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Beauty and Ugliness

Definitions Of Beauty

In the Greater Hippias, Plato (c. 428–348 or 347 B.C.E.) ascribes to Socrates the viewpoint that knowledge of beauty is a prerequisite for actual applications: one cannot properly distinguish between beautiful and ugly objects without knowing what beauty is. On the other hand, in the Symposium, Plato has Diotima argue that knowledge of beauty begins with direct experience of particular cases and knowledge of the abstract form of beauty is the highest and final stage, distilled from everyday experience.

Direct experience, Socrates claims, is unreliable. It reveals a complex of contradicting qualities that cohabit in the same object: any beautiful object is at the same time not beautiful when compared with a higher beauty. Appearance can be misleading. A person may appear beautiful when wearing suitable clothes, although he is not truly beautiful. Socrates in fact dismisses all expressions of physical beauty as untrustworthy. The ultimate beauty that contains no contradicting elements is beyond earthly experience. Plato portrays such absolute beauty in the Phaedo, where Socrates sees its heavenly form. Socrates rejects further the idea that beauty is that which functions properly: an object may function well, but if its purpose is evil, the object is not beautiful. He also disagrees that beauty should be defined as a cause of delight. The good, Socrates argues, also causes delight, and the two should be kept distinct.

Socrates concludes in the Greater Hippias that beauty is difficult to define. Voltaire (1694–1778) goes further to argue that beauty, due to its relativist nature, is not just difficult but impossible to define. In his Philosophical Dictionary (1764) Voltaire writes that the toad sees beauty in large round eyes and a flat snout, and the devil sees beauty in a pair of horns and four claws. Epicharmus (c. 530–c. 440 B.C.E.), the comic dramatist, similarly remarks that a dog considers a dog the most beautiful creature, and equally an ox prefers an ox, a donkey a donkey, and a pig a pig. Realizing that beauty has no common core, Voltaire believes that one had better save oneself the trouble of attempting to study its nature.

Neither the difficulties presented by Socrates nor Voltaire's reservations have discouraged philosophers, artists, critics, and scientists from reflecting upon the nature of beauty throughout the centuries. Attempts to define beauty can be divided into two main groups: theories that regard beauty as a form of order and theories that regard beauty as a kind of pleasure. Theories of beauty may be divided further according to the logical status assigned to beauty: objective, subjective, relative, and relational. The objective approach asserts that beauty inheres in the object, and that judgments of beauty have objective validity. The subjective approach maintains that beauty is not a quality of the object but rather a creation of the mind. Relativism tends to associate beauty with cultural values, and the relational approach regards beauty as a product of both the object and the contemplative mind.

Beauty as a form of order.

The Pythagoreans believed that beauty is a manifestation of harmonious, mathematical relations such as the golden section. In this proportion a straight line, c, is divided by two unequal parts, a and b, in such a way that the ratio of the smaller, a, to the greater part, b, is the same as that of the greater part, b, to the whole, c. Ugliness is the expression of disorder and a lack of rational proportions. Beauty was thus considered an objective expression of cosmic truth. The ancient Egyptians were probably the first to use the golden section in the design of the Pyramids, but it was Pythagoras of Samos (c. 580–c. 500 B.C.E.) who first presented its mathematical formulation.

Many have followed the Pythagorean notion of order. Plato writes that proportions constitute beauty (Philebus). Aristotle (384–322 B.C.E.) associates beauty with order and size in Poetics, and with symmetry and definiteness in Metaphysics. St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) holds that beauty is based on numbers (De libero arbitrio). St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1224–1274) mentions proportion and harmony among the three requirements of beauty (Summa theologica). Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646–1716) describes beauty as an obscure, sensual perception of mathematical configurations (Principles of Nature and Grace Based on Reason, 1714), and the painter William Hogarth (1697–1764) formulates principles of beauty applicable to art (The Analysis of Beauty, 1753). Many other authors expressed similar views.

