argue that the underlying feature of beauty is that it is an expression of a particular human attitude. For example, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates says that the virtue of love is a type of beauty: “Beauty, then, is a virtue that comes from the desire to love.”
This line of thinking has been criticized by many contemporary philosophers as being subjective and unscientific. Moreover, it does not account for the fact that many people disagree with the judgment that something is beautiful.
Nevertheless, this kind of approach has been very influential in the history of aesthetics. For instance, Schopenhauer and Hanslick took a more subjective view in their writings.
Aristotle’s definition of beauty is more direct, and it is akin to the concept of’suitedness to use’: an object must be able to provide pleasure or benefit to those who use it.
The idea of’suitedness to use’ is a common theme in ancient hedonist philosophy, as well as in modern neuro-psychological studies of the brain. Diogenes Laertius, for example, explains why it is not surprising that an animal’s body is good and a person’s face is beautiful: “Beauty is the ability of a man to know what he will use a woman’s face for.”
While beauty has often been used as a form of social control and oppression, it has also been an important source of resistance. This has been reflected in slogans such as, “Black is beautiful,” or the counter-beauties that have sprung up in response to oppressive standards and uses of beauty.