Beauty and subjectivity

Posted by John Perry
administrator,Featured Contributor

We might put a literate-sounding gloss on this by saying it means “beauty is subjective”.  But, then, what does that mean?

Subjective is now opposed to objective.  Oddly enough, “objective” originally meant “in the mind” as the object of one’s desires, hopes, fears and the like is in the mind, even if it is not out their in reality.  My Porsche roadster, the object of one of my desires, has objective reality, but not formal reality, given Descartes’ use of these terms.  He argued that given the nature of God’s objective reality (i.e., what my idea of God is like), we can infer to his formal reality,(i.e., that there really is something that instantiated all the forms, or properties, required to be God, which is pretty much all of the good ones and none of the bad ones.)

Now “objective” usually connotes having to do with facts about the physical, material world.  Subjectivity means “in the mind of a subject”.  A “subject” is the thinker of thoughts, the haver of experiences.  Objective truths are true apart from what goes on in any subject who is thinking about the truth.  Most philosophers agree that truths about that material world, or at least a lot of them, are like that.  After all, the material world was around for a long time before there were any minds to think about it.  Some believe that truths about numbers are also objective, while others believe they fit better somehow into the next category we will discuss.

These are truths about phenomena that is in some way depends on there being minds, that is, thinking, perceiving, sub jects.  Such truths depend on subjectivity, on there being minds around to perceive and think thoughts about the things the truths are about.

Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, and Locke all were impressed with the difference between “primary” and “secondary” qualities.  Primary qualities were objective in the sense we now assign to this word.  Objects would have shape, size and motion whether or not there were any minds around to perceive them.  But, it seemed, at least to these thinkers, that objects would not have secondary qualities, that is, colors, sounds, smells and tastes, if there were not minds to see, hear, smell and taste them.  The idea is that secondary qualities have to do with the effects that the objects have on minds.  No minds, no secondary qualities.  So secondary qualities are subjective.  They are in the eye (ear, nose, or tongue) of the beholder.

There is a weaker grade of objectivity that secondary qualities have, however.  Although they might not exist without minds, the minds that there are agree about them, at least in favorable conditions.  If your vision is normal and my vision is normal and we are both in favorable lighting conditions we should agree on which objects are red, which green, and so forth.

But what about the fact that you like green, while I don’t; I love red; but you hate it? How about the fact that I hate lima beans, while others (I’m told) actually like their taste?  How some object strikes us, whether it arouses pleasure or something more like pain when we see, smell, hear or taste it,  seems doubly subjective.  First of all, our perception will involve secondary qualities, and so depend on the existence of thinking, perceiving subjects.  Second, the combination of qualities we perceive will strike individual subjects as pleasant or unpleasant.  On this second matter, we don’t expect intersubjective agreement.  Tastes differ; to each his own, and the like.

Where does beauty fit in?  Is it an objective, mind-independent property of things?  I’m sure that some philosophers have thought this, but it doesn’t seem very plausible.  Lots of beautiful objects, like mountains and forests and lakes, could exist without minds.  But they wouldn’t really be beautiful would they, if there weren’t minds around to gain some enjoyment from observing them?

Is beauty like a secondary quality, mind-independent, but intersubjective?  That is, if people are in the right conditions, will they agree on what is beautiful and what is not?  What would the right conditions be?  Not just good lighting, but also, perhaps, a proper upbringing, a well-trained eye, ear, or palate.  I have some sympathy with this idea.  It seems to me that there ought to be intersubjective agreement that the pop music of the sixties is better than that of the benighted eighties, for example, and anyone who doesn’t agree has probably had their ears damaged by walkmans that were turned up to high or excessive use of drugs.  However, upon sober reflection, it seems likely that this is just my bias, due to having come of age in the fifties and sixties.

So that leaves beauty in the third category, the doubly subjective, not only dependant on minds for its existence, but not even something on which minds can be expected to agree, even in favorable circumstances.  The Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, the Chrysler Building---- like the taste of lima beans, or the BeeGees, some people like ‘em, some people don’t.

