Aesthetics and the Concept of Beauty


Beauty has always been a subject of passionate and often intense debate. Whether it is in relation to morality, beauty of the mind, physical appearance or even the aesthetics of music, beauty has been a key topic in both philosophy and art.

Historically, the most commonly held conception of beauty was that it was a matter of the arrangement of integral parts into a coherent whole, according to proportion, harmony, symmetry and similar notions. This conception of beauty is rooted in Western thought, and has been reflected throughout classical architecture, sculpture, literature, music, and science.

In modern philosophy, this traditional view of beauty was abandoned and replaced by an approach which emphasized the study of human sensibility. This approach, known as “aesthetics,” was introduced by Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714-1762).

Aesthetics essentially shifted the focus of philosophical inquiry from the ontology of the world to the study of the human faculties. The concept of beauty, as it is understood in this new way, has since then received a variety of definitions and accounts.

The most influential of these definitions is that of the German philosopher Friedrich Schopenhauer, who defined beauty as “objectified pleasure.” This means that the judgment that something is beautiful responds to the fact that it causes a certain sort of pleasure, and then identifies it as such.

Many other twentieth-century philosophers took a more subjectivist view of beauty, which was more closely related to the work of Kant. For example, David Hume, Edmund Burke, and G.E. Lessing all tended to be subjectivists, while Santayana, among others, was more adamantly subjectivist.

While the idea of defining beauty as an effect or experience within the perceiving subject is certainly an interesting one, it raises a number of problems and questions about the nature of beauty itself. The most important of these is, what are the qualities or attributes that provoke a response of aesthetic pleasure in an object?

This problem arises in part because of the tendency to see beauty as a sort of ‘phantasm’ of the observer’s mind. Specifically, Locke and other empiricists believed that color (a quality which is generally associated with beauty) was a ‘phantasm’ of human perceivers rather than a characteristic of the objects they perceived.

The twentieth century also saw a significant decline in interest in the traditional classical conception of beauty. This was partly because of the trivialization of the concept in theory, and partly because of the political and economic associations of beauty with power which grew increasingly problematic for much of the century.

In recent times, the concept of beauty has re-emerged in art and philosophy as an issue that is centered on social justice movements. This has prompted a range of new approaches to the concept of beauty, including re-appropriations or reconstruals in feminist-oriented theories.

The most compelling and often subversive forms of beauty are those which seek to challenge oppressive standards or uses of beauty, for example, in relation to race, gender, disability, or other factors. These forms of beauty have been developed in a wide range of contexts, from the protest of discrimination against people with disabilities to the counter-beauties that have sprung up in response to racist or homophobic stereotypes.