University of Virginia Library

Search this document 
Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
expand section 
expand section 

expand sectionVI. 
collapse sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionVII. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionIV. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionVI. 
expand sectionV. 
expand sectionIII. 
expand sectionVI. 


The history of beauty is probably best conceived not
as the history of a single concept selected and favored
by the historian because of his own aesthetic theory,
but as the history of a term (or set of more or less
synonymous terms in different languages) designating
a cluster of concepts whose distinctions and connec-
tions are of equal philosophic interest. Though not
dominant in recent and contemporary aesthetics, the
term “beautiful” has figured in a variety of theories
and in a variety of inquiries, and these can best be
understood if we first sort out the main senses in which
the term has been, and is being, used.

It is safe to say that throughout its history “beautiful”
has always embodied both descriptive and appraisive
elements: it has been used both to characterize works
of art or nature and to judge them. Aestheticians have
often commingled the two senses, or weaved back and
forth between them, without being very clear about
the distinction. In recent years these hazards have
somewhat diminished (though not disappeared), largely
owing to the influence of analytic or linguistic philoso-
phers, whose high standards of rigor both in definition
and in argument, and whose concern to keep clear the
distinction between normative and nonnormative dis-
course, have led many aestheticians to adopt one or
the other sense, either by stipulation or by an appeal
to what they take to be ordinary (i.e., established
nonphilosophical) usage. A fundamental difference
among recent philosophers is between those who use
“beautiful” appraisively as the most general term of
aesthetic approbation and those who use it descrip-
tively as a ground of aesthetic approbation.

In the first sense, “beauty” becomes synonymous
with another widely-used term, “aesthetic value”: to
say that an object is beautiful is not to report any facts
about it, but simply to praise it from the aesthetic point
of view. This usage is not uncommon; it is, for example,
that of Harold Osborne in his Theory of Beauty (Lon-
don [1952], Ch. 1), where he defines “beauty” as “the
proper or characteristic excellence of a work of art,”
though he also acknowledges that “beauty” is widely
used as a “descriptive” term. Stephen Pepper (Aes-
thetic Quality
..., New York [1937], Intro.) equates
beauty with “positive aesthetic value”; Bosanquet's
Three Lectures on Aesthetics (London, 1915) insists that
to equate beauty with “aesthetic excellence” is “not
merely convenient but right.” Most aestheticians now
avoid this use, since in effect it wastes a word that
is needed for more specific purposes, and tends to add
to the existing confusion in the use of “beauty.”

In the second sense, beauty becomes a ground of
aesthetic approbation, that is, a property that may
properly be cited in a reason to justify that approba-
tion. We may then say the music is good because it
is beautiful; its beauty makes, or helps to make, it good.
This is the usage chosen for the present article.

It is useful to distinguish between the monists, who
hold that beauty is the sole ground of aesthetic value,
and the pluralists, who allow that other properties may
also count in favor of an object, when considered from
the aesthetic point of view.

Those who treat beauty as a ground of aesthetic
value, whether monists or pluralists, divide further into
two groups, according to the sort of property they
single out as legitimate grounds and describe as beauty.
The term “beauty” is used affectively and attributively.

In the Affective use, to say “X is beautiful” means


the same as to say “X gives (or is capable of giving)
a certain sort of pleasure or satisfaction” (call it “kalis-
tic satisfaction”). In Chapters 3 and 4 of What is Art?
(1896), Tolstoy, after reviewing a large number of
statements about beauty (some definitions, some de-
scriptions, some theories), concluded that when the
“objective-mystical” ones are set aside, the rest
amount to defining beauty as pleasurableness. Occa-
sionally the word “disinterested” is added, though, as
Tolstoy remarked, this is redundant. The distinctively
aesthetic feature of kalistic pleasure has been found
in its immediacy or sensuousness or its relative stability
and permanence (Harry Rutgers Marshall, The Beauti-
London [1924]). Ethel Puffer (Howes) argued that
to be beautiful is to possess the “permanent possibility”
of giving an experience characterized by a “union of
stimulation and repose” or “equilibrium” of “antago-
nistic impulses” (The Psychology of Beauty, Boston
[1905], Ch. 2). C. K. Ogden, I. A. Richards, and James
Wood called this equilibrium “synaesthesis” (Founda-
tions of Aesthetics,
London [1922]). Perhaps the best-
known suggestion is that of George Santayana in The
Sense of Beauty
(New York [1896], Part I): that
“Beauty is pleasure regarded [that is, experienced] as
the quality of a thing,” or “pleasure objectified.”