Can we really accept that there is no more to beauty than that?  What will happen to Art Appreciation classes?  To appreciating great literature?  And, Egad, to the difference, surely objective, between quality philosophy and dreck?  Perhaps we need some more categories, some more analogies, and some more models to think about this.  Let’s see what happens when we discuss beauty on Philosophy Talk.

March 9, 2005


Laughingman's picture
Submitted by Laughingman (not verified) on March 10, 2005

This is a bit tangent to the subject, but I was struck by the statement, "If your vision is normal and my vision is normal and we are both in favorable lighting conditions we should agree on which objects are red, which green, and so forth."

Aren't we forever seperated from actually knowing wether we are percieving those colors in the same way? For example, what if I see what you call red when I look at something you call the color green? As a child each time my parents pointed at an object and said, "green" it taught me that the color I was percieving at that moment was called green. But it no way lets me know wether or not my parents were percieving that color in the same way I did. All I have really learned is that when that wavelegth of light excites the rods and cones of my retina, I should describe the experience as "green" if I wish to communicate it to someone else.

It is a problematic issue throughout our discourses. If I talk about a table, you understand basically what I am saying, but I have no control or understanding of what image and ideas occur to you when you hear the word. I may think of a modern danish table, while your brain interprets the word as an 18th century French piece.

Sorry it's a bit afield of the discussion, but it is a pervasive and interesting problem.

John Perry's picture
Submitted by John Perry (not verified) on March 12, 2005

Good point. It's relevant to the discussion of lima beans. Maybe we all like the same tastes, but lima beans give rise to a different taste sensation in them than they did in my grandmother, who liked them.

The idea that it is possible, for all we really know, that other people have different color sensations that we do is usually discussed in philosophy with reference to the possibility of an "inverted spectrum". Since the colors, at least if we ignore certain complications, form a nice "wheel", couldn't the wheel be turned for you compared to what it is for me? Then not only our color judgements, but our comparative color judgements (red is more like orange than it is like blue) would be preserved, even if our sensations were systematically different.

So, there would still be intersubjective agreement about the colors things were, in the sense that we would apply the same names, but at some level we wouldn't be saying quite the same things about them.

Dhiraj Catoor's picture
Submitted by Dhiraj Catoor (not verified) on April 25, 2005

While one may not be able to provide sufficient conditions for intersubjective agreements, I stil think we can try to provide those that are necesary. Now, if we could find those, wouldn't it be enough to use those to argue that the disagreement arises out of these necesary conditions not being satisfied.

For instance, like you pointed out, one must first have the necessary capabilities, like having organs that can percieve the object. A color blind person will not be able to appreciate the harmony in a certain mixture of colors. In the same manner, a tone deaf person may cannot fully appreciate music. If we extrapolate these arguments to include the fineness with which we can discriminate between things, would we not have explained sufficiently the reason for disagreement about matters of taste?

One of my arguments is as follows. There are several things that interfere with our appreciation of an object, or more speciafically, its "beauty". One may not be in the right mood. One's concentration may be insufficient. I can think of a lot of reasons. Essentially, what I'm trying to say is that the "apparent" subjectivity or relativity that we empirically observe in these matters arises out of not having certain necessary conditions satisfied.

I can also think of other weaker arguments like the problem of ego. The fact that one is unable to appreciate a certain beautiful object immediately causes ones ego to spring into action and say, "I don't understand this and I certainly don't like this. Since I know that beauty is subjective, there is no reason why I should like or dislike this. I can very well pronounce a fully justified, yet opposite judgement" This seems to me the most common reason that people get away making erroneous judgements about matters of taste. Somehow, in today's modern and democratic world, objective moral and aesthetic values have become notions entwined with authoritarianism and intolerance. These seem to be even more forceful in leading people to some extreme forms of subjectivism and relativism leading to the trivialization, and ultimately, the destruction of the very notion of beauty.

