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I hear people look at a woman from a distance and exclaim "She is beautiful". I

I hear people look at a woman from a distance and exclaim "She is beautiful". I did that myself before. But my experience in relationships with women leaves me with a big question. Is beauty visible? Or what makes a thing beautiful?

Good looks are visible, of course--or else we wouldn't call them "looks." So, looking at a perfect stranger and declaring that person "beautiful" seems to me obviously to be a judgment about how the person looks. Looks are, however, just one aspect of a person that can be beautiful, and as the old saying goes, that sort of beauty is "only skin deep." Unfortunately, a lot of good-looking people are not very beautiful in any way other than the way they look.

Remember the movie, "A Beautiful Mind"? I think some minds are beautiful, but obviously that judgment can't be about how the minds look--it would seem to be more about how they work. I also think that people can have beautiful characters, or other beautiful traits or qualities.

It seems plausible to think that there might be some beautiful traits or qualities that are really more important or valuable than others, where good looks will be found to be relatively less important than some other characteristics a person has, which are beautiful. Each sort of beauty, then, would be an example of excellence in the relevant comparison area--so a beautiful mind would be a mind that was excellent at doing the best things that minds do (rather than the worst things). Good looks are excellence in visual appearance. Everyone responds to the way things appear--but we also quickly revise our first impressions (if we are intelligent, that is), and good looks are, after all, very superficial as a form of excellence. Excellence of character seems to me to have more "thickness" or lasting value.

The ancient Greeks had a saying that I love: "chalepa ta kala," which means roughly, "beautiful things (ta kala) are difficult." I think this is a valuable insight. Good looks are fairly common. To be truly beautiful, then, is a rare achievement, and the result of achieving what is difficult, such as becoming a person of excellent character or judgment.

Are there any interesting arguments for the existence of God from the existence

Are there any interesting arguments for the existence of God from the existence of beauty? i.e., because there is beauty, we know there is God?

My understanding is that Kant argued in something like this fashion. Or, at least, that Kant thought that it was through the contemplation of beauty that we could experience the divine. I don't myself see that any sort of real argument will be forthcoming along these lines, but I do understand the sentiment. Certainly there is music that makes me particularly conscious of God: Plenty of Coltrane, for example. But for myself, I think my deepest sense of the divine emerges from contemplation of the men and women who have made great contributions towards the emergence of justice in the world. To me, that is, the best argument for the existence of God is the existence of people like Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. I don't expect that to be convincing to anyone else, though.

Why do we enjoy the beautiful? Or, what is the nature of aesthetic appreciation

Why do we enjoy the beautiful? Or, what is the nature of aesthetic appreciation (it seems like a special type of enjoyment)?

On the one hand, it seems safe to say that not all aesthetic appreciation is enjoyment. There are some works of art that are profoundly disturbing, and yet we still value them. An example: I remember vividly the first time I saw one of Ad Reinhardt's large black canvases. I was taken by surprise: I didn't expect to have much of a reaction, and yet I felt something for which the word "despair" is about the best label I can come up with. I found the experience moving, but it feels wrong to call it enjoyable.

Still, there are other works of art that we do enjoy and that are beautiful. So let's turn to those.

Take an example of some work that you find beautiful -- perhaps the third movement of Beethoven's opus 132 A Minor quartet. If someone asked "Why do you enjoy listening to that?" saying "Because it's so beautiful" would be a perfectly good answer, though there's a great deal more that one could add. If your friend then asked "But why do you enjoy beautiful things?" you might find the question a bit perverse. One can imagine replying "So I should enjoy nasty things instead?"

The larger point is that beauty is a "response dependent" property. The idea that something could be beautiful apart from all possible responses to it is hard to fathom. More to the point, it's at least plausible that the capacity for eliciting a kind of enjoyment is part of what it is for something to be beautiful. In that case, there's a conceptual connection between beauty and enjoyment. Of course, the person experiencing a beautiful object must have the capacity to respond -- not everyone "gets" Beethoven's music, for instance -- but beauty still isn't something that floats free of all possible responses. (You might also have a look at question 1788.)

There's yet another question we might ask. It may be that all beautiful things have something in common that we can describe, say, in purely formal terms -- no reference to responses, and no mention of beauty as such. We could then ask: why do we find things with those formal properties enjoyable? That's a perfectly good question, but alas, not one that philosophers are in a particularly good position to answer. It's something in the way we're wired, as we might say, but what it is about our wiring and how it came to be that way is a question for the sciences.

What is it that separates something that looks bad from something that looks

What is it that separates something that looks bad from something that looks good? What is it that determines whether it's ugly or beautiful?