A more fundamental difference among Affective uses
is that between relativistic and nonrelativistic ones.
Beauty may be defined nonrelativistically as the ca-
pacity to provide kalistic satisfaction. John Ruskin, for
example (Modern Painters, London [1846], I, i, 6), says,
“Any material object which can give us pleasure in
the simple contemplation of its outward qualities
without any direct and definite exertion of the intellect,
I call in some way or in some degree, beautiful.” Again,
W. D. Ross in The Right and the Good (Oxford [1930],
Ch. 4) states clearly and defends ably a view “which
identifies beauty with the power of producing a certain
sort of experience in minds, the sort of experience
which we are familiar with under such names as aes-
thetic enjoyment or aesthetic thrill” (p. 127). It is in
this sense that he holds beauty to be objective, for it
is a property of (a capacity in) the object. On this view,
the question whether a particular painting is beautiful
is a straightforward question, whether someone can be
found who derives kalistic pleasure from it, or whether
there is reason to believe that in time such a person
will appear. The nonrelativist position has been de-
fended by Stephen Pepper, The Work of Art (Bloom-
ington, Ind. [1955], Ch. 2).

The alternative view is that when a particular per-
son, A, says “X is beautiful,” he is to be understood
as saying that X actually does give, or has given, pleas-
ure to him (whether or not among others); and of
course when B says “X is beautiful” he is saying that
X gives pleasure to him. Thus if A and B enter into
a dispute about the beauty of X, one affirming and the
other denying that X is beautiful, it may turn out that
they are not in fact contradicting one another, for A
is saying that X pleases A and B is saying that X does
not please B. A. relativistic definition of beauty is one
that permits such a situation to arise, i.e., one according
to which two persons who verbally disagree about the
beauty of an object can both be speaking the truth.
The view of beauty proposed by Samuel Alexander in
Beauty and Other Forms of Value (London [1933], Ch.
10) is relativistic in this sense. Though Alexander ini-
tially proposes a capacity-definition—“Beauty... is
that which satisfies... the constructive impulse used
contemplatively, and is beautiful or has value because
it pleases us after the manner so described” (pp.
179-80)—he allows beauty to have value only when
it “satisfies a standard mind,” or those who “possess
the standard aesthetic sentiment,” and since the stand-
ard varies with the society, “It follows that there is
no fixed or eternal standard of the beautiful but that
it is relative to age and people” (pp. 175-77). Another
notable defense of relativism is that in C. J. Ducasse,
Philosophy of Art (New York and Toronto [1929]; rev.
ed. [1966], Ch. 15, §§10-16).

The questions whether there is a peculiar species
of satisfaction or pleasure properly called “aesthetic,”
and whether works of art provide such satisfaction, and
whether the provision of such satisfaction is a legiti-
mate ground of aesthetic value, are all important ques-
tions. But there seems little warrant for introducing
the term “beauty” into such discussions. Beauty of
course can be enjoyed, can give us pleasure; but when
we say that it is the beauty that pleases us we cannot
be understood to mean anything so empty as that what
pleases us is what pleases us. Therefore many aestheti-
cians avoid the Affective use of the term “beauty.”

The alternative is to regard beauty as a property
of perceived things (of sunsets and precious stones as
well as of sonnets and landscape paintings). To hold
this Attributive view is not necessarily to be committed
to any far-reaching metaphysical or epistemological
position—but only to say that when a painting is seen,
its seen beauty is a phenomenally objective character
of it, in the same way its colors and shapes are, and
that beauty can be heard in sound—though whether
it can also be tasted and smelt is a question that goes
back a long way in the history of aesthetics, and is
still subject to dispute (see, for example, Francis J.
Coleman, “Can a Smell or a Taste or a Touch be Beau-
tiful?” American Philosophical Quarterly, 2 [1965]).

