What is Beauty?

Week of: 
March 15, 2005
What is it: 

Are there objective standards of beauty? Or is beauty in the eye of the beholder? Must art be beautiful to be great art? What is the role of the experience of beauty in a good life? John and Ken take in the beauty with Alexander Nehamas from Princeton University, author of Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art.

Listening Notes: 

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? John defines beauty as that which brings enjoyment to the person who looks or contemplates. John defines subjective properties as properties that require subjects of the right sort to make a difference. When we say something is beautiful, are we recommending to others that they should take delight in it? Beauty may be intersubjective, but is it objective? Can we argue rationally about whether something is beautiful? Ken introduces Alexander Nehamas, professor at Princeton. Is beauty both skin deep and in the eye of the beholder? Nehamas distinguishes between surface beauty and deep beauty. 

Kant thought that if we think something is beautiful then we want everyone to agree with us. Ken proposes the idea that perception is a skill. Would the world be better off if everyone agreed on what is beautiful? Nehamas thinks the world would not be better off because what we find beautiful is a reflection of our personality and individuality. What can we learn about ourselves from what we find beautiful? Nehamas thinks that it illuminates our style. Is taste a function of education and economics? 

Is natural beauty ever better than constructed beauty, like in art or music? Do beauty and happiness go together? What is the relation between beauty and the sublime? Nehamas says that the sublime is our reaction in the face of something so overpowering that it consumes or obliterates us. There is a saying that truth is beauty and beauty is truth, but is that correct? John thinks it is false. Why does beauty matter?

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 04:55): Amy Standen asks people on the street what they think is beautiful.

Alexander Nehamas, Edmund N. Carpenter II Class of 1943 Professor in the Humanities, Princeton University

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