There seems to be no single property or feature of things that makes them look good or bad. Different things will look good or bad for different reasons in different contexts. A sculpture might look good for one reason and a painting for another. A sculpture might look good in the contexts of academia or fine art but bad as an sacred object in a religious context or as an ornament in the contexts of home or office. A scuplture of one period or sub-genre or culture might look for reasons different from those that make the sculpture of another period or sub-genre or culture. In general, however, I'd say this. Looking good or bad will involve (a) the qualities of the object itself (its color, shape, texture, proportions, etc.), (b) the relationship of the object to its immediate environment or setting, © the relationship it has to other objects of its kind, both not and historically; and (d) the context of meanings and criteria that those who are judging the object bring to their assessment of it.

We are often told that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

We are often told that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But I wonder if this is not an over-simplification. Surely some things are beautiful regardless of our response to that beauty. Is there not a case to be made for completely objective beauty?

This much seems plausible: whether something is beautiful doesn't depend on the actual responses that anyone has. It might be that no one has seen the thing. It might be that everyone who's seen it so far doesn't have the discrimination to appreciate it. It may be that no one who's ever been born or even will be born will have that capacity. All of that could be true, and yet the object might still be beautiful. But does that mean that it's beautiful apart from all possible responses?

I don't think so. Does this make sense?

Object X is beautiful, but no sentient creature that the universe could possibly produce would find X beautiful.

I have a bit of trouble understanding what it would mean here to say that X really is beautiful. And if that's right, it suggests (as many philosophers are inclined to think) that whatever exactly beauty may be, it has something to do with the kinds of responses that the right sort of creature would have upon contemplating it. That's not a definition, but it does seem to be a plausible constraint.

Notice that this doesn't make beauty a merely subjective matter. It can be an objective fact that a certain object has the capacity to evoke a certain sort of response in a certain kind of creature. But whatever else we might need to say to provide an account of beauty, it's hard to see how the story could be told without any reference even to hypothetical responses.

If you told a joke in the forest, and no one was there to hear it, would it be

If you told a joke in the forest, and no one was there to hear it, would it be funny?

Nice question. I guess it depends on how good the joke is. No, seriously, your question is a good riff on what seems to be the non-philosophers’ paradigm of a philosophical question, namely, ‘If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a noise?’. I have to confess that when I first heard this I wasn’t at all sure what philosophical question it is asking, but I now take it that it is a question about the nature of sound. Is sound really just the experience of sound? Then if there is nobody around, there is no noise. But if sound is say really vibrations in the air, then the forest is noisy even when nobody is around.

So what is nature of funniness? Maybe a joke is funny if it has the disposition to make people laugh. One consequence of this view is that jokes are funny even when they are not being told, because the disposition is there even when it is not being manifested. It’s just like pipe cleaners, which are flexible even when they are not being bent. So on this view, the joke you told in the forest is funny even if nobody was around to hear it. If it is a good joke, that is.

Trois questions...

Trois questions... Are there any influential essays on aesthetics which deal with modern rather than fine art? I have just read Kant's "Critique of aesthetic judgment" and Hume's "Of the standard of taste", which made me want to read more recent treatments of the debate. In your opinion, is aesthetics necessarily linked to visual art, or could the term equally be applied to music and literature? Finally, how far is aesthetic appreciation informed by intuition, and how much by logic (in the case of visual art - the golden mean, composition, etc)? Is there any consensus on this? Thank you.

1. Yes, there is much interesting philosophical work on modern art. I would start with Arthur Danto, who has written many interesting essays (often for the Nation) and a few fascinating books on the topic.

2. The term aesthetics is certainly applied to music -- see Theodor Adorno and currently Lydia Goehr and Peter Kivy for example -- as well as to poetry. Less frequently to literature, but this is presumably because there aesthetic quality is typically a less important component of overall quality (esp. outside fiction).

3. "Logic" is perhaps not quite the right word for what you have in mind here. Perhaps "rules"? I would think that aesthetic judgments are intuitive judgments, and that any rules laid down for composition or appreciation have standing only insofar as they are confirmed by intuitive judgments. (Intuitive judgments may differ, as they did in respect to the atonal works of Arnold Schönberg, for instance, and judgments about rules will then differ correspondingly.) To what extent can our intuitive aesthetic judgments be expressed in rules? This question has been quite interestingly addressed in modern times by reference to the apparently quite fundamental distinction between objects that are and objects that are not works of art. Is there a rule for drawing this distinction? Marcel Duchamp raised this question dramatically when, in 1917, he took an ordinary white gentlemen's urinal, called it Fountain, signed it, and put it on display. In 1962, Andy Warhol began displaying Campbell soup cans. The debate about what is art, and what is good art, is ongoing; and Arthur Danto's work offers an excellent entry into this debate.