The position of G. E. Moore (Principia Ethica, Cam-
bridge [1903], Ch. 6) may be cited as an example of
the Attributive view. For though he thinks it best to


define beauty as “that of which the admiring contem-
plation is good in itself” (p. 201), he holds that the
“beautiful qualities” of objects—“that is to say any or
all of those elements in the object which possess any
positive beauty”—is such that their mere existence has
some intrinsic value, though it is the enjoyment of
beautiful objects and the pleasure of personal rela-
tionships that are “by far the most valuable things,
which we know or can imagine” (pp. 188-92). (See
also a very good defense of this view by T. E. Jessop,
“The Definition of Beauty,” Proceedings of the Aris-
totelian Society,

Those who regard beauty as a property divide on
the question whether it is a natural property, explain-
able in psychophysical terms, or a nonnatural property,
supervening upon the object, but having a transcendent
status, like a Platonic Idea. The nonnatural view, de-
spite its ancient tradition, has practically disappeared
from the scene, outside the schools of Neo-Scholasti-
cism (for example, Jacques Maritain, Art et scolastique,
Paris [1920]; trans. J. F. Scanlan, New York [1930], and
also by Joseph Evans, New York [1962]; and Étienne
Gilson, The Arts of the Beautiful, New York [1965]).
The naturalist view is defended by D. W. Prall, Aes-
thetic Judgment
(Cambridge, Mass., 1929). He holds
that beauty may be called a “tertiary quality” of ob-
jects, but strictly speaking it occurs only in “transac-
tions” between objects and human organisms, its oc-
currence being dependent on both organic and external

Naturalists and nonnaturalists alike also divide on
the further question whether beauty is complex or

What may be called the Definist view is that beauty
is a complex property, capable of analysis into more
elementary features of a formal kind. This view, com-
ing down from Platonists, Neo-Platonists, Stoics,
Augustinians, and others, makes a key use of various
pregnant terms: harmony, measure, proportion, sym-
metry, order. Traditional philosophers who searched
for a definition of beauty were presumably sometimes
searching for a successful formula of this sort, but such
proposals have seldom stood long against the proper
tests to determine whether the proposed properties are
both necessary and sufficient for beauty.

The Nondefinist may argue that very simple things
(single colors or tones) can be beautiful, though they
have no harmony, symmetry, etc. He may argue that
even if all well-proportioned things are beautiful,
well-proportionedness cannot be identified with
beauty, for one causes, or explains, the other. For him,
beauty is a simple quality, like yellow or the taste of
sugar, and it is incapable of being analyzed into simpler
constituents. Many inquiries that are described, per
haps even by the inquirer, as a search for the “definition
of beauty” are better understood as a search for the
conditions of beauty: i.e., those features of objects
whose presence insures (or aids) the presence of beauty.
Among those modern aestheticians who have con-
cerned themselves much with problems about beauty,
the Nondefinist view has generally prevailed.

But Nondefinists themselves divide on what is evi-
dently the next question: What are the conditions of
beauty? Broadly speaking, there are those who hold
that the conditions of beauty are internal properties
of the object that is beautiful (we may call them
Objectivists) and those who hold that the conditions
of beauty lie, at least in part, outside the object itself.

Objectivism may be characterized in general as
commitment to a principle defended by G. E. Moore:
that given two objects with the same “intrinsic” prop-
erties, if one is beautiful, the other must be equally
so. But Objectivism can be formulated in two different
ways, and it is important not to lose sight of the dis-
tinction, though for convenience we can discuss them
together. Affective Objectivism is the position that
adopts an Affective definition of beauty and proceeds
to inquire into the perceptual conditions of kalistic
satisfaction; Qualitative Objectivism regards beauty as
a quality and inquires into its perceptual conditions.
A proposed answer to the question, “What are the
objective conditions of beauty (considered as either
kalistic satisfaction or as a quality)?” is a genuine
theory of beauty, i.e., a theory about what makes an
object beautiful. Two types of theory have figured
largely in the history of aesthetics, and are still alive
today. Each makes the old and much-disputed distinc-
tion between the form and the content of an object;
each selects one of these aspects as the exclusive (or
at least primary) determinant of beauty. Let us call
them Formalism and Intellectualism.

Formalism is the theory that the beauty of an object
(or the kalistic satisfaction it provides) is a function
solely of its formal features. For example, “Any formal
organization or pattern which is intrinsically satisfying
may be said to possess beauty” (T. M. Greene, The Arts
and the Art of Criticism,
Princeton [1940], Intro.).
Here measure, proportion, order, etc., may be invoked
again; or the theorist may attempt to work out more
refined conditions, such as the good Gestalt, the Golden
Section, Hogarth's “line of beauty,” “dynamic sym-
metry.” Some contemporary theorists have proposed
to apply information theory to art and calculate op-
timum levels of redundancy that can explain the beauty
of a melody or a visual design.