K. Ahmed's picture
Submitted by K. Ahmed (not verified) on April 29, 2005

I think that the beauty is subjective and has several dimesions depending upon the knowledge of the observer. For example, the perception of things of a particle physicist would be entirely different than the person who is unfamliar with the atomic structure of materials. Also beauty depends upon the mental state, for example I remember from my student days that nothing appeared beautiul to me just before the tedious test. Here are my suggestions or postulates to experience things at the highest level of beauty:

1. Everything and experience is infinitely beautiful unless it proves otherwise.

2, Perceive things to be infinitely beautiful as long as they do not have ill effects on our well being e.g carbon dioxide is not infintely beuatiful becuase breathing it can cause helath problems. On the other hand roses ar infinitely beautiful becuase their smell does not cause any ill effects (unless poerson has allergy to smells).

3. The person perceiving beauty should have good concept of infinity otherwise he/she would not be able to perceive beauty at the peak levels.

4. Beauty is language dependent therefore to perceive beauty at higher levels one should learn new languages or try to improve the existing language.

Thank you.

Homer's picture
Submitted by Homer (not verified) on April 30, 2005

1. Humans give the truth of beauty to nature through the use of thought.
2. One thing will be beautiful one person, and not to another due to differences in education.
3. The highest determination of beauty will be through the application of a priori concepts and Categories.
4. There is some beauty which cannot be rationalized such as the sublime.
5. Feeling has been described as amongst the lowest form of thought, but how is it applied to beauty.
6. The application of the Concepts of Space and Time is the most direct link to beauty e.g. Locke's primary's qualities.
7. Then there is Eros.

Slobodan's picture
Submitted by Slobodan (not verified) on May 20, 2005

In the eyes of the beholder there are millions of you, but in the moment of truth there is only one of us.

In the eyes of the beholder there are innumerable new moments which are dictating the dynamics of necessity and the manifestation of beauty. However, there is only one quality that survives the meaning of time, space and perception, and that is, a need to understand the very same manifestation of beauty that is the truth of its cause. The ultimate cause of beauty is a need for general creation to exist in the harmonious exchange of perplexed symmetry, which is the pure essence of our reality.
The source of beauty is creation itself. The necessity to exist and perfect oneself is the ultimate goal of the soul. Perception about beauty changes according to one’s given circumstance and one’s ability to deal with its dynamics. In the light of existence everything tends to perfect itself, because everything wants to exist within the circle of the inseparable unity of ONE. In the circle of one, beauty has its meaning and purpose. Any motion in space, existence of time in the moment of living, and all of life’s characteristics that make this world appear as such, are the ultimate manifestation of beauty, which finds its home in our brilliant ability to perceive and acknowledge its existence, keeping us constantly in love with life itself, and that is the highest sentiment of beauty.

Homer's picture
Submitted by Homer (not verified) on May 24, 2005

According to Plato the goal of Man and Eros is not Beauty, but reproduction in birth in beauty. I will not continue to repeat the old philosophy of Plato concerning Beauty, but try to bring a new explanation concerning Beauty. In my first interpretation Beauty is synonymous with Power. The second interpretation is that Beauty has to do with Symmetry.

Nietzsche was concerned with the Will to Power. I think that Nietzsche would have titled his theory the Will to Beauty. There are beautiful physical appearances, strength is seen as beautiful, math is beautiful to some, art is beautiful, music is beautiful, arts and sciences are beautiful, etc. Anything that gives you power or has power within itself can be seen as beautiful. In fact I think that these two words mean actually the same thing, except that the two words are interpreted differently, beauty is feminine and power is masculine. Even though these two words are seen differently they are the same idea.

The second interpretation is that Beauty is has to do with Symmetry. There have been numerous television programs showing how human faces with symmetrical features are more attractive than faces without symmetry. These television reporters see a correlation between these two concepts, but don’t know how they connect exactly.

