what is beauty?

Use this forum to have philosophical discussions about aesthetics and art. What is art? What is beauty? What makes art good? You can also use this forum to discuss philosophy in the arts, namely to discuss the philosophical points in any particular movie, TV show, book or story.
User avatar
jlaugh
New Trial Member
Posts: 9
Joined: September 19th, 2018, 3:44 am

Re: what is beauty?

Post by jlaugh » October 19th, 2018, 2:57 am

Beauty is one of the hardest things to define. Sure, it can be experienced and imagined, but it defies representation. We can allude to "the beautiful" in order to make one feel beauty, but what its essence is constituted by is an open question. But it is not a futile question. As one user has mentioned above, it does not necessarily require consensus, for beauty can be extremely private.

It is best to look at Kant's conception of "the beautiful." At the same time, it is also important to consider Lyotard's stance--the difference he posits between that which can be imagined (however poorly) but cannot be represented. That which defies representation can only be alluded to, it would seem (as Lyotard argues). I believe there is great merit in this argument. How, for instance do polytheistic cultures represent Gods? How can there be Gods when even God, like beauty, is difficult to define. Sure, a religious person would be able define God, but we can't deny that "God" is un-representable. Yet, we have different representations of Gods in polytheistic cultures, most representations being anthropomorphic. This is not to discredit polytheism, but merely to point to the how cultures influence human imagination.

I believe one must necessarily talk about culture while trying to define beauty, although beauty is very often private and does not require consensus. In this regard, I think it is better, as has been argued, to adopt an anthropological approach as opposed to a purely philosophical one (source: Anthropology: What Does it Mean to Be Human?). In fact, some argue that, when done right, anthropology becomes "applied philosophy."

Dachshund
Posts: 498
Joined: October 11th, 2017, 5:30 pm

Re: what is beauty?

Post by Dachshund » October 19th, 2018, 11:32 pm

I disagree with you when you say that beauty cannot be represented. Edmund Burke the British philosopher wrote a fascinating essay on the aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime in 1756.

Burke defined "beauty as follows... "By beauty, I mean that quality, or those qualities in bodies, by which they cause love, or some similar passion to it." He states in his essay that what he refers to "love" is an altogether different "passion" from lust or desire, writing...

"I distinguish love ( by which I mean that satisfaction that arises to the mind upon contemplating anything beautiful, of whatever nature it may be,) from desire or lust; which is an energy of the mind, that hurries us on to the possession of certain object, that do not affect us as they are beautiful, but by means altogether different. We shall have a strong desire for a woman of no remarkable beauty; whilst the greatest beauty in men, or in other animals, though it causes love, yet excites nothing of desire. Which shows that beauty, and the passion caused by beauty, which I call love is different from desire (lust), though desire may sometimes operate along with it; but it is to this later that we must attribute those violent and tempestuous passions, and the consequent emotions of the body which attend what is called love in some of its ordinary acceptations, and not to the effects of beauty merely as it is as such."

To cut a long story very short Burke argued that beautiful objects predominantly tend to have certain clearly identifiable OBJECTIVE qualities/properties/characteristics. These qualities/properties included, he said, the following: (1) being comparatively SMALL in size.

(2) Having a SMOOTH and/or SOFT texture.

(3) Exhibiting a " GRADUAL VARIATION" in form ( by which he meant clearly displaying sinuous, gently flowing, curves like those that mark out the classic "hour-glass" figure traditionally regarded as a hallmark of beauty in a women; or , in other words, the parts that comprise beautiful objects are not sharply angular, like, for example, the eight legs that "spike out" in a "perpendicular" -type fashion from the body of a large spider. Burke explained what he meant by "gradual variation" quite evocatively as follows:

"Observe that part of a beautiful woman where she is perhaps most beautiful, about the neck and breasts; the smoothness, the softness, the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface, which is never for the smallest space the same; the deceitful maze through which the unsteady eye glides giddily, without knowing where to fix, or wither it is carried. Is this not a demonstration of that change of surface, continual, and yet hardly percept able at any point, which forms one of the great constituents of beauty ?"

(4) Beautiful object are typically not robust or conspicuously muscular/strong/rugged; rather, they tend to display an overall appearance of "DELICACY" or even "fragility". Among animals, for example, the whippet and the greyhound are more beautiful than the mastiff and the pug. Equally, in the plant kingdom the mighty Oak tree or towering Elm while they are majestic and inspire in us a certain "reverence" , we do not say that they are beautiful as we do when admiring a delicate rose bloom, a carnation or a flowering Orchid.

