"Beautiful" and the Metaphysics of Beauty

13 August 2006

People argue whether beauty is objective or subjective. But what would it mean for it to be one or the other? A good example of something subjective would be: tasting good to Bob. If something tastes good to Bob, it’s because of Bob’s subjective experience of it. It depends on the subject. An objective property would be: being 5 kg. Anything 5 kg has that mass independently of any subjective experience of it. It’s in the object. Tomorrow’s episode of Philosophy Talk is on athletic beauty—beauty in sports. So I decided to write this blog on beauty in general to pave the way for tomorrow’s discussion.

Is being beautiful like tasting good to Bob (subjective) or being 5 kg (objective)? The saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” suggests subjective. But other sayings—“beauty is truth” or “beauty is eternal”—suggest there is some objective quality to beauty. Advocates of the subjective view emphasize how difficult it is to get people to agree on aesthetic judgments. Advocates of the objective view make arguments like: “The Grand Canyon would be beautiful regardless of whether anyone was there to see it, so beauty is in the object.” Both kinds of advocate are given to more than occasional question-begging.

How we come down on the question of objectivity vs. subjectivity will make a big difference to how we view the experiences of things like sports and music. But before getting into the metaphysics of beauty, I want to make a simple linguistic point. The word “beauty” (and cognates) can be used to make objective claims (claims whose truth is meant to be determined by the object referred to) or subjective claims (claims whose truth is meant to be determined by one’s subjective experience). It can work both ways.

Here’s what I mean.

Often I listen to a piece of music and don’t like it at first. But then later I come to believe, and say, that the music is “beautiful,” even though I didn’t realize it at first. I’ve gone through this process with songs from Shostakovich to Radiohead. And when I claim that the music is beautiful—finally, after hearing it many times—I’m saying that the music has something I wasn’t aware of at first. That property, I seem to be saying, was discovered by me, not constituted by my subjective experience. I was wrong when I missed it at first. When I use the word “beautiful” to indicate something I missed the first time around, I’m using it to make an objective claim about the music. So it seems to be a linguistic fact that “beautiful” can be used to make objective claims.

On the other hand, I once had a friend with a mangy cat who would always say, “She’s beautiful to me.” Plainly there’s some sense to my friend’s words, but they would be silly if “beautiful” were supposed to denote some objective property. You’d be hard-pressed to find something objectively beautiful about that mangy cat, but I don’t think that means my friend said something false. That the claim is subjective is indicated by the phrase “to me”: the truth of the claim is determined by the subject’s experience.

So there are at least two senses of “beauty”—one objective and the other subjective. (See this PT blog by Alexander Nehamas for a closely related view.) What, if anything, unifies these two senses? It is not as if the two senses of “beauty” are unrelated, like the senses of “bank” (of a river) and “bank” (the financial institution). I hold that what unifies the two senses is that objects that are truly “beautiful” (in either sense) give rise to a certain kind of experience. I’ll call this ‘aesthetic experience’. The difference is that the objective sense of “beautiful” refers to the property itself in the object that causes the experience, while the subjective sense of “beautiful” refers to the subjective experience alone. 

So my idea is this. A Leonardo painting, Chinese calligraphy, ballet, and a Michael Jordan move to the basket can all truly be called beautiful in the objective sense because of the properties they possess. But other things, like my friend’s mangy cat, may—although they are less grand—elicit an aesthetic experience for some people despite lacking the relevant properties of objectively beautiful things.

I won’t try to describe aesthetic experience. You all have had aesthetic experiences. But I will say something further about the objective sense of “beauty.” What property does it denote? Actually, I think this is a misleading question. There are several different properties that something can have to make it beautiful in the objective sense. I doubt I can give a whole list, so I won’t try. But some words will suggest what some of these properties are: simplicity (in an appropriate context), harmony (the matching of parts), and fluid motion. That these properties are distinct can be seen as follows: something can be harmonious without being simple (a Bach cantata); something can be simple in the relevant sense without having fluid motion (a simple painting); and something can have fluid motion without either simplicity or harmony (a turbulent rapids). And, again, the reason why these properties all get to be denoted with the same word, “beauty,” is that they all, when recognized, elicit a certain kind of experience. But objects can have these properties—and hence be objectively beautiful—even if no one is around to experience them.