Although reporters do not know why the correlation exists, John Locke knew of the correlation when he examined primary, secondary, and tertiary qualities. Upon completing an essay concerning Locke’s work, especially his qualities I noticed that his primary qualities could be judged through symmetry. Then I remembered the television programs that discussed the relationship between symmetry and beauty.

The following is an Locke’s explanation of his qualities. Locke stated that, “whatsoever the mind perceives in itself, or is the immediate object of perception, though or understanding,” is called an idea. He calls the power to produce an idea in our mind a quality. There are three types of qualities: primary, secondary, and tertiary.

According to Locke primary qualities are inseparable from the body no matter what force is placed upon it. The primary qualities are found in every particle which is able to be perceived. If you take the example of a grain of wheat and divide it into parts, it still has the primary qualities of “solidity, extension, figure, and mobility.” The grains of wheat retain the primary qualities no matter how many times they are divided, until the division becomes insensible. The primary qualities produce in us, “solidity, extension, figure, motion or rest, and number.”

According to Locke secondary qualities are not in the object itself but have the power to produce in us sensations through the primary qualities; the secondary qualities are also known as sensible qualities. The primary qualities, “bulk, figure, texture, and motion” produce in us the secondary qualities “colours, sounds, tastes, etc..” The tertiary qualities are barely qualities, and are defined by Locke, “For the power in fire to produce a new colour or consistence in wax or clay by its primary qualities, is as much a quality in fire as the power it has to produce in me a new idea or sensation of warmth or burning, which I felt not before, by the same primary qualities, viz., the bulk, texture, and motion of its insensible parts.” The tertiary qualities are also known as powers and depend on the primary qualities.

The primary qualities of “extension, figure, number, and motion of bodies,” come through the perceivers eyes and produces ideas in us. The secondary qualities are not in the objects themselves, but have powers to produce sensations in us, and depend on the primary qualities. The primary qualities that we perceive are actual resemblances to the primary qualities in the object, but the secondary qualities that we perceive are thought to be resemblances but are not resemblances in the object. The tertiary qualities are not thought to be resemblances in the object and are not resemblances in the object. The primary qualities alone exist and are real. The secondary qualities do not exist because they need the perceiver in order to be experienced, if we take away our senses from our body then the secondary qualities do not exist

These primary qualities are important in perceiving Beauty. The primary qualities “solidity, extension, figure, and mobility” are similar to Kant’s a priori qualities as Space and Time. In my view symmetrical objects are perceived as Beautiful because they are more easily to perceive by the human consciousness than a symmetrical objects. The human mind seeks order in the world. It is through making order of the world that we survive.

arti's picture
Submitted by arti (not verified) on July 19, 2005

beautiful and uly are two extreme concepts and thus become absolute questions that are difficult to define or explain. beauty is a concept to explain what exists and what will always exist.

ken Loch's picture
Submitted by ken Loch (not verified) on July 22, 2005

There's a difference between integrated and non-integrated knowledge, relative to the concept of beauty. Integrated knowledge will come from the genius of the philosophy of aesthetics, and non-integrated knowledge will come from everyone else. Know the genius and know the truth about beauty.

homer's picture
Submitted by homer (not verified) on July 22, 2005

How do you know that the appreciation of beauty by genius is not a lie? I would rather go with what nature considers beauty than what philosophical scholars describe as beauty. I would rather go with what the masses consider to be beauty than what a few scholars would describe as beauty. There is more of a chance that this is closer to the real beauty in nature. Beauty is linked to survival and for the masses not to know this beauty would mean that they would not survive. There is more of a chance that scholars could be deceiving themselves into believing that beauty is something different or higher than what is ingrained in the masses. They might have even deluded themselves to the point in which they are not even speaking the language of beauty, when they think they are. The appreciation of beauty by scholars may even be deluded due to what they have been taught, not knowing that what they have been taught has been created to support another purpose than the truth, some social structure.