Plotinus (205–270) is an exception. In Enneades (I, 6) he rejects the idea that beauty consists of order and proportion. His main points are: (1) Proportions, order, symmetry, and harmony apply to compound objects, while beauty is also found in simple elements like sunlight or gold. (2) The parts of a beautiful object must be beautiful, too, because beauty cannot consist of ugly elements. However, the parts themselves are simple and cannot convey order. (3) A beautiful face may look ugly when it expresses anger or wickedness, yet its proportions are the same. (4) Physical beauty is a reflection of the divine beauty, which unifies the formless multiplicity of matter. Thus, unity, not complexity, is essential to beauty.

Notwithstanding Plotinus's criticism, the Pythagorean notion of beauty became influential in Western philosophy for two principal reasons: The association of beauty with order was appealing to the rational mind, and experience suggests that the parts of a beautiful object are well situated, complement each other, and create a unified whole. This understanding generated the notion of unity in variety: Beauty resides in complexity that is unified by order. Accepting the fact that order is the key concept for understanding beauty, the question arises whether there are unifying laws of beauty that apply to all cases of beautiful objects, in the same way that the laws of nature apply to all physical phenomena.

Alexander Baumgarten (1714–1762) believed that the laws of beauty, like the laws of nature, could be uncovered by systematic, empirical investigations. He called for the establishment of a new science, which he named aesthetics. This science was intended to investigate direct perception in which particular representations are combined into a whole. Baumgarten was not influential among philosophers, but psychologists and mathematicians from the nineteenth century onward pursued his vision, seeking to translate the traditional formula—unity in variety—into measurable variables. In the field of psychology, the investigation of beauty is associated mainly with Gestalt theory and experimental aesthetics. Ernst H. Weber (1795–1878) and Gustav T. Fechner (1801–1887) investigated sensual perceptions and the relation between the intensity of the stimulus and the responsive sensation it causes. Fechner founded experimental aesthetics and made it a branch of psychology. Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967), and Kurt Koffka (1886–1941) defined the principles of the "good gestalt" (Prägnanz) and examined its application in various fields. A good gestalt expresses order, regularity, simplicity, stability, and continuity. According to Hans J. Eysenck (1916–1997), the fundamental law of aesthetics derives from the law of the good gestalt while, conversely, the law of aesthetics determines the properties of the good gestalt (1942).

In the mathematical realm we find George D. Birkhoff (1884–1944), who analyzed polygons and vases in order to formulate a concept of beauty. Birkhoff's conclusion is that the pleasure derived from any work of art or object of beauty depends on two variables: order (O), which expresses the unity of the object, and complexity (C), or the diversity exhibited by the object. The resulting measure of the aesthetic pleasure (M) derived from an object is then expressed mathematically: Statue head of Queen Nefertiti, Egypt, 14th century B.C.E. Beauty has long been considered by many to play a prominent role in sexual selection among both animals and humans. Noted feminist Camille Paglia believes this theory can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt. © CORBIS-BETTMANN M = O/C—that is, aesthetic pleasure is equal to the ratio of order to complexity (Aesthetic Measure, 1933).

From a different perspective, information theory inspired the idea that beauty is a measurable informative value. This theory offers a mathematical apparatus that describes, analyzes, and measures the transmission of information in communication systems. A clear message—namely, a highly ordered message—is a message of low informative value, high redundancy, and high predictability. Since the elements of a beautiful object are obviously neither redundant nor predictable, beauty in this context is regarded not as a form of high order, but rather as a happy medium, a balance between high order and disorder. Sir Francis The Parthenon on the Acropolis, Athens, Greece. One of the many definitions of beauty focuses on order and symmetry. Philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle, and the Pythagoreans considered harmonious proportions—often based on mathematical formulas—as an indication of beauty. © BETTMANN/CORBIS Galton (1822–1911) demonstrates this idea of averages by superimposing photographs of convicted murderers and distilling a single photograph out of the many images. According to the viewers who examined the photos, this composite photograph was the best-looking face of all the original ones. Galton concluded that the average (composite) face is free from the irregularities that variously blemish each of the individual faces (1878).