Where—to connect this discussion to tomorrow’s show—might we hope to find the properties of beauty in sports? Answering this completely would take volumes. But I’d like to make one suggestion. I often noticed when watching Michael Jordan that his movements had something that was only rarely found in the movements of other players—and then only to a much lesser degree. They seemed to be the simplest movements possible for accomplishing the goal he set for himself. When other players were faced with having to drive on multiple defenders, they would juke, cross over, and spin in all sorts of fancy ways. Michael Jordan, however, would move his body and the ball in the simplest, most direct trajectory to allow him to get up for the dunk—spinning and juking only minimally and fluidly. That’s beautiful.

Thus I think that one of the properties that the objective sense of “beauty” refers to is that of solving a complex problem in the simplest way possible. This is a property that can be shared by dunks, musical harmonies, and mathematical proofs. It’s the property referred to when a theory is called “elegant” or a movement is called “natural.” It’s apparent in the shape of a dolphin’s body and its movements. Thus, this kind of beauty is both in works of human art and in nature. I would say that Michael Jordan’s moves belong to both categories.

Comments (6)

Guest's picture


Sunday, August 20, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

I'd say people just replace "Beauty" for "God," bu

I'd say people just replace "Beauty" for "God," but,
the real point missed is...
...if the satan character wasn't in the bible it would only be two pages, stoppin' with ".....god created Eve for Adam and they lived happily ever after. THE END."

Guest's picture


Sunday, August 20, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

From the point of view of objectivity, to be a

From the point of view of objectivity, to be an actual state of affairs,the existence of subjectivity must be objectively true, must be objectively the case-- Which, according to the current notion of objectivity, means it must be true even without any mind existing at all to think it is the case; a very peculiar result.
And from the subjective point of view objectivity surely can't be true without the notion being in at least one mind-- how would it be possible to know it or even have it as an object of consideration if there was no notion of it? And there are no notions without minds (unless you want to posit disembodied thought)
Objectivity must be subjective and subjectivity must be objective then from the respective points of view.
If we can't get out of our minds to see whether something exists objectively independent of mind then how would we know? And if we can have objective notions then some notions are not subjectively confined to mind and are then independent of mind--- if so whence do they come? do we not then think with our minds?
It certainly is possible to avoid positing any subjective point of view-- just eliminate the notion of
"I" from the expression. Instead of "I am thinking"
it is said "there is thinking" and instead of "I have changed my mind" there is "the mind has changed" or even
this: instead of "I like pizza" one says "there is a liking for pizza" Even further: instead of "I have a
bad feeling about this" one can say " it is claimed that there is a bad feeling had by an entity called an 'I' ". and finally, "I find this ugly"(or beautiful) can be said this way: "there is ugliness" (or beauty) or "there is a claim that there is an entity called an "I" which expriences beauty".
It seems to me that objectification and subjectification are essentially points of view which amount to premises-- underlying presumptions that dictate which form of expression is appropriate, the subjective construction or the objective construction.
And to take the next step, a statement like "it seems to me" or "in my opinion" can be seen as objective or subjective by applying the respective objective or objective points of view. Subjective because these are notions in a mind and objective because notions in a mind can be an objective fact (or these notions are outside of mind and so, what? neither subjective nor objective?) These above phrases or any other expressions are not in themselves subjective or objective but rather can be seen from an objective or subjective point of view. Objective and subjective are in part modes of expression.
I think trying to indubitably decide for all what is the case or try to reach a universal consensus on the question whether there is a true and absolute disposition of the world apart from any points of view --- leads to a blind alley simply because the question of how much of the world is word or concept and how much is apart from word or concept ultimately will come down to one party saying they directly see that there is an object apart from the word and the other saying they directly see that there is no
thing that is apart from the word-- word and object are abstracted from a somewhat. Where does the world start and the word or concept end? The statement "the world is separate from words"--- this split presumed between world and words-- what part of it is words and what part world? It will come down to personal preference where the line is drawn--- if there is a compulsion to draw the line in the first place.
The bottom line: if there is no one point at which all opinion converges then these must remain points of view.
And this goes for all distinctions including the line between beauty and ugliness.
To speak more broadly about it the basics of
our world are decided in good measure by premises, by fiat, not by conclusion. If it is said that the difference between a premise and a conclusion is that the premises lead to the conclusion necessarily or contingently or somesuch-- one can add that the dominant premise in this situation is the premise that the premises do lead to a conclusion.
The ancient Mayans thought a distended skull shape was a beautiful thing and so pressed their infants skulls between boards to achieve this result. I don't share their taste.
What is beautiful to one can subsequently under different conditions or under influence of a different frame of mind appear less so -- even ugly.
It seems safe to say that there is no universal standard for beauty.
Is there objective beauty? I would say there is, in the sense that what one finds beautiful, as with what
one finds good tasting, simply seems to appear independent of desire (presuming an agent, an I and this i does something to produce the next thought--I find not trace of this doing something. That which is considered a result of the machinations of the I just arises which I can find no trace of machinations, just he next thought arising) ; as in " I wanted to find good- tasting your first attempt at an Austrian torte but alas
I did not find it good-tasting". All there is is what arises as compellingly the case either as regards beauty and in the case of truth. The I doesno't decide what is compellingly the case-- it just arises as compellingly the case and is spoken or is not spoken. And what that is--as it arises to be said at this moment as being compellingly the case--- is that people will differ as to what is compellingly the case concerning beauty or ugliness or truth.
The phrase " in my opinion" can be seen as just as objective or subjective as the phrase "this is the case" --when taken from either the objective or subjective point of view. They both involve notions in the mind
and that may be seen as an objective fact. And they both are objectively the case as their objectivity is realized within a subjective mind.
One can split the world into subjective and objective certainly-- but I really don't see why it would be useful to do so to discover what constitutes beauty.
The statements "in my opinion, this is beautiful" and "this is objectively beautiful" can both be seen as subjective and objective for the reasons above and the issue of beauty is independent of the subjective or objective.
I want to thankyou for this forum and this blog and for your radio program-- great and unique idea.
I look forward to hearing you both on Sundays and I hope to call in sometime. Don't worry, I will keep my comments brief.