Intellectualism is the view that beauty (or kalistic
satisfaction) is a function of cognitive content: a con-
cept, or an Idea (in the Hegelian sense), embodied in


sensuous form, shines in appearance and gives a thing
its beauty. Philosophers have been won to this view
by reflecting that certain great beauties are difficult
to account for by formal perfection alone, and also
by its systematic suitability to their other metaphysical
and epistemological positions. (See, for example, W. T.
Stace, The Meaning of Beauty, London [1929]. For
a sustained and interesting defense of the view that
beauty is “that in which we see life as we understand
and desire it, as it gives us joy,” see N. G. Cherny-
shevsky, The Aesthetic Relation of Art to Reality
[1855], trans. in Selected Philosophical Essays, Moscow
[1953]; cf. A. G. Kharchev, “On the Problem of the
Essence and Specifics of the Beautiful,” trans. in Soviet
Studies in Philosophy

Formal and Intellectualist elements have been com-
bined in various ways. For example, Friedrich
Kainz—Vorlesungen über Ästhetik (Vienna, 1948),
trans. H. M. Schueller, Aesthetics the Science (Detroit,
1962)—who treats beauty Affectively, holds that it
depends on both content and form (though sometimes
he speaks of “beauty of form” and “beauty of content”
as distinct). He discusses at length various formal and
cognitive features that contribute to the production
of beauty (see Ch. 4, §3; Ch. 2, §8): for example (on
the side of content), conformity to type and Idea,
“perceptual perfection,” “plenitude of life,” “anima-
tion”; and (on the side of form) symmetry, proportion,
“agreeable rhythmic structure,” “eusynopsy and com-
plexibility” (which seem to constitute organic unity).

Other aestheticians, while often agreeing that the
beauty of an object has something to do with its formal
features (and perhaps sometimes agreeing that it has
something to do with its cognitive content), have come
to doubt that beauty can be fully accounted for in these
terms alone. They have been struck by, and have
sharply called attention to, the enormous apparent
variability of taste in beauty, from person to person,
age to age, culture to culture. What one person finds
beautiful in women, in clothes, in buildings, in sculp-
ture, in music, may not appear beautiful at all to
another who is older or younger or is from a different
ethnic group or “subculture.” This fact (often incor-
rectly called “relativism”) has been stated very fre-
quently and very emphatically in recent decades, and
its recognition has done much to undermine confidence
in the Objective Theory. Nonobjectivism is widely

Objectivists have pointed out that variability does
not necessarily disprove objectivism. Certainly the
variability of taste must be accounted for, insofar as
it exists. If the Ubangi bride appears beautiful to her
husband, but not to a Miss America judge, then the
capacity to perceive beauty, at least under certain
conditions, must depend on subjective factors. But it
does not follow that the beauty is not there merely
because it can be overlooked by those who are cul-
turally deprived in some relevant way; a Westerner
may not be able to hear the beauty of Chinese music
simply because he has not yet learned the musical
system. Moreover, variability of taste may have been
exaggerated. Do we really know what the Ubangi
husband sees in his wife? Just because he chooses her
and cherishes her, we cannot infer that she looks beau-
tiful to him; he may be interested in something besides
beauty, just as many architects who design ugly build-
ings know that their clients care less for beauty than
for ostentatious display of wealth or a fashionably
“modern” look.

Although a piece of cloth looks red to some and gray
to others, we do not hesitate to say that it is “really”
red, even though a person who is color-blind cannot
perceive its redness. We regard the redness of the
object as a function of its physical properties (wave-
length of reflected light), even though the experience
of redness is a function of both the object and certain
necessary conditions in the perceiving organism. Simi-
larly, the Objectivist wants to regard beauty as a func-
tion of objective features. But the Nonobjectivist asks
whether, in this case, the functional relationship is so
obscure and the variability of perception so great that
the analogy with color cannot be maintained. This
problem has proved to be a continuing cause of puz-
zlement and dispute.

A number of factors, both personal and social, have
been investigated to explain divergencies in the per-
ception of beauty. For one example, the modern
movement of functionalism, a descendant of the old
view that beauty depends in some way on utility, has
sometimes been interpreted as holding that what makes
an object beautiful is its being designed to fulfill a
purpose in the simplest and most efficient way. Many
plausible examples, of course, can be given, and func-
tionalists have taught us to be willing to see beauties
to which we had been blind or indifferent—in machines
and tools. But Edmund Burke pointed out long ago
that the snout of a pig may be just as efficient for its
purpose as the body of a racehorse—which does not
make it beautiful. Thus functionalists generally fall
back on a qualification: the object must not only fulfill
its function well, but “express” its function; however,
this may not lead to beauty but to some other desirable
aesthetic quality.