Beauty is a term used in art and philosophy that can refer to both the qualities of an object and to the feelings that it evokes. Throughout history, philosophers have debated the role of beauty in art and in philosophy.
Until the eighteenth century, philosophers generally treated beauty as an objective quality. They regarded it as either a response of love or desire, or as a property of an object itself. Some accounts of beauty, including Augustine’s De Veritate Religione and Plato’s Symposium and Plotinus’s Enneads, connect it with love and desire; others, such as Aquinas’s classical conception, regard beauty as a matter of symmetry, proportion, harmony, and similar notions.
In this classical approach, beauty is conceived as an integral part or coherent whole, according to symmetry and proportion (see Moore 1903, Carritt 1831). This concept of beauty emerged from the earliest Western notions of aesthetics and has become embodied in classical architecture, sculpture, literature, music, and other forms of visual culture wherever they appear.
Aristotle, for example, in his Poetics says that “the beautiful thing is a living creature, and every whole made up of parts must present a certain order in its arrangement of parts”. He goes on to say that these things “beautifully combine in a harmony of proportion” and that they are “perfectly united” (volume 2, 2322 [1450b34]).
Later philosophers, such as Berkeley, Moore, and Carritt, took up the idea that beauty should not be limited to the appearance of an object or to aesthetic qualities such as form, colour, and so on; rather, it should be a practical and intellectual activity. They argued that this is the best way to make art and craft that would not only be useful but also beautiful to behold.
This theory, however, is difficult to sustain in the long run. One problem is that it assumes that beauty is not dependent on our subjective responses; we can judge whether something is beautiful or not without having any personal experience of it. Alternatively, the theory might be that all judgments of beauty are intersubjective and not truly subjective or objective.
Another problem with this view is that it is hard to reconcile with the way in which the idea of beauty has been associated with pleasure. Moreover, it is important to remember that our enjoyment of a beautiful object or experience depends on our brains; it has been found that the experience of pleasure is essentially a neurological process.
Neuroscientists have uncovered the fact that our brains reward us with chemicals for seeing beautiful faces, sunsets, and other forms of nature. The chemical reward system is a fundamentally biological mechanism that developed millions of years ago when our ancestors adapted to the environment in which they lived.
This has led to the idea that the ultimate value of an art or object is not in its aesthetic quality but in the way it makes us feel. This idea is sometimes seen as a reversal of the classic idea that art should be utilitarian, but it is not so clear cut. The pleasures that we experience with beauty can vary from person to person; for some they are immediate and pleasurable, while for others they require a little more work and intellectual effort.