Guest's picture


Friday, July 6, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Mr. Van Leeuwen et. al., What beautiful postings

Mr. Van Leeuwen et. al.,
What beautiful postings up here: simplicity and clarity.
What of the representation of the mangy cat? Could that be said to overlay a level of more 'objective' beauty on to the relatively, subjectively beautiful cat?
You have not addressed the complex issue of representation at all here, have you? Is it Michael Jordan's move to the basket or the camera work that is beautiful, or both?
-- Russell Erwin www.russellerwin.com

Guest's picture


Wednesday, August 15, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

I am an artist (musician), as is my father, and th

I am an artist (musician), as is my father, and this particular discussion is one we've been having for many years. My father, unlike me, believes in some form of objective beauty. His views reflect those of the author: that there are objects, works, and actions that possess certain qualities which make them INHERENTLY beautiful, whether we see them or not. This is an assertion I reject.
In the first place, the examples of beauty posed above by the author seem to assume some sort of universal reaction which is in no way certain. The reaction to any given object as "beautiful" is dictated in large part by our cultural upbringing and our culturally formed paradigms. What do I mean by this? What I mean is that the appreciation of something as "beautiful" requires some minimal level of understanding first. This understanding is made possible by the values imparted to us by our culture (be it ethnic, economic, artistic, religious, etc). Without this level of cultural indoctrination, it is highly questionable whether one will consider any given object or act beautiful.
Examples are legion in which a person hears music from a very different culture than their own, or sees art from a very different culture than their own, and does not deem it beautiful, or worse, deems it ugly or even offensive. Given this reality, the assertion that something can be beautiful independent of whether we recognize it as such or not sets up the possibility for a kind of aesthetic fascism. If individuals or cultures do not see the beauty in something that is "objectively beautiful" then it is very easy to argue that it is through some sort of fault or inferiority on their part. Those who are "in the know" and see the beauty presented them can pat themselves on the back and congratulate themselves for being smart enough, educated enough, and capable enough to see it while deeming those who don't as somehow faulty and/or inferior. This implication is unavoidable if one accepts the idea of beauty being objective. It leaves no room for discussion or disagreement between groups or individuals about what is beautiful. The assertion that there is universal agreement on things that are beautiful is demonstrably false.
It is telling that the examples of "ojective" beauty given by the author are all things particular to the dominant culture -- Western European -- or, in the case of things originating from another culture (such as the Chinese calligraphy he refers to), things that have been accepted into and even adopted in some measure by the dominant culture. He mentions things that are known to him and understood by him. This reflects the author's cultural indoctrination. But what of things that are NOT understood by him at even the most minimal level? Presented with an object from a culture outside his own, an object which he understands little, he may in fact see it as beautiful. But it is perhaps equally likely he will see it as something grotesque or ugly, or even ignore it and discard it as trash. Conversely, he may see something from this foreign culture which it regards as useless and lacking in beauty, and in fact see some beauty in it himself. All of these assessments of beauty or the lack thereof are based on cultural indoctrination and the beauty paradigms which we absorb through that indoctrination. A discussion of beauty as "objective" taken to its logical conclusion, seems to make a certain level of arrogance unavoidable.