(5) In terms of their COLOUR, beautiful objects were, Burke asserted never dusky or muddy, but CLEAR, CLEAN and FAIR; beautiful things, he said, also possessed colours that were MILD, and never of "the strongest kind" such as, for instance: "light greens; soft blues; weak whites; pink reds and violet. Thirdly, in beautiful objects, "if the colours be strong and vivid, they are always diversified, and the object is never of one strong colour. Thus, Burke point out, " in a fine (facial) complexion"there is not only some variety in the colouring, but the colours: neither the red nor the white are strong and glaring. Besides, they are mixed in such a manner, and with such SUBTLE GRADUATIONS, that it is impossible to fix the bounds."

Some contemporary philosophers working in the field of aesthetics have argued that Burke was actually describing a particular sub-type of beauty we call "prettiness". I agree. Though, it is true, is it not, that what we call "pretty" objects do primary tend have the objective qualities that Burke identified in: (comparative) SMALLNESS, SMOOTHNESS and SOFTNESS, GRADUAL VARIATION, DELICACY and so on. Also, pretty objects do indeed evoke in us the passion of love as Burke conceptualised it ( that is, not as sexual desire/lust, but as a "social passion" that is pleasurable and makes us want to draw ourselves us physically closer to the pretty (beautiful) object we have encountered.

I find the idea that "prettiness" - which is largely agreed by modern scholars in the field of aesthetics to be a valid "species" of beauty- can be predictably/reliably attributed to a diverse range of natural and artificial objects that possess the distinctive, OBJECTIVE properties of: smallness, smoothness/softness, gradual variation, delicacy, etc; identified by Burke, to be absolutely intriguing.

Regards

Dachshund

Steve3007
Posts: 5552
Joined: June 15th, 2011, 5:53 pm
Favorite Philosopher: Eratosthenes
Location: UK

Re: what is beauty?

Post by Steve3007 » October 22nd, 2018, 6:22 am

Of the above proposed universal properties of those things we consider to be beautiful, I find the "gradual variation" one the most interesting. I find it interesting because it's possible to see inter-disciplinary links:

In the mathematical descriptions of Nature, if we have an independent variable, x, and a dependant variable, y, then we can draw the familiar kind of x versus y graph. The slope of the graph at any given point is given by Differential Calculus as dy/dx. A smoothly varying function has a defined value for dy/dx at every point. A function with a discontinuity - a sudden change - has a point where dy/dx is undefined; it has no value. These kinds of discontinuities are usually considered to be "non-physical" or "unnatural". They often indicate a point where the laws are not accurately describing nature. An example of this can be seen in a topic in which I was discussing the Theory of Special Relativity:

viewtopic.php?p=321015#p321015

The discontinuity in the Minkowski Diagram in that post indicates a point where a non-physical simplifying assumption has been made. In this case, the assumption was that a traveller can instantaneously change their velocity. This is a simplification. Instantaneous change in velocity implies infinite acceleration, which is physically impossible.

So perhaps the perceived beauty of the continuous, as opposed to the discrete, is a reflection of the continuousness of Nature.

Also, Burke was famously an advocate of Evolution against Revolution. This appears to be another example, in the context of sociology and politics, of the contrast between gradualism and discontinuity. At the point on the graph where the discontinuity happens, dy/dx is undefined. Likewise, at the point of Revolution, the rules of society are in flux. Metaphorically, discontinuity can perhaps be regarded as representing uncertainty, lack of definition or anarchy - a point at which preceding information is destroyed or ignored. A singularity.

Dachshund
Posts: 498
Joined: October 11th, 2017, 5:30 pm

Re: what is beauty?

Post by Dachshund » October 22nd, 2018, 7:39 am

Steve3007 wrote:
October 22nd, 2018, 6:22 am

Also, Burke was famously an advocate of Evolution against Revolution. This appears to be another example, in the context of sociology and politics, of the contrast between gradualism and discontinuity. At the point on the graph where the discontinuity happens, dy/dx is undefined. Likewise, at the point of Revolution, the rules of society are in flux. Metaphorically, discontinuity can perhaps be regarded as representing uncertainty, lack of definition or anarchy - a point at which preceding information is destroyed or ignored. A singularity.
Yes, very interesting stuff, isn't it? As you know Burke is universally regarded to be the founding father of political Conservatism in the modern era. One of the fundamental tenets of Conservatism is that any reform of the status quo in a State must be undertaken with extreme caution and always in an incremental , gradual manner that will not effect any sudden discontinuity ( departure or break) with respect to the existing forms and functions of social institutions that have been inherited from the past. That is, by slow evolution as opposed to rapid revolution. Burke predicted that the sudden political convulsion ( "discontinuity") that was the French Revolution, would, because it was a precipitate, "unnatural" ( "calculated") phenomenon, would inevitably have catastrophic results. He was soon vindicated. To use your terminology, the storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789 by the Jocabin mob represented " a point at which preceding information" -( i.e. the existing institutions , customs and traditions of the State that had been inherited from the past, and which had developed into their current form over the passage of many centuries) - was ignored and violently destroyed... "A singularity" The "Reign of Terror" and France's embroilment in 10 years of devastating military conflict from 1792-1802 that were a direct consequence the revolution bore witness to the wisdom of the Burkean Conservative doctrine of respecting the status quo and,when initiating any reforms, to make sure that they were always very prudent, gradual and incremental.