Daniel E. Berlyne (1924–1976), one of the leading figures of experimental aesthetics in the twentieth century, sets the idea of happy medium in a psychological perspective. He describes the pleasure derived from beauty and good art as a reduction of arousal. The complexity of the object generates arousal in tension, and subsequently, when the unified whole is perceived, tension is reduced. According to Berlyne, experiments tend to confirm that some intermediate degree of complexity produces the most pleasing effect and that extremes of simplicity or complexity are distasteful (Conflict, Arousal, and Curiosity, 1960).

Monroe C. Beardsley (1915–1985), one of the most influential aestheticians of the last century, criticizes attempts to render beauty or good art in terms of a happy medium or an average. He maintains that the identification of complexity with disorder fails to explain the fact that complexity is a relevant ground for praise, and that the degree of informative value is not high enough to establish the aesthetic worth of an object. Beardsley agrees that beauty is a form of order, but argues that the beauty formula inspired by information theory leads to absurdities. Aesthetic order, according to Beardsley, escapes mechanical patterns and is marked by freedom, diversity, and uniqueness (1968). Abraham Moles (1920–1992) similarly acknowledges the limitations of information theory. He distinguishes between semantic information and aesthetic information. Semantic information has a universal logic and can be expressed in different languages. Aesthetic information cannot be translated into any other language or system of logic; it refers to particular objects apprehended by particular spectators (1966).

The notion of organic form or an organic whole suggests that beauty expresses a nonmechanical order consisting of inner forces or structures. In an organic form the whole precedes the differentiation of the parts, and the various parts are interdependent. Plato is the first to offer a formulation of art as an organic form (Phaedrus) in relation to literary works of art. Samuel T. Coleridge (1772–1834) turns to organic form in his defense of Shakespeare's works against the claim that they are formless. He emphasizes the harmony required in such works, not only between parts but also between matter and form. George E. Moore (1873–1958) adds that the value of an organic whole is different from the sum of its parts (Principia Ethica, 1903). Harold Osborne (1905–1987) defines aesthetic order in terms of an organic whole that cannot be reduced to its parts and is, therefore, directly apprehended as a whole. Beauty is an emergent property of a whole that reflects upon the parts, although each of the parts on its own is aesthetically neutral (1982). Heinrich Wölfflin (1864–1945), an influential art historian, describes good art as an organism in which nothing could be changed or moved from its place, but in which all must be as it is (Principles of Art History, 1915). Ruth Lorand, however, argues that the concept of an organic whole ignores, in most of its variants, the quantitative aspect of beauty. Some objects are more beautiful than others, and absolute beauty of the kind described by Wölfflin and others is hardly ever found. Aesthetic order, according to Lorand, is quantitative, highly informative, unpredictable, and, paradoxically, an order without laws (2000).

Beauty as a kind of pleasure.

The immediate connection between beauty and feeling, and the difficulties inherent in defining beauty as a quality of the object, have given rise to the idea that beauty is not a quality of the object, but rather an emotion evoked by the object. St. Augustine asks whether an object is beautiful because it pleases or pleases because it is beautiful, and answers that the object pleases because it is beautiful. That is, beauty is the cause of pleasure and not identical with it (De vera religione). By contrast, Thomas Aquinas does not separate beauty from pleasure; he calls that beautiful whose apprehension pleases us. The definition of beauty as an expression of emotion usually renders judgments of beauty individual and subjective. René Descartes (1596–1650) regards beauty as totally subjective and dependent on individual conditions (letter to Marin Mersenne, 1630). Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) dismisses beauty as mere sensual content. He mocks those who believe that beauty is objective, and that God, too, finds delight in beautiful things. (Ethics, I, appendix, 1667).

