Beauty is commonly described as a feature of objects that makes these objects pleasurable to perceive. Such objects include landscapes, sunsets, humans and works of art. Beauty, together with art and taste, is the main subject of aesthetics, one of the major branches of philosophy. As a positive aesthetic value, it is contrasted with ugliness as its negative counterpart. Along with truth and goodness it is one of the transcendentals, which are often considered the three fundamental concepts of human understanding.
One difficulty in understanding beauty is due to the fact that it has both objective and subjective aspects: it is seen as a property of things but also as depending on the emotional response of observers. Because of its subjective side, beauty is said to be “in the eye of the beholder”. It has been argued that the ability on the side of the subject needed to perceive and judge beauty, sometimes referred to as the “sense of taste”, can be trained and that the verdicts of experts coincide in the long run. This would suggest that the standards of validity of judgments of beauty are intersubjective, i.e. dependent on a group of judges, rather than fully subjective or fully objective.
Conceptions of beauty aim to capture what is essential to all beautiful things. Classical conceptions define beauty in terms of the relation between the beautiful object as a whole and its parts: the parts should stand in the right proportion to each other and thus compose an integrated harmonious whole. Hedonist conceptions see a necessary connection between pleasure and beauty, e.g. that for an object to be beautiful is for it to cause disinterested pleasure. Other conceptions include defining beautiful objects in terms of their value, of a loving attitude towards them or of their function.
Beauty, together with art and taste, is the main subject of aesthetics, one of the major branches of philosophy. Beauty is usually categorized as an aesthetic property besides other properties, like grace, elegance or the sublime. As a positive aesthetic value, beauty is contrasted with ugliness as its negative counterpart. Beauty is often listed as one of the three fundamental concepts of human understanding besides truth and goodness.
Objectivists or realists see beauty as an objective or mind-independent feature of beautiful things, which is denied by subjectivists. The source of this debate is that judgments of beauty seem to be based on subjective grounds, namely our feelings, while claiming universal correctness at the same time. This tension is sometimes referred to as the “antinomy of taste”. Adherents of both sides have suggested that a certain faculty, commonly called a sense of taste, is necessary for making reliable judgments about beauty. David Hume, for example, suggests that this faculty can be trained and that the verdicts of experts coincide in the long run.
Beauty is mainly discussed in relation to concrete objects accessible to sensory perception. It is often suggested that the beauty of a thing supervenes on the sensory features of this thing. But it has also been proposed that abstract objects like stories or mathematical proofs can be beautiful. Beauty plays a central role in works of art but there is also beauty outside the field of art, especially concerning the beauty of nature. An influential distinction among beautiful things, due to Immanuel Kant, is that between dependent and free beauty. A thing has dependent beauty if its beauty depends on the conception or function of this thing, unlike free or absolute beauty. Examples of dependent beauty include an ox that is beautiful as an ox but not as a horse or a photograph that is beautiful because it depicts a beautiful building but that lacks beauty generally speaking because of its low quality.
Further information: objectivity and subjectivity
Judgments of beauty seem to occupy an intermediary position between objective judgments, e.g. concerning the mass and shape of a grapefruit, and subjective likes, e.g. concerning whether the grapefruit tastes good. Judgments of beauty differ from the former because they are based on subjective feelings rather than objective perception. But they also differ from the latter because they lay claim on universal correctness. This tension is also reflected in common language. On the one hand, we talk about beauty as an objective feature of the world that is ascribed, for example, to landscapes, paintings or humans. The subjective side, on the other hand, is expressed in sayings like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.
These two positions are often referred to as objectivism (or realism) and subjectivism. Objectivism is the traditional view while subjectivism developed more recently in western philosophy. Objectivists hold that beauty is a mind-independent feature of things. On this account, the beauty of a landscape is independent of who perceives it or whether it is perceived at all. Disagreements may be explained by an inability to perceive this feature, sometimes referred to as a “lack of taste”. Subjectivism, on the other hand, denies the mind-independent existence of beauty. Influential for the development of this position was John Locke’s distinction between primary qualities, which the object has independent of the observer, and secondary qualities, which constitute powers in the object to produce certain ideas in the observer. When applied to beauty, there is still a sense in which it depends on the object and its powers. But this account makes the possibility of genuine disagreements about claims of beauty implausible since the same object may produce very different ideas in distinct observers. The notion of “taste” can still be used to explain why different people disagree about what is beautiful. But there is no objectively right or wrong taste, there are just different tastes.
The problem with both the objectivist and the subjectivist position in their extreme form is that each has to deny some intuitions about beauty. This issue is sometimes discussed under the label “antinomy of taste”. It has prompted various philosophers to seek a unified theory that can take all these intuitions into account. One promising route to solve this problem is to move from subjective to intersubjective theories, which hold that the standards of validity of judgments of taste are intersubjective or dependent on a group of judges rather than objective. This approach tries to explain how genuine disagreement about beauty is possible despite the fact that beauty is a mind-dependent property, dependent not on an individual but a group. A closely related theory sees beauty as a secondary or response-dependent property. On one such account, an object is beautiful “if it causes pleasure by virtue of its aesthetic properties”. The problem that different people respond differently can be addressed by combining response-dependence theories with so-called ideal-observer theories: it only matters how an ideal observer would respond. There is no general agreement on how “ideal observers” are to be defined, but it is usually assumed that they are experienced judges of beauty with a fully developed sense of taste. This suggests an indirect way of solving the antinomy of taste: instead of looking for necessary and sufficient conditions of beauty itself, we may learn to identify the qualities of good critics and rely on their judgments. This approach only works if unanimity among experts was ensured. But even experienced judges may disagree in their judgments, which threatens to undermine ideal-observer theories.