Could aesthetics be considered an aspect of intuition? Or is the philosophical

Could aesthetics be considered an aspect of intuition? Or is the philosophical definition of intuition more specific? (I'm basing this on Herbert Spencer out of context, so you know ("Opinion is ultimately determined by the feelings, and not by the intellect").) Thank you.

There certainly does seem to be something subjective and based on feelings in our response to questions of beauty etc. but whether this is ultimately what determines our judgments seems dubious to me. If it were then argument and persuasion in aesthetics would be very limited, but it is not. One can quite easily have one's mind changed on the aesthetic qualities of something, and that is not a result of a sudden change in feeling, but in reason changing our feelings. So I think Spencer's comment here is implausible.

Bonjour, I am considered an attractive 26 year old woman. I have at times been

Bonjour, I am considered an attractive 26 year old woman. I have at times been asked to model but never have. I find our culture's obsession with beauty unappealing and it has led me to sort of play down my beauty in dress. Should I be worried or at least concious of society and its issues around beauty? Or should I just strive to be the most beautiful I can be, disregarding other things, purely for the sake of aesthetics?

I don't disagree with the first respondent, but I'll give you a somewhat different response, and taking my cue from the 'Bonjour' with which you open, will give it en français. (If the cue was misleading, I'll be happy to translate subsequently!) Premièrement, la beauté est une chose rare et précieuse, et ceux ou celles qui s'en réjouissent ne devrait jamais se sentir coupable à son égard. Deuxièmement, même si la beauté n'était qu'une affaire d'esthétique, qui dit que l'esthétique est moins importante que l'éthique, ou que l'esthétique ne comprend pas, d'une certaine optique, un aspect éthique? (Certainement pas Kant!) Troisièmement, personne n'arrive vraiment à négliger ou à nier complètement les valeurs de la societé entourante; de plus, ces valeurs ne sont jamais avec du moins une certaine justification. Quatrièmement, c'est vrai que la beauté ouvre beaucoup de portes qui autrement resteraient fermées, mais ce n'est pas la sagesse de refuser d'y entrer pour cette raison seule; on n'a que d'y entrer avec circonspection, et sans aveuglement. Cinquièmement, pour en finir, je dirais que la vie de mannequin n'est pas, tout bien consideré, une vie souhaitable, mais qu'on peut quand même tirer de la satisfaction du fait qu'on vous l'avait proposée...

Put otherwise: First, beauty is a rare and precious thing, and those who possess it should never be made to feel guilty about it. Secondly, even if beauty is only an aesthetic matter, who says that aesthetics is less important than ethics, or at any rate, that aesthetics does not include, viewed from a certain angle, an ethical aspect? (Certainly not Kant!) Thirdly, no one can entirely succeed in ignoring or denying the values of the society around them, and those values are also never without at least some justification. Fourthly, it's true that beauty opens many a door that would otherwise remain closed, but it's not wise to refuse to enter them just for that reason, provided one enters circumspectly and without self-deception. Fifthly, to conclude, I would say that the life of a model is not, all things considered, something to wish for, but even so, one can derive some satisfaction from the fact of having been asked...

Hi, I'm a poet, I've published a few poetry books in French. I've been told that

Hi, I'm a poet, I've published a few poetry books in French. I've been told that my poems are beautiful. I know that they are beautiful but I don't understand why. I also know that I can create beauty but I can't understand where this ability comes from. Is it a god-given ability or is it about technique? Any answers? Umar ( Mauritius )

The classics ( up to the XVIIIth century) believed that beauty is an objective matter, and that there are rules to attain it, based mostly on the imitation of nature, the depiction of human nature, and a certain aspiration for truth. At the same time many philosophers doubted that there is real beauty: the British "sentimentalists", e.g Hutcheson, Shafestbury, Smith , Hume and others believed that beauty ( like goodness) is a matter of expression of feelings. Nevertheless they thought that there could be agreement on such aesthetic and moral feelings ( see for instance Hume's famous essay "On the Standard of Taste". Why is it that today we have lost not only confidence in real beauty as an objective fact but also in the possibility of agreeing on aesthetic standards ? This is a long story of course, which ends up in today's post-modernist and relativistic themes. Not everyone agrees with that.

I recently read the book by the XVIIIth century painter William Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty. Although he painted sometimes horrible scenes, he depicted human nature and believed that there are rules for crafting beautiful paintings, which he describes in the book. They are certainly not God given, and they imply a lot of work. Are they relative to his age ? I do not think so. Was his craft purely time relative? The success of the Hogarth exhibits in Paris and London last spring shows that there is permanent admiration for his work. I'm inclined to think, as the British philosopher of art Anthony Saville , that beauty stands "the test of time". So if the judgement about the beauty of your poems resists, and if you can at some point teach the rules of your art, you pass the test.