Beauty is a complex concept that has occupied philosophers and philosophers-in-training for over two millennia. While no single, perfect definition has come to fruition, there are some common themes that run through the different approaches to defining it.
Classical Defined (Aristotle, Plato)
Generally speaking, classical philosophy understood beauty to be objective. This idea is found in Plato’s aesthetics philosophy, which explains that there is another realm of reality called the “domain of forms,” and that the physical world we live in is a reflection of this other realm.
Transcendental Defined (Plotinus, Plotinus)
The transcendental understanding of beauty focuses on the unseen qualities of truth and goodness. It also argues that there is a synthesis of these qualities into something beautiful.
Subjective Defined (Santayana)
In a subjectively defined definition of beauty, an object is said to be beautiful when it induces pleasure in the viewer of the object. Similarly, Santayana argued that a beautiful landscape is a representation of the happiness that is inextricably tied to the experience of being at one with nature.
However, Santayana’s understanding of beauty can be problematic. This is because it seems to suggest that the object itself possesses subjective states. This can make it difficult to understand why something is considered beautiful, or even how it is experienced.
In both Islam and Christianity, a sense of beauty is linked to the idea of God’s being and his limitless potential for perfection. This is reflected in the beautiful geometric designs in mosques, religious texts and Islamic interior design, and in the way that humans are deemed to model themselves after their maker’s image.
A more recent take on this idea is the philosophizing of Thomas Aquinas, who formulated an explanation for why beauty exists empirically in the physical world and why it satisfies many of the criteria of a unified theory of beauty. He explains that there are certain rules of good design, which are in turn by-products of the logical principles of aesthetics.
This idea of ‘good design’ was a major contribution to the modern philosophy of aesthetics, and it has continued to be a staple of philosophical discussions on beauty in the twentieth century.
Reappropriating the Concept of Beauty
In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in the idea of beauty. This has come largely from feminist perspectives, but also from a return to the classical ideas of aesthetics and philosophy.
These newer theories of beauty were based on the ideas of reappropriation and redefining. They were a response to the traditional antinomy of taste and emphasized that there was a more fundamental principle that guided all art and all human experience, and that this principle was rooted in aesthetics.
Ultimately, all of these definitions have a common theme: that beauty is something that we should strive for. That is, we should always seek to live a life of fulfillment and happiness that is full of love and kindness towards others.