The Concept of Beauty

Beauty is an important part of human culture, and is a concept that can be found in most cultures around the world. It is a feeling that can be experienced in many different ways, ranging from watching an oil painting in a museum to a walk through a field of wild flowers or a ride on a surfboard on an ocean wave.

The origins of the term “beauty” are unclear, but there is evidence that it dates back to early Greek philosophy and myth. The philosopher Plotinus believed that beauty was an objective, physical fact reflected in the world. But he also noted that it could only be perceived by the mind.

Until the 18th century, beauty was considered to be a series of qualities that were made meaningful only through the senses and primarily to the pleasure of the perceiver. During the Enlightenment, however, the concept began to move away from a purely mathematical conception to one that was more in tune with subjective experience.

Edmund Burke, in his 1757 book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, argued that beauty consists not only in definite proportions or harmonious relationships between parts but in the way they are used together. This is a radical interpretation of the term and it has generated much debate in philosophy over the centuries.

Moore, for example, held that a thing is only beautiful if it bears a relation as a part to something good and suitable for use. He wrote: “Beauty, as a quality, is that which is required to be part of something good; for a thing that is beautiful, to be truly beautiful, must have the relation of being suited to that good.”

Aristotle likewise argues that beauty is a property of definite proportions among parts. He notes that beauty is a characteristic of all living things, and he says: “A whole can be only beautiful, and it must be in accordance with an order of symmetry and proportions.”

Another classically-conceived notion of beauty is that it consists in a definite arrangement of parts into a coherent whole. This is the idea that underlies much of Western art, architecture and literature, as well as music.

This concept has been criticized in recent years, with the help of neuroaesthetics (the study of how our brains perceive beauty), but it remains the most widely accepted. Semir Zeki, professor of neuroaesthetics at University College London, has studied the neural basis for art appreciation and has found that it is largely dependent on activity in the medial orbital frontal cortex.

Studies show that people from around the world find different kinds of music, visual art and performance to be beautiful. This is probably because we are each wired differently to respond to specific things. When we are babies, for example, we tend to prefer faces that are symmetrical. As we grow older, however, we begin to appreciate more asymmetry.