Now you know one of the reasons I am a Tory , Steve !!! :)

Dachshund
Posts: 498
Joined: October 11th, 2017, 5:30 pm

Re: what is beauty?

Post by Dachshund » October 22nd, 2018, 11:47 am

Steve3007 wrote:
October 22nd, 2018, 6:22 am
Of the above proposed universal properties of those things we consider to be beautiful, I find the "gradual variation" one the most interesting....

So perhaps the perceived beauty of the continuous, as opposed to the discrete, is a reflection of the continuousness of Nature.
Burke stipulated that continuous, gradual variation was an objective property possessed by beautiful objects. By continuous, gradual variation he was referring to a curved (surface) contour of the sinuoustype;or, more specifically the characteristic ( and prominent) presence in beautiful things of a relatively gentle/ subtle sinusoidal curvaceousness of surface contour.


Given this, I must point out, Steve, when you refer to "the continuousness (sic) of nature" that there are many natural objects that have extremely irregular/ discontinuous forms and contouring which Burke would definitely not regard as displaying the kind gradual variation he identified ( correctly IMO) as a hallmark characteristic property of beautiful objects . For example, the natural anatomy of many plants and animals is very angular in the sense that they exhibit legion prominent spines, prickles, thorns, warts or tentacles. The Australian "Thorny Dragon", for instance, is a type of lizard that is entirely covered in sharp conical spines; its scientific name, Moloch horridus, is appropriate , as it is a "horribly" ugly creature indeed; the Spiny-backed Orb Weaver spiders are an other example of conspicuously spikey, sharply angular animals that are frighteningly ugly; the "star-nosed" mole, thus named for the 22 rather nauseating, pink tentacles that protrude from its nose is also a specimen notoriously lacking in beauty; wart hogs; sea urchins; the Spike-headed Katydid, the Porcupine fish ( aka "Blowfish), the Crown of Thorns Starfish are all other examples of animals covered in protruding, sharply angular warts, spines, prickles, thorns or spikes, that are universally regarded as being uncommonly ugly for that precise reason. The same principle of pronounced sharp, discontinuous angularity in the form of protruding spikes, spines, or other irregularly shaped "spiney" anatomical structures dominates the appearance of many of the the world's most exceedingly ugly plants, for instance: the "Thorn of the Cross" shrub; the "Corpse Flower"; the "Elephant's Trunk" plant and the "Stinky Squid" mushroom to name but a few.


As you are (I presume) interested in the Burkes conception of "gradual variation" as a classic property of beautiful thing, let me leave with a little more of what he has to say about this phenomenon quoted directly from his 1756 thesis in aesthetics: "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Nature of the Beautiful and the Sublime."




"But as perfectly beautiful bodies are not composed of angular parts, so their parts never continue long in the same right line. They vary their direction every moment, and they change under the eye by a deviation continually carrying on, but for whose beginning or end you will find it difficult to ascertain a point. The view of a beautiful bird will illustrate this observation. Here we see the head increasing insensibly to the middle, from whence it lessens gradually until it mixes with the neck; the neck loses itself in a larger swell, which continues to the middle of the body, when the whole decreases again to the tail; the tail takes a new direction, but it soon varies its new course, it blends again with the other parts, and the line is perpetually changing, above,below, on every side. In this description I have before me the idea of a Dove; it agrees very well with most of the conditions of beauty. It is smooth and downy, it parts are (to use that expression), melted into one another; you are presented with no sudden protuberance through the whole, and yet the whole is continually changing. Observe that part of a beautiful woman where she is perhaps the most beautiful, about the neck and breasts; the smoothness, the softness, the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface, which is never for the smallest space the same; the deceitful maze through which the unsteady eye glides giddily, without knowing where to fix or wither it is carried. Is not this a demonstration of that change of surface, continual, and yet hardly perceptible at any point, which forms one of the great constituents of beauty? It gives me no small pleasure that I can strengthen my theory in this point by the opinion of the very ingenious Mr Hogarth, whose idea of the line of beauty I take in general to be extremely just. But the idea of variation, without attending so accurately to the manner of variation, had led him to consider angular figures as beautiful; these figures, it is true, vary greatly, yet they vary in a sudden and broken manner, and I do not find any natural object which is angular, and at the same time beautiful. Indeed, few natural objects are entirely angular. But I think those which approach most nearly to it are the ugliest. I must add too, that so far as I could observe of nature, though the varied line is that alone in which beauty is found, yet there is no particular line which is always found in the most completely beautiful, and which is therefore beautiful in preference to all other lines. At least I never could observe it."


