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.