Empiricists of the eighteenth century, however, regarded this subjective aspect of beauty as an informative indication of human nature. Taste, the capacity for appreciating beauty, became a key concept. Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746) defines beauty as a source of pleasure that indicates not only qualities found in the object, but also the character of the spectator's sense of beauty (Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue, 1725). Joseph Addison (1672–1719) writes that perhaps there is no real beauty, only certain modifications of matter that the mind pronounces beautiful (The Spectator, 1712). In his Essays on the Intellectual Powers of Man (1785), Thomas Reid (1710–1796) describes beauty as an occult quality: we know how it affects our senses, but not what it is in itself. According to Edmund Burke (1729–1797), beauty is the quality that causes love or passion and is not an objective quality like proportion (A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas on the Sublime and Beautiful, 1757). Archibald Woman with tattooed face, China, c. 1900. The concept of beauty often varies from culture to culture. Physical enhancements such as tattoos, elaborate piercings, and facial hair may be considered beautiful among some societies but ugly among others. © MICHAEL MASLAN HISTORIC PHOTOGRAPHS/CORBIS Alison (1757–1839) goes further, arguing that it is impossible to imagine an object of taste that is not an object of emotion (Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste, 1790).

David Hume (1711–1776) writes in the same spirit that Euclid did not mention the beauty of the circle in any of the relevant propositions because beauty belongs to the sentiment of the spectator and is not a quality of the circle (Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1751). He defines beauty as an expression of a subjective order that reflects our nature, customs, or capricious inclinations (A Treatise of Human Nature, 1739). In his influential essay Of the Standard of Taste (1757), Hume observes that different spectators equally praising the beauty of the same object does not necessarily indicate that they refer to the same features, or that they find delight for the same reasons.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), regarded as the most influential figure in modern philosophy, sought to bridge the gap between rationalism and empiricism. His account of beauty in Critique of Judgment (1790) is the first systematic analysis of the aesthetic phenomenon in modern philosophy. Kant rejects Baumgarten's vision of aesthetics as a science and holds that genuine judgments of beauty do not convey knowledge; they are individual judgments that cannot be generalized. Like Burke, he distinguishes between the beautiful and the sublime: Beauty Illustration from Beauty and the Beast (1874) by Walter Crane. Freud believed that humans found beauty in that which inspired sexual feelings. Darwin concurred with this theory, claiming that beauty played a role in the courting habits of many diverse cultures. © HISTORICAL PICTURE ARCHIVE/CORBIS pleases through the free play of imagination and understanding and sustains the mind in restful contemplation. The sublime presents a disharmony between sensual capacities and reason. Thus, the feeling of the sublime carries with it a mental agitation: it is a pleasure compounded with displeasure. Kant defines beauty in terms of a peculiar kind of pleasure that consists in paradoxical features. He formulates four elements of the pleasure evoked by beauty: (1) Unlike the pleasures of the good and the pleasant, the pleasure of the beautiful is devoid of all interest. It is a disinterested pleasure. (2) Unlike other pleasures, the pleasure of the beautiful is not based on concepts. It is a non-conceptual pleasure. (3) The pleasure of the beautiful is a form of purposiveness without the presentation of a purpose. That is, the beautiful object demonstrates an inner order that is not subordinated to any external purpose. (4) The pleasure of the beautiful raises expectations for universal agreement. It is cognized as the object of a necessary liking. The necessity of universal assent that we associate with judgment of taste is a subjective necessity that we present as objective by presupposing a common sense. Kant, therefore, defines beauty as subjective-objective.

Many authors after Kant, however, preferred to deny the objective aspect of beauty and defined it as essentially subjective. Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) writes in The Philosophy of Composition (1846) that when men speak of beauty, they do not mean a quality but an affect—an intense and pure elevation of the soul. George Santayana (1863–1952) follows Hume by stating that beauty is not a property of an object. It is an emotion, a pleasure that is erroneously regarded as a quality of the object, such as color, proportion, or size. In this view, beauty is a value that reflects the beholder's position, and therefore is entirely subjective. The tendency to relate beauty to objects and expect other people to experience the same beauty is, according to Santayana, a strange psychological phenomenon that calls for psychological investigation (The Sense of Beauty, 1896).

However, not all of those who explain beauty in terms of pleasure consider it subjective. Clarence I. Lewis (1883–1964), for instance, regards all evaluations, including aesthetic evaluation, as forms of empirical knowledge. In An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation (1946), he states that all forms of empirical knowledge are relational—that is, they depend equally on both the qualities of the object in question and the contribution of the contemplating mind. Viewing beauty as a relational quality bypasses the subjective-objective conflict and draws similarities between perception of beauty and relational perception of other qualities. Samuel Alexander (1859–1938) maintains that beauty is a kind of illusion that depends on the viewer's perspective. The perceived beauty is a result of a mutual contribution of the genuine qualities of the object as well as the mind that apprehends it (Space, Time and Deity, 1920).

