If you are like most people alive today, you believe ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’ This is what I was taught.
No one ever told me that (in view of history) beauty subjectivists are the sad minority. Most thinking people in most places at most times have believed in the three great ‘transcendentals:’ goodness, truth, and beauty. Most thinking people in most places at most times (especially in the West) have believed that beauty was one of those objective realities “out there,” that can be discovered, toyed with, hated, loved, or otherwise disregarded, but cannot be denied.
Studying the luminous works of Jonathan Edwards with my high school students this week, I am again revisiting this most important of questions.
If beauty is not real, then there are no objectively “beautiful objects” or “beautiful ideas.” Despite our sentiments, we must nobly and strictly reject all forms of fantastic nonsense in the ongoing pursuit of scientific and philosophical purity. In philosophy, we must pursue truth and not eloquence; in science and math, truth and not elegance; in theology, truth and not grace. No matter how beautiful the falsehood, it is still false.
On the other hand, if beauty is real, then it is the ground of one’s “aesthetic life,” as truth is the ground of one’s intellectual life. And the recognition of beauty would become essential (in some cases) my ability to discover the truth. For if reality is beautiful, the argument goes, then a person cannot know the truth about reality unless that person knows it as beautiful. Even more importantly, if beauty is real then according to Edwards it is also the ground in some sense of one’s morality and happiness. If reality is beautiful, then neither can a person be a good, upright, upstanding person who neglects the “sweet mutual consents” between himself and others.
Is beauty objective then? The question should be broken into two parts. The first has to do with the status of the being of beauty. What should its status be in our ontology? The second has to do with its status in our epistemology. If it is truly “out there,” then how do we get knowledge of it…? Is there a science of beauty?
The case for the subjectivity of beauty is fairly simple. “What is beautiful” is more or less equal to “what people find pleasing.” Aquinas said, “beauty is that which, being seen, pleases.” And what people find pleasing varies so widely from one culture to another, from one family to another, indeed from one person to another, that there is no likelihood of summarizing this kaliedoscope of pleasures into an “objective” set of beautiful objects or ideas. To quote a syllogism expressed by one of my students:
- What is stimulating to one person and not be stimulating to another is only “stimulating” in a subjective sense.
- So called “beautiful objects” are stimulating to one person and not to another.
- Therefore, “beautiful objects” are only subjectively so.
This argument may not terribly detailed, but it does not need to be. The first premise it enjoys the status of majority opinion right now; the second premise is an obvious fact of experience and observation, not contested by even those who believe in objective beauty. The conclusion follows validly.
I am not aware of another argument for the subjectivity of beauty than this one. If you know another, please present it in the comments! I am looking for at least two or three more.
The argument for the objectivity of beauty must be more complex, since it is the minority opinion in the educated Western mind at this moment in history.
Edwards presents a compelling understanding of beauty. Though he is not persuaded by the naturalistic scientism of many modern thinkers, he does not consider aesthetics to be located in the emotions but in mathematical relations. And though he is fairly enamored with the beauty of Nature, he does not paint the saccharine and sometimes sappy portrait of it that we are familiar with in the writing of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, etc. Rather, he grounds beauty in proportionality and ‘suitableness.’ He even goes so far as to anticipate modern light theory and suggest that it is a proportionate relationship of vibrations stimulating the optic nerve that makes the green grass and blue sky and white clouds agreeable. (“Beauty of the World”, Jonathan Edwards Reader, p.14) The variety of colors and relations between them are a great source of ‘palpable’ or visible beauty. Indeed, noting the arts of painting, graphic design, or cinematography, the scientifically well-informed arrangement of colors is a great part of the science of aesthetics. But there also exists a hidden beauty, the beautiful proportions existing in an elegant geometrical equation, the ‘potential relations’ between a mother and her not-yet-born child. Edwards argues for the presupposition that beauty is the right relations of things to other things. They partake of a “sweet mutual consent,” with each other, an agreeableness, a proportionality. This ontological or relational definition frees us from having to say, “Beauty is what pleases people.” We can say, “Beauty is what is proportionate.” Of course, it might be true that, “What is proportionate, is often what people find pleasing,” but it need not be so. What is true, is often what people believe, but not in every case. What is good, is often what people prefer to do, but not always. And so Edwards gives us a rational basis for hypothesizing that beauty indeed exists in and between objects, whether visible (the relation of the color of the sky and of the grass), audible (the relation of three notes in a chord) or invisible (the relation of numerical proportions in the equation “e=mc squared”), or psychological ( the loving relation between a caretaker and her patient.)
With the hypothesis that beauty is ‘really out there’ on the table, perhaps the greater question surfaces: how does the aesthetician deal with disagreements? We will remember that the argument for subjectivity of beauty is grounded in the plurality of opinions and tastes. Note that in the hard sciences (physics and math, biology) there are still plenty of disagreements over the truth. But scientists and mathematicians in principle agree on the starting point that math is ‘out there’ and the physical world is ‘real,’ that biological life exists such that it might be argued about and discovered. So perhaps a better question would be: “even if beauty is real, is it knowable?
Edwards argues that beauty is real because it is the relation or sum of relations between existing objects. Now, does the study of proportions already belong to a specific science? Perhaps math. But what about the study of incarnate proportions, that is, proportions of something, ie proportions of color, of sound, of shapes, of movements? It seems that these specific areas of study belong to aesthetic fields; graphic design, interior design, painting etc. for color, music for sound, architecture and landscaping for shape, dance for movement.
Does the existence of these disciplines confirm the hypothesis that beauty (ie proportionate relations between things) exists, or does the incorrect assumption that beauty exists lead to an over-estimate of the epistomological status of such disciplines?
We have things we have to explain:
- The diversity of tastes and preferences in beauty. For example, modern vs. classical painting, ballet vs. modern dance, avant garde french drama vs. 50’s musical films, etc.
- The universality of (some) tastes and preferences in beauty. For example, Beethoven’s symphonies (especially the 5th and the 9th), U2, Bach, Palestrina.
- The existence of “experts.” For example, production designers who get paid more or less to build sets for films, artists who get paid more or less to make paintings for corporate buildings, architects who get paid more or less to create schools, skyscrapers, neighborhoods cities.
- The powerful effect of certain objects. For example, sunsets motivate hundreds of thousands of poems, moonsets motivate almost none; women of a certain shape, size, color, tone, personality, and poise are the source and cause of a dozen thousand films being made, women certain shapes, sizes, colors, tones, personalities, and poise never motivate the creation of a film. Pictures of flowers adorn the walls of millions of North American suburban homes, dead rats adorn almost none.
- The diversity of taste in beauties.
- The uniformity of taste in beauty.
- The existence of “experts” in beauty (eg. painters, cinematographers, interior designers, architects)
- The powerful effect of certain beauties.
If beauty is real and knowable, this accounts for 2., 3., and 4. We have to explain 1.
If beauty is not real and subjective, this accounts for 1. We have to explain 2., 3., 4.,
It seems the most likely, in light of the up-to-date evidence, to conclude that some of the things we call “beautiful things” actually are beautiful. And some of the things we find pleasing are not in fact as beautiful as they appear in the eye of the beholder.