Thursday, March 10, 2005

On Beauty


This post is inspired by last night's Heart of Philosophy presentation by John Armstrong. John is a lecturer at Melbourne University, and has written several books...

John starts by saying something I think we can all agree - there is no agreement. But I think we can do better than this.

Let us start by asking what things are beautiful. We might come up with a grab bag of paintings, people, places, pieces of music etc. Let us then start by asking what things are not beautiful. Perhaps in this list we have such things as a picture of some concrete, a squat office building.

It is likely that if we spent long enough looking at these lists and fleshing them out, we would find some disagreement about which should be where. In short, there is no simple general principle from which we can accurately categorise things. In fact, there is likely to be quite strong disagreement about it.

It is tempting now to launch into a discussion about Wittgenstein's ideas of family resemblances, but ultimately I think that does not apply here. The disagreement is not caused by any inherent vagueness in what we are talking about, but by subjectivity. Different people find different things equally beautiful. The problem is not vagueness between beauty and ugliness, but disagreement over what things are beautiful to the same degree.

This line of argument, I realised, is only half the story. Because beauty isn't just an expression like "weighing more than 50kg." There is something unique that beauty feels like. When I experience beauty, I can distinguish that feeling from other feelings - feelings of happiness, sadness, fun, loneliness etc are all quite distinct. What beauty is like, I would suggest, is quite similar for most people. There are variations in intensity, perhaps, but not in kind. Like anger, fear, love etc, beauty has a quality all its own.

This for John is not where the discussion ends. Despite the subjectivity in categorising beautiful objects, he says, there may still be a sense in which we can further refine our sense of beauty. There might still be ways in which one person's definition of beauty might be better than another's. Consider morality - different people find different things acceptable. But just because a murderer might not think of his actions as being wrong, doesn't mean that his character and judgement are okay.

Of course, being mistaken about beauty is a good deal different to being mistaken about morality. Mostly this is because beauty is not a practical problem for society in the same way that crime presents a practical problem. However, might there be a sense in which beauty is, and indeed should be, defined by collective belief? John argues no, but I think there is space to explore this idea. He argues a more personal and consequentialist position. Sure, we might think something is beautiful, but we might be better off if we found beauty in different ways. For example, it would be much better if we could find a person beautiful for practical reasons (loyalty, trustworthiness, well-suited character, etc) than for impractical ones (wealth, beauty) because in many ways we might become disappointed by the latter.

Unfortunately, this is to say that beauty only has merit in terms of other things - that it has no *intrinsic* value. I think this cannot be right. However, I do think he has hit upon something. There really is a sense in which subjective belief might still be wrong. Teasing out the nature of beauty in this respect could well reveal some quite interesting things.



Blogger Jack Naka said...

I have a busty beauty site. It pretty much covers busty beauty related stuff. Check it out if you get time :-)

10/10/2005 04:52:00 AM  

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