Remarkable stuff, isn't it, Steve ?


As I have said, Burke's conception of beauty (as such) is probably more accurately understood as what we would now denote as "prettiness". But, prettiness is accepted as a valid sub-type of beauty by most contemporary philosophers working in the field of aesthetics, and I believe that the objective qualities characteristically possessed by pretty objects that Burke's identifies are absolutely correct, namely: smallness, smoothness and/or softness, gradual variation, delicacy, colour/colouration ( as he stipulates their nature in pretty objects - for details of this, see my post above on this thread) and so on. My point is that I believe Burke has managed to make real progress in the matter of providing a clear and meaningful answer the age-old question: "What is beauty ?" IMO he has most assuredly correctly identified several universal, objective properties that are sine qua non attributes of all objects which possess an important species of beauty called "prettiness". This suggests to me that the broader question of what precisely constitutes genuine beauty as such ( and why this is the case) is very likely tractable and not destined to forever remain a elusive, esoteric mystery... a futile, "wild goose hunt".



Regards

Dachshund

User avatar
jlaugh
New Trial Member
Posts: 9
Joined: September 19th, 2018, 3:44 am

Re: what is beauty?

Post by jlaugh » October 23rd, 2018, 1:59 am

Dachshund wrote:
October 19th, 2018, 11:32 pm
I disagree with you when you say that beauty cannot be represented. Edmund Burke the British philosopher wrote a fascinating essay on the aesthetics of the beautiful and the sublime in 1756.

Burke defined "beauty as follows... "By beauty, I mean that quality, or those qualities in bodies, by which they cause love, or some similar passion to it." He states in his essay that what he refers to "love" is an altogether different "passion" from lust or desire, writing...

"I distinguish love ( by which I mean that satisfaction that arises to the mind upon contemplating anything beautiful, of whatever nature it may be,) from desire or lust; which is an energy of the mind, that hurries us on to the possession of certain object, that do not affect us as they are beautiful, but by means altogether different. We shall have a strong desire for a woman of no remarkable beauty; whilst the greatest beauty in men, or in other animals, though it causes love, yet excites nothing of desire. Which shows that beauty, and the passion caused by beauty, which I call love is different from desire (lust), though desire may sometimes operate along with it; but it is to this later that we must attribute those violent and tempestuous passions, and the consequent emotions of the body which attend what is called love in some of its ordinary acceptations, and not to the effects of beauty merely as it is as such."

To cut a long story very short Burke argued that beautiful objects predominantly tend to have certain clearly identifiable OBJECTIVE qualities/properties/characteristics. These qualities/properties included, he said, the following: (1) being comparatively SMALL in size.

(2) Having a SMOOTH and/or SOFT texture.

(3) Exhibiting a " GRADUAL VARIATION" in form ( by which he meant clearly displaying sinuous, gently flowing, curves like those that mark out the classic "hour-glass" figure traditionally regarded as a hallmark of beauty in a women; or , in other words, the parts that comprise beautiful objects are not sharply angular, like, for example, the eight legs that "spike out" in a "perpendicular" -type fashion from the body of a large spider. Burke explained what he meant by "gradual variation" quite evocatively as follows:

"Observe that part of a beautiful woman where she is perhaps most beautiful, about the neck and breasts; the smoothness, the softness, the easy and insensible swell; the variety of the surface, which is never for the smallest space the same; the deceitful maze through which the unsteady eye glides giddily, without knowing where to fix, or wither it is carried. Is this not a demonstration of that change of surface, continual, and yet hardly percept able at any point, which forms one of the great constituents of beauty ?"

(4) Beautiful object are typically not robust or conspicuously muscular/strong/rugged; rather, they tend to display an overall appearance of "DELICACY" or even "fragility". Among animals, for example, the whippet and the greyhound are more beautiful than the mastiff and the pug. Equally, in the plant kingdom the mighty Oak tree or towering Elm while they are majestic and inspire in us a certain "reverence" , we do not say that they are beautiful as we do when admiring a delicate rose bloom, a carnation or a flowering Orchid.

(5) In terms of their COLOUR, beautiful objects were, Burke asserted never dusky or muddy, but CLEAR, CLEAN and FAIR; beautiful things, he said, also possessed colours that were MILD, and never of "the strongest kind" such as, for instance: "light greens; soft blues; weak whites; pink reds and violet. Thirdly, in beautiful objects, "if the colours be strong and vivid, they are always diversified, and the object is never of one strong colour. Thus, Burke point out, " in a fine (facial) complexion"there is not only some variety in the colouring, but the colours: neither the red nor the white are strong and glaring. Besides, they are mixed in such a manner, and with such SUBTLE GRADUATIONS, that it is impossible to fix the bounds."

Some contemporary philosophers working in the field of aesthetics have argued that Burke was actually describing a particular sub-type of beauty we call "prettiness". I agree. Though, it is true, is it not, that what we call "pretty" objects do primary tend have the objective qualities that Burke identified in: (comparative) SMALLNESS, SMOOTHNESS and SOFTNESS, GRADUAL VARIATION, DELICACY and so on. Also, pretty objects do indeed evoke in us the passion of love as Burke conceptualised it ( that is, not as sexual desire/lust, but as a "social passion" that is pleasurable and makes us want to draw ourselves us physically closer to the pretty (beautiful) object we have encountered.

I find the idea that "prettiness" - which is largely agreed by modern scholars in the field of aesthetics to be a valid "species" of beauty- can be predictably/reliably attributed to a diverse range of natural and artificial objects that possess the distinctive, OBJECTIVE properties of: smallness, smoothness/softness, gradual variation, delicacy, etc; identified by Burke, to be absolutely intriguing.

Regards

Dachshund

Thanks for this excerpt. It was very interesting :)

At the same time, Burke's attempt to define beauty seems to deal especially with physical objects. Perhaps, by "objects" Burke means the tangible and intangible, I do not know. In relation to my earlier claim that beauty cannot be represented, I meant by an artist. That is, an artist cannot represent "beauty" itself. There isn't any representation of it. For, it is evoked by objects, feelings, thoughts, and so on. It is to be felt. We know we find something beautiful, and we may know why. We can say, therefore, that "this object 'X' possesses beauty." But we can't paint "beauty"; we can paint something "beautiful." In other words, the essence of beauty--speaking in terms of Ponty's phenomenological approach--is beyond representation, it would seem.

I hope I've made sense, and I look forward to your assessment of this argument :)

Steve3007
Posts: 5552
Joined: June 15th, 2011, 5:53 pm
Favorite Philosopher: Eratosthenes
Location: UK

Re: what is beauty?

Post by Steve3007 » October 23rd, 2018, 4:41 am

viewtopic.php?p=322462#p322462
Dachshund wrote:...Now you know one of the reasons I am a Tory , Steve !!! :)
I don't think any of the passage that precedes the above quote represents any new revelation leading to any sudden new insight into the reasons for your own political views. It's simply about the common sense notion of "not throwing the baby out with the bathwater". That's been pointed out already by various posters, including myself, in various previous posts in other topics. It's been done already. The points of disagreement between you, and me and other posters are not about the general benefits of gradual change over sudden, violent revolution. They're about various details of practical actions and political policies.

Jklint
Posts: 1245
Joined: February 23rd, 2012, 3:06 am

Re: what is beauty?

Post by Jklint » October 23rd, 2018, 3:05 pm

Image

User avatar
LuckyR
Moderator
Posts: 3088
Joined: January 18th, 2015, 1:16 am

Re: what is beauty?

Post by LuckyR » October 25th, 2018, 2:23 am

Jklint wrote:
October 23rd, 2018, 3:05 pm
Image
Cuteness is not equivalent to beautiful
"As usual... it depends."

Jklint
Posts: 1245
Joined: February 23rd, 2012, 3:06 am

Re: what is beauty?

Post by Jklint » October 25th, 2018, 3:18 am

You're right! I already knew that but I really liked the picture.

Burning ghost
Posts: 2805
Joined: February 27th, 2016, 3:10 am

Re: what is beauty?

Post by Burning ghost » October 25th, 2018, 3:22 am

Can something “ugly” be “cute”?
AKA badgerjelly

Jklint
Posts: 1245
Joined: February 23rd, 2012, 3:06 am

Re: what is beauty?

Post by Jklint » October 25th, 2018, 4:09 am

Burning ghost wrote:
October 25th, 2018, 3:22 am
Can something “ugly” be “cute”?
As usual, it's all in the eye or ear of the beholder or listener.

Post Reply