Guest's picture


Sunday, October 14, 2007 -- 5:00 PM

Hi, everybody. I?m Melahuac Hernández from Mexi

Hi, everybody. I?m Melahuac Hernández from Mexico. First fo all,I want to congratulate you for this site.
About the subject: I agree that there is an objective property of being beautiful. But I think too that that view needs more argumentation than Mr. D. S. Neil Van Leeuwen has already done. I think that Mr. Van Leeuwen is not pointing to the central philosophical issue in the discussion between objective vs. subjective views about beauty. Of curse there are the objective and the subjective meanings of 'beautiful' (and the related kind of judgements that we can do with that word). But in an important sense both meanings seems to be subjective. If I say: '2+2=4' I say something true, and that is true independently of any mind existing. But, if I say: 'The Mona Lisa is beautiful' is that really true independently of any mind? It seems that if the answer is 'Yes' then those who think that Mona Lisa?s paint is beautiful must be either absolutely right or absolutely wrong. If so, then suppose that 'Mona Lisa is beautiful' is true in this sense. Then, whoever lacks a positive aesthetic experience at the time he sees the Mona Lisa?s paint must have failed to see some of its properties. That is: it must be impossible the case that someone is aware of that paint properties but lack an adequate aesthetic experience. But, is it really incoherent that case? Is it incoherent that someone knows that some musical masterpiece is simple, harmonic, and has fluid motion, but lacks any positive aesthetic experience? The right answer seems to be 'No'. It seems that he could say truly and without any contradiction: "I see all this properties in that object but I have no special experience about it". What I think Mr. Van Leeuwen missed is the special connection that an objective property of beautifulness and the subjective experience must have. If there is any objective property of being beautiful then that property must have an intrinsic and a necessary connection with an appropriate subjective experience. But, which property that we can find in any object has that kind of connection? Which property could have that kind of connection? It seems that we can always think in a subject being aware of all the properties of an object but lacking any aesthetic experience. It seems a matter of fact that we DO have these experiences when we are aware of an object having those properties. But this seems to be relative to our minds being constituted as they are in fact. Perhaps we are so psychologically constituted that we have this kind of experiences, but there are other (possible) mind constitutions that lack them. Then, the apparent objective fact we see depends of an accidental feature of our mind. If so, is relative to our mind being the way it is that we find beauty in things. Therefore: there is no objective property of beautifulness.
I lack an answer to this objection so my belief in objective aesthetical properties is unfounded, so I see much more strength in the subjective view. But, what do you think??

Chris's picture


Tuesday, September 29, 2009 -- 5:00 PM

Thought you'd be interested to know that recent "s

Thought you'd be interested to know that recent "spiritual" (or "practical metaphysics") research seems to be showing that aesthetics is different to beauty/ugliness.
Aesthetics is using the formulas of a universe without using the suggested Game. Beauty/Ugliness is aesthetics PLUS Game considerations.
So beauty is objective if one goes into enough detail specifying the exact Game it refers to (and relevant aberrations on that game, of course).
My recent blog post on the subject gives some clear examples, and comments on aesthetics vs. emotions . . .