John Locke (1632–1704) differentiates between objective and relational qualities. The former are primary qualities independent of the spectator's apprehension; the latter are secondary and tertiary qualities that reflect sensual perceptions and emotional reactions (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 1690). Following this understanding, David W. Prall (1886–1940) maintains that beauty is constituted in pleasurable apprehension and is therefore a tertiary quality that reflects the spectator's reaction to the object's qualities (Aesthetic Judgment, 1929). Beauty, as a tertiary quality, is most sensitive to individual differences among spectators. Individuality is also central in Mary Mothersill's definition of beauty. According to Mothersill, an object is beautiful if it causes pleasure by virtue of its aesthetic properties. Aesthetic properties are the properties that define the individuality of the object and distinguish it from others. The measure of beauty, so Mothersill holds, demands a reliable affect theory, since the measure of beauty is in fact the measure of the emotion it causes (1983).

Opposites of beauty.

Examining the opposites of beauty illuminates the nature of beauty from a different angle. Although ugliness seems to be the immediate opposite of beauty, the complexity and peculiarity of the concept generates more than one opposite, each contrasting beauty in a different way.

The ugly.

George E. Moore defines beauty in terms of the good—that of which the admiring contemplation is good in itself—and, accordingly, ugliness in terms of evil—that of which the admiring contemplation is evil in itself (1903). Understanding beauty in terms of order renders ugliness as a form of disorder. Rudolf Arnheim defines it as a struggle of conflicting, uncoordinated orders (1966). Conflicts express trends and values and therefore ugliness, like beauty, is a matter of cultural conceptions. For example, in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, hair dyed shocking red is associated with prostitution and is thus considered ugly; it created a conflict with the prevailing standards of decency. Contemporary Western notions of decency are different; as a result, the sight of colored hair is no longer shocking or perceived as irregular, as it used to be.

The boring.

Boredom indicates a failure to maintain a sufficient degree of novelty or a failure to deal with materials that interest the observer. This may partly explain the phenomenon of fashion: an oft-repeated style gradually loses its charm and fails to evoke the pleasure it generated before. When set in opposition to beauty, boredom indicates that beauty is stimulating as long as it maintains some degree of novelty.

The insignificant.

An insignificant object, even if well-crafted, may be cute, pretty, lovely, or decorative, but not startlingly beautiful. The boring is not equivalent to the insignificant. We may be bored by something we hold significant and be attracted by trivial, insignificant objects.

The meaningless.

A meaningless object is neither beautiful nor ugly. A meaningless object cannot be beautiful, since one cannot grasp any integration of its parts or be moved by it. A person who is unable to recognize the category within which the particular object falls (and is unable to make sense of it) is unable to appreciate its beauty.


Kitsch consists of beautiful elements, but it is not beautiful in a strict sense. Thomas Kulka holds that a prerequisite of kitsch is that it should employ familiar and well-tested elements that evoke positive responses (1988). Kitsch uses images—such as a bouquet of red roses or a red-roofed hut on the edge of a breathtaking lake—that appeal to many in order to manipulate sentiments and desires for commercial or political purposes. Kitsch is not a failure to create good art; it is, rather, a form of deception that requires "know-how." Seeing kitsch in opposition to beauty suggests that the genuine experience Portrait of a Young Man (1487) by Sandro Botticelli. Tempera on panel. Theories about the relationship between art and beauty have varied throughout time. Plato saw art as a deception that was a separate concept from beauty, while many contemporary philosophers considered art itself to be beautiful. © NATIONAL GALLERY COLLECTION. REPRODUCED BY KIND PERMISSION OF THE TRUSTEES OF THE NATIONAL GALLERY, LONDON/CORBIS of beauty is sincere, and that it is not constituted by well-tested effective formulae.

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