Opinion: what do we mean when we say something or someone is beautiful?

Beauty is perhaps the most common term we have to describe those things we admire and value as worthwhile. Traditionally, the term beauty has served as a proxy for what we consider good art. When we say something is beautiful, we are saying something stronger than "I like it." Rather, we can say it is good and therefore any right thinking person ought to like it also. As such, the term beauty can be used as more than an account of a personal preference; it can be used a term of theory and perhaps even a term of policy.

In practice, we call many things beautiful; art, a person, an idea, a natural object, an action etc. With this term, there is a curious (suspicious even) philosophical consensus which is not that far from common sense. Namely, that beauty is good, pleasurable, inspires love and admiration and thus is a powerful thing to have, requires first-hand experience.

There are of course different cultures of associations with the idea of beauty. The German term schön connotes attention and perception and is related to the English word "to show". The word literally comes to us from the Latin belle via the French biauté where it commonly referred to the physical appearance of women and was in contrast seen as an inappropriate, ironic and even insulting term to describe men. The Greek term that closest approximates to beauty is kallos. Beyond the very physical meaning of the Latin tradition, the Greek points to a deeper connotation of goodness and ideal quality.

Where the Platonic tradition pushes beauty to the realm of ideal thought beyond perception, Aristotle emphasised an approach that regards it as part of the real world

Beauty has been treated as an abstract form in early philosophy. For example, Plato emphasised the a priori (independent of experience) dimension of the idea of beauty. In this tradition, we see physical beauty trivialised. The ideal of beauty is something that we come to learn over time and it is something that could potentially be formulised.

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates reports the priestess Diotima’s description of how you can progress recognition of another’s kallos (beauty) to appreciation of beauty in its ideal and divine form. Diotima’s "ladder of love" is a metaphorical representation of the ascent along an ideal hierarchy a lover can make from purely physical attraction to a beautiful body to the wisdom that comes from knowledge of the unchangeable Form of Beauty. This ideal form is described as "an everlasting loveliness which neither comes nor goes which neither flowers nor fades." Here, we can perhaps think of beauty as being closer to a kind of eternal happiness than passing joy.

It is difficult to underestimate the influence of this sketch of love as a pedagogical progression from earthly beauty to eternal and ethical beauty. We can see its ultimate encapsulation in John Keats 1819 ode "On a Grecian Urn" when he writes "beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." We can also no doubt see the inheritance of this tradition in both the quantitative approaches taken to beauty today and the enduring emphasis on beauty as knowledge of something beyond the physical.

Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man on show at Venice's Galleria dell'Academia. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Gerry Images

While the idea of beauty as eternal, unchanging, mind-independent, immaterial, ideal and knowable only through the intellect can be traced to Plato, the common conception of beauty involving order, harmony, and proportion is traceable to the parallel Greek Pythagorean tradition and the writings of Aristotle (and his emphasis on balance such as the golden mean). A famous representation of this approach can be seen in Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (1487). Vitruvius was an architect who emphasised a balance of a "triad" of characteristics of good architecture— utility, durability and beauty

Where the Platonic tradition is inclined to push beauty to the realm of ideal thought beyond perception, Aristotle emphasised an approach to beauty that regards it as part of the functioning of the real world. We can thus see that philosophers have almost unanimously been less interested in proving that certain artworks are objectively beautiful. Instead, their focus has tended to be more sophisticated and concerned with the very nature of beauty itself.

Much later than the ancient Greeks, beauty would come to be seen, in the work of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and GWF Hegel, as a pleasure resulting from the harmony between subjective of taste and the universality of appreciation. The challenge of the term beauty for philosophers became an attempt to not fall into extreme relativism where every judgement is potentially one of beauty (thinking that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder"). An example of this position is offered by David Hume who wrote "beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them" in 1742. While philosophers have sought to clarify the nature of the judgement of beauty, many remain sceptical of our capacity to judge beauty without bias.  

Artist Damien Hirst in front of Death Explained, a disected shark suspended in two separate containers in acrylic and formaldehyde solution. Photo: Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Accordingly, the philosophical focus on beauty has shifted to the politics, language and psychology of its deployment. This shift of focus can be explained in part by the developments of avant-garde art movements that no longer privileged any of the classical ideas of beauty. In fact, modern art can be seen to regularly celebrate ugliness, banality and decay. When modern art can be described as anything from an arrangement of bricks to a shark in formaldehyde, to the ubiquitous pile of rubbish, it is clear that the classical idea of beauty is superseded by work that embraces mistakes, flirts with kitsch and revels in the grotesque. Though he was reflecting on the violence wrought by the Easter Rising, W. B. Yeats' "all changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born" encapsulates the modern approach to beauty in its constant critique of the concept.

Perhaps most notable of the objectors to the philosophical valorisation of beauty however was Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophy reacts to the pillars of western philosophy with disdain. "For a philosopher to say, ‘the good and the beautiful are one,’ is infamy; if he goes on to add, ‘also the true,’ one ought to thrash him. Truth is ugly".

This is an abridged version of a talk delivered at the Hugh Lane Gallery to mark World Philosophy Day 2018.