What is beauty?

Paul asked:

What is beauty?

Answer by Tony Fahey

Whilst in philosophy in particular, and academic discourse in general, it is advisable to avoid sweeping statements, I believe it is fair to say that the issue of defining beauty is one that has occupied the mind, not just of scholars, but of many people over several millennia. For example, for Plato, an ideal from of beauty is not found in the natural world: in individual things such as objets d’art, people, animals and so on, but in the Realm of Ideal Forms which it shares with other forms such as Justice. Plato acknowledged that everything that belongs in the material world is made of substances that time will eventually erode. However, he also held that everything is made after a timeless mould that is eternal and immutable; that is, everything in the physical world is but an inferior copy of an ideal form which exists in, which for him, is the ‘real’ world.

According to Plato then, all that we perceive in the material world are but poor imitations of these original forms. Against this, Aristotle argues that there is no such as an absolute or ideal form of beauty. Things in the material world are real. Nature, he says, is the real world; things that are in the human soul/mind are not, as Plato holds, a priori concepts, but concepts and ideas gained by empirical experience. That which we perceive as beautiful, he argues, is not some poor imitation of that which has its archetype in a metaphysical realm, rather it is a representation of a quality intrinsic to the thing itself.

However, rather than continuing with a detailed and long-winded history of the issue of the question of beauty over the centuries, let me give you my own understanding of this concept as I have come to see it.

In Philosophy the rubric under which the issue of beauty is discussed is aesthetics. The term aesthetics derives from the Greek word aisthanomai, which means to perceive, to feel and it is in this ancient term that we find the essence of the meaning of that which we know as ‘beauty’. That is, it is the appreciation by the mind of the quality we recognize as beautiful in phenomena (i.e. things in the world outside the mind) transmitted to the mind through the senses. The question, of course, that arises from this description is: ‘what is it in the mind that allows it to make this judgment call?’

In the issue of the relationship between mind and phenomena, from Kant we learn that ‘although all knowledge begins in experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of it’. What Kant argues is that before we experience things in themselves (phenomena), there already exists, within the mind, a certain a priori framework that allows us to give meaning to that which we experience through the senses. For Kant, this framework is made up of the intuitions space and time and the law of cause and effect. Now, it seems to me that in the much the same way that Kant makes the case for space and time, and the law of causality privileging the mind to put order on that which the mind experiences, so too can a case be made that there also exists within the mind (let us call it) a property that privileges it to make a judgment call on that which it experiences or perceives as beauty. That property is what I call the instinct of equilibrity.

Let me explain:

Human consciousness privileges us with an awareness of our existence. Intentionality, as a feature of consciousness, privileges us with the wherewithal to contemplate affairs of the world. However, in order to put order on that which we experience, as well as space and time and the law of cause and effect, nature has furnished the mind/brain with another, equally important, feature which I call the instinct of equilibrity: that is, an innate sense of equilibrium which is essential in the making of judgment calls necessary not only for our safety and development, but also for our appreciation of that quality in things which we have come to describe as beautiful. It is in virtue of this feature that the mind rises above the prosaic or mundane, to focus on that special indefinable quality in things that makes them worth experiencing simply for the enjoyment or pleasure from that which they are in themselves. It is in virtue of this feature that we develop our sense of justice, goodness, truth, and beauty – qualities which, whilst perhaps indefinable in themselves, are essential in establishing an environment in which human beings can live, prosper, grow, and even come to appreciate that which find aesthetically pleasing or beautiful.

It seems to me that it is this instinct, this sense of balance or proportionality, that was in Keats’ mind when he said that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty! – that is all/Ye know and all ye need to know’. That is, at its most refined, beauty is truth, and truth is beauty.

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