The concept of beauty has been a subject of debate for several centuries. It is associated with various aspects of society and culture. For instance, it has been problematic in relation to gender, race, and political association. This has been addressed by social justice movements in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
One definition of beauty is the ‘acquiescence of the will’. This is a philosophy that emphasizes the subjective nature of aesthetic judgments and how a person’s acquiescence to an object’s appeal can enrich its meaning. Another explanation of beauty is based on the idea of ‘objectified pleasure’. These concepts are sometimes used to criticize the distinction between fine art and craft.
Aristotle and Plato largely disagreed on the nature of beauty. Despite the differences between the two philosophers, both ascribed value to beauty. However, Aristotle interpreted beauty more dispassionately than Plato. He believed that beauty is not only a physical quality, but that it is a matter of ‘forms and proportions’.
In the eighteenth century, a variety of theories were developed about beauty. Until the nineteenth century, most philosophical accounts were based on the idea that beauty is an objective quality. For example, the mathematical position of Euclid identifies beauty with a symmetrical relationship between parts and the whole. Likewise, the idealist conception of beauty is expressed in Augustine’s De Veritate Religione.
Plotinus, however, saw that beauty is not reducible to physical attributes. He observed that an object can be perceived in different colors at different times of the day. Similarly, a line can be divided into two parts and perceived as one color at noon and as two different colors at midnight. Moreover, Plotinus observed that beauty is not a matter of the’shape’ of the object, but rather a ‘form’ of the object.
Kant, meanwhile, attempted to rescue pre-Humean philosophy by sundring the sublime from the beautiful. His treatment of beauty in terms of disinterested pleasure has obvious elements of hedonism. Nevertheless, his approach kicked off the Romantic understanding of beauty.
In the nineteenth century, a decisive shift in thinking about beauty took place. Rather than assuming that beauty is a fact in the world, most philosophers began to consider beauty as a kind of ‘phantasm’ of the mind. Hence, beauty’s manifestation is a matter of ‘knowledge’, namely a ‘conceivable knowledge’.
During the nineteenth century, a number of philosophers associated beauty with pleasure. Consequently, beauty became subject to moral critique. Many were critical of the notion that a beautiful object could be only in harmonious proportion. Others argued that beauty could only be used, not appreciated.
Among the nineteenth century philosophers who sought to develop an understanding of beauty were Edmund Burke, William Berkeley, John Locke, and David Hume. Each philosopher’s account of beauty emphasized different qualities. Emerson, for example, stressed the importance of elegance and grace. While Burke and Locke read beauty as meaning only through the senses, Berkeley’s definition of beauty was based on